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W. Eric Martin
• Admittedly with Gen Con 2017 being the next major convention in the offing, much of the gaming news popping up relates to that show, but SPIEL 2017 looms even larger ahead of its October 26 opening, and publishers are popping out announcements for that show as well, such as Matagot's opening teaser for Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes, a 2-4 player game from Emanuele Ornella that bears this short description:
Canada's wealth is waiting for you!
The Okanagan Valley, with its huge lakes and fertile meadows, awaits anyone willing to exploit it. Shape the land and store your wealth in the gathering and territory-building game Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes. In the game, players arrange tiles to design the landscape along with its natural resources — and it's your job to place one of the three buildings to obtain and secure these resources so that you can complete your objectives.
• A second title coming from Matagot at SPIEL 2017 is Cédric Millet's Meeple Circus, which was first announced in early 2016. The description gives you enough details to start imagining how it might play:
You have only one goal in Meeple Circus: Entertain the audience. The competition is tough, but you can create the most amazing circus by proposing incredible acts! Acrobats, horses, and many accessories are at your disposal. Be sure to undertake a good rehearsal, then with your remarkable dexterity, you can give them the show of their lifetime. Once the circus music starts, all eyes will be upon you!
In short, Meeple Circus is a dexterity game in which you do what all gamers do when setting up a game: Pile up your meeples!
• Dutch publisher Quined Games has a new title coming in Q4 2017 from Michael Keller of La Granja fame with Agra being a 90-120-minute game for 2-4 players. Quined has included a decent amount of background in its description to put the game in context:
Agra, India: The year is 1572; this year marks the 30th birthday of Abu'l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad, popularly known as Akbar the Great. Akbar is the third ruler of India's Mughal dynasty, having succeeded his father, Humayun. With the guidance of his regent, Bairam Khan, Akbar has expanded and consolidated India's Mughal domains. Using his strong personality and skill as a general, Akbar has enlarged his Empire to include nearly all of the Indian subcontinent north of the Godavari River; his presence is felt across the entire country due to the Mughals' military, political, cultural, and economic dominance.
To unify the vast Mughal state, Akbar has established a centralized system of administration; conquered rulers are conciliated through marriage and diplomacy. Akbar has preserved peace and Order throughout his empire by passing laws that have won him the support of his non-Muslim subjects. Eschewing tribal bonds and Islamic state-identity, Akbar has striven to unite his lands. The Mughals' Persian-ized culture has afforded Akbar near-divine status.
Notables and emissaries from all over the country are on their way for Akbar's birthday celebration. As an ambitious landowner, you cannot let this pass; the festivities are a golden opportunity for you to rise in stature and wealth.
On your land in Agra, you cultivate and harvest cotton and turmeric. You possess a forest from which you produce wood, as well as a small, but very profitable sandstone quarry. By trading and processing your wares, you can obtain more luxurious goods, which you will then use to woo notables as they make their way into the capital. Of course, your rivals have the same plan; you must use your wits to outsmart them as Akbar's birthday draws near...
• Designer Phil Walker-Harding and German publisher KOSMOS have an expansion shipping in October for their Spiel des Jahres-nominated Imhotep with Imhotep: Eine neue Dynastie consisting of five new places, fourteen market cards, seven god cards, four chariots, and 56 tiles. One detail about what's new in this expansion: "God cards let players predict the progress of different buildings, with them being rewarded at the end of the game if they're correct and otherwise being punished."
• Adellos is a self-published game from newcomer Till Engel that he's currently funding on German crowdfunding site Startnext for an anticipated debut at SPIEL 2017. Here's a description from the designer:
Adellos is a turn-based tactical strategy board game for 2-4 players. Each player controls a medieval nobleman, who hires various units (soldiers, riders, thugs, etc.) and tries to overcome the other players. The players have twelve different units with unique skills to choose and control. They also have to manage their gold income and the flow of action cards that each player can use on their turn for effects that influence the game. Everything takes place on a symmetric battle map. Every nobleman has a specific and unique skill that can influence the game from the start.
Turns are played in two phases. During the first phase, players gain the resources their units provide. In the second phase, players hire units, move, attack, or play action cards. Every action costs a specific number of action points. The players start with three action points and an amount of gold, depending on their position. Players can increase their action points throughout the game to build up huge turns.
W. Eric Martin
• After a week of the 2017 Origins Game Fair plus a few extra sick days, I have a lot to catch up on, starting with the revelation that Legendary: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a deck-building game from Travis R. Chance and Nick Little that will debut from Upper Deck Entertainment at Gen Con 2017, will use photographic images from the television show and not original artwork — at least that's what I think is happening as the solicitation for the game from UDE features the cards depicted below, despite touting that the game features "All Original Art". Checking on this...
Update, June 23: The "All Original Art" phrase was possibly a holdover from an earlier solicitation, according to UDE gaming sales manager Richard Dracass, who confirmed that Legendary: Buffy "and future TV properties" will "use screen grabs from the show as this is how fans relate to those brands".
• At SPIEL 2016, Korean publisher Happy Baobab released Fold-it by Yohan Goh, a real-time, pattern-creation game in which each player has a double-sided cloth and races to fold that cloth in a particular way to reveal only the dishes shown on that round's menu card. The game is a tricky take on the Spot it genre because spotting the images that you need to feature isn't enough; you need to also figure out how to make all the other images disappear within the folds of the cloth.
Two things have happened since that release: First, publisher ThinkFun has licensed the game for release in the U.S., with a listed street date of July 21, 2017. (Hong Kong-based Broadway Toys has also licensed the game for a Chinese-language edition.)
Second, at SPIEL 2017 Happy Baobab will release Battlefold, a new take on the system with co-designer Dave Choi and art by Vincent Dutrait. Says publisher representative Kevin Kim, "Originally, we had planned to make a Fold-it series of games with different artwork and puzzles, but the same game rules. However, after the successful launch in Essen, we changed the main direction of the project. We found the potential of the 'folding handkerchief' system and decided to make very different games while keeping only the folding handkerchief to show certain icons." Here's an overview of this new game:
In Battlefold, each player takes on the role of a warrior, assassin, magician, or archer. The player takes the handkerchief matching their character, with each handkerchief providing different fighting powers. The warrior, for example, has a cross-shaped attack range and is more powerful when staying in the same position, while the archer has a long-distance attack and more movement.
As in the earlier game Fold-it, once a mission card is revealed, players must fold their handkerchief to leave visible only the right combination of symbols. After successfully making a combination, the player takes the lowest remaining turn order token. Starting with the first player, each player controls their character on the arena board, moving and fighting with the goal of being the last one standing. If a player defeats all other opponents, they win!
Battlefold is a player-elimination game, but eliminated players can still participate via the "ghost" rule. When a player's character dies, the character becomes a ghost. Flip the character board to the ghost side and keep playing. A ghost player can gain spiritual energy by successfully attacking living characters, and if a ghost collects full spiritual energy before only one living character remains in the arena, then the ghost wins the game.
• IELLO has released an overview of Sentai Cats, the details of which sound as ridiculous as the name. The design, which hits brick-and-mortar stores on September 28, 2017, is credited to "Tokyo Boys", probably because they didn't want to fit all the designer names (Antoine Bauza, Corentin Lebrat, Ludovic Maublanc, Nicolas Oury, Théo Rivière) on their miniature box. Here's the setting:
You were living the easy life as a kitten, enjoying the best food in the town. Out of the blue, Meka Dog arrived and threatened to destroy the catnip factory — but no one messes with a kitty's food bowl! Train your cats and be the fastest one to transform them into Sentai Cats. Only the best team of Sentai Cats will have the honor of facing Meka Dog in the ultimate combat.
Sentai Cats is a fast-paced and quirky game in which you train your cute little kitties into world-saving heroes...wearing latex suits!
W. Eric Martin
My apologies for the quietness in this space since the end of the 2017 Origins Game Fair, which corresponded with the launching of the Gen Con 2017 Preview, but in the past three days I've eaten only a banana, a piece of toast, a handful of cereal, a can of soup (over two days), a handful of chips, and two bowls of blueberries — this after ending my Origins with the eating, followed by the rapid uneating, of a turkey BLT (botulism-laden-terrorwich).
I had hoped to jump immediately into Gen Con preview updates once Origins ended as I knew that my inbox would be flooded with messages from publishers who having now cleared the hurdles in Columbus could set their sights on the next obstacle ahead in Indianapolis, and lo, that flood did miraculously appear to test the gates of my Gmail dam, but I couldn't manage to do more than sit upright every so often and admire the light reflecting on the surface on my unusually untouched laptop. Now that I'm finally up again, I'll start draining the backlog, but let's start with something simpler: a recap of my Origins 2017 experience:
There you go. Word Slam. Origins recapped!
BGG's Scott Alden and Lincoln Damerst had raved about Inka and Markus Brand's Word Slam after seeing it demonstrated on camera in the BGG booth at SPIEL 2016, and when Thames & Kosmos donated an English-language copy to the BGG library for BGG.CON 2017 Spring in late May, Scott started playing it obsessively — yet somehow I caught only his simultaneously active Kreus obsession during that show. (More on that game another day.)
At Origins 2017, Scott asked, "You haven't played Word Slam yet? Oh, man, you have to." So we played the game on air once we finished the scheduled game demonstrations on Wednesday. Then he brought it to the Nerd Nighters fundraising event on Thursday, and I joined in after it had already been on the table an hour to play for three more hours, with people coming and going constantly as they often do with Codenames and Concept. We played again on camera on Friday; we talked about the game on Lone Shark Live: Origins by Night, a three-night podcast from Origins hosted by Mike Selinker, Paul Peterson, and James Ernest; we played on dinky tables on Saturday night with people once again coming and going; and we played yet again on Sunday night, with me leaving the table only because my sandwich has different plans for its future than I had intended.
Erin Dontknowherlastname, Paul Grogan, Mike Selinker, Scott Alden, Josh Githens, Chad Krizan
For those who don't know the game, Word Slam is played in teams, with the members of each team trying to guess the same hidden noun phrase. One member on each team knows this noun phrase — which can be anything from butterfly to mountain to the Golden Gate Bridge to Forrest Gump — and to get their teammates to guess it, they can use only a set of one hundred words that is provided to each team. Words are color-coded as nouns, adjectives, verbs, and other, and you can place words on your rack, point at words on your rack, move words around on your rack, take words off the rack, and otherwise do some combination of "word" VERB "rack" as long as you don't animate the cards to give clues. Those guessing must yell out answers so that their guesses can be heard by the other team, which is a secondary form of clue and something that your cluegiver might be able to take advantage of.
I think the rules specify that you keep the words in piles, but we often played otherwise, spreading them out in order to view everything at once, with word combinations popping out at me like strands of the Matrix being read by Neo. (New players can find this approach overwhelming and should be presented with stacks of cards as recommended so that they're not hit in the eyes with one hundred words at once. Even experienced players might prefer this approach if they don't like scanning the way that most of us did.)
As with the previously mentioned Concept, the beauty of Word Slam is the (restricted) openness available to players when trying to convey some idea to others. You don't have the freedom to do anything, but you have the freedom to do hundreds of different things. You have tools spread out on the table, and you try to make them work as well as you can. Sometimes you find a magic tool that unlocks understanding in a second — as when someone put up the single word "run" and someone else answered "Forrest Gump" — sometimes you create a word poem that does the trick (with "big" "up" "place" being correctly interpreted as "mountain"), and sometimes you labor at something forever, the clarity of the concept in your mind somehow not transmitting itself across the aether into theirs. I tend to tell stories with my clues, and my concept for "lawyer" took a while, with me moving around cards constantly, but finally getting across the notion of an event happening, then someone speaking the opposite of what happened.
Yes, that's a stereotype, but Word Slam invites you to take advantage of those stereotypes while also frustrating you with them at the same time. The game doesn't include a card for "person", for example — only cards for "man", "woman", and "child" — so any time you use "man" or "woman" in a clue, you risk misleading the guessers who might think that gender plays a role in the answer when it doesn't.
The frustration comes in many flavors: Sometimes you remove words from the rack because it turns out they were misleading, but sometimes you want to remove words from the rack because you needed them only to get guessers thinking along a certain line. Scott, for example, struggled with a word for a while until he finally had us guess Italy by clueing "country" "red" "food", after which he removed those words to work on the actual answer, which was something that originated in Italy. Will guessers understand why you removed those words? Maybe! Play with someone for a few hours, though, and you get a real sense of their clue-giving style.
Cheating comes into play because it's hard to fight human nature. You're not supposed to point to guessers when they say something close or dismiss a guess by waving your hand, but sometimes you can't help yourself. I was clueing "Golden Gate Bridge" with something like "vehicle on long red object" and circling "long red object" with my fingers to indicate that was the vital part of the clue when someone on my team shouted out "San Francisco". I jerked in response because those two things are so closely associated (and I lived in SF years ago, so something triggered there, too, I think), and while that answer wasn't correct, my response indicated that the person was close and they got "Golden Gate Bridge" almost immediately. Whoops. Thankfully we were not in the world finals of the Word Slam competition and were content to just move on to the next game.
An interlude: In many ways, Word Slam
is identical to Geoff Girouard's self-published game Word Blur
from 2007: Two people race to get their teammates to guess a hidden noun phrase using only combinations of single words. Where the games differ are relevant to how fun they are. In Word Slam
, everything is on a card, and you move them around freely to express your ideas; Word Blur
includes a modifier strip
for each team that includes things like "er", "opposite/not", "ing", and "sounds like", but in practice using this strip prohibits you from arranging the words the way that you want while also stripping away some of the difficulty.
The bigger issue is that each team in Word Slam
has the same one hundred words. That's it! If you know Mark Rosewater's credo — "restrictions breed creativity" — this game embodies that spirit. All the words are basic and require your input (and the input of your guessers) to make something of them. Word Blur
presents you with nine hundred individual words on pieces of cardstock that resemble refrigerator magnets. To play, you dump everything in the middle of the table, then the cluegivers start sifting through the rubble to find things they can use. This is not fun. To quote from a 2008 review by Neil Edge that I had published on BoardgameNews.com, "If a person isn't totally on board with the idea of this game, he can bring the game to a halt or slow it down to a snail's pace as he just slowly sifts and sifts and sifts and sifts through the tile pile, never finding words that make connections to the clue that he's trying to give, never looking for alternatives."
I played Word Blur
three times between 2007 and 2010, when the game went out of print, and our group referred to it as "The Game of Sifting" because that's all it felt like you were doing. Sifting through tons of useless options with an increasingly desperate feeling that surely you can find something
that works. Word Slam
has none of that boredom because you have few options and everything is at hand to both parties. Me finding "water" doesn't prevent you from playing "water" as well, and the game is all about speed and creativity instead of who found the perfect word. I can't just find the word "Spain" (as shown in the image above) to lead you to bullfighter, but rather I'd have to first figure out how to get your mind to Spain — or just do something else. Those multiple steps, as described above for Italy, contribute to the escalating tension in Word Slam
, with you feeling a little victory when your teammates guess something like that and you can build on it to something else.
In short, Word Slam
seems like what Word Blur
could have been if it had gone through a strong development process to bring forward the best elements of the idea.
Where Word Slam differs from Concept, and what gives it a leg up on that design, is that you compete against another team, so instead of simply being a fun activity that continues for hours, you do have a sense of winning and losing — even if you don't keep score, which we never did. One team wins, yay!, then the cluegivers give up their spots to someone else (or they don't), and you go again. The game includes easy, medium, hard, and ridiculously hard noun phrases to guess, with six noun phrases on each card. Over time you will run into repeats; Scott had already cycled through the cards enough that he encountered repeats, and if he was guessing, he could sometimes jump to the answer because he had heard it before. If he was giving the clues, he might reject one noun phrase and suggest that the other cluegiver choose another number from 1 to 6 since he would have an advantage on how to clue it. (If you know the one hundred words well, you'll still have an advantage on newcomers, but no sense compounding those advantages!)
I played one or two other games during the 2017 Origins Game Fair, but given that I played Word Slam for 7-8 hours and would have played it even more if possible, it's easy to see what my game of the show is!
Oh, and I also saw this lady at Origins: Best costume ev-AR!
Beauty and the Beast
W. Eric Martin
The 2017 Origins Game Fair is over, so it's time to look ahead to Gen Con 2017, which takes place August 17-20 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I'd say more about one or both of these shows, or the rate at which titles will be added to the Gen Con 2017 Preview over the next two months (which starts at 146 titles while the previous two years had about 550 on them), but I got sick at the end of Origins — bad sandwich, I think — and can barely think straight, so just have at it!
W. Eric Martin
I'm in Columbus, Ohio to cover the 2017 Origins Game Fair, with five days of live game demos and interviews starting Wednesday, June 14, but before we get to that, let's round up a few announcements that I've possibly tweeted in passing but not posted here.
• To start with, Renegade Game Studios has signed a deal with Shem Phillips of Garphill Games to make his 2017 Kennerspiel des Jahres-nominated title Raiders of the North Sea and its expansions available in English on a more widespread basis. Renegade expects to have the base game available in Q3 2017 with the expansions to follow in Q4.
• In other Renegade news, the publisher is creating a "Play Renegade" kit for Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure to encourage game store owners to run events to demo the game, with participants taking home an as-yet-undisclosed promo card and the winner of the event getting a special version of this card. These promos will also be available at conventions in mid-2017, with "a unique, handcrafted dragon trophy" for the overall player with the highest score.
• Dutch publisher Splotter Spellen is reprinting its 2004 title Antiquity that has gone in and out of print multiple times over the years, and it's taking preorders on its website with this new edition due out for SPIEL 2017 in October. This new edition has a few small changes to it — deeper box, shaped wooden tokens that aren't only cubes — but gameplay remains the same.
• Designer Joseph Fatula has started taking preorders for the Sept. 1, 2017 release of Leaving Earth: Stations, an expansion for his Leaving Earth game from The Lumenaris Group, Inc. that adds the Space Shuttle, various space station modules, and new missions to this game.
• The expandable card game Doomtown: Reloaded, which was born from the collectible card game Deadlands: Doomtown in 2014 and which publisher Alderac Entertainment Group cancelled in 2016, is being born again courtesy of Pine Box Entertainment, which is partnering with Pinnacle Entertainment Group to release the "Epitaph Series", a series of tournaments that will coincide with the release of Tales from the Epitaph, a new expansion for the game.
• At SPIEL 2017, Cranio Creations will release Houses of Renaissance, an expansion for Lorenzo il Magnifico in which each player becomes the head of a house, with each of the ten houses having a unique power. Components for a fifth player are included, as well as new development and leader cards.
Grand Rapids Area Boardgamers
Some things are far more obvious in retrospect. Such is the design of Stroop, a speedy perception card game with simple rules.
I can't remember exactly when I first saw a Stroop test. I feel like it was the kind of thing I would have encountered in a GAMES Magazine issue pilfered from my mom's bedside stand. I do recall being delighted by the idea and making flashcards with markers and note cards to test myself and my friends. Throughout the following years I saw it referenced time and again, most notably in the briefly-popular Brain Age game for the Nintendo DS.
The Stroop test is simple. A subject is presented with a series of words, each printed in a different color. The subject is then asked to quickly speak aloud the names of the colors in which the words are printed, and they are timed during this task.
Next, the subject repeats this task, but this time the words are the names of colors, instead of being random words.
This causes the subject to stumble and take longer to complete the task. The experiment demonstrates the Stroop effect, named after psychologist John Ridley Stroop, and shows that the interference between different systems in the brain — in this case, language and color recognition — can slow down both systems.
From Experiment to Game
Flash forward to 2013 when I was in the midst of brainstorming ideas for new tabletop games to develop, and I randomly stumbled across the Wikipedia page for the Stroop effect. This led to the immediate question: Could this be a game?
Now Brain Age had used the Stroop effect in its simplest and most obvious form. It was not really a game, but rather an activity at which you could improve; you were timed on how quickly you responded to the colors and given a score that you tried to improve upon the next time.
The clear way to transform this into a card game was to do exactly the same, but with multiple players. I would print the names of colors onto cards, with ink colors that didn't match. Then players would run through the deck like flashcards, saying the colors out loud and being timed on their effort.
Even before physically prototyping this, it was instantly an unsatisfying implementation. For one thing, a speed contest such as this is usually uninteresting. It is a solo experience that people happen to compare their efforts on, which is something I can enjoy at times but rarely gravitate toward.
But the bigger problem is that the Stroop test can be defeated. Once a subject knows what they are being asked to do, they can use techniques, like squinting, that make the words harder to read, which makes saying the names of the colors much easier. I certainly didn't want players to be able to circumvent the challenge in this way, or worse, to have to make rules against squinting!
Chain, Chain, Chain
The key to cracking this problem was, as is usually the case in design, to come up with the correct incentives for the behaviors I wanted. Need players to read the text and not just squint at blurry colors? Don't make a rule telling them to do read it. Instead, force them to use the text for something.
What purpose could reading the color name serve, then? The clear choice was to link the name of this color up to the color of another word. This forms a nice chain of words, each of which describes the next one.
For the first Stroop prototype, I lifted wholesale the rules of 7 Ate 9, a speed game involving simple arithmetic. Players would race to get rid of their cards by playing onto a central pile, and legal plays consisted of any card that was described by the center one.
In broad strokes, this worked as a game, but it had some issues. The biggest one was the number of potential legal plays on a given card; with eight colors, as in my first prototype, one in eight cards are legal to play. This turned out to be far too small. Iteration revealed that anything smaller than about one in five cards being legal made the game grind to a halt. Shrinking the color space this much, though, made the deck homogeneous and uninteresting.
The solution to this was to introduce additional axes for card descriptors. Aside from color, what else could be used to describe these words? The original Stroop psychology experiments included some other ideas, such as the position of words, but these did not tend to lend themselves to card designs. Instead, I experimented with typography and decided I could easily distinguish the case of a word and could outline it or not.
This was an improvement, but one more axis was needed to flesh out the deck. Some brainstorming surfaced the idea of counting the letters in the words themselves. To make this work, I needed to finesse my color choices, and settled on the following word list:
RED • BLUE • GREEN • YELLOW
BIG • LITTLE
HOLLOW • SOLID
THREE • FOUR • FIVE • SIX
The final list had the very nice property that each word has 3, 4, 5, or 6 letters, and there are three words of each of those lengths. This meant that, at minimum, one in four cards were legal plays on a given center card.
The Round 2 Head Trip
The 2013 prototype was workable, but the game came into its own in the run-up to Protospiel Michigan in 2014. As my testers began getting very fast with the existing rules, I began looking for ways to provide variants and new challenges. The winner was to reverse the legal play rule: Instead of playing a card that is described by the card in the middle, players now had to read the words on the cards in their hands, and play one that describes the middle card.
The fun of the game is in players getting confused, and how better to confuse people than to switch up the rules midstream? The variant became codified as round two: After the first round is over, scores are recorded and players began anew, with the altered rule for legal plays.
The rules were then simplified to reduce the need for a scoring mechanism. Instead of keeping score, I realized that performance in round one could be used to handicap round two. After round one, players keep their unplayed cards, and the played cards are redistributed evenly, so the better a player performs in round one, the fewer cards they have to get rid of in round two. This neatly determines an overall winner without the need for scorekeeping.
The possible combinations of attributes could yield a total of 192 cards: 12 words x 4 colors x 2 sizes x 2 patterns. This deck was clearly overkill, so for my working prototype I used half of these combinations, chosen so that exactly half of the cards were big, exactly half solid, exactly one-fourth red, and so on.
I went to some lengths to retain this balance throughout development. When green letters turned out to be difficult to distinguish from blue and yellow in some lighting (and as I endeavored to serve colorblind players as well as possible), I moved to black letters mostly because "black" and "green" both have five letters.
My insistence on a balanced subset of cards turned out to be a bit superstitious; once the card distribution was defined, it could be altered a bit from perfect symmetry without anyone noticing. The final deck has 65 cards, enough for a four-player game, and is slightly uneven without an effect on gameplay.
One improvement in the composition was removing as many "self-describers" as possible. It turned out that players had a reduced challenge in dealing with cards that happened to describe themselves, e.g., a blue card that reads "blue". The final deck has no cards of this type, with the notable exception of the word "four" which inherently describes itself. Now the "run of fours" that can happen in a game just gives a bit of fun texture to the proceedings.
Experiments Along Further Axes
The twelve-word list is enough for most players for quite some time, but I also put some effort into ideas for further expansion to keep the game fresh for as long as possible. Heather Newton gets credit for the seed of the idea for the expansion included in the game box, which features cards with backwards text:
Some other experiments have proved less successful, but fun nonetheless. Never will a typographer squirm so much as if you show them the following card:
And now Stroop is in print! The journey isn't over for me, though, as I'm actively working on variant rules for less stressful games and figuring out what it means to translate this game into a foreign language when word lengths are such an integral aspect of play.
I hope you'll enjoy this tiny brain-twister of a game!
W. Eric Martin
• Let's start this week's c.f. round-up with what's simultaneously the quietest-looking and the most graphically striking game on the line-up: Todd Sanders' IUNU. Sanders first released this game as a print-and-play in 2013 through his own Air and Nothingness Press, and now LudiCreations is releasing the game to distribution following their 2016 release of Sanders' They Who Were 8.
In IUNU, 2-4 players attempt to build a society in ancient Egypt, getting a (mostly) new hand of cards each round, playing one or more cards of the same type from that hand to either collect taxes, gain influence, create art, feed your population, and control access to the afterlife. (KS link)
We shot an overview of the game on a mock-up during SPIEL 2016, which shows more of the game than that short description above:
• Kickstarter used to be a U.S.-only phenomenon, but with publishers from around the world now having access to it, it's common to see preorders for games that will debut at the SPIEL convention in October, as with Dávid Turczi's Kitchen Rush from Artipia Games. In a manner similar to Tobias Stapelfeldt's Space Dealer, Kitchen Rush has you using sand timers as workers in your kitchen, with you assigning these workers to tasks like food preparation, order taking, and cooking and them needing to stay in place until those tasks are finished. The sand timers make a lot more sense in this setting, perhaps only because I can imagine the needs of a kitchen far more than I can a dealer of goods in space. (KS link)
• Tim Heerema's Archmage from Game Salute is described by the publisher as "a hybrid of euro-style and thematic board games, featuring exploration, resource gathering and management, area/map control, and a spell system where players shape a tableau of player powers over the course of the game." Lots going on in the familiar setting of players aiming to become the new archmage to replace the still revereded, but now-retired Joe Merlin. (KS link)
• Vesuvius Media's description of Luís Brüeh's Covil: The Dark Overlords mentions that the game is "a tribute to awesome 80s cartoons, filled with references to our favorite and unforgettable characters", but I don't recognize anyone depicted, despite spending far too many hours in the 1980s watching cartoons. In any case, in the game you're a dark overlord who is commanding minions and using special powers to dominate the lands — all for the benefit of those who live there, of course. (KS link)
• Coincidentally, Savage Planet: The Fate of Fantos from Darth Rimmer, Travis Watkins, and Imp House bills itself as a "beautifully illustrated, dark fantasy card game inspired by comics and cartoons from the 80s". Are they talking about Heavy Metal here? I could see that influence, but that's hardly the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the phrase "comics and cartoons from the 80s". As for gameplay, 3-6 players use Shards build up Personal Tableaus to shield themselves from the Whims of Zodraz and its Excessive Capitalization. (KS link)
• Is there room on the game market for more than one cooperative game about finding a cure to prevent a pandemic? Jay Little and Split Second Games think so, with Zero Hour telling a three-act story of the heroes searching for clues about the mastermind in various cities (pressing their luck to find out more info at the risk of being chased out of town by Afflicted), then hunting down that shady character to stop him and prevent more mutations. (KS link)
• Another cooperative challenge comes courtesy of Stephen Avery, Christopher Batarlis, and Everything Epic Games, with Metal Dawn presenting players with a Skynet-style revolution that threatens the extinction of humanity unless they can corner the rogue electronic intelligence and keep it from mutating to freedom. (KS link)
• Pocket Ops from Brandon Beran and Grand Gamers Guild plays like tic-tac-toe with bluffing as rival spymasters try to claim a row of squares for themselves, while using specialist agents that bring unique powers to the game. (KS link)
• Hisashi Hayashi first released his city-building game Minerva through his own OKAZU Brand label in 2015, after which it appeared via Japon Brand at SPIEL 2015. As happens with many such titles from JB, Minerva has now been licensed for distribution on a wider scale, with Pandasaurus Games overhauling the artwork and graphic design courtesy of Franz Vohwinkel. In the game, players build their own city tile by tile, activating all the tiles in the same row and column as the tile just placed, allowing you to build fresh combos each game — assuming an opponent doesn't snatch a tile away from you first. (KS link)
• Rise of Tribes from Brad Brooks is Breaking Games' first go on Kickstarter, and the campaign seems to be a breakout success, with the game having a simple gameplay hook: Roll two dice, slide them into the leftmost space of two of the four actions (bumping out the rightmost die in each case), then take those two actions at a strength determined by the three dice now visible there. What are you trying to do with these actions? Get your tribes to rise, natch. (KS link)
• Radiant from Randal Marsh and Tin Shoe Games is only the second trick-taking area-control game with which I am familiar (with 2015's Joraku being the other). In each of the three ages, players start with some cards in hand, draft additional cards, then move around the game board, competing to control areas with the location of a battle determining which suit will carry the day. (KS link)
• The final title this week isn't a game, but rather a logic-puzzle-style code-teaching device called Turing Tumble (KS link) that is easier to see in action that describe, so here's an overview video from the creator:
Editor's note: Please don't post links to other Kickstarter projects in the comments section. Write to me via the email address in the header, and I'll consider them for inclusion in a future crowdfunding round-up. Thanks! —WEM
W. Eric Martin
• U.S. publisher Capstone Games has announced the Q4 2017 release of two titles, the first being a new edition of Wildcatters from designers Rolf Sagel and André Spil, which first appeared in 2013 from Dutch publisher RASS Games. In the game, players represent oil barons in the 19th century who are operating around the globe to develop oil fields; bid for oil rights; and build rigs, oil tankers, trains, and refineries — all in an effort to deliver more oil than anyone else.
• The second title from Capstone Games is Holger Lanz' The Climbers, with this being the first release from Simply Complex, a new brand from Capstone that focuses on "board games with a beautiful 3D table presence, relatively low rules overhead, and deep gameplay, accomplished in under one hour of play".
In The Climbers, players take turns moving colored blocks — which initially form one giant block — in order to create towers that they then climb with their figure. Sometimes you can jump to the next level; at other times you must spend one of your precious ladders. You can climb only onto the neutral color or sides of the blocks that match your own color, so ideally each move of yours serves to both advance yourself and hinder others as you try to ascend higher than anyone else.
• Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro and Paulo Soledade's Brasil was added to the BGG database in 2012, and the game at one time bore a SPIEL 2016 release date, then that date was moved to 2017, and now the designers and publisher What's Your Game? have announced that they'll take the game to Kickstarter sometime in 2017, which will push the release date to (at least) 2018. Says Soledade, "The main reason for this to happen is related to production values. As the development progressed during these past couple of years, the once called Vila Rica transformed itself into a bigger game named Brasil. In order to pay justice to it, all of the components and some of its now 'epic characteristics' were calling for a general improvement of the normal production elements."
• Ian Brody of Griggling Games will be playtesting two games at both the 2017 Origins Game Fair and Gen Con 2017, one of those being a three-player expansion for Quartermaster General titled The Cold War and the other being SHAEF, a two-player WW2 card-driven wargame covering the ten months following D-Day in Western Europe that will be released by PSC Games.
• Thames & Kosmos, the U.S. branch of German publisher KOSMOS, has let me know that Legends of Andor: The Last Hope — the third boxed set in the fantasy cooperative game from Michael Menzel — is due out in the U.S. on November 1, 2017, with the Dark Heroes expansion to follow later that month.
An English-language version of the two-player game Die Legenden von Andor: Chada & Thorn is not currently on Thames & Kosmos' release calendar.
• Stronghold Games' Stephen Buonocore has let slip that Terraforming Mars now has six planned expansions for it instead of the four previously announced. The first expansion — the double-sided game board Hellas & Elysium — will debut at the 2017 Origins Game Fair in mid-June, with a U.S. street date of July 12, 2017.
• Level 99 Games will release a standalone sequel to Cliff Kamarga's drafting, tile-placement game Sellswords, with Sellswords: Olympus being first available in July 2017 to those who preorder, then in August to those attending Gen Con 2017, then finally to retail stores later in August. Here's an overview of the game:
The gods of Olympus have gone to war! Who will heed the call? Skilled warriors from all across the land rally to fight, met on the opposite side by magical beasts and monsters from myth. Lead your heroes to victory and become the champion of Olympus!
Sellswords: Olympus is a fast-paced strategy game of drafting soldiers and deploying them to the field of battle. It takes only a few minutes to learn, but with fifty different heroes and monsters, each with their own unique ability to use and master, the possibilities for forming your army are limitless! Capture enemy units to turn them to your side in the battle. It's not enough to simply control the most of the field, though; you have to choose your targets carefully to outflank your opponent! Four different terrain tiles provide alternate play methods, giving you new strategies to explore!
Pinball Showdown is a game that had a long and varied road before it reached its final destination. This is due in large part to my love of pinball and the fact that I've run a business restoring vintage pinball machines for almost fifteen years. As I mentioned in my designer diary for Conspiracy!, integrating theme into gameplay is extremely important to me. This being a pinball game made that truer than ever — but I'm getting ahead of myself here and should back up to talk about my history with pinball.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were basically two places that kids would hang out year round: malls and arcades. Pretty much every mall had at least one arcade in it, so that was really convenient. Additionally, having grown up in New Jersey, I spent many a summer visiting the boardwalks of Asbury Park, Seaside Heights, and Wildwood — all of which were loaded to the gills with arcades. Spending all this time in arcades, I played a lot of video games, but even more pinball machines. There was and still is something about pinball that, for me at least, transcends arcade video games. No matter how great or how much fun a video game was, it would inevitably become repetitive and predictable. That never happens with pinball. You can play a pinball machine a thousand times, and something new will happen on the thousand-and-first play that you have never encountered before.
When Shoot Again Games started, a pinball game was (perhaps not surprisingly) always on the idea list as something that I had to do. I'd been thinking about it for a long time, well before I started the company. When I seriously started working on an idea for a pinball-themed game, the most obvious thought I had was that players would be playing pinball machines and attempting to get the highest score. I did not feel that basing the game on a particular pinball machine was a good way to go since that would have required licensing, so I thought that instead it would be neat if the players "built" the pinball playfield before they played a game on it. This meant breaking play down into two games with the first being a mini-pregame. This was a concept I had seen before, namely in the Avalon Hill Dune expansion Spice Harvest, which I thought was clever.
I kicked this idea around for quite a while, but could never get it to make the leap to full prototype. The reason, I think, is that many pinball machines have similar basic layouts — e.g., shooter lane on the right, "in lanes" of some sort at the top, slings down near the flippers, etc. — which made the idea very limiting since I wanted any playfield players might come up with to make sense. Thus, this idea faded away, although I did ultimately kind of use the idea of having playfield devices separate rather than part of a complete pinball playfield.
For the second attempt, I went in an entirely different direction by having the players each run their own arcade in a town with the goal of running the most successful and popular arcade. Being familiar with the workings of arcades in addition to running a vending route, I already had a good idea of what needed to be in the game. Also, I was lucky in that the guys who did the electronic board repair for my pinball business had worked for an arcade distributor that also did arcade board repair since the late 1970s. Whenever I had a question about the details of how something was done back then, I could just ask them.
This second game, which I named "Arcade Wars!", made it the prototype stage. The play mechanisms that I settled on involved each player starting with a hole-in-the-wall-sized arcade that could hold up to five pinball machines or video games. In addition, each player received a legacy or "classic" game of some type, be it a Skeeball machine or an old electromechanical gun game. These games never went away and always made a small set amount of money. The first player would get the lowest paying of these with the last getting the best to help mitigate the advantage of going first.
The game was broken into nine — yes, nine! — phases. Players would have to pay salaries and rent, visit the distributor to purchase new machines, bribe the hotshots (players so good they had a following) to come to your arcade, and do other things like upgrade to a bigger and better location. The meat of the game, though, was the various pinball machines that each turn you could assign players to from the limited patron pool. The more players you had on a machine, the faster players would lose interest in the game, which would cause its income to drop as players moved on to newer games. Eventually, the profit a game could make would drop so low that you would want to replace it. The player interest mechanism worked by rolling a die and adding the number of players to the result. If the sum exceeded the number printed on that particular game, the machine would drop in interest and be rotated one turn to the left to show the reduced income number.
"Arcade Wars!" was an engine-building game, and to that end it worked quite well, even garnering a few fans in my gaming group. For me, though, there were several issues with it. First and foremost, it did not "feel" like pinball. Second, it was too much of a simulation for my liking and, finally, it would be very costly to make: tiles for the pinball machines, dice for the interest checks, money, a board, tokens for players, cards — well, you get the picture. Another big issue was that the game took way too long, in my opinion. When all of these problems were considered, it spelled doom for this game. Some of my game group still mention "Arcade Wars!" and I think that being where I am now as a designer I could drastically streamline it and that there might just be a decent game in there.
The third game, which used large parts of "Arcade Wars!", had you running a pinball palace starting in the 1970s and ending in the 1980s with the arcade video game boom. The game was to last twelve turns, with each turn being a year in time. The biggest change was rather than having nine phases, I made it a worker placement type of game in which you would position your employees where you wanted them. Want to buy new games? Place a meeple at the distributor. Want to keep the bullies out of your arcade? Place one as security at your location's security room, and so on. This sped the game up quite a bit and upped the fun factor while reducing the simulation feeling I had with "Arcade Wars!" Still, at the end of the day, it just did not have that pinball feeling that was so very important to me, so I scrapped it.
A couple of years went by with no movement on a pinball game, though it was always rolling around in the back of my mind. I was getting hung up on wanting players to have a more intimate interaction with a pinball machine, but of course one big issue is that people play pinball one player at a time.
Then a few weeks before UNPUB 6 I woke up with one of those rare, seemingly out of the blue strikes of inspiration: You are the pinball.
Paired with that inspiration came a good idea of how the game would work, solving the one-player-at-a-time issue because I envisioned the game taking place during multi-ball (a mode in a pinball machine when two or more balls are in play at one time). I was so inspired that I spent the day hammering out the rules and making the prototype so that by the time my husband Nick got home I had it ready for us to play. After playing a few times, it was clear that I was on to something. Being this close to the UNPUB convention, it was too late to add what I was then calling "Pinball Wizard" to the convention book; still, I was excited to finally have a path forward, so I moved ahead anyways.
To make the game playable by others in a few weeks, I felt I needed something better than the crappy black-and-white, no art text cards I had cobbled together. I'm sure that none of you have ever looked for clip art of pinball machine parts, which is a good thing because you would not find much. A pop bumper or flipper sketch, sure, there are some of those, but there was no way I was going to find playfield devices like ramps, scoop holes, or drop targets. The obvious solution was to go through my photo archives of pinball machines that I had restored and use pictures from there. After all, not only did I take before-and-after photos of the pinball machines I worked on, but I also took reference pictures in order to make game reassembly easy. (This cuts down on having "extra" parts when I'm done assembling a pinball machine.)
I rushed the new prototype cards through Gamecrafter so that they arrived in time for the convention. Nick and I were invited to a pre-Unpub event run by Doug Levandowski (designer of Gothic Doctor and You're Fired!) where I was able to get in a couple of plays with other game designers. This was invaluable as by then I had added two more things to the game: first, combination cards that reward you for completing two specific playfield devices, and second, a special advantage for each player's pinball. We dropped special player pinball powers almost immediately, but the combo cards were well received. These also solved the problem with there being clearly better playfield devices than others due to their scores. The lower scoring playfield devices were more frequently represented on the combo cards, and the combos that these lower scoring devices were part of awarded more bonus points.
At Unpub 6, I simply hung a flyer on the table promoting "Pinball Wizard" and we had groups wanting to play it right away. After the first day, those groups must have spread the word because we had people coming up repeatedly asking whether ours was the table with the pinball game and whether they could try it out. We got a ton of great feedback, which lead to further tweaks but no major changes. Not too long after this convention, I wrote this overview of how Pinball Showdown plays:
During Pinball Showdown, players compete to score playfield devices by using their limited supply of control to direct their pinball, but players also have to consider their pinball's speed as each device has a minimum speed requirement needed to score it. Players have only twenty tokens that represent both control and speed, flipping back and forth between the two. On top of all that, players try to outmaneuver each other in order to score sweet combination bonuses and time things so that when "Wizard Mode" kicks in, they are poised to score the most valuable playfield devices.
A couple of things to note about this overview. First, it originally said something like this: "both speed and reserve are used to help steer your pinball...". This is one of those things that points out how a minor change in wording can make everything fall into place. I replaced the word "reserve" with "control" after rolling it around in my head for a month, and once I did, BAM!, it was perfect on every level and made the game so much easier to explain. Speed is a requirement to complete a playfield device, while control is spent to steer towards it. Put another way, the faster you go, the less control you have over where you are heading.
Second, Wizard Mode worked much differently at that stage than in the final version. It always allowed for double scoring when it was active, but originally Wizard Mode would activate only after a certain number of combos were completed and it would last only for one turn. Some playtesters felt it was not dynamic enough and I agreed. The solution was to make Wizard Mode turn on after every completed combination and allow it to remain on if another combo was completed or if any one pinball was moving twelve or faster. (Basically it was bouncing around enough to keep the mode going.) This added another level to the game as players would work to trigger Wizard Mode when their pinball was set up to complete a high scoring card during the next round since it would score double.
With so much of my focus on pinball theme and feel, you might wonder how much of that ended up in the finished Pinball Showdown. A ton. I made sure that each playfield device reflected its real world counterpart. Pop bumpers increased your pinball's speed, hitting a stand-up target deceased it a little, and scoop holes set your pinball's speed to a certain number. Completing certain devices gave additional bonuses like, for example, having four drop targets in your score pile counting as sinking an entire target bank and awarding 5,000 bonus points. The prototype game used an actual vintage pop bumper cap as the first player marker and I had that exact one illustrated for the final game. I even ended up using my photography of the games that I had restored as the "art" for the game cards and for the front of the box. I'd always intended to hire an artist to do art, but the photos were universally praised. Overall, I feel I achieved my goal of making a game that is not only good on its own, but also is infused with my love for pinball.
Pinball Showdown is already in Kickstarter backers' hands and will be officially released at the 2017 Origins Game Fair.
From the get-go, people assumed that Pinball Showdown would be called "Pinball Wizard" and for obvious reasons the name was perfect. People associate the name with the song from the movie Tommy, but the term existed before that and was popularized on a classic T-shirt that featured a wizard zapping a pinball machine. I really like that art and thought it would be perfect for the box cover and inclusion in the game.
After some digging around, I located the person who owned the rights to the art and he had his lawyer call me to discuss terms. They had previously licensed it for things like retro T-shirt reprints and wall hangings for game rooms. He described the terms, which were something like $2,000 up front, plus 10% of gross sales. This struck me as a little crazy for the usage I had in mind and I said so, though in a nice way. He countered by noting that the T-shirt and wall-hanging people paid that amount. I pointed out that if you remove the art from a T-shirt you end up with a blank T-shirt and that the same is true for the wall hanging, but removing one piece of art from my game left a fully functioning game about pinball. What he said next blew me away: "Well, people license Spiderman for games and that sells a lot of games."
At this point, my mind is trying to process his comparison of a piece of art that appeared on a T-shirt in the early 1970s to a character who has had a comic book running since 1963 that has spawned additional comic titles, animated series, and many movies. Spiderman has been on everything from toys to Underoos. This was not going to work out. I thanked him for his time, then went off to come up with a new name to avoid any possible legal entanglements.
I brainstormed several names with my husband Nick, and we really liked the name "Silverball Showdown". Being fans of the game Vegas Showdown, we liked this being a bit of shout-out to that game. "Silverball" is a common pinball phrase (again think of "The Who" song), but after talking to a bunch of people we found that most people under 35 had no clue what silverball referred to. Sigh. Thus, I settled on Pinball Showdown.
W. Eric Martin
• The nominees for the 2017 Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming have been announced, and as usual they cover an interesting cross-segment of the gaming community. The nominees are:
—Gloomhaven, with which users of this site are probably familiar
—Terraforming Mars, ditto
—Gen Con, the largest game convention in the U.S., which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2017
—End of the Line, a LARP by Bjarke Pedersen, Juhana Pettersson and Martin Elricsson that DJA describes as "the most interesting thing to happen in Vampire for a long while [combining] two decades long traditions of LARP, American Masquerade and Nordic style LARPing."
—The Romance Trilogy, a set of role-playing games from Emily Care Boss and Black and Green Games
—The Beast, a card game from Aleksandra Sontowska and Kamil Węgrzynowicz published by Naked Female Giant (and available at DriveThruCards); here's a description of this creation from DJA, which falls far outside BGG's definition of a game, but which sounds enticing all the same:
The Beast is an unsettling, erotic journaling game for one player. Each day for twenty-one days you turn up a card with a prompt on it and write a response in your journal. The game takes you deep into imagining a disturbing, secret sexual relationship you have with a beast. If there's one thing you don't see much of in hobby games, it's meaningful interior narratives, but The Beast's weird, unique brew of dark transgressions, playing as a fictional version of yourself and journaling the results, somehow surfaces real untold truths in us about how the world works, and how relationships work, and what's important in life. The Beast is memorable, transgressive, and procedurally and thematically unlike anything else you may have played.
• AlphaGo, an AI developed by DeepMind (a company purchased by Google in 2014), defeated the world's top-ranked Go player, Ke Jie, in a series of matches in China in late May 2017, and now having bested the best the program will play Go no more. In a blog following the 3-0 victory by AlphaGo, DeepMind CEO and co-founder Demis Hassabis wrote:
The research team behind AlphaGo will now throw their energy into the next set of grand challenges, developing advanced general algorithms that could one day help scientists as they tackle some of our most complex problems, such as finding new cures for diseases, dramatically reducing energy consumption, or inventing revolutionary new materials. If AI systems prove they are able to unearth significant new knowledge and strategies in these domains too, the breakthroughs could be truly remarkable. We can’t wait to see what comes next.
As a parting gift for Go players, DeepMind offered the following:
Since our match with Lee Sedol, [a world champion that AlphaGo defeated 4-1 in 2016], AlphaGo has become its own teacher, playing millions of high level training games against itself to continually improve. We're now publishing a special set of 50 AlphaGo vs AlphaGo games, played at full length time controls, which we believe contain many new and interesting ideas and strategies.
We took the opportunity at the Summit to show some of these games to a handful of top professionals. Shi Yue, 9 Dan Professional and World Champion said the games were "Like nothing I've ever seen before — they're how I imagine games from far in the future." Gu Li, 9 Dan Professional and World Champion, said that "AlphaGo's self play games are incredible — we can learn many things from them." We hope that all Go players will now enjoy trying out some of the moves in the set.
Those quotes will resonate with anyone familiar with Hikaru no Go and the main character's quest for the "divine move"...
• The U.S. division of HABA is running a game design contest that's open until July 31, 2017. To participate, you need to purchase a $3 design kit from HABA that includes random bits from various HABA titles, then create something for 2-5 players that plays in 15-45 minutes using at least three of the elements in the kit. If HABA doesn't sell its two hundred design kits prior to mid-June, it will bring copies of the kit to the 2017 Origins Game Fair. Sounds like a late-night challenge for fairgoers!
• The city of Nürnberg, Germany contains seven municipal museums as well as various historic sights and collections, including the German Games Archive, which contains more than 30,000 parlor games. How did I not know about this before?! Apparently I need to stay in Nürnberg a day or two after Spielwarenmesse ends in 2018 so that I can check this out.
Aside from that archive, games show up in other places as well, with Ken Fisher's card game Wizard being featured as the "showpiece of the month" for June 2017. BGG admin Emile de Maat was visiting the city in late May 2017, and at the Stadtmuseum im Fembo-Haus he ran across a "games with antiquity" exhibit (depicted below) that features modern games about olden times. On June 13, 2017, the Stadtmuseum im Fembo-Haus will feature a presentation by Reiner Knizia titled "The World of Games". Lots to check out in that city!
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