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"Wasteland Express Delivery Service includes an emergent narrative story that takes place interactively over the course of eight games. Alternatively, players can dive in with a randomly generated scenario that will play out over the course of a single story-driven game session for infinite replay possibilities."
Plus, in case it wasn't totally clear there are a bunch of SWEET minis. Like super, awesome ones where you can actually load the goods right in the back. IN THE BACK. Even the goods are minis because why the heck not.
Hi! This is Matt Riddle. I am generally no one of consequence, but I am kicking off this 4,000+ word designer diary because I am one of the three designers. Buckle up.
Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons. At least compared to the sheer talent, will, and stunning good looks of the designers assembled to create Wasteland Express Delivery Service (WEDS), the new hotness coming soon from Pandasauraus Games. Ridbackmour? Gilbackddle? Pinchmouridle? Manbearpig? Whichever celebrity name you prefer for the trio of Jon Gilmour, Ben Pinchback, and Matt Riddle and wherever you intend to get it tattooed on your body doesn't matter so long as you do not forget to check out this game.
I mean, look at that sexy; there is literally SOOO much of it
At some point nearly five years ago, Ben and I started kicking around the idea of doing a train game. We played a lot of Steam, but we wanted to actually pick up and deliver goods, not just build routes. At the time, we had just seen Fleet released to moderate success, so we were totally prepared to take on Martin Wallace and a top 100 game and make it better — also, not really, as Steam and WEDS have almost zero in common beyond the BGG mechanism classification. Still inspiration is just that, inspiration. Ben is the designer notebook guy. He sketches and doodles and jots down ideas. One of those ideas was octagons with different movement patterns that left squares in the middle that could be cities. As it turns out, not completely original since Keythedral did it ten years earlier among others, but it was very underutilized. Let me turn it over to Ben to discuss some of the initial design.
Early octagonal action... in space — SPACE VIKINGS!
Before I get to that, I want to talk about Jon. I'll never forget the day I first met Jon Gilmour. It was a great day for him. Not so much because he met me, but rather because it was Thursday of Gen Con 2014 and well over a hundred people were wrapping around the Plaid Hat Games booth and down the aisle waiting in line to buy his new game, Dead of Winter. And by down the aisle, I mean so many people that it was blocking the entrance to some other pretty major publishers' booths.
(Matt: Like Queen Games, their booth was completely surrounded. How were gamers going to rush to grab Cubo or Orcs Orcs Orcs…)
The Plaid Hat crew was king at this moment. So Matt says to me, "Hey let's see if Jon's around. I want to say hi." I of course had no clue they had ever talked but apparently they had. This is why I keep Matt around, mind you. Sure, he can design games, but he's also not afraid to make friends with absolutely everyone.
So we walk up to Jon and he's sporting quite a grin. He was just standing there soaking it all in. My first thought was, someday I want this feeling he is having right now. We talked some and I walked away telling Matt how genuinely nice I thought Jon seemed and Matt told me that Jon actually lived only about four hours from us. Huh.
Matt did his thing and within a month or so, we were Skyping with Jon and talking about working on something together, which quickly led to day trips and all day Panera sessions with Jon. Matt does what Matt does — but what Matt doesn't do is sit around on his couch sketching shapes while thinking, "You know the octagon is a very under-represented shape in board game maps today. And wow, when you put octagons together, you get squares left in the voids. How is this not a thing everywhere already!?"
(Jon: Even before I laid my hands on it and did awesome Jon Gilmour theme integration and play experience game design magic, this was already one of the best pick-up-and-delivers I had ever played. Okay, this was actually Matt again, but Jon really said that on multiple podcasts and such.)
Back in 2011, Matt and I were prepping for our first ever game design, Fleet, to Kickstart in the spring, and we were already neck deep in a handful of other designs. The bug had bitten us badly, and there wasn't a spare moment when I wasn't thinking about games themselves or, more likely, game design. So as mentioned above, the simple act of randomly sketching shapes on a notepad while watching TV led me down a pretty serious rabbit trail. A 4×4 map of octagons as terrain with cities/outposts/strongholds being the square voids and the edges was a very quick progression for me that night.
By the time I showed this to Matt probably a week later, I had already decided that we were going to do a pick-up-and-deliver train game using this set-up. My paradigm for train games in 2011 was mostly Age of Steam/Steam, and I thought a game in which you actually hump the goods across the board physically seemed like a novel idea.
It turns out this form of goods pick-up and delivery was actually commonplace, but the board wasn't. As I researched it, I did find some games using octs and squares, but not as many as I thought I might. This map with different octs being different terrain, using squares as cities, and the system of moving around these shapes was there on the couch in 2011 and it's still the backbone of Wasteland Express Delivery Service five years later. It's really cool to see an idea like that come to fruition and better yet to realize you never could have done it right on your own. What I was going to do with this system is a thousand times lamer than what came out of working with Matt, Jon, and the eventual greater creative team Pandasaurus assembled.
The other gameplay element that developed over the next five years that would survive countless thematic changes and mechanical iterations was this idea we had of a player action mat.
If you can remember ever counting to ten a thousand times over and over during two hours of Tikal (a game that I love,by the way), then you can understand the desire to come up with an action selection game in which the game held your hand a little bit more and guided you to the actions you could do and even kept track of them.
Eventually Matt and I came up with the idea that each player has an action mat that lists the actions available to them and has boxes next to these actions for activation with action cubes. Each player has the same amount of action cubes to spend over a series of rounds, and the cool thing we found quickly was that this action cube allocation allowed us to not only present the available actions to the player, but also to limit the amount of times players can take a certain action in a certain timeframe organically because the action cubes do not clear and refresh until they're all spent.
One other thing we loved about this system was that it kept the game moving and the downtime was small because a player's turn is to play one cube to their mat and take that action. Turns then become very quick, and the game hums around the table: Move, Buy a good, Attack, Take a job, Deliver, Visit a shop, etc. Now mind you, I could have never imagined the levels of awesomeness our little player mats would be taken to after we met Jon. Safe to say when we met Jon, we had a very solid system that worked well mechanically, but it was far from awesome. Really, really far from awesome as it would turn out.
Side note: Jon has a rule when talking about design direction. The rule is, "Which one is more fun?" That's it. It seems simple, but so often we aren't wired to think this way. We're so worried about balance and all these other things that we miss out on something as important as, "Which one is more fun?" And the coolest thing is balance came even after choosing fun time after time. The lesson here is that you can balance later; make it fun first.
Mechanically there's the backbone. The octagon and square terrain/cities/outposts works amazingly well for trucking around goods, fighting, and performing missions. The player mats/action cube system has given players a nice and easy way to maneuver through our world. What we've done with this system is add an absolute mountain of special missions to accomplish. The three main factions in the game each have unique decks that give agendas to push, tasks to complete, and possible crazies to join your truck riding shotgun. But for a huge thematic game, the turns seem shockingly simple, and that's probably the thing I'm the most proud of from the mechanical side. Often I feel like I'm playing an RPG questing-style video game on the tabletop. The game mechanisms literally get out of the way and let people focus on the adventure at hand.
ZZZZZZZ... Oh, hi! Did Ben just write 2k words on a shape? Exciting stuff. That wall of text is why I have to write all the rulebooks, or if the publisher will spring for it, pay someone awesome like Dustin Schwartz to write them. Writing rules suuuuuuucks.
As designers, Ben and I are pretty quick to proto and even quicker to cut and run on a game if it's a fail bomb. If a proto sucks or is meh or is even just pretty good, we broom it and move on to something else. We do not hack at games endlessly that aren't working. We have plenty of ideas worth pursuing, so why try to polish a turd? WEDS was the exception — not that is was a turd, but that we would shelve it but never fully quit on it. We knew that in the bones of this sprawling pick up and deliver was a great game.
As I mentioned in passing above, WEDS had so many implementations: train game, soul gathering, regular Vikings, then for the longest time… SPACE VIKINGS! (You have to say it with a 1980s rock screech or the ol' 1980s toy commercial announcer guy voice: SPACE VIKINGS!!!!) I mean, it SEEMED like a really good idea with two awesome things mashed together. When we decided on space vikings as the official theme, I even wrote up the following opening story:
As the 9th century dawned on the Baltic Sea, the Viking Era was in full swing. Viking expansion was rampant and, in the way of the forefathers, the great Viking chieftains of the age were increasing their territories and holdings through hard work, pillaging, trading…and more pillaging! Well, most of the chieftains, that is. Clan Forkbeard did not have a chieftain. It had five. Sort of. Each one was more worthless than the last. Things had been going so well for so long that the five sons Forkbeard had been born with the proverbial amber spön in their mouths. The brothers took from the great Baltic Sea with no regard, no respect, and certainly no tribute. This behavior angered Aegir, the god of the sea. After a score of years with naught a monument built nor an offering left, Aegir had enough. Watching Clan Forkbeard move from island to island in the great Scandinavian archipelago with indifference, leaving destruction and waste in their wake, Aegir decided it was time to teach them a lesson. In his righteous indignation, he would restore the glory of his magnificent Baltic Sea and banish Clan Forkbeard…TO SPACE! Space Vikings!
Clan Forkbeard must restore their honor and earn Aegir's favor if they are ever to return to the only home they have ever known. Spread across a small but habitable system of planets deep in Ridback Galaxy, the brave and suddenly motivated Vikings have rallied their clan and are conquering the solar system the only way they know how — as Space Vikings!
Ya, that was a thing. At one point it even had a Quantum Leap joke about trying to get home and righting what once went wrong, dunno where that went. All that to say we had shelved the game but never stopped thinking about it.
Fast forward in time and I am tweeting away looking for anyone willing to print and test a print-and-play of our then-upcoming card game Eggs and Empires. Lo and behold, I get a DM from Jon Gilmour. Now understand this was pre-DoW, so he was just Jon Gilmour, not JON F@#$ING GILMOUR. Hell, thanks to Fleet Ben and I were considerably more "famous" at the time. (Famous in the context of an incredibly small and obscure corner of the internet…so not famous, but whatever the equivalent is for a couple of tier 3 hobby game designers.) Jon plays E&E and likes it. He and I chat a bit, find out we are pseudo local, and become Twitter friends, eventually leading to this collaboration.
As we turned Space Vikings into WEDS, so much stayed the "same": the player mats, the movement, the action system, and the economy. I am proud of the economy. It is not ground-breaking, but it is clever and works very well. Initially it was a very linear chart-y looking thing.
But the idea that the good in demand would set the price has persisted. We did a lot of work to make it simple and non-maintanence-y. I acutally think it was friend of the team, dicehateme himself Chris Kirkman who first suggested the wheel layout that we ultimately ended up with.
Another area we spent a lot of time on was the combat. We went down some major rabbit holes working on different combat systems that were sometimes clever, sometimes fun, sometimes neither. The more we did this, the more we decided it wasn't helping the game. We knew we were designing in the "mid-atlantic" or "Eurotrash" space, and the folks that play those big, sprawling thematic games are completely cool with a full page of conditional combat rules. We tried some systems that we came up with and a few we borrowed, but WEDS is a Euro pick-up-and-deliver at its core, and they just did not feel right. The closest my Eurogamer heart comes to enjoying combat is the displacement system in Hansa Teutonica. The other end of the spectrum is the simple yet effective X-Wing — roll X dice vs Y dice and hope you win! I think we ended up at a simple yet effective middle ground. It was what worked. We have notes for a few combat variances we are going to try in the inevitable expansion.
The biggest change of all that came through the development with Jon and Pandasaurus was getting rid of victory points. In every iteration pre-WEDS, you would play for two hours, roll some dice, have fun…then count to sixty-something. Again, I LOVE counting victory points. LOVE IT. As a designer, I love the granularity you can put into a game giving out points here, points over there, MOAR POINTS IS MOAR BETTER.
But for WEDS, it didn't make sense and it was NOT thematic. As we spent months working on making WEDS as thematic as possible, the points continually got in the way. Another buddy of ours from The Geek All-Stars podcast, Dan Patriss, had played an early version at Unpub 5 and mentioned in passing we should consider a Twilight Imperium-style system of goals. He is my boy, but I totally blew him off. Fast forward to a Panera Bread in Lansing, MI and Jon, Ben, and I are having that exact conversation, so we did it, and Priority First Class Contracts were born. That change, more than anything else, changed the feel and elevated the gameplay to what it is now.
Look at that super boring Euro-y scoring: blah blah blah monuments, set collection, space bucks! 1vp for $5, how original!
First, I want to say that, while we joke about me coming on board and "fixing" WEDS, that is not something I can take credit for. When I first played the game (when it was "Space Vikings"), I was a bit leery about what I could bring to the project. I don't really have great self-confidence, and to think of how I could possibly come on and make this project better, was a bit overwhelming. I took some time to digest it, think about it, and come up with some proposals for Matt and Ben.
I feel that one of my strengths is knowing what I like in a game and trying to further enhance that, so that is what I focused on. How could I help them make the things that were already great in this game better? The biggest was really theme. Some gamers feel that theme doesn't matter. There are great debates between designers about theme-first vs. mechanism-first design. My philosophy is Experience First. I ask myself what experience I want the players to have, and how I can best evoke those emotions.
When I played "Space Vikings", I tried to ask myself what other themes would fit and what kind of experience did I feel the game was already evoking, then I spent time trying to bring that experience further to life. I feel that when I came to Matt and Ben with a rework of the game, it was really only about 15% different. I cut some things, I swapped some things around, and I put a new coat of paint on it — but the heart was there, beating in this gritty post-apocalyptic shell.
Next, I want to talk about collaboration. It's something I love to do. I really think I work best when I'm not in a vacuum. Matt and Ben are not collaborators. They are much more of a symbiosis. They operate as a single unit, and it's amazing to be a part of it. They eat math and crap out great Eurogames unlike anyone else I've ever seen.
So when we started talking, it was easy to form a new rhythm with them. When I first got married, my father-in-law told me about the concept of an "emotional bank". In a relationship, you deposit into the emotional bank, and sometimes you withdraw, but you want to build a bigger and bigger positive balance. I feel like that is the key to good collaboration as well. I apply this concept to everything I do, so working with Matt and Ben was no different. Some days we would go back and forth on things we were passionate about. Some days I would win them over with my cries of "MOAR FUN", and on other days they would drop math bombs unrelentingly. In the end, we were all passionate about the game, so it helped us all stay invested in building a really good emotional bank account, and I feel like the game shows that love.
Finally, I want to talk about failure. Every game sucks at some point. If you don't feel like your game sucks, you are not being honest with yourself. I am a huge proponent of the "fail faster" school of design, and luckily Matt and Ben are fans as well. While hanging at Panera, we would mark on, tear up, and change things with abandon. You have to be willing to try new things with your designs and explore them. Your prototype doesn't need to look pretty. Don't be afraid to mark it up, scribble on it, and try things that dont make you comfortable.
(Matt here again. We are going to let Nathan chime in here. He and his wife Molly are Pandasaurus Games. They are the ones that decided to go all in on WEDS and make it awesome. They rule.)
This, I suppose, is the part where Molly and I (Pandasaurus Games) enter the picture. I was goofing off at my desk back when I still had a day job and saw a Twitter post from either Matt or Ben — it doesn't matter which one as they are a single legal entity — asking who wants to sign their new co-design with Jon Gilmour about delivering goods in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I replied yes, thinking it was a total lark and figuring that some way-cooler-than-me publisher would get the game.
Then I got a message back from one of Ben and Matt asking whether I was heading to Unpub that weekend. I was in fact not heading to Unpub at all, but was probably heading to Brooklyn to have brunch and watch a bad movie with our friends, so I did what any smart person would do and lied. Of course I was going to Unpub! Plans were cancelled, hotels were booked, and a rental car was procured. Molly, our dogs and I then proceeded to drive through the start of a blizzard from Manhattan to Baltimore.
When we got there, the first thing we did was grab Matt, Ben and Jon and a table outside the main hall where they gave us a five-minute elevator pitch of what was at the time called "Wasteland Truckers". (It would keep this name until about six weeks before we announced the game.) We were absolutely floored by the mechanisms and systems of interaction that were being described. Upgrading your vehicle, delivering goods, taking on jobs for factions — we knew all of those systems would present interesting choices for the players. At the time, the game still had a score track attached to it, but the plan was already in place to move them to the contracts.
Molly and I did not play the game there, but we would get our first hands-on with the game a few weeks later when we got a prototype copy of the game. We were already about 70% sold on the concept, but we obviously had to make sure the game was fun and balanced and all of the things that actually matter for a game to be a good game. About ten turns into our first game, we stopped and looked at each other and our grins were clear what we were both thinking: We were playing something super special.
As a publisher, you see a ton of prototypes, and many of them are good. A very few of them make you want to play the game again right away. Very, very, very few of them feel immersive or thematic when they are white foam core with chicken scratch on them. This one did.
Look at that white foam core! This is much later in the process, but still. So white.
Also, you can see Jason Kinglsey almost. He did the awesome player mat.
From there we knew we needed to throw the right artwork behind the game. One of my favorite comics from about fifteen years ago was a book called DMZ that was put out by DC's Vertigo imprint and had fantastic edgy artwork. I started out looking for art in that style and wound up getting put in touch with the actual artist from DMZ, Riccardo Burchielli, who was available and excited to work on the board game. Cue cartwheels at Panda HQ. This would be the formation for the rest of the graphic design. We wanted everything in the game to feel cobbled together from the leftover remnants of the world from before. Jason Kingsley nailed that exact aesthetic. We then turned towards making sure the graphic design was clear and easy to read, which meant multiple print-and-play iterations being playtested for absolute clarity and smoothness of the play experience.
It was at this moment we realized we had a real problem on our hands. Set up and tear down of Wasteland Express was taking far too long — like 30-40 minutes. I have games in my collection that I love that have really long set-up times, and I know they never hit the table. I asked the design team what could be done about this. Jon put me in touch with Noah Adleman at Gametrayz, and the rest is, as they say, history. Noah came up with the most insane insert solution I have ever seen for a game — not just something used for storage or quick set-up, but also trays that you actually use during the game that label different cardboard chits for easy location. Set-up is down to about 5-8 minutes now, and the experience is vastly improved for it.
I feel really weird being the guy ending this, but I will say that I think the job of a designer is to see the statue in the block of granite. The publisher's job is to smooth out the rough edges and make sure the statue gets placed somewhere for it to be seen. I hope that the miniatures and the graphic design and the Trayz do justice to what is, I think, our best published game to date.
Adam P. McIver
OH, HI BGG! I'm Adam P. McIver. You may know me from the art/graphic design work I've done on the smattering of games flashing in my GIF-y little avatar over there on the left, or you may remember my slick little microgame Coin Age, which won a Golden Geek award a while back, or you may have no idea who I am at all, which is totally fine, obviously. No worries, I get it. There's a lot to keep up with these days, it's hard to stay on top of it all. It's way more important to know your next-door neighbor's name than some guy on the internet. Make connections! Build community!
Anywho, you may be asking how I went from designing a microgame that is essentially a single card to creating Ex Libris, a hotly anticipated Gen Con 2017 release with over 150 cards? Well, it certainly wasn't as easy as just adding 149 or so cards, let me tell you. Turns out I actually had to design a COMPLETELY different game!
Just Another Idea in a Notebook
I, like so many other game designers, keep a lot of notebooks. Over the years I've filled probably a dozen or so notebooks with board game ideas, sketches of components, development notes, and more. A common bit of wisdom you hear from game designers is to get your idea into prototype form and on the table as early as possible. This is one of many areas in which I'm not terribly wise. I tend to keep game ideas in my notebook for a long time, making more and more notes, tweaks, sketches, and more sketches. Ex Libris began in the same way, with a few scribbles and notes to outline an idea.
Also pictured above: a couple of the dozens of doodles my wife Kerry sneaks into my notebooks
I love games where you're visibly building something in front of you as you play, games like Best Treehouse Ever, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Suburbia, Sapiens, etc., games where the placement of the components result in your own little creation by the end of the game. Being a bit of a bibliophile, I realized that one of the most aesthetically pleasing things to me is a well-curated, substantial bookshelf filled with hardcover books and old leather-bound tomes. And graphic novels. I'll be honest, about half of my library consists of comics. I decided to design a game about building libraries. And not just any libraries — fantasy libraries.
Why fantasy? Because I really enjoy when something potentially mundane and dry is paired with a magical setting. I prefer Caverna to Agricola, for instance. I bought into Thunderstone instead of Dominion. I'd likely rather play Dungeon Petz than a pet-raising game set in reality...
Actually, a realistic pet shop strategy game sounds pretty cool to me, now that I think about it. Lemme make a note in my notebook real quick...
Oh, yeah, fantasy libraries. With that seed in mind, I began brainstorming the game's connective tissues: fleshing out a basic theme, identifying the experience I wanted the players to have, and working out the game mechanisms that would tie it all together. From the sketches pictured above (and a few other pages of less visually-interesting notes), I let the concept guide me. I narrowed down to six categories of books that would exist in a fantasy world, then imagined what sort of rules would govern the quality of a bookshelf.
Before long, I broke outside of my notebook, created a slew of book cards, and started to play with them. I quickly realized that I didn't want the game to be solely driven by card-drafting since so many games have already done that well, so I expanded the scope and added worker placement to the mix. The action spaces represented locations where players would gain cards and manipulate their bookshelves. Taking it a step further, I included mechanisms that would vary the available locations so that each round would feel and play differently from the one before it. It all began to come together into something promising, and I'll admit I was very excited!
The Slog of Solo Playtests
A bit more honesty for y'all: I am not good at solo playtests. Having to keep track of the unique objectives of each imaginary opponent, simulating decisions without basing them on information that I know, but my fictitious fellow players aren't supposed to know, but also knowing what they know, but they don't REALLY know it, because they're just a figment, after all...
It may come as no surprise at this point in this rambling designer diary that I have ADD. Solo playtesting is a struggle for me. I ran through the earliest iterations of Ex Libris several times by myself, making changes and tweaks in between tries, but each time felt more like work than fun to me. My largest takeaway was, "It's a shame I wasted so much time on this." I placed it in my prototype closet, in the "maybe come back to these some day" pile. I lost a few nights of sleep turning over and over in my head just what had gone wrong and how I could fix it. Did I mention I also suffer from insomnia? I've got a really fun physiology!
(Don't run away just yet — a mid-post turnaround is just about to happen, I promise!)
Getting Encouraged by Encouragement
Fast forward a short while to pre-Unpub 6 preparations. Unpub is one of my absolute favorite conventions of the entire year. For anyone who is unaware of it, Unpub is a convention that exclusively showcases unpublished games. It's the best. Trust me. I was packing up an armload of other prototypes when Kerry asked me, "Are you taking that library game you've been tinkering with?" As an explanation of why I wasn't planning to, I began to describe the gameplay a little bit. This led to teaching her how to play, which led to breaking it out to play a sample round, which led to playing an entire game. And another one. And another one.
Now, Kerry has played a LOT of my prototypes in varying degrees of polish. She's a great sport. I can usually work out pretty quickly when she is suffering through a crummy experience and when she thinks I am onto something. Her demeanor was unlike anything she had exhibited after previous playtests. "This was fun. You have to take this. At least play it with Alex (J. Alex Kevern) and Chris (Chris Bryan) and see what they think, but I really like it."
Here's the strange part: I really liked it, too! The experience was much closer to what I had intended in the first place, and I was able to connect with the gameplay and strategy much better when it was being bounced off a non-fictitious opponent. Turns out that board games tend to work better when you play them with other people! Who would've guessed?
My takeaway was to accept that solo-playtesting just isn't my forte. I have an incredible amount of respect for anyone who is able to do it, but recognizing your own limitations is an important step, I think. With Kerry's encouragement, I decided I would take Ex Libris with me after all.
The first day of Unpub (and every day, really) was a whirlwind. So many fun prototypes and great people. Seriously, go to Unpub. All day, Ex Libris buzzed in the back of my head, scratching at my brain. I had registered my other games in the event program, but Ex Libris sat in my bag, nagging me to be played. Before I knew it, the day was over and our little crew was headed back to the hotel room to crash. At some point on our walk through the streets of Baltimore, I asked whether Alex and Chris would be up for trying Ex Libris before bed, and they obliged.
These were (and are) two of my very good friends, but I went into that playtest with a fair amount of nerves. Teaching any game late at night to worn-out convention goers can be a really rough situation, and both of these guys were beat from a day of playtesting. We pulled a table between the beds of our hotel room, put on our pajamas, and took a crack at it.
In my opinion, observing your playtesters during gameplay is nearly as important as their responses and opinions afterward. If you're observant, you can pick up on the experience they're having. After a round or two of play, I started to notice everyone waking up a bit. I began to catch sly smiles and nodding glances between my opponents. Kerry (who is one of the world's best sleepers) was sitting up straight and poring over the cards in her hand. As we neared the end of the game, everyone cared about who might win.
It was a hit. I can't remember their exact feedback (my night-brain was too tapped to remember to make notes), but Alex and Chris both made it very clear to me that I had created something special. That I should be proud. That Ex Libris was good.
I slept like a baby. No insomnia for the happy game designer.
A Playtest Leads To a Pitch
The day after our late-night library session, Unpub continued as normal. Alex had the table directly behind mine and had an early pitch with Renegade Game Studios for what would end up becoming Sentient. They had shown immediate interest and left his table smiling and energized (which makes sense as I loved Sentient two turns into my first playtest). After congratulating him and talking a little shop, Alex said, "Oh, hey, I also told them they should definitely check out Ex Libris today if they had time."
Within a whirlwind few hours of exchanging phone numbers and coordinating plans, Scott Gaeta and Sara Erickson from Renegade were at my table, and I was nervously fumbling my way through a rules explanation. Playing the game was a blur. Again, I don't remember much from the playtest, other than a few questions were asked and I air-balled a few bad jokes. They were friendly and seemed like they enjoyed themselves, and before I knew it, we had shaken hands and they were gone.
I wasn't really sure how the whole thing went (or how it all happened, really). Publishers often play their interest close to the chest, which I appreciate. There's no point in getting a game designer's hopes up if you can avoid it. By the end of the day, though, Scott and Sara had swung back around my table to ask whether they could take a copy of my prototype home with them. So that's a good thing, right? Right?
Streamlining, Signing, and Special Assistants
After Unpub, I immediately put together another Ex Libris prototype — as I had given Renegade my only copy, whoops — kept playtesting with more and more people, and began streamlining. I took note of which locations were used the most, which were most often ignored, and which seemed cool, but weren't enticing enough or didn't work exactly as intended. Locations were axed and added, nerfed and nitpicked. It was (and still is) vitally important to shelve book cards in Ex Libris, but only a few of the early locations allowed you to do so. The number of cards in a player's hand occasionally slimmed to frustratingly few toward the end of the game. I needed more ways to get cards and more opportunities to shelve them.
The further I developed the game, the more fun I was having with it. It was scratching an itch that no other game in my collection could get to. I've heard game designers say, "Design the game you want to play", and I found myself always wanting to play it. Feedback from playtesters was clear and consistent. They were all having fun, and I was feeling great.
Then one evening as I was wrapping up work, I received an email from Scott Gaeta letting me know that they had been playing Ex Libris with their groups back home, that everyone had really been enjoying it, and that they wanted to offer me a publishing contract. I was ecstatic and let the whole world know via social media as soon as possible. You know, as you do.
Working with Renegade was a treat from the start, surprising no one who is familiar with Scott and Sara. The process was very collaborative, and they were receptive to letting me explore new ideas. The first of which was the addition of special assistants.
A peek at early notes and sketches of the special assistants!
To add further replayability to the game, each player would now have one worker with a unique ability attached to the meeple itself. Thematically, I wanted to tie those abilities to intriguing settings for the libraries. The Fire Imp comes from a volcanic library, for instance. The Gelatinous Cube hails from a dungeon library, of course. I feel like these variable player powers really put the game over the top. Each one adds a nice wrinkle and gives you the opportunity to explore different play styles from game to game. Luckily, Scott and Sara agreed, and special assistants became officially official during a meeting at Gen Con 2016.
You can really see the excitement on Scott Gaeta's face!
During the meeting, Sara pointed out a funny book title I had scribbled on one of the cards.
I responded, "Yeah, it'd be cool if every book had a unique title."
"Do you think you'd be able to come up with a title for every book?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think I probably could." I replied, not really thinking it all the way through.
A Battery of Book Titles
There are 152 book cards in Ex Libris. Across those 152 cards, there are 510 individual books. I got to work throwing all the wordplay and cleverness at the problem I could muster, but I quickly realized that it would be far more difficult than brainstorming a list of funny titles. Those titles had to correspond to the game's six categories, which needed to be equally represented in the deck. And since alphabetical order is important when you're shelving cards, the arrangement of this list of 510 book titles could potentially throw the balance between the categories off, even if they were all equally represented. If the majority of the "Monster Manual" titles clumped together alphabetically, they'd be less likely to be drawn than a category that was dispersed evenly across the entire list.
I'd inadvertently given myself a gigantic logic problem to solve. Luckily I love myself a challenging puzzle! Using a combination of multiple spreadsheets, spare cubes and discs, hundreds of squiggly lines, and the kind of free time you have when your significant other is in Vancouver for fourteen days on business, I somehow cracked it.
The incredible spreadsheet conundrum!
I'm extremely proud of the result. My hope is that players will discover new books every time they play, and that you'll have plenty to read and laugh at when your AP-prone friend's turn is taking way too long.
Enter the Artwork
When the time came to begin production, Scott ran a list of potential illustrators by me, and I jumped at the chance to work with Jacqui Davis. Before long, the oddball world I had imagined for this game was being brought to life by her amazing talent. She populated the locations with a diverse cast of charming townsfolk and captured the perfect mood.
And then there were the books. Jacqui's artwork came together so perfectly with the iconography I created and the typography I used for the book titles that I couldn't be happier.
Seriously, look at these sexy books!
The View From Here
I'm writing this the week before Ex Libris debuts at Gen Con 50 in Indianapolis. This has been such an incredible journey that it's a little overwhelming to approach the end — even moreso considering that if it weren't for my wife and friends, it may never have left the closet. I'm hoping it will connect with an audience that will love it and share it with their friends and family. There's a fair amount of buzz building behind the game, and I'm beyond excited that it is so highly anticipated.
Creating is hard. Brains are weird. Encourage creators.
Marry your best friend. Listen to trusted friends. Work with great people.
Design your dream game and share it with everyone.
The first time I worked on Slide Blast was when I was designing game projects that were called "games for beginners". These projects were created specifically for people who didn't have experience with board games. To create them, I started by looking at classic games and worked on adapting some of the mechanisms. I really wanted to do a tile-laying game, but I realized that unfortunately a lot of these games were already on the market.
I sought the help of fellow designer Samgoo Seo who was very interested in the project. He came up with a simple game design of tile placement with hexagonal tiles on which he had traced some roads. The game at this stage was too simple, so we didn't have any big expectations — but we liked the game play, so we started the project with this concept in mind.
The first prototype of the tile placement game
We went around board game stores and the BGG website to look out for similar games and took care to point out what issues those types of games had. Our prototype version was too easy to play, and it was hard for us to make it stand out. We tried to add more elements with many tests done over several weeks. There were several tiles which had to be changed and we made lots of scoring adjustments.
The next step was to find the right theme for the game to improve the player's immersions and fun. Among several concepts, we chose two themes: one was roller coasters, the other was waterpark slides. We were more inclined to choose the roller coaster theme at first — I'm a big fan of Rollercoaster Tycoon! — but we finally decided the waterparks were better as there are not a lot of games with that theme!
Scenes in the game similar to what I pictured in my head; the waterpark looked more lively and fun
At this stage, we were feeling confident with the game's development. Alas, we hit a wall that we had not thought of during our first playtests: "What happens if two players collide?" We realized that player collisions were going to be a considerable problem, and we did not find a solution to fix the issue right away. The game then fell down in my priority list and development stopped for a while.
During another playtest, as we were confronted with the issue once again, a friend of mine came up with an idea: "What if one player goes underwater to avoid the collision?" This made me think that players could possibly jump from one tile to another as a way to avoid the problem. The right solution came alive with the "lifeguard" tile that can be used by players to jump from one place to another in the waterpark. Not only did it make the game more balanced, but the theme was improved as well! I couldn't wait to show this game to publishers!
When I showed the game to Kevin Kim of Mandoo Games, he liked it very much and we were ready to get the game developed towards the final product!
The prototype submitted to Mandoo Games
During development, Kevin asked us to add more elements to the game to make it unique. However, we liked our easy set of rules and didn't want to make the game too complex. At this point, we added the big attraction tiles, which are the equivalent of connecting three tiles at the same time. These tiles gave playtesters the impression that they had something more powerful in hand. The artwork could also benefit from bigger tiles to make spectacular attractions! Kevin also suggested we add a tunnel tile similar to the lifeguard tile as this element added uniqueness to the design of the game.
Mandoo then contracted Christophe Swal, a French illustrator, to do the artwork for a great result in the end!
The first Slide Blast sketch by Christophe Swal
As we were getting near the end of the development, playtesters giving us feedback encouraged us to add a strategic element to the game. We carefully thought of a way to satisfy both families and gamers, and we added the bonus token rule: Each time a player helps another player extend their slide, the original player can take a bonus token that is added to their final score!
That's the story that led us to SPIEL in 2016 with more than one hundred copies sold on the second day — and we are just getting started with the game now being available in North America with FoxMind! I would like to thank my co-designer Samgoo, Kevin Kim of Mandoo Games, and Longshore for their support on this project.
Hope you enjoy the game!
One of the characters in Slide Blast; he looks a bit like me!
W. Eric Martin
In January 2017, I received the cover for Photosynthesis from the European branch of Blue Orange Games while preparing for the Spielwarenmesse fair and was stunned: "Whoa, this thing is fire!"
At Spielwarenmesse 2017, designer Hjalmar Hach gave me a runthrough of the game (video here), but a brief runthrough doesn't give you a good feeling of how the game actually plays out. You can understand the gist of things — collect light with your trees in order to plant and grow new trees, eventually harvesting them for points — without understanding how mean this game can be. It's the most pacific mean game I've played in years. Everything about the graphic design is inviting and joyous, yet you're all meant to embody cruel nature, block everyone else from the light, and see them shrivel to nothing in the forest while you reign as the oakest with the mostest.
That's the hope anyway. Sometimes, of course, you're the one doing the shriveling, especially since you can block yourself as easily as others. In some ways, though, you have to block yourself, just as you block yourself in your regular non-tree life as a human, taking on more responsibility than you should or agreeing to a project that you know you'll regret or just wanting to do more than you'll ever have the time for (which is a common refrain in the Martin household come convention time).
If you're going to be at Gen Con 50, you can check out Photosynthesis yourself at the Blue Orange Games booth. I hear that they're offering a discount for those who cosplay as an sycamore, but that might have been something I made up right now.
Daniel Skjold Pedersen
13 Minutes: The Cuban Missile Crisis is a two-player microgame with tough decisions released in early 2017 by Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games.
When the big brother to 13 Minutes — 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis — was released in 2016, Asger and I wrote a 13-chapter long designer diary. In that spirit, this piece will be 13 short, almost anecdotal stories of what 13 Minutes is and how it came to be.
1. What is 13 Minutes?
The 13-second pitch is that 13 Minutes is Love Letter meets 13 Days.
2. No, really, what is 13 Minutes?
The slightly longer story is that it is a two-player microgame set at the height of the Cold War during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In the game, you want to flex your superpower muscle and dominate battlegrounds, but — and there is a but — if you push your agenda too far you may trigger nuclear war, so be careful.
And did I say that you play only five cards per game, so each decision matters a lot?
3. Sitting by a pool
When 13 Days was funded on Kickstarter back in July 2015, I was vacationing in Italy. I celebrated by the poolside, but not with a glass of red wine as you would expect. In my hand I had 13 blank cards and 13 red and blue cubes and a pen.
Half an hour later, I had figured out how to translate the 13 Days experience into a microgame setting and sketched the basic cards for the first prototype of 13 Minutes.
Designing the easy 80 percent
4. Why 13 Minutes?
The idea of making a microgame version of a political card-driven game had been buzzing in the heads of both Asger and I for some time back then. We like to push game genres into new territories. 13 Days did just that as a 45-minute distillation of some of the nail-biting and tense moments from epic political games like Twilight Struggle.
13 Minutes is pushing that genre quite a bit more. We wanted to see whether it would float.
Stakes are high in 13 Minutes, which is no different from in 13 Days. The game is all about brinkmanship. It is a balancing act of cunning play and a tug-of-war of brute force.
You want to dominate battlegrounds to gain prestige, but each time you add influence to a battleground, you draw that card closer to your side of the table. Doing so is great because at the end of the game cards on your side will be all yours if no one dominates — but then again it is not great at all because all cards have a colored DEFCON symbol. If you end the game with three of the same color, you have triggered nuclear war and lost the game.
6. First origin
I use my notes app on the phone all the time, and a lot of that is for game-related stuff. For me it is a useful tool to get thoughts out of my head, but coincidentally it also allows me to track the first note I have for 13 Minutes. It goes:
13 Days with only 13 cards (and cubes). 5 US, 5 USSR and 3 neutral.
Played cards become battlegrounds.
Command: Add influence — move card closer to your zone. Remove influence — move card away from your zone.
Suspense: Endgame reveal — you may trigger nuclear war!
And then some more stuff that didn't end up in the game.
An early prototype when events were all symbols
7. Why so obsessed with the number 13?
As any designer can tell you, working under constraints often brings creativity. We set up constraints for ourselves all the time. Sometimes arbitrary ones (e.g., what if you couldn't talk?), but most often from experience (e.g., is that rule necessary?) or production concerns (e.g., we need to limit the components to one deck of cards).
With 13 Minutes, the framework was integral to the core idea. How could a microgame in the world of 13 Days ever have anything other than 13 cards as well as 13 cubes for each player?
8. Building a political world map
The "map" in 13 Minutes is an abstraction, but an important one that serves two main purposes.
First, it underlines the global nature of the crisis. In the beginning there is only Cuba — one battleground on the table. As you play cards and take actions, those cards become new battlegrounds. Though Cuba is still the most important battleground (as it's worth double prestige points), you learn that your resources are limited and will have to pick your fights with care.
9. A living DEFCON track
Second, the "map" is an evolving DEFCON track. Controlling cards left and right is not a problem until you consider the implications.
You are walking a tightrope. Too strong actions in one area may tip you over and be the final push to nuclear war.
10. How Cuba was born
Looking at the game now, one would think that the Cuba card — the sole face-down card — was introduced to the game by flipping a card to hide information. Actually, what happened was the reverse.
In the beginning, all cards were played face down to hide their DEFCON color. It was sort of a memory game inside the game that was totally unnecessary. Losses due to nuclear war would come at a higher rate in those early playtests, and players did not appreciate the lack of control. The obvious solution was to play cards face up, and thus Cuba was born to retain some uncertainty.
Note all the face-down cards on the table; Cuba is everywhere and nowhere
11. The devil is in the detail
What I am most proud about in the game are two details that enhance the core experience of brinkmanship.
I) The player who dominates the most military (orange) DEFCON cards at the end of the game gains 1 extra prestige. It is a little reward worth going for — but the deck contains one extra orange card, so the odds of going broke on DEFCON is considerably higher. Value and risk go hand in hand.
II) The Cuba battleground awards you 2 prestige, making it another reward you should fight for — but then Cuba will likely go into your sphere of influence and push you to play a more cautious game. Here again, value and risk go hand in hand.
12. So did we push it too far?
The first reviews suggest no. This is both pleasing and upsetting:
• Pleasing obviously because we want to make games for an audience that is larger than two.
• Upsetting because a part of me wanted to cross over that threshold. At least all this has sparked a new project that used to be a standing joke with us: 13 Seconds.
13. How to play
Are you tired of reading rulebooks? Dan King, also known as the Game Boy Geek, has done a most excellent "Rules School" video. I point all new players towards his instructions.
Have fun with the game!
Daniel Skjold Pedersen
The evolution of a cover; I am responsible only for the leftmost one...
W. Eric Martin
U.S. publisher Fantasy Flight Games loves to unveil surprises prior to Gen Con, the largest board game convention in the U.S., and it's unleashed a doozy in the form of Fallout, a "post-nuclear adventure board game" based on the popular video game series from Bethesda Game Studios, specifically Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 and their downloadable expansions. Here's a short description of this design from Andrew Fischer and Nathan Hajek:
Fallout is a post-nuclear adventure board game for one to four players. Based on the hit video game series by Bethesda, each Fallout scenario is inspired by a familiar story from the franchise. Survivors begin the game on the edge of an unexplored landscape, uncertain of what awaits them in this unfamiliar world. With just one objective to guide them from the very beginning, each player must explore the hidden map, fight ferocious enemies, and build the skills of their survivor as they attempt to complete challenging quests and balance feuding factions within the game.
As they advance their survivors' stories, players come across new quests and individual targets, leading them to gain influence. Who comes out ahead depends on how keenly and aggressively each player ventures through the game; however, if a single faction is pushed to power too quickly, the wasteland will be taken for their own, and the survivors conquered along with it.
The game announcement from FFG has more details on the set-up and how gameplay unfolds in this 120-180 minute game. You start the game with a single Influence card and will likely acquire more during play, with these Influence cards providing points based on how you meet the goals listed on them or how well one in-game faction does against the other one. Each scenario has two factions, representing the opposing poles of "Security" and "Freedom", and while you're mostly functioning on your own, you probably want to align yourself with other players and one of these factions to have a larger impact on the game.
Each scenario has distinctive landmarks — e.g., The Capital Wasteland, The Pitt, The Commonwealth, and Far Harbor — but otherwise the map is variable, with players exploring the terrain and (ideally) avoiding radiation to uncover equipment and do whatever it is they want to do to gain influence.
FFG lists a release date of Q4 2017 for Fallout, but perhaps the game will be on a few demo tables at Gen Con to give attendees a first-hand taste of how the game plays out.
(Note that this is the second Fallout title due for release this year as in April 2017 UK publisher Modiphius Entertainment announced the Nov. 2017 release of Fallout: Wasteland Warfare, a minis-heavy design from James Sheahan. Modiphius has confirmed that title as being available for demos during Gen Con 50, so perhaps we'll have head-to-head Fallout fever to see which games best survives the fire and fury of fans.)
W. Eric Martin
• With Gen Con 50 opening in just over a week, publishers are flooding out game announcements — or teasers of game announcements — ahead of that show. Plan B Games, for example, has revealed that it will sell Emerson Matsuuchi's Century: Golem Edition at that show, with the first fifty people who show up at the Plan B Games booth on Thursday and say, "I came for the golems!" getting a copy for free. (Everyone who says, "I came for the golems!" after that will receive only a funny look and a request for $40.)
Mike Young from Plan B Games has stated that currently this edition is planned as a one-off, so don't expect to see all three titles of the Century trilogy in this golem-filled universe. (At Spielwarenmesse in early 2017, Plan B's Sophie Gravel had told me that all the artwork for the golem edition of what was originally Caravan had been completed, which makes this edition relatively easy to produce. Creating all new artwork for two additional games would be another matter.) Plan B Games has also stated that Century: Golem Edition and a matching playmat for the game would be sold only via its webstore and at conventions.
• In March 2016, Fantasy Flight Games announced the debut of Windrider Games, an internal studio that would publish non-FFG-style games to which FFG held the rights. Windrider Games released new versions of Ra and Citadels in 2016, then FFG owner Asmodee bought Z-Man Games and Windrider Games became redundant since the Z-Man Games brand has been around for more than a decade and already publishes titles similar to those released by Windrider.
Thus, it should not be a surprise that when a reprint of Reiner Knizia's Through the Desert was (finally!) announced after being out of print for years, the announcement came from Z-Man Games, which has adopted the "Euro Classics" brand from FFG and Windrider.
Through the Desert is an exceptional game, one in which 2-5 players take turns placing two camels on the board to extend their caravans, with caravan lines never crossing and with lines of the same color never even touching since no one would be able to tell who owns which camels. You want to claim watering holes, reach oases, and create a camel fence to claim land for yourself. This new version of Through the Desert has a double-sided game board with the Niger River running across the Sahara on the new side; players naturally want to cross the river to claim water, but there isn't room for everyone. New gameplay variants are also included in this version.
As for a release date, Z-Man Games writes only "arriving soon", so perhaps this game will show up at Gen Con without announcement, just as FFG's new version of the "Euro Classic" Samurai (also from Knizia) did at Gen Con 2015.
• Days of Wonder will have copies of Alan R. Moon's Ticket to Ride: Germany on sale at Gen Con 50 ahead of the game's scheduled U.S. release date of September 2017. (BGG will have Moon in its booth on Friday, Aug. 18 at 17:45 EDT (GMT-4) to chat about game design on camera. I plan to publish our Gen Con 50 broadcast schedule on Wed., Aug. 9 since it's now mostly complete.)
Days of Wonder will also have copies of Five Tribes: Whims of the Sultan and Quadropolis: Public Services for sale.
• Vice Games will have published copies of Bruno Faidutti's Kamasutra, which was previously available only as a print-and-play game. In the game, teammates reproduce positions in the Kama Sutra while trying to pop a balloon placed between themselves. I don't expect to see this game demoed much during exhibit hall hours, but in the evening...absolutely. Vice Games will be located in the back of the Japanime Games booth, presumably behind a black velvet curtain.
• In late July 2017, I shared this teaser image from Pandasaurus Games, an image related to a game due out at SPIEL '17 that will be demoed at Gen Con 50:
That game is named Coaster Park, with Scott Almes being the designer and Kwanchai Moriya and Peter Wocken supplying the art and graphic design. The only description we have right now is that "Coaster Park is a board game", but if you look at the image and put two and two together, you might guess that in the game you'll put two and two together.
For many players, the core game of Custom Heroes will be familiar. This is a climbing (or ladder-climbing) trick game, and there are many versions of this type of game; "President" was what my friends and I called our version growing up, and this used just a standard deck of cards. Before I was deep into the gaming hobby or had discovered that many climbing game variants already existed, I thought it would be nifty to make a game like "President", but with a "cool and different twist". As a novice designer, I tried unsuccessfully to pitch the game to publishers. The game, while fun, lacked a good hook or attribute that made it stand out from what I came to learn was a very crowded design space.
In 2013, I started working on a game that used what Alderac Entertainment Group is now calling the "Card Crafting System": Cards are in sleeves, and at the start of the game or during play one or more semi-transparent cards are sleeved with the cards; essentially, multiple layered parts are turned into a single card held together by a card-sleeve. The key here is that a card can be "crafted" with new powers and modifiers, while still functioning like a card, i.e., it can be shuffled, dealt, drawn, played, discarded, re-dealt, etc. and still retain all modifications.
One example of how a card might evolve over the course of a game
My original card-crafting game design was Edge of Darkness, a medium-weight, Euro-ish game that AEG licensed back in 2015. That game is now in the layout phase of production. I followed up that design with Mystic Vale, a light deck-building game released by AEG in 2016, then continued exploring the enormous amount of design space that the card-crafting system opened up.
It occurred to me that a relatively simple endeavor, yet potentially quite interesting, would be a merger of card crafting and climbing tricks. Take a classic game like Asshole with a symmetric deck of numbered cards, and add the ability to modify cards as they are played — the key being that all modifications on cards are retained such that the deck of cards dealt out in the second, third, and fourth hands will be increasingly different from what was dealt in the first hand. This idea didn't make for an exceptionally unique design like I sought to create with Edge of Darkness, but it did make for a pretty radical twist to the established climbing trick game system.
I wanted to keep the game approachable and fast-paced, so the variety of modifications players could apply to cards were kept simple, things like increasing or decreasing the value of a card, or turning a card into a wild or a trump. I experimented with more complex effects, like permanent abilities that players would keep from round to round, but the AEG guys felt this slowed the pace of the game and took the spotlight off the card crafting.
Numbers aren't the only thing that can change
For the strategy-inclined gamer, a key difference in Custom Heroes from other climbing trick games is the addition of resource management. Before each hand, players each draw a number of "card advancements": transparent cards that you can sleeve onto cards to modify them with a plus, minus, or text effects. Whenever you want, you may elect to sleeve an advancement onto a card in your hand and permanently modify that card. At the end of each hand, any advancements you didn't sleeve will still be available for the next hand; any advancements you did sleeve stay on the card, which is then randomly dealt for the next hand.
Wise use of advancements is usually the difference between winning or losing a hand. Conversely, ineffectual use of advancements means you are squandering resources that could have helped in future hands. Therefore, your decisions aren't just about doing the best in this hand, but about maximizing the power of your resources over multiple hands. Rather than blow all your resources for first place this hand, maybe settle for second place and fewer victory points (VP), but an advantaged position going into the next hand.
The card crafting also drives other major differences from more traditional climbing trick games. Numbers often start clumping, for example. In the first few hands, having four-of-a-kind is a big play. By the last couple of hands, you may see seven- or eight-of-a-kind, and your four-of-a-kind is no longer the powerful play it once was. Also, the power-numbers in the deck shift; 10s start the game as the highest numbers, but by the end of the game you might see three 12s beaten by three 16s. These and other dynamics make for a climbing trick game with a fresh feel, and in my experience, many shout-out-loud moments.
Three 7s? Try harder
The scoring system I went back and forth on for a while. It was important to have a scoring system that both kept the game length reasonable and kept all players in the running. I tried several different things, but ultimately ended up with a "win threshold" concept. Points are awarded for doing better each hand (e.g., the first person to play all their cards gets 5VP, the next player gets 3VP, etc.). To win the game, a player must get to 10 or more points, then get first place in a subsequent hand.
What this means is that even if you are trailing 12 to 0, if you get first place in a hand, you deny other players the ability to win the game and you force another hand. Eventually either someone has won or all players have 10 or more points, which leads to a final winner-take-all hand. This almost did what I wanted it to. Most games would end in the fourth, fifth, or sixth hand, which worked great. However, some games would push into seventh or even eighth hands — and by that point, the deck would start reaching a threshold where there were too many advancements on the cards; the game would slow down and overstay its welcome. I wanted to cap the length at six hands, but that meant that if you were too far behind going into the fifth or sixth hand, you were effectively eliminated.
At this point we had a game we really liked with one hiccup that affected maybe 10% of games. AEG CEO John Zinser and I hung out for a whole evening, brainstorming and playing. A lot of ideas were discussed, but when we hit on the right idea we knew it at once. Six hands would be the maximum number of regular hands. If at the end of the sixth hand, no player had yet won by conventional means, there would be a two-player championship hand in which the player with the most points and the player who won the sixth hand would face off head-to-head. This meant points were still crucial, but even if you were way behind, you still had a chance of stealing a shot at the title. Therefore, in the sixth hand all players have a chance, though the players with the most VP still have a better chance.
Hope that sounds interesting! I've certainly had fun with this little design. Happy gaming!
John D. Clair
What are you doing!? I don't even know you!
As my previous round-up was received somewhat well, here's the promised sequel:
[Editor's note: Hilko submitted this article in mid-May 2017, and somehow I have neglected to publish it until now. My apologies to him — and you — for the delay! —WEM]
The third "Geek Out!" Festival was celebrated in Buenos Aires in early May 2017, and from what I read, it seems to have been great. Anyone who has ever organized a con like this will probably know that 2,400 people the third time around is a huge success, especially when they are the first in their country trying something like this. I assume that many people who were there are looking forward to the 2018 event already.
For the second time, the King Alfonso Award was handed out. The winner was Conejos en el Huerto ("Rabbits in the Orchard") by Luis Fernando Marcantoni, published by Ruibal Hermanos S.A. Congratulations! At the same time, the game also won "Best overall presentation". (Gotta love the letter "J" in the title. Congratulations to artist Celeste Barone as well.) I am curious whether we will hear from the rabbits outside of Argentina in the future. Co-finalist Mutant Crops has an upcoming English edition already.
In the small print run category, the winner was Star Warships by Gabriel Isaac Jalil. Again: Congratulations.
A candidate for next year's award scheduled for release in July is Magos & Tabernas ("Mages & Taverns") by Adrián Novell. Three thirsty mages enter a pub which has only one beer left. Unsurprisingly, fireballs start flying. Players are working their way towards said beer by removing obstacles in the way. Why can't there be a good brewing spell instead?
This isn't final artwork, but taken from this thread.
Brazil seems to have the largest gaming and publishing scene in Latin America by far – that's not too surprising, I guess. I have a feeling that I am still just scratching at the surface, but I am planning to explore more of it and am always happy to discover new things.
Still rather new on the board game scene is publisher Redbox from Rio de Janeiro. After a couple of fairly successful RPG publications, they started localizing foreign publications and are publishing four Brazilian games in 2017:
In the short economic card game Tsukiji by Leandro Pires, you are a fish trader and try to manipulate the Tokyo fish market prices in a way that lets you earn more money than the other traders.
Labyrinx by Daniel Braga and Thiago Matos just completed its crowdfunding campaign. As the name suggests, you move through a labyrinth. The labyrinth is created from cards during the game, and you have to make sure to remember your way home as there is a "fog of war" mechanism that obscures most of the labyrinth. While you are trying to remember which way was out, you collect treasure, dodge traps, and mess with the other players.
Micropolis by Rodrigo Rego is a tile-laying game with rhombic tiles. All players try to expand a city by adding houses, parks, factories, and so on. When placing certain special buildings into the city, you can add influence markers on them. The goal is to be the first player to place all your influence in the city.
Copacabana is also by Rodrigo Rego. At the beginning of the 20th century, players transform the sleepy beach into the mixture of glamour and chaos it is known as today. Achieve this by placing tiles and getting into the most valuable streets to build the most valuable buildings.
In April 2017 I had mentioned Space Cantina by Fel Barros and Warny Marçano. Fel Barros now works for CMON Limited, which in the first half of 2017 released a new edition of Gekido: Bot Battles, a game that he designed together with Romulo Marques and that was first published in 2014. With the new edition, this should become a lot more available outside Brazil. Gekido is a dice roller in which robots smash each other in an arena.
Pablo by Marcos Mayora is one of those rather unusual games, it seems. There are 140 cards with words and categories (in various difficulty levels). Some you hold in your hand, some are on the table. One player starts to sing any song and tries to insert as many words or categories from their cards as possible, for which they get points according to the difficulty. When someone else has a card which might fit the current song, they can start to sing along and push in their own words. You can also throw tomatoes (in the form of cardboard counters) if someone sings wrongly. For an impression of how such a game works, you can see it in Portuguese below. (Jump to 6:17 for the Pablo demonstration):
Pablo is published by Mandala Jogos, and there are promo packs for different musical styles. It was named after a Brazilian music show of the 1980s and sounds like one of those games that gets you kicked out of your apartment if you play it too often.
Colombian publisher Azahar Juegos released the well-noticed game Xanadú in 2012, with Quined Games re-releasing it three years later. Now there are two new games by Azahar:
FocusX by Guillermo Solano is a card game in which you try to find matching characteristics between three cards. (There are animal categories, numbers and colors.) You can play it by speed or more quietly, and according to the publisher, it is suitable for players aged five and up.
Hot-Pota-toH! is from Xanadú designer Javier Velásquez. A stack of cards makes the rounds, and you either have to draw a card from this stack or play a card. While doing this, you try to get certain cards and avoid drawing the exploding potato. While this description might sound similar to Exploding Kittens, Hot-Pota-toH! has no player elimination; instead a round ends when someone explodes and everyone else then counts their points. Therefore there is a motivation to either take a risk and draw cards, or sacrifice expensive cards to avoid losing everything.
Sometimes a game just comes together. Sometimes from the very first germ of an idea, it's all there, just waiting for you to make it. That's how it was with Head of Mousehold.
This is a game that changed very little over the course of its development compared to some of my other designs. I feel that hearing how mechanisms changed over time is really only interesting to people who have played it — which at this time is very very few of you out there. I hope that will change soon, but for now that's the case. The story of this game, though, and how it came to be made is an interesting and a personal one for me.
Starting Out — January 2014
My name is Adam Wyse, and I'm a board game designer from Calgary, Canada. I started designing games in January 2014. My first game was not any good, but it was the spark that ignited the fire. I started work on Masque of the Red Death in mid-2014 (coming soon from IDW Games!) and a game about stand-up comedy that autumn, so Head of Mousehold was my fourth design.
An Idea! — December 2014
I can't fully explain this design process without going into a few personal details. That winter I was preparing some big plans. I had been dating my girlfriend Chelsea for about two years, and I already knew that she was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was planning on surprising her with a proposal at Christmas. Chelsea and I live in Calgary, but she grew up in Cranbrook where her parents still live, about a four-hour drive away. She goes home every Christmas to spend a week and a half relaxing and enjoying some much needed family time. I decided that I would fly to Cranbrook on Christmas morning and propose unexpectedly on her parents' doorstep when she answered the door.
All that said, it went perfectly and she said yes! And as a result, now I had a relaxing week to look forward to of great food, movies, hot tubs, and beautiful mountain scenery. But my relaxing didn't last long — I was struck by an idea the next day, and I had to get it out of my head, like… now!
As I mentioned at the start, the idea came together quickly. I wanted to design a game all about coming in second place. It's one thing to want to win a trick by having the best card, but isn't it interesting to try to come in second? When everyone is trying to do the same, this should get quite tough.
The theme came naturally: "The second mouse gets the cheese", right? So there are five colors of mice, and each round the colors are ordered randomly from fastest to slowest. I figured that each family should have two mice of each color in their deck.
Players would send out mice to mousetraps to bring home cheese; the fastest one would get snapped by the mousetrap and the second fastest could grab the cheese. But I wanted something to change up this formula in certain situations, so I thought up the "squeaker" mouse, and each family of ten mice has five of them. When a squeaker gets snapped by the mousetrap he squeaks, the cat hears him, and comes in and eats the second fastest mouse! Thus, when a squeaker dies, the third mouse gets the cheese.
The mousetraps should each have different amounts of cheese — and you shouldn't have your whole family of mice from which to pick so that the decision space isn't too overwhelming. What if each round you sent out only three mice, but this was done simultaneously along with everyone else once you saw how "fast" each color of mouse was.
Oh, and then what if everyone got to see which colors of mice you'd chosen to send out? They'd know what you had to send, but not where you'd send them and in which order — that would be good. During the round, you take turns playing cards to mousetraps one by one. I knew there had to be information trickling out as the round went on to make the deduction and second-guessing element more interesting — how about every second card at a mousetrap must be played face up?
Whew. All these ideas were there from the start in concept, but now I really needed to make this thing and see whether it worked.
Since I had flown out to Cranbrook I didn't have a car, I didn't have any prototyping supplies, and most stores were closed for the holidays. I immediately put in an Amazon order for blank playing cards — rush shipping to my future in-laws' house! And I begged for a ride into town to the dollar store to try to gather what I needed: a sharpie, stickers in five colors, some kind of colored pawns, and little beads I could use for cheese bits.
The day the blank cards arrived I spent eight straight hours with stickers and sharpies at the kitchen table making my mouse cards. I can imagine a fast-forward time lapse like on TV with family milling around me, having breakfast, then lunch, chatting, cleaning, reading magazines, listening to music — all while I sat there sticking stickers onto the corners of cards and drawing mousetraps like a crazed kindergartener in art class. But after eight hours, I was done!
I immediately wrangled my two future sister-in-laws into a game and just like I had hoped, the game worked! There was only one serious change from the core game: My original thought was that each round one player would secretly distribute a certain amount of cheese to each mousetrap. I thought it would be interesting if one player knew which trap had the most and other players had to try to follow that player's lead to figure out which mousetrap was more desirable. It quickly became clear that the interesting deduction was not in cheese placement, but in the play of your mouse cards. There was enough solid game there that eventually cheese tokens were drawn from a pile and actually placed face up on each mousetrap.
Playtesting Playtesting Playtesting and GAC – January 2015
I didn't want to overdo it pushing family to test a brand new game, so that playtest was the only one I did until I got back from holidays, though of course I kept thinking about the game and revising in my head. By the time I got home and brought the game out to my local design group for its second playtest, I had made up a set of "Day Event" cards that would slightly change up the rules each round.
I have to stop for a second and mention how great my design group is. I'm a member of the Calgary chapter of the Game Artisans of Canada. The GAC is an amazing and supportive group, full of many designers whose games I'm sure you've played; the games and names are far too many to list. The group communicates online, does inter-chapter playtesting, is a valuable resource for contract advice and publisher information, and is full of experience in the industry. The weekly testing and iteration that happens in each chapter of GAC is what polishes all the games coming out of this group.
I'm proud to have brilliant local designers like Paul Saxberg, Gavan Brown, Orin Bishop, Joe McDaid, Tom Sarsons, Matt Tolman, John Gibson, Glen Dresser, and Gord Hamilton to meet with regularly and playtest.
Head of Mousehold went through a barrage of playtests week after week. Event cards changed and cheese values/counts changed as things went along, but the core was strong and remained intact.
Making It Prettier — April 2015
Early on I knew the look of the game needed to improve if I were to get a better read on how the deduction elements were working. An ugly prototype is all well and good at first, but eventually a lack of good iconography and colors can become a hindrance to how well a player can take in the information they need to make proper decisions. Luckily I had three wonderful and talented artist friends (Chelsea, Jason, and Joanne) that answered my call on Facebook for five simple line drawings of mice that matched some kind of theme.
I wanted each family to have a cool theme and matching apparel and look. I got back some amazing space mice, ninja mice, cowboy mice, and farm mice!
And because I had more time than sense apparently, I decided to upgrade the pawns I was using for mouse tokens into little clay-molded oven-baked ones. And since I was ordering a little silicone mouse mold, I might as well order a cheese one at the same time and make my cheese tokens out of yellow clay! They looked great but after a few weeks of use and being carted around, they were breaking far more often than I would like.
I couldn't find any mouse meeples of the right colors online, so I decided to get a bunch of black ones and paint them myself!
Since I was happy with the gameplay and the look of the cards, and the quality of the components was improving, I decided to enter some contests with Head of Mousehold.
Contests — May 2015
The game was shortlisted in the Ciutat de Granollers (a contest in Spain) in early 2015, but due to some baffling issues with Spanish customs the prototype didn't make it into the country. Customs required a payment of over $200 of the contest organizers in order to release the package, so they rightly declined and had the package returned to me. Weird.
Next, in May, I entered the Plateau d'Or in Quebec City and was chosen as a finalist! Having never been to Quebec, I decided to take a trip out there to see the sights and present my game. But first, remember how I was talking about how amazing the Game Artisans of Canada are? Even though I took French from grades 7 through 12, I was not confident enough to translate my own cards or rulebook. I asked for help from French-speaking GAC members, and Yves Tourigny graciously translated my game for me. It wasn't a requirement of the contest, but I wanted to be able to play with and teach convention-goers even if they didn't speak English! I am incredibly grateful because my conversational French is even worse than my written French, but I did manage to teach and play the game with people who I couldn't really communicate with otherwise. Even though I did not win the award, it was a fantastic trip and an awesome experience!
Pitching and Publishers — June 2015
In June 2015, friend and fellow GAC member Paul Saxberg was taking a trip down to Florida for Dice Tower Con, and he graciously offered to show Head of Mousehold to publishers while he was there. I was thrilled! He put the game through the designer/publisher speed dating event and got significant interest from two publishers, one of which he sent the prototype home with. This first publisher was extremely confident they would publish the game, but after a few months they ultimately just barely ended up passing on it.
In their comments they wondered whether the game could go to five players, so I took that suggestion and added a fifth family to the game. With five players, I started finding that the amount of information players needed to consider was becoming too much. An analysis-paralysis prone player tended to take a long time on their turn because there was so much available information out there with five players: five mousetraps and fifteen mouse meeples on the table.
I decided to try a new idea to help fix the problem. Instead of having the mousetraps in the middle of the table, each player would have a mousetrap in front of them. You could play mice only to your own mousetrap, the one on your left, and the one on your right. This cut down on the number of factors a player had to consider and got the game length feeling right again in a five-player game.
So I got my prototype back from the first publisher and decided to contact the other one that had been interested. They still wanted to try out the game, so I sent a copy off to publisher #2. After a month or two, I heard word back that while they found the game very interesting, they were looking for something heavier for their line.
At this point it was late 2015 and Head of Mousehold had been rejected twice — but I wasn't deterred. I believed in the game, and I knew it would find the right home as long as I kept looking. I kept playtesting, playing at conventions, and even making a digital version of the game that could be played on Tabletopia.
SaltCon — March 2016
So that's where things were at for a few months, but 2016 was a big year for me in game design.
When I was first starting out, I went with the idea that game design contests would get me noticed. The judges are often publishers, and for a new designer with few contacts, having a portal directly to people who matter in the industry seemed like a great opportunity. I continued with that line of thinking and entered one of my other games, "Cypher", into the Ion Award put on by SaltCon in Utah. After being chosen as a finalist, I decided to go to Utah and attend the convention. "Cypher" won the 2016 Ion Award for best light game, and Mayday Games ended up signing it (and another of my games, "Poetry Slam") shortly after the convention! The Ion Award publicity was what got me noticed by FoxMind.
Right around when I was finalizing the "Cypher" contract with Mayday, I got an email from JC at FoxMind, who I had never met before. He had seen the award win and watched my five-minute video for "Cypher" and was very interested in the game. I had to tell him that the game was already spoken for, but I had another game that I felt perfectly fit with FoxMind's line: Head of Mousehold! I sent him my pitch video and sell sheet for the game, and he requested that I send a prototype to their office in Montreal. I was thrilled, but also warned him that I would be going to my first big U.S. convention in June (Origins), and that while normally I'd not show the game around while he was evaluating it, I would have to in this case. It's a long and costly trip from Calgary, and I couldn't not show the game when I have so few opportunities to meet publishers in person.
Origins — June 2016
So I was off to Columbus for the Origins Game Fair in June 2016! It was an incredibly fun and successful trip. I met lots of new designers and publishers and did a lot of pitching of my various games. My first pitch of the convention was on the Wednesday when the place opened, and it went great. That publisher was especially interested in Head of Mousehold and "LepreContractors", and wanted to take a copy of each back for evaluation. Nice! Just a few hours later, I get a rushed-sounding email from JC at FoxMind basically saying "We played Head of Mousehold and really enjoyed it! We need another play or two to make some big decisions for the coming year… please don't give it away to someone else just yet!"
That was a tough one for me. I'm a fairly new designer to the scene, and I have a very big company who I just pitched to who is interested — but at the same time FoxMind seems very impressed with the game and I know it would turn out beautiful in their care… but what if I stop showing the game and then FoxMind ends up passing on it like two other companies had before??
I decided to stop showing the game immediately and hold it for FoxMind — and I was so glad I did! This has been the first game FoxMind has signed without actually meeting the designer in person, so I'm extremely grateful that JC and David took a chance signing a new designer like me. It has been a pleasure working with JC on development and seeing the beautiful art as it comes out. Small aspects of gameplay have been improved here and there, and the rulebook has been streamlined into something I'm very proud of.
I'll be attending Gen Con 2017 to be there for the release of the game. It will be my first game to be released, and I am so excited to start seeing people enjoying it!
Thanks for taking the time to read these ramblings. I hope you have fun with Head of Mousehold!
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