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A Quintet of Games from Cathala and Friends: Kyudo, 1001 Islands, Raptor, Orichalque, and MOW

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Kyudo
• French publisher Offline Editions debuted in 2020 with an edition of Magic Fold from designers Bruno Cathala and Yohan Goh, and Cathala — along with Ludovic Maublanc — is on the design team of the company's second project: Kyudo.

In this 2-4 player game, you roll dice and mark things off on a personal score sheet, but Kyudo is not a friendly roll-and-write game! No, you are trying to eliminate other players through your sharpshooting. Here's a detailed rundown of the gameplay:
Quote:
Whatever you do at today's archery contest, try to keep the spectators satisfied so that they don't wander off to watch someone else. Lose all of your spectators, and you can't win!

Each player in Kyudo takes one of the four role cards and a scoring sheet that depicts the central target, five flags (one in each of the five colors on the dice), and twenty spectators. The starting player takes the four dice, and other players mark off 1-3 spaces on flags.

On a turn, roll the four dice up to three times, re-rolling dice as you wish. The dice show five colors (that match the flags and the colored rings on the target) and an arrow. For each arrow, you can assign it to a color that you rolled, then mark off a space on the central target. With two arrows, one blue, and one red, for example, you can mark off two blue spaces, two red spaces, or one blue and one red space. Once you've marked off all the spaces in a colored ring, any additional "hits" on that color cause your opponents to lose spectators — because you're clearly far more awesome than they are!

If you roll two or more dice of the same color, you can mark off an equal number of spaces on the flag of that color; when you mark off the final space in the corner of a flag, you receive that flag's bonus, such as marking off any two spaces, or taking a token that lets you change a die to the face of your choice, or taking a different token that allows you not to lose spectators during a turn of your choice.

Board Game: Kyudo

If you roll four arrows, all opponents lose four spectators, and if you roll four different colors, you use the special power of your role, such as forcing others to use only three dice for a round or adding a green or blue circle to opponents' targets.

If you lose all of your spectators, you're out of the game. If you're the last archer in the game, you win! Alternatively, if you've marked off all the spaces on your target and you have the most spectators, you win.
Board Game: The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet
Board Game: 1001 Islands
• In other Cathala news, French publisher Ludonaute is re-releasing 2013's The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet, co-designed by Cathala and Antoine Bauza, as 1001 Islands.

Gameplay remains the same in the new design: Each round, if you're the active player, you draw as many tiles as players, draft a tile and add it to your 4x4 game board, then pass the remaining tiles to the player of your choice. Whoever is last in the round must take the tile they're given, but they start the next round. After sixteen rounds, you score points for how well the island tiles on your board match your dream tiles.

For more on the game, you can check out my video overview from 2013 or Cathala and Bauza's designer diary in which they explain that the game finally came together once they abandoned what made them create the game in the first place.

Board Game: Raptor
Raptor from Cathala and Bruno Faidutti is also getting a new edition, with publisher Matagot noting that this July 2022 release will have a fresh cover, a brighter look, and some rebalancing in the gameplay. Here's a summary of gameplay:
Quote:
Mamma Raptor has escaped from her run and laid her eggs in the park. A team of scientists must neutralize her and capture the baby raptors before they run wild into the forest.

Raptor is a card-driven board game with tactical play and some double guessing. Players use their cards to move their pawns — with the scientists on one side, Mother and baby raptors on the other — on the board. Every round, the player who played the lowest ranked card can use the corresponding action, while their opponent has movement or attack points equal to the difference between the values of the two cards. The scientists can use fire, can move by jeep on the tracks, and can even call for reinforcements, while the mamma raptor can hide in the bushes, yell to frighten the scientists, and call for her babies.
A video overview of the new edition is available in French here.

• I wrote about the Cathala/Johannes Goupy title Orichalque coming from Catch Up Games in an April 2022 post, and now the publisher has revealed the final cover for this game in which you draft action cards and land in order to build temples, fight monsters, and win favors from titans.

Board Game: Orichalque

• Finally, let's talk about an older Cathala title that is still selling: MOW, which debuted in 2008 from Swiss publisher Hurrican, and which hit 200,000 copies sold in 2021, according to this article from the designer. That averages out to more than 15,000 copies annually, and these "slow burn" titles are a huge part of the game industry, selling constantly despite no one making a fuss over them, typically because they are small, un-flashy designs.

Board Game: MOW
MOW returned to print in a somewhat updated edition from Hurrican in mid-2021, with fresh art from Cyril Bouquet, the return of a sound chip that makes the box "MOO!" when you open it, and the addition of a few variants that Cathala has developed following an estimated three thousand games played since the game's debut.

Aside from the regular edition that plays with 2-10 people, publisher Accessijeux released its own version of the game in 2021, a version for 2-5 players with features such as large numbers, high-contrast art, ergonomic form, and Braille encoding of the numbers and flies on each tile-like card. Additionally, the point tokens come in different sizes and shapes to make it easier to track your score.

In case you are not familiar with MOW, here's my somewhat edited review from November 12, 2008 from the old Boardgame News site I ran, a review that covers a similar-playing game at the same time:
Quote:
The more games you play, the more familiar new games will seem to you. You'll hear the rules for the brand new, never-before-seen Game X and immediately parse the game as 60% Claim the King's Throne, 30% Control the Galactic Empire, and 10% new stuff. Whether this development is good or bad will depend on the tastes of your game group, your desire for newness, your outlook on life, whether you were breastfed as an infant, and various other factors.

I've already seen MOW, a new card game from Bruno Cathala that was released in limited numbers at SPIEL '08 in October from Hurrican, being referred to by several people as similar to 6 Nimmt!, but Reiner Knizia's Escalation! is much closer to being MOW's cardy cousin. Here's an edited description of that earlier game from a first impression that I published in March 2007:
wrote:
Board Game: Escalation!
Escalation! includes 56 cards; most of the cards are numbered from 1-13, with a single 1 card, five 2s, a half-dozen 3s through 6s, then down to two 13s. The game also includes two neighborhood awatch cards and three wild cards, numbered 1-7 because they can represent any number in that range.

The theme of the game is suburban warfare, and the cards represent this through the artwork, such as a child with a Super Soaker, an old man in a scooter with a gun rack, and grenade launcher-wielding grandma. In gameplay terms, you want to keep ahead of the Joneses by playing more valuable cards than they do.

Players start with a hand of six cards. On a turn, a player plays one or more cards to the center of the table; if you play multiple cards, they must all be the same value. You announce the total value of the cards you play — a single 7 is only "seven" while three 2s would be "six" — and the total that you play must be higher than the previously announced total. Alternatively, you can play a neighborhood watch card and announce the total played by the previous player. After playing, you refill your hand to six cards.

When a player can't or chooses not to beat the previously announced value, they take all of the cards from the center of the table, turn them face-down in front of themselves, and start another round of play. Play continues until one player runs out of cards. The game ends immediately, and anyone with cards still in hand places them on their face-down stack. Players then count the number of cards in their stack (ignoring the values), and the player with the fewest cards wins. You can also play multiple rounds, one for each player, summing the totals as you go.
MOW plays like a two-dimensional Escalation! as instead of simply piling up numbers and trying to be king of the hill, players lay out numbered cards in a line and on each turn, you are trying to play a card that's higher or lower than the cards already in play. If you can't do so (or choose not to), you must take those cards, then start a new line. The cards in the deck range from 1 to 15 with a slight bell curve in terms of their distribution: a single 1, two 2s, three 3s, three 4s, and so on with a peak of four 7s, 8s and 9s. These cards have 0-3 flies on them, and your goal is to collect as few flies as possible. The game lasts multiple rounds, ending when one player collects 100 flies, and whoever has the fewest flies wins.

Board Game: MOW
Sample MOW card in the Accessijeux edition

As with Escalation!, MOW is an exercise in card counting, hand management, and probability: Have the highest and lowest cards been played? Am I stifling myself in future rounds by playing high/low cards now? Would it be better to eat a few flies now in order to start a new line and ditch a three-fly 9 that otherwise can't be played? Whereas in Escalation! you weigh the merits of playing, say, a 10 versus two 5s — How many of each have been played, and what are the odds of drawing a match compared to opening two spots or one in my hand? — in MOW you're deciding whether to ditch cards in the center of the number line before they become unplayable (despite giving opponents more playing potential) against playing a card near the end of the line to shut down their hand. Small decisions all, but the decisions are there.

The end of the round punishment in MOW matches that of Escalation! — add the cards in your hand to your pile of collected cards — but since those cards vary in point value, you have more to consider once the end of the round nears.

Just as Escalation! has its neighborhood watch and wild cards, MOW has a half-dozen special cards that break the basic number line of the rest of the deck. Those cards are:

—A 0 and 16, which serve as endcaps on the line.
—A 7 and 9, which can be played only on top of a 7 or 9 already in play.
—Two cards that can be played between two others in line, assuming there's a gap.

Each of these cards features five flies and allows you to reverse the turn order when you play it. This last element is a huge plus as you have more control over which players can get slammed with a pack of flies — assuming they don't have an out of their own. Being able to throw five flies on the pile at once is a huge plus, and the end of the round punishment of keeping cards you don't play creates a nice tension in terms of when to play them. Wait too long, and another player might take the line, end the round, and leave the flies in your hand.

Board Game: MOW

Wags have summarized the strategy for both games in simple terms — "draw high cards" for Escalation!, for example — but after more than forty playings of Escalation! and 20-30 rounds of MOW I can say that there's more to the game than good drawing. As mentioned earlier, memory, probability, and hand management all come into play, making it impossible to fall into default strategies of always playing particular cards in particular situations. What's been played previously, how much of the deck remains, who's taken the most points in this round and over the entire game, how much do your opponents gamble — all of these factors come into play to determine what you should play when.

One drawback of MOW is that the two-player rules graft a slot machine feel onto the game. Instead of a head-to-head duel, the two players add an imaginary third player to the game, flipping a card from the top of the deck to represent its plays — if the card fits into the line, you add it; otherwise, you pile it on the side. Whenever one player does take the line, they also take this extra pile of cards.

Board Game: MOW
Cards in an early edition of MOW

While players can make unexpected plays in MOW — jumping far down the number line, or breaking out a special card in the early part of the round — the random card play by this stand-in derails your efforts to set up future turns. The game feels more arbitrary and less strategic because it is, unlike Escalation! which sticks to the duel format that you'd expect with two players, a format that lets you count cards more effectively and anticipate moves from the other side of the table with greater accuracy. I've played two-player MOW with the imaginary player and with a strict duel format, and the latter is much preferred for all the same reasons that make 2p Escalation! enjoyable. Yes, one player might score more special cards, but those don't guarantee success, just as they don't in Knizia's game.

Both Escalation! and MOW are light and move quickly, and luck does play a factor as you'll sometimes draw (or not draw) precisely the card that you need on the next turn. Accept that as a given, as is the case in many card games, and you'll have a fun time fighting off the flies or loading up the weaponry to outshine your neighbors.
Ha, yes, I really used the word "wags" in a game review. It was all The New Yorker I was reading at the time. I still love that magazine, but our library system doesn't carry it, so now I catch its articles only occasionally online. Too many things to read, and not enough time...

Board Game: MOW
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Grow Wildly and Greenly in Evergreen, Treeblox, and Tinderblox Sunset

W. Eric Martin
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I've seen plenty of "green" games announced by publishers recently, with green taking on multiple meanings even within the same game. Such is the case with Evergreen, a 1-4 player game from designer Hjalmar Hach and publisher Horrible Guild due out in Q4 2022.

Board Game: Evergreen

Evergreen seems to carry over elements from Hach's 2017 title Photosynthesis, but with each player now having their own game board to develop as they wish. Here's a short description:
Quote:
In Evergreen, your goal is to build a lush ecosystem by planting seeds, growing trees, and placing other natural elements on your planet, trying to make it the greenest and most fertile of all.

Board Game: Evergreen

You choose biome cards from a common pool to determine which area of your planet you'll develop in a round. The cards not chosen make those regions more fertile, and thus more valuable. To create a huge forest, you want to grow trees, plant bushes, and place lakes, while using the power of nature to gain extra actions. Ideally you can concentrate your trees in the most fertile areas, but without them overshadowing one another as you also want them to collect as much light as possible.
Horrible Guild's Alessandro Pra' confirmed the connection between Evergreen and Photosynthesis to me, noting that in both games the sun rotates around the board with players trying to ensure that their trees gather light, but otherwise they differ greatly: "Photosynthesis is a cutthroat game where you compete for space on a shared board, whereas Evergreen has competition for the card-selection phase, but becomes a more relaxed experience when you develop your (personal) board. In some ways it is similar to Railroad Ink in that regard."

In its promotional material, Horrible Guild notes that "all the components of the game are developed to be as sustainable as possible", and "Evergreen supports Trees for the Future, a humanitarian and nonprofit organization training communities and farming families across nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa on sustainable land use, so that they can grow vibrant economies, thriving food systems, and a healthier planet". Pra' notes that Horrible Guild made an initial donation before settling on the size of Evergreen's first printing — a donation that equals "over 4,000 trees planted" — and on top of that "we plan to periodically make further donations to support their sustainability endeavors".

Board Game Publisher: Alley Cat Games
• UK publisher Alley Cat Games has launched a "pre-order party" for two titles due out in Q4 2022: Tinderblox Sunset and Catstronauts.

The former title is a new version of Rob Sparks' 2020 fire-building and -stacking game Tinderblox that contains a marshmallow mini-expansion — roast marshmallows by stacking them on the wood without letting them touch fire! — and (more importantly for this post) is Alley Cat's first FSC-compliant release, with FSC being the Forest Stewardship Council. This release will contain wooden pieces from officially approved sources, have FSC-approved stickers on the lid of the tin case, and no single-use plastic, i.e., no shrinkwrap. (The game does include plastic tweezers that are essential for gameplay and used repeatedly.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The Tinderblox line

Board Game: Catstronauts
Catstronauts comes from designers Caezar Al-Jassar and Simon Milburn, who released the real-time, cat-stacking game Kittin in 2020, and Catstronauts features similar gameplay, with you racing to place your feline explorers on planets in the correct order.

What is a "pre-order party", you might ask? Alley Cat Games is cutting out the middleman of a crowdfunding site and instead taking orders directly, with that cut going to ecological purposes: "For every pre-order party purchase over £10 (excluding shipping), we will plant three trees, with our partners: Ecologi. Back at our highest level for this campaign and we will plant 6!" As orders are placed, a "virtual forest" will grow on ACG's Ecologi page.

• And we'll close with another game about building greenery, albeit with this one having plastic pieces: Treeblox from designer Philip Olenyk of publisher Emergent Plant Life.

Board Game: Treeblox

Here's an overview of gameplay:
Quote:
Treeblox is an abstract strategy board game in which two trees compete for sunlight in three-dimensional space.

The game starts with an empty board. Players then take turns placing cubes that represent leaves and branches. Unshaded leaves — that is, leaves that are visible when the board is viewed from above — count as active and supply their tree with energy to grow further. Your goal is to shade your opponent's leaves while keeping your own leaves open to the sun.

Each player starts with one leaf in a space on the 4x4 game board. On a turn, if you have 1-2 unshaded leaves, you place one piece on the board, whether a branch or a leaf; if you have three or more unshaded leaves, then you place up to two pieces. You can place nothing in a leaf, so a leaf serves as an endpoint for growth. If you place a branch, however, then you can add a branch or a leaf to any available side of that branch. You can have multiple branches growing on the game board, and the branches and leaves can extend outside of the 4x4 game board. If you build high enough, you can shade an opponent's leaves.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

When a player has placed their final piece, whether because they've placed everything or they have no legal placements available, the other player goes through a "final growth" phase in which they place everything they can. At that point, whoever has the most unshaded leaves wins. If you ever have zero unshaded leaves during play, you lose immediately.
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Settle the Stone Age Again in CATAN: Dawn of Humankind

W. Eric Martin
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• Catan is both an island and the entirety of the universe throughout time. The latest example of this all-encompassing game design is CATAN: Dawn of Humankind, a game for 3-4 players from Klaus and Benjamin Teuber that KOSMOS and Catan Studio will release in Q3 2022 in both English and German.

Board Game: CATAN: Dawn of Humankind

Here's the pithy description from the publishers:
Quote:
Guide the first humans on their journey as they migrate throughout the world while developing their technology and culture.

CATAN: Dawn of Humankind is a reboot of The Settlers of the Stone Age, with gameplay rooted in the original CATAN, while featuring new elements, strategies, and adventures to discover.
It's not clear what has changed from The Settlers of the Stone Age to this upcoming title as the game boards for both titles seem nearly identical, but I'm sure more details will emerge in the months ahead.

Board Game: CATAN: Dawn of Humankind

• KOSMOS and Catan Studio are following the 2021 release of CATAN: 3D Edition with the expansion that you would pretty much expect them to release given the history of the CATAN franchise — CATAN: 3D Expansions – Seafarers + Cities & Knights.

Board Game: CATAN: 3D Expansions – Seafarers + Cities & Knights

This expansion is due out in Q4 2022, and now you can increase your time spent in Catan while simultaneously spreading Catan to new Catans both near and Catan.

Board Game: CATAN: 3D Expansions – Seafarers + Cities & Knights

Board Game: CATAN: 3D Expansions – Seafarers + Cities & Knights
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Designer Diary: Sobek: 2 Players

bruno cathala
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Board Game: Sobek
Editor's note: This diary was first published in French on July 1, 2021 on Bruno Cathala's website. This English translation comes courtesy of Danni Loe, who previously worked for Pandasaurus Games, which is releasing Sobek: 2 Players in English on May 25, 2022. —WEM

In 2010, a small and clever card game called Sobek was released by GameWorks.

The game was a real success. Something like 15,000 copies were sold over two years. For a small publisher like GameWorks, this was amazing. And for me as a designer, it represented almost a month's annual salary. However, after two short years, the game stopped receiving support.

Ten years have passed since then, and Sobek has not been forgotten. Very regularly, I receive messages from game stores and players, asking me how to get a copy of this little game. Little by little, an idea formed:

GIVE SOBEK A SECOND CHANCE!

Since I didn't want to take on this project alone, I invited Sébastien Pauchon to come along for the ride. Why?

One part friendship: Whenever I spent time with Sébastien, it was always a mixture of jokes, laughter, and intense game design sessions. I always enjoyed collaborating with him, so it was a great opportunity to connect again.

Two parts loyalty and respect: He was at the helm of the first edition of Sobek, so I thought it was fair to invite him to be a part of this new edition as a thank you for his previous work.

When I proposed this collaboration, I was also pretty clear about the direction I wanted the project to go in. Basically, since the game's release in 2010, I had kept playing it again and again. I played a ridiculous number of times, particularly with two players, thanks to the digital adaptations on Board Game Arena and Yucata.

Board Game: Sobek

And that's how I discovered a way to play with two players that, while completely within the rules, went against the experience I wanted for my design. With two players, it was possible to become as corrupt as a pig by taking only the "big" cards and leaving the others for your opponent. The game would end after three rounds, and your opponent could hardly accomplish anything.

Of course, this didn't happen every time, but it happened often enough that it lessened my desire to play.

Time to Make Changes

What needed to be improved?

• Consequences for corruption needed to be proportional to its intensity.
• Try to remove the game system that every game ended after three rounds. (I think it's actually a rather inelegant design decision.)
• Make the game perfect for two players.

From this point, we started to work on a drafting system. At the time, I had just finished development on INSERT, and since I really, really loved how the board constrained players, Seb and I wondered whether it would be possible to do something similar to address our problem with Sobek.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
INSERT

INSERT is a two-player abstract game about successive constraints. When a player places a ring on a space, the line in that space shows the direction in which their opponent is allowed to play their next ring. The board and the constraints lead to a progressively-filled space that is focused entirely on alignments.

We didn't want a static board, but an idea started to form...

If we place goods tiles on an empty board...and if each goods tile has directions limiting the next player's choices...which also happen to be perfectly suited to the corruption... It was coming together! If a player chooses the first available tile in the direction, it is "free". However, if they want to choose a further, better tile, then skipped tiles are removed from the board and added to their corruption.

This limitation system was similar to INSERT, but having the board empty as the game progressed let players focus on the most profitable sets. It became a radically different gameplay experience from INSERT, even though they shared the same roots.

Eventually we ended up with this prototype.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We made it, we played with it, and we quickly realized what a cool system it was. It still had tense decisions and added a tactical aspect to the original version. However, this system worked only for two-player games.

We were faced with the following choices:

• EITHER abandon this idea and find something else for a 2-4 player Sobek,
• OR keep this really fun mechanism, but change the theme to end up with an entirely separate game,
• OR keep the mechanism AND the theme to create a two-player ONLY Sobek, which would be similar to, yet different from the original.

After reflecting on it, we decided on the third choice — Sobek: 2 Players. Today, I think it's safe to say we made the right decision!

Sobek: 2 Players — Not a Simple Adaptation, but Something Separate

From this point on, we worked on adjusting different important elements — fine-tuning things, if you will. We primarily tweaked the gameplay so that it lasted longer than a single round. We also changed corruption so that:

• It was proportional to the level of corruption between both players.
• It rewarded the least corrupt player instead of punishing the most corrupt player. Of course from a "math" point of view, it is essentially the same thing; from a psychological view, though, it's entirely different. The most corrupted player doesn't want to be penalized, and they don't want to be frustrated. If that's the difference between them wanting to play again or not...well, it was an easy change to make.

I want to say a few final words about the production of the game.

It was our first time working with Catch Up Games, and the least we can say is that the collaboration went really well. We enjoyed working with a publisher who listened and shared all their decisions with us.

Board Game: Sobek: 2 Players

In the end, we have an amazing box full of high-quality content. We are really very happy. It looks great, doesn't it?

Bruno Cathala

Board Game: Sobek: 2 Players
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Tue May 24, 2022 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: First Empires, or It's Nothing Personal, But Get Out

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: First Empires
In a designer diary on BGG News about First Empires, Eric B. Vogel wrote, "I really dislike wargames that reward defensive play — 'turtling' — because aggression is what is fun in a wargame."

Having now played First Empires seven times on a review copy from Sand Castle Games, I'll say that Vogel has succeeded in creating a world conquest game that encourages you to be aggressive. Each of the 2-5 players takes charge of a civilization on an alternate Earth, and over the course of 7-8 rounds, you are rewarded for controlling regions that match the dice rolled at the start of your turn (which typically requires you to kick someone out of those regions), for meeting the requirements on achievement cards (typically by picking on others), and for conquering opposing cities or having your own cities on the board at game's end, both of which require you to move into new regions.

You are rewarded for acting selfishly and taking whatever regions suit you best. If others lose their land, well, they haven't lost any people on the board because opposing forces retreat instead of being removed from play — and sometimes you can use a retreat to your advantage since you retreat to any one region where you already have a presence. As in Beyond the Sun, a "loss" in one region allows you a free teleportation to somewhere else, which can be a great thing in a game that initially limits you to 2-3 movement points at the start of the game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Combat in First Empires is a simple thing: If I can move more people into a region than you have there, you must leave. The dice I roll (and possibly re-roll) at the start of my turn feature five colors that match the colors of Earth's regions and a sword. Should I have one or more swords on a turn, those swords stand in for my people — one person with three swords = four people — allowing me to conquer a region by sending in fewer people (and therefore spending fewer movement points). How does one person wield three swords? Presumably by spinning them really fast like a propeller, but that is left as an exercise for your imagination.

So swords are great, right? Except they often aren't, especially in the first couple of rounds when everyone is huddled in their starting city and plenty of empty land lies available for the taking with only one person. What's more, by holding regions that match the color on rolled dice, you advance on civilization tracks, which gives you better stats and more endgame points — and swords are not a color, so they allow you to take over regions more easily at the expense of not having as many colors on hand to boost you on tracks.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My board at the end of game #1

You can choose to discard an achievement card from your hand to change a die to a sword or a sword to a color of your choice, and the rules encourage you to do the latter in the opening turns because your civilization is initially feeble. Every advancement on a civilization track boosts your chance for future growth by giving you more dice, more re-rolls, more movement, more people, or more achievement cards. Yes, you can discard an achievement card to get an achievement card, earning points in the process, and this realization is critical for you to overcome the trap of valuing potential points in hand more than actual (but fewer) points in reality.

While combat in First Empires isn't random, other elements of the game are, with the die roll at the start of your turn being the most prominent. If you roll (or re-roll) colors that match regions in which you already have a presence or can reach or take over easily, then great, you'll advance on your civ tracks, which will boost you in future turns. If not, well, you can throw away your starting achievement card to ensure that you advance on two tracks in the first round — which means you're down a card compared to lucky opponents.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Nearly every space is occupied in this five-player game

After seven games, I'm still not sure how large a role the rolls play in someone's success as the game is relatively short, and the general feeling is one of trying to maximize the opportunities available to you rather than developing a plan and sticking to it no matter what. You might have a general plan, sure, and that will determine which dice you re-roll, but you need to focus on advancing somewhere as the game lasts only 7-8 rounds, so you don't have a lot of time in which to progress.

For details on how to play, what changes based on player count, and more thoughts on the gameplay experience, check out this overview video:

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Mon May 23, 2022 6:00 pm
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Spiel des Jahres Nominations for 2022: Cascadia, Scout, and Top Ten

W. Eric Martin
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
The nominees for the 2022 Spiel des Jahres — Germany's "game of the year" award — have been announced, along with nominees for the Kinderspiel des Jahres (KidJ) for children's game of the year and the Kennerspiel des Jahres (KedJ) for enthusiast's game of the year, that is, for those already comfortable with learning and playing new games.

Spiel des Jahres jury chairman Harald Schrapers and Kinderspiel des Jahres chairman Christoph Schlewinski announced the nominees, along with other recommended titles, during a live broadcast on YouTube, with these three titles being nominated for Spiel des Jahres 2022:

Cascadia, from Randy Flynn and Flatout Games (and in Germany from KOSMOS)
Scout, from Kei Kajino and Oink Games (and originally from One More Game!)
Top Ten, from Aurélien Picolet and Cocktail Games

Aside from these nominations, the SdJ jury recommended the following six titles: 7 Wonders: Architects, echoes: The Dancer, Magic Rabbit, My Gold Mine, So Clover!, and Trek 12: Himalaya.

Note that the Spiel des Jahres award is primarily aimed at family gamers, i.e., those who play games but aren't heavily into the gaming scene.

Board Game: Cascadia
Board Game: SCOUT
Board Game: Top Ten

Nominations for the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2022 went to:

Cryptid, from Hal Duncan, Ruth Veevers, and Osprey Games (and in Germany from Skelling Games)
Dune: Imperium, from Paul Dennen and Dire Wolf
Living Forest, from Aske Christiansen and Ludonaute (and in Germany from Pegasus Spiele)

The SdJ jury recommended three other titles at the Kennerspiel level: Ark Nova, Khôra: Rise of an Empire, and Witchstone.

The winners of the Spiel and Kennerspiel des Jahres will be announced in Berlin, Germany on July 16, 2022.

Board Game: Cryptid
Board Game: Dune: Imperium
Board Game: Living Forest

The titles nominated for Kinderspiel des Jahres 2022 are:

Auch schon clever, from Wolfgang Warsch and Schmidt Spiele
Mit Quacks & Co. nach Quedlinburg, from Wolfgang Warsch and Schmidt Spiele
Zauberberg, a.k.a. Magic Mountain, from Jens-Peter Schliemann, Bernhard Weber, and AMIGO

The Kinderspiel des Jahres jury, which differs from the SdJ/KedJ jury, also recommended four other titles: Fröschis, Golden Ei, Honey, and Die Villa der Vampire.

The winner will be announced on June 20, 2022, roughly one month prior to the winners of the other awards.

Board Game: Auch schon clever
Board Game: Quacks & Co.
Board Game: Magic Mountain

Congratulations to all the nominated designers and publishers!
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Mon May 23, 2022 10:25 am
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Explore Strange New Worlds in Starship Captains

W. Eric Martin
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Publisher Czech Games Edition has unveiled a new title that it plans to debut at SPIEL '22: Starship Captains from first-time designer Peter B. Hoffgaard, with the game's general release in Europe and North America coming a bit later in Q4 2022.

Board Game: Starship Captains

Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game that will retail for US$60/€60:
Quote:
Welcome aboard and congrats on the promotion! Your "new" starship is ready to embark on its first big voyage. Just scrape off some of the rust, and she'll do fine. And that crew? Might look a little green around the edges, but they're your crew now. Make us proud. The stars are calling...and adventure awaits!

As newly promoted Starship Captains, players are in command of their first starship and hungry to prove themselves in a galaxy full of space pirates, grumpy old androids, ancient artifacts, and interplanetary adventures.

In this game, which mixes action selection and engine building, you'll manage a diverse crew of cadets, ensigns, androids, and officers — each with different special roles and capabilities. By earning medals, you can promote and train your crew for even greater effectiveness. Similarly, you can upgrade your ship with powerful engine building technology for maximum synergy.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

What will you do with this enhanced crew and ship? Explore an ever-shifting galaxy full of dangerous pirates and interplanetary missions in order to boost your reputation with three distinct galactic factions for bountiful rewards.

Do you have what it takes to deftly command your crew and become the best captain in the cosmos? We'll see. Now go — boldly!
Board Game Publisher: Czech Games Edition
That closing line in the publisher's description is no accident, as is clear in this excerpt from a profile of the designer by CGE:
Quote:
[J]ust in case anyone was still wondering, there's absolutely no denying where a lot of the game's thematic influences are drawn from. "I am a big Star Trek fan," says Peter. "I never wanted to make a Star Trek game, as such, but I wanted to make a Star Trek-inspired game."

Growing up a huge sci-fi fan in the 1990s, Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular is his favorite go-to TV series of the storied franchise. "The Next Generation has this very idealistic and bright view for the future of mankind in general," he adds, noting it was important to find ways to incorporate this theme and also celebrate diversity among the game's characters.

The message in Starship Captains is that it isn't all about material possessions. You won't find any monetary resources or currency in the game, which is intentional. Instead, the game's lens and mechanics revolve around the captains, their crew, and their relationships with the game's distinct intergalactic factions.

"It is a very important thing for me to have the theme and setting of the game convey that we all, as humankind, can stand together and be better than we are if we see beyond gender, religion, and economy, even," he says. "That's why I fell in love with Star Trek, and that's also what I want to try and convey in the game."
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Mon May 23, 2022 6:00 am
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Mount Damasks, Resist General Franco, and Lie to Friends about Christmas Gifts

W. Eric Martin
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After highlighting a few high-profile crowdfunding projects earlier this week, let me shine the spotlight on several projects from smaller publishers:

Resist! is a solitaire design from Trevor Benjamin, Roger Tankersley, David Thompson, and Spanish publisher Salt & Pepper Games due out before the end of 2022. (Gamefound)

Board Game: Resist!

This description covers the setting in detail while touching on the dilemmas you'll face while playing:
Quote:
Spain, 1936: General Franco and his troops advance through the territories of Spain, giving way to a long period of civil war and repression. After the Spanish Civil War, a group of loyalists to the Republic continued the armed struggle, forming resistance groups better known as "Maquis". Hidden in the mountains, these men and women risked their lives to defend the ideals of democracy and freedom.

Fighting against them were the Army of Franco, the Civil Guard, and the Armed Police, but the Maquis perfected their guerilla warfare in France during the second World War and were determined to take back their homeland. In the head of each Maquis resonated the echo of the desire of many compatriots: Resist!

Resist! is a fast-playing, card-driven solitaire game in which you take on the role of the Spanish Maquis, fighting against the Francoist regime. Over a series of rounds, you undertake increasingly difficult missions, and completing missions earns you the points needed to win. Failing to defeat missions and enemies may cause you to lose. At the end of each round, you must choose whether to end the resistance or risk it and take on another mission.

Board Game: Resist!
Image: zillablitz

At the beginning of the game, you assemble a team of twelve Maquis, which are represented by a deck of cards. At the heart of the game is the tension between keeping your Maquis concealed from Franco or revealing them to unlock their full potential. Unfortunately, revealed Maquis are removed from your deck, and you likely won't be able to use them for the rest of the game. While Resist! does have some minor deck-building elements, it is primarily a "deck-destruction" game in which you have to manage your deck, balancing the decision of defeating the immediate threat with trying to move on to the next mission.
Board Game: Bah Humbug: A Twelve Days of Christmas Bluffing Game
Bah Humbug: A Twelve Days of Christmas Bluffing Game from Emily Willix and Small Furry Games kind of lays it all out in the title. The setting is Christmas, and you're giving gifts to your true love...although possibly not what you say you're giving. (Kickstarter)

The game includes a pyramid deck (one 1, two 2s, up to twelve 12s), and in player order you take turns laying down cards from your hand next to the numbers 12-1, saying "Twelve drummers drumming", "Eleven pipers piping", and so on. If you think someone is lying, call them out, with a holly berry going to whoever is correct, then reveal all the other played cards; anyone who successfully got away with at least one "incorrect" play earns one coal. Keep playing rounds until someone has collected five coal or three holly berries to win.

Board Game: Pilgrim
Board Game: Fableland
• I covered Nick Case's Pilgrim from Spielworxx in August 2021, and now this game is being funded on Spieleschmiede ahead of a planned November 2022 release. (Spielworxx also ran a c.f. campaign on Gamefound.)

This design is a perfect information game that lasts 26 rounds, with players using a mancala-style movement mechanism to elevate serfs to acolytes, give alms to the poor, build pilgrimage routes, and more.

Another title on Spieleschmiede is Fabelland from Moritz Schuster and Mirakulus, with this being another amusement park-themed game, but with a somewhat different palette from its 2021-2022 brethren.

• Let's close with Damask, a 1-4 player game from Barbara Burfoot and Radical 8 Games with strong graphic appeal that mirrors the subject matter. (Gamefound)

Here's an overview of the setting and detailed summary of gameplay:
Quote:
From the great trading center of Damascus, via the Silk Road, ancient weaving techniques and motifs made their way to the famous textile houses of Venice. Master weavers used draw looms to create richly woven fabrics that became known as damasks. For centuries, these luxurious silks lavished the wardrobes and halls of mansions and palaces across Europe.

Board Game: Damask

In Damask, players play the roles of these master weavers, trying to make the most money, while also gaining the favor of the Weavers' Guild. In more detail, the game includes 72 damask cards, with the damasks being two of six colors and one of four patterns; place 26 cubes (which come in six colors) at random on the spinning wheel, lay out a pattern and color card at random for each "season" that the game will be played (two in a short game, three in a normal one), then lay out six damask cards at random. Each player drafts a damask card, then you refill the display.

On a turn, either you take a damask card and place it in front of you, or you draft cubes from the spinning wheel by choosing a cube, then going clockwise or counter-clockwise until you hit the second cube of any color. Collect all of those cubes, placing them on damask cards as you wish and keeping the remainder in your overstock. Each damask card requires three cubes of one color and two of another to complete. After the required action, you can take one of two optional actions: Take all cubes of one color from an opponent's overstock (with them receiving a guild favor in compensation), or mount a damask by returning the five cubes on it and standing it in your personal holder. You earn 1 coin when mounting a damask and 1 additional coin for each color or pattern it has that matches the previous damask you mounted, i.e., at most 4 coins.

Board Game: Damask

If a mounted damask also matches the season's color or pattern, you gain guild favors. Each guild favor has a color or pattern on it, and you can use them to mount damasks in place of missing cubes, replace damask cards available in the display, mount an additional damask, or avoid paying taxes for extraneous cubes left in your supply at the end of a season. Three guild favors are worth 1 coin at game's end, and in addition to coins earned during the game, you receive bonus coins at game's end for having all six colors or all four patterns among your mounted damasks. Whoever earns the most coins wins.
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Sun May 22, 2022 1:00 pm
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Tile the Amygdala, Leave the Church in the Village, and Welcome the Return of the Rats

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Amygdala
• It's often difficult to provide a hook for abstract strategy games, but designers Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer and publisher Game Brewer might have found a winner in Amygdala, which the publisher plans to demo at various conventions such as Gen Con 2022 and SPIEL '22 ahead of its release in 2023.

Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game:
Quote:
Life is full of emotion, and the region of the brain primarily associated with processing these emotions is the amygdala.

In the abstract strategy game Amygdala, players vie for control of different regions, each associated with an emotion. They must collect and store emotional resources in their memory bank which they will use to unlock emotions from their mind, then place these emotion tiles on the main game board.

Board Game: Amygdala

Emotion tiles can be connected in networks of like emotions to score points. The player with the most emotions in each region can score big points at the end of the game, but only if they manage to unlock and place a claim tile belonging to the region they wish to score.
Kramer and Kiesling had two domino-laying games published in 2020 — Renature, which I found intriguing, and Jubako, which I liked but didn't play enough to cover — so I'm curious to see what this design does differently.

Board Game: Lass die Kirche im Dorf!
• For a different take on theme in an abstract strategy game, let's look at Lass die Kirche im Dorf! ("Leave the Church in the Village!") from Dieter Stein, which German publisher Clemens Gerhards released in 2021.

Well, Clemens Gerhards first released this game in 2016. Stein told me that Gerhards was asked to develop a game for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017, and Gerhards in turn invited Stein to design something. The requirements: The game should be called "Lass die Kirche im Dorf!", and it should include a priest figure. The game was originally available exclusively through the evangelical online outlet chrismonshop, but now Gerhards can sell it anywhere. As for how it plays:
Quote:
The challenge of Lass die Kirche im Dorf! is to complete your town before the other player does. Don't hesitate to call on the clergyman for help as needed!

To set up on the 7x7 game board, place the clergyman in the central space, then each player places the church steeple and nave of their color in opposite corners of the board, with the ridge of the roof pointed in the direction of their choice. Players then take turns placing their seven houses on the game board; each house must be placed in an empty space that's not orthogonally adjacent to any of your other pieces.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

On a turn, move one of your pieces in a straight line in the direction of the roof ridge as many spaces as you wish. You cannot cross over occupied spaces. To end the move, rotate the piece 90º. Alternatively, you can call on the clergyman for help. If a piece's movement is blocked on both sides, whether by the edge of the board or other pieces, you can swap the locations of this piece and the clergyman; to end your turn, rotate the piece 90º.

To win, you must have all of your pieces connected orthogonally; additionally, your steeple must be orthogonally adjacent to your nave. Finally, neither the steeple nor the nave can stand on a perimeter space on the game board. As soon as your pieces have met all of these conditions, you win.
Stein notes that aside from the literal interpretation of the name, "Lass die Kirche im Dorf!" also means "Don't get carried away." He adds, "It's an often used idiom in German".

Board Game: Rattus
Rattus, which debuted in 2010 from designers Åse and Henrik Berg and publisher White Goblin Games, was sometimes accused of being an abstract game, but very important parts of the gameplay involve hidden information, so it was not really abstract at all.

White Goblin Games is bringing the game back to market in mid-2022 in the form of Rattus: Big Box, which consists of the Rattus base game, the Pied Piper, Africanus, and Academicus expansions, promo role cards such as The Judge, The Jester, and Boccaccio, and previously unpublished materials, modules, and bonus cards, such as the new "Guilds & Inns" and "Bonus" modules.

Z-Man Games has announced an October 2022 release date for the game in English.

Board Game: Rattus: Big Box

Not familiar with Rattus? Here's an overview I wrote in January 2010 following my first game:
Quote:
In case you didn't guess from the name and the furry faces on the box cover, Rattus is themed around the Black Death, with player cubes dying off again and again as the plague travels throughout Eurasia.

One face-down rat token starts on each region of the board. On a turn, a player adds one or more cubes to one region, with the upper limit of new arrivals being the number of rats in the area; optionally takes one of the six special characters; optionally uses the powers of any characters they hold; then moves the plague figure to a new region of the board, most likely spreading more rats along the way.

If the plague figure — being the personification of death — stands on a region that contains both rat tokens and player cubes, the rat tokens are revealed one by one. Each rat token has a limit value showing the number of cubes (1-6) that trigger an outbreak and symbols that show who dies in the event of an outbreak. Those symbols are M (meaning the player who has the most cubes), A (meaning all players), and the six symbols that represent the special characters; if you hold the special character shown on the token — or have the most cubes in the event of an M, or exist at all with an A — you lose one cube for each matching symbol. If rats and cubes remain in the same area, you keep revealing rat tokens until one group or the other dies off. Whoever has the most people on board at game's end wins and gets to bury the dead.

Since the rat tokens are placed face-down, you're playing in the Dark Ages for much of the game, running the odds mentally for how many dudes you might potentially lose — but not really knowing because you didn't memorize all the rat tokens prior to the game anyway.

Board Game: Rattus: Big Box
Mock-up image of board and bits in Rattus: Big Box

Rattus presents you with the dilemma of taking characters in order to gain powers while simultaneously setting yourself up for future death. If you have no characters, after all, you die only when facing M or A on the rats. I've played only a single two-player game, and my "awesome" strategy consisted of piling three dudes a turn into a single region while holding only one character. I was gambling on not losing too many guys when that region was ratted at the end of the game, and my opponent let me do it because he had no idea whether that would work either. He beat me by one, but given the turn of the rats either of us could have won.

One game of Rattus played by stupid players doing obvious, semi-random actions means I can't say anything conclusive about the game. I've seen enough people dismiss Qwirkle as an obvious game with no room for strategy or thoughtful plays to know that I should keep my mouth shut at this point, so I will — except to say that I'm charmed by the rules referring to a player's pieces as "cubes", instead of people or tribes or any other such descriptive word. Probably best not to think of the dying oozing pus and blood. Don't think about it, I said!
I've now played Rattus a half-dozen times, with the Pied Piper expansion also hitting the table three times, and I recall it being a lot of fun, despite all the death. As you can see in the mock-up image above, the cubes have been replaced by vaguely human-shaped pieces, so...I'm not sure what to think of that.
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Sat May 21, 2022 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Space Station Phoenix, or Torn Down and Rebuilt

Gabriel Cohn
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Microbadge: I was here for BGG's Tenth Anniversary!Microbadge: I was here for BGG's Twentieth Anniversary!
Board Game: Space Station Phoenix
In August 2013, while living in Peru and accompanying my wife on a research trip there, I made my first prototype of "The Space Station Game". I printed several sheets of paper in black and white (the local print shop didn't have color), cut them up, and stole some cubes from another of my prototypes, bringing the horrible-looking bundle of junk to Club Rath's Edge.

This gaming group met regularly at the home of David Ivan Salcedo Casareto, one of the most fun and generous people I've had the pleasure to meet. David and several other people joined me in the first-ever game of "Space Stations", and...it was a mess, both physically and in more than a few key mechanical ways. Still, the core game ideas worked, and I got lots of great feedback in both Spanish and English that helped launch the journey this game has taken over the last eight-and-a-half years.

From gallery of gabrielcohn
David and others at Club Rath's Edge, playtesting another homemade game in 2013

Below, I'll try to give a bit of insight into the story of how Space Station Phoenix went from concept to publication.

Note: I'll use the name Space Station Phoenix (or SSP) throughout, despite calling it "Space Stations" or "The Space Station Game" for several years and "Orbital Architects" for a few more. Thanks to William Giammona for finally coming up with a name everyone could agree on! For a list of all the names that were suggested to me, click here.

Origins

I need to go back before that first playtest in Lima to start us off. Two big ideas combined to lead me to create Space Station Phoenix.

Board Game: Exodus Fleet
The first seed came from my desire to make a thematic sequel to my first published game, Exodus Fleet. In that game, players lead a fleet of ships away from a dying Earth. When I was starting the design process for SSP, I decided that the Exodus Fleet survivors would eventually have to build a set of space stations to survive on. The story of the game took a serious 180 later in the design process — the game is now about aliens building space stations around Earth! — but if nothing else, that's where the idea of building space stations started.

The second seed came from this blog post on the Board Game Design Forum. It outlined the idea of a game based on surviving a famine. Instead of a game in which you are building an empire, you would simply try to be the best at helping your empire last through its collapse. While I came up with a number of other game ideas that more directly built on that theme, I took just one element as an inspiration for SSP: the idea of having fewer choices as the game went along. So, as opposed to many games (think worker placement games like Agricola or Troyes) in which more and more action spaces become available throughout the game, in SSP players would have fewer and fewer options as the game moves forward. In fact, they would be intentionally forced to eliminate options to make progress.

As I delved into the idea behind the game more, I realized these two ideas meshed quite nicely. An isolated fleet floating in space would lack a ready supply of resources to develop their stations. Therefore, they'd need to start cannibalizing their ships to get enough metal to build.

From the beginning, this took the form of one of the core mechanisms of the game. In SSP, players begin with a limited number of ships that serve as "action spaces" that they pay to use, but the main way players get metal to build their stations is to destroy those ships, causing them (and also other players) to have fewer options as the game goes along. At the beginning of the game, tons of ships are available, but players have very limited resources, so there is rarely a type of action a player desperately needs that is unavailable. By the end, however, there may be few ships on the board that allow players to, say, build their station or transport new residents to live there, and a competition to use those remaining ships can arise. This thematic nugget of dwindling resources fit quite naturally with the cold depths of space.

From gallery of gabrielcohn
Example from the rules: using a Dismantling Ship

Design Goals

As I started to conceptualize the story behind Space Station Phoenix, I also took time to give myself a few design parameters. First, one of my least favorite elements of Exodus Fleet was the round structure: Everyone gets a turn as "Admiral", then we move to the next round. It has no effect on gameplay except as a timer. This approach served a purpose — putting pressure on players to accomplish something by the mid-game scoring round and setting a time limit for the game overall — but it felt artificial and it was sometimes hard to remember to track when players moved from one round to another, so for Space Station Phoenix, I wanted a more fluid structure in which once the game started, players were off to the races, with short, punchy turns that would continue one after another until the final moments of the game, the timing of which is dictated by player choices.

Second, I wanted to make sure there was significant player interaction. To be clear, I love many games that get accused of being "multi-player solitaire". However, even in most of those, I find it interesting to look for the places where one player's actions impact the choices of others. That said, I aimed to exceed that minimum, and while players can play SSP focusing only on themselves, there are many crucial ways that one player's actions in the game impact others. A few examples:

• As mentioned above, the number of ship/action spaces is limited and shrinks during the game, so there is the typical sense of "blocking" that comes in similar worker-placement games, yet in SSP, there is also the converse: When a player takes the income action, all of their previously used ships become available again, so other players with the means to do so can jump on these newly free action spaces. Of course, that's another source of interaction: When you use another player's ships, you have to pay them an extra fee.

• The station parts that are required to build are limited, as is the number of residents who players can bring to inhabit their station. Points are awarded for pluralities for each different type of resident, and station parts often have unique and powerful abilities, so overall there's an element of racing or outfoxing other players to get those bonus points or grab a desirable station part.

• The cherry on top is the diplomacy board. By moving up the diplomacy tracks, players can gain resources and points when any player takes a particular type of action. Therefore, players can get direct benefits during other players' turns. I particularly like elements like this, where not only do I care what another player does because it may limit or perhaps force my own choices, but I care what they do because it can directly benefit me.

From gallery of gabrielcohn
An early version of the diplomacy board

Overall, the level of player interaction in SSP hits a sweet spot for me: Players are mostly focused on their own little world — building their station and filling it with residents — but paying attention to other players is crucial to success.

Replayability is the other key issue for me. I have limited space for games at home, so while I love learning new ones, the ones I own tend to get played to death, especially ones I can play two-player with my wife. If I wanted to playtest this game several hundred times, it had to have variation from game to game. Of course the player interaction as described above helps, but beyond that, I developed SSP to feature a huge number of station parts, of which only a small portion are available in any given game. The game also has thirteen different types of higher-level ships, of which each player gets only four, making set-up different from game to game.

Things Lost Along the Way

All that said, the game is not what it once was. It went through dozens of changes, some huge and others tiny, so let's just be honest and say it took a long time to get from concept to final product. I'm a full-time teacher, so I usually have time to work on only one game at a time, and even my top-priority games can take months from one version to the next. After the initial design was done, it spent most of the next three years sitting on a shelf before I dusted it off.

Most of the biggest changes happened over a series of playtests in early 2016 before I showed the game to any publishers. After that, it was a serious process of "trimming the fat" and clarifying where the game's main action was happening. Here are a few of the "greatest hits" of ideas that came and went:

• In the initial version, resource gathering happened on a separate exploration board. Depending on the "level" of exploration ship a player used, they would choose a random token from somewhere on the board and get what was shown there. This turned out to be slow, tedious, and frustrating — clearly not the mix of adjectives I was looking for — so this was replaced, through several iterations, with a dice-rolling mechanism. There's still randomness and variation, but within a more bounded and more generous range.

• The design of the space stations in the game also changed massively over time. In the initial versions, station parts were square chunks that had "in" and "out" tunnels in various colors. Only an "in" of the same color as an "out" could be connected. Later, the ins and outs got chucked in the trash, but the color connections stayed, meaning it was still a massively time-consuming puzzle for players. It was fun but unnecessary. Also, having only the top tile of each pile of station parts available was fine, but it didn't allow for strategic planning. Instead, I replaced this with a set-up of exactly enough parts for all the players to build. These parts are displayed at the beginning of the game, allowing players to make strategic decisions about how to build their station from the beginning.

From gallery of gabrielcohn
A rough idea of the progression of the design of the station sectors from 2013 to 2022

• Once I realized that I wouldn't be working again with Tasty Minstrel Games (R.I.P.), the theme took a big turn. Instead of humans building space stations in alien territory, I decided it would be fun if the stations were built by aliens who wanted to observe Earthlings. This thematic change also helped clarify why different groups of residents inhabit different station parts: They breathe different atmospheres. But this change has left one lingering question: When a player adds a human to their station, have they just recruited a friendly one to come live amongst the aliens, or has the poor person been abducted in an X-Files kind of scenario? I'll let you decide.

From gallery of gabrielcohn

• Of course, I wanted players to build circular stations like you see spinning in space in the movies, but since I'm a Luddite and I make all my game pieces in Excel (see the images?), that meant I needed to have players build their station out in four directions to make a circle. This turned out to make the game way too long, and it was also a pain to try to see what was happening on the station parts players played upside down from their positions. Fortunately, fellow designer Aaron Vanderbeek asked, "Why don't you just have players build in three directions?" Brilliant! That shortened the game right up and made it easier for players to visualize their situation. The art team of Claus Stephan, Martin Hoffmann, and Mirko Akira Suzuki did a great job making it look sleek, too.

From gallery of gabrielcohn
Alien ally cards that
players could purchase
• Finally, one idea that was near and dear to my heart was that humans exploring outer space would slowly cause more and more alien species to become angry with them. In other words, the main resource gathering mechanism in the game (exploration) also triggered alien attacks, which players would have to spend "defense points" or something to overcome. They could also avoid these attacks by becoming allies with one or more alien species. I layered so many mechanisms into this idea that it was a complete mess. The worst was a series of separate dice rolls, each followed by individual player decisions, that took at least five minutes and occurred about a dozen times per game. And once I revamped how exploration worked (see above), this just didn't seem like a mess worth keeping. (But I am working on bringing a tiny nugget of this idea back in an expansion — fingers crossed — that I've just begun working on. I think I've got it down to a less messy and more fun version. No promises.)

Balance in All Things

Even once a lot of the excess weight was shed, the game still needed work. This is where Ken Hill, developer for Rio Grande Games, became a major sounding board for new ideas. After pitching the game to Rio in 2016, Ken and I traded a lot of emails, had a ton of phone and video calls, and generally were in touch constantly over the next couple of years. Of course, we both had full-time day jobs throughout this whole time, so it wasn't exactly the only thing on our plates. (Seriously, I get jealous when I read the designer diaries of people who do this full time and can just put all their time into gaming, not just evenings when I should be planning lessons or grading papers.) But progress, however slow, was made.

One thing we eventually agreed on was that actions should simply be a touch more powerful. In particular, the resource-gathering actions of expeditions and dismantling needed to be slightly less painfully slow, so we simply threw more resources at the players. Boom! Game time dropped, and player engagement increased. At the same time, we realized that not all ship actions were perceived as equally valuable, so we started to play with the relationship between the GEM cost to use ships and the value they produced. This took some tinkering and guesswork, but in the end, I think we came out with a set of ships that push players to think creatively about how to achieve their goals in any given game.

From gallery of gabrielcohn
Here are minor tweaks in cost to use (orange), metal generated when dismantled (4 to 6), and resource generation (on the explore/expedition ships) — all of which produced a more dynamic game

Once all of those issues (and more) were worked out, it came down to several hundred repeated playtests to balance out all the various ship and station part abilities. I had a massive Excel spreadsheet in which each station power was described, ranked, and rated, all to plug into a formula that would generate a number showing how much metal that station part should cost. The problem was that sometimes that number was wrong. Over time, I adjusted and revamped the formula. Still, there were times when I had to give in and note that I had been wrong about how valuable one ability or another was — or how valuable players perceived them to be.

Somewhere along the way, as we closed in on a playable final product, I realized something was missing. It was good, but I needed more. After spending so much time shedding excess weight from the game, I was worried about adding new ideas. Not only would I be creating a whole new mess of things to balance, but maybe it wouldn't work at all, and I'd be wasting my time.

Nevertheless, it turns out my instincts were right. When I reached into my conceptual bag of stuff I had wanted to add to the game (but was afraid to try), I realized that players should start with asymmetric station hubs. These give players a starting bump in their abilities and perhaps a little nudge in a strategic direction. I designed a few, then designed more, and eventually ended up with 24 of them. These make the game. Now each time I play the game, my favorite challenge is to compare my various hub options to the available array of station parts and figure out, "How can I win this game?"

From gallery of gabrielcohn
Set-up for my first game with finalized components; my wife and I each have two very different hubs from which to choose

The most fun part of this phase were the nights I spent trying to balance the powers on the station hubs. I had a regular group of playtesters over at my house, and we would play SSP at a ludicrous speed three or four times in a row, often with the same arrangement other than trading those starting hubs with one another. We knew they were probably balanced as long as Kenny Tracy won by the same amount regardless of which hub he had. (He's just that much better than me at all of my games. I should also add that Kenny provided invaluable feedback on balancing the various hubs before, after, and during playtests. He's the best.)

Rio Grande Games

Board Game Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Finally, I want to end with a quick note about an incident that took place long before this game was even conceived.

In 2011, I went to Gen Con for the first time, hoping to pitch the design that later became Exodus Fleet to publishers. The first publisher I met was Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games. He generously gave me, a novice designer with no insider connections, nearly an hour of his time. While he didn't sign the game that day, he expressed serious interest and gave me a lot to think about. Without that encouragement, I might have given up on game design. Instead, I returned with a better product at Gen Con 2012, and while the game didn't get published by Rio Grande, it did get published, which kept me going. So when I returned with my next batch of games in 2016, Jay was the first publisher I contacted, and...here we are.

I'd be remiss if I didn't reemphasize the great work that Ken Hill has done, helping push me to refine the game in various ways, some of which are described above. He's a great, clear communicator and collaborator and kept me in the loop on every detail of the graphic design and production process. Scott Tepper, Robin Hill, and many others also contributed useful ideas along the way. Finally, the art and graphic design team (Stephan/Hoffmann/Suzuki) have turned it into a fantastic final product. After so many years of tinkering with it, I can't wait for this game to get out in the world.

So...here’s my game. I hope you like it.

Gabriel J. Cohn

Board Game: Space Station Phoenix
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Fri May 20, 2022 4:00 pm
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