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Designer Diary: The Masters' Trials: Wrath of Magmaroth, or Two Designers' Trials to Go from a City to a Dungeon

Vangelis Bagiartakis
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The following was also posted in parts on AEG's website.

In The Beginning

Vangelis Bagiartakis (VB): After designing Dice City, I knew that the "dice-crafting" mechanism it had could find many uses in other games as well. That’s why, even before Dice City was actually released, I began to explore other options to see where I could go with this "system" I had come up with.

At its core, the mechanism in Dice City is about "crafting" your dice. Each die is represented by six cards (one for each side) and by placing new cards on your board, possibly on top of existing cards, you are effectively changing the faces of your die. As a concept, this could theoretically apply to all kinds of games that use dice.

The idea that I initially wanted to explore was that of a dungeon-crawler. Going with that idea would also define the first characteristic of the game: This would be a cooperative game (as opposed to the competitive nature of Dice City). The players would not compete with each other, but would work together instead. In turn, this would allow the core mechanism to be tweaked a bit to give players the option to interact more with each other. For example, you could spend one of your dice to move one of another player's if needed.

Another key characteristic also came from the theme. Since the dice would correspond to various attributes of the characters (like speed, combat, magic, etc.), why have a single board for all of them and not separate ones? If one die, for example, was the race, another one the class, another the weapon, etc., why not allow the possibility of mixing-and-matching? Not only would this increase replayability, it made perfect sense with the theme as each player would be able to create their own character as in a role-playing game, a hero with the attributes they'd want.

I made a rough prototype and started testing the idea. I sketched some rooms with tiles, I came up with rules for their placement, I made a few quick enemies and some simple player abilities and started playing. Although way too early in the process, the experience was fun and I knew this could lead to something good. To check whether I was on the right track, I showed the prototype to some people and explained the concept behind it. EVERYONE loved the idea behind the modular boards. It was really cool and seemed very promising. However, they weren't thrilled with the dungeon board. As one friend put it: "There are actually two games on the table. One here (pointing to the player boards with the dice and the character abilities) and one there (pointing to the board with the mock-up enemies)." There was simply too much stuff going on for the game to be viable. Not only would it be insane production-wise — tons of boards, cards, miniatures, etc. with less than half of the game being more than all of Dice City — it would also ask a lot from the players, especially in their first games.

Thus, a decision was made to make the "dungeon-crawling" a bit simpler. Perhaps just cards that would be drawn or something along those lines in order to keep the focus on the advancement of the character in front of you.

So the goals of the game were more or less set:

• Dungeon-crawling theme
• Cooperative game
• Modular player boards (and as a consequence variable player powers)
• Relatively simple (card-based perhaps?) mechanism for the dungeon/enemies
• Multiple paths to victory

And that's how this journey began…

The Designers' Trials

With the goals in place, I started exploring how the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game would work. Around that time, my friend Tassos (whose full name is Anastasios, but we call him Tassos) got the chance to see the rough prototype in action and loved the idea. He has vast (and when I say vast, I mean vaaaaaaast) experience in role-playing games, so when he expressed interest in helping with the game, I immediately agreed to bring him on board. His experience would prove to be very important while designing the game.

Anastasios Grigoriadis (AG): I've loved the idea of dice-crafting since the beginning. I'm a huge fun of Dice City and I've worked successfully in the past on many projects with Vangelis, so when I actually put into the basket the words "dice-crafting", "RPG" and "Bagiartakis", I knew that this would be an awesome journey!

Attempt 1

VB: For our first attempt, we took the rough version I had initially made and tried to adapt it. Since we were working with cards, the "dungeon" became more abstract. The enemies would be cards that would be placed on rows, simulating enemies coming to you in a dungeon corridor.

The player boards represented the characters and the first problem we had to deal with was what the players' "resources" were going to be. In the first rough prototype I had gone with Strength, Dexterity, Mana, Cunning and Movement. For this version, some changes needed to be made (like the removal of movement as it no longer made sense) and we ended up with Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Mana and Defense. The goal was to have each player be able to specialize in one and pursue a different strategy.

Regarding the enemies, each monster would give you XP after being killed and you would spend those to upgrade your character with new cards (abilities).

AG: Basically we needed to create a board game that would simulate an RPG session in an hour. You live your adventure, you gather experience, and you upgrade your character. Sounds simple, but it is not.

VB: We did some playtests with this version, and while there was some potential in it, there were many things bugging us. The most important one was the resources.

AG: We knew from the beginning that Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Magic and Defense were not working as resources, but we had to start with something to reach our goal. The basic problems were:

• Melee Damage and Ranged Damage were almost the same thing.
• Magic was essentially the only attribute that you could call a resource as it was producing mana, but again only to do damage.
• Defense had the same problem as Damage as it was not a resource to be spent.

In other words the main problem was that there was no economy based on the resources that players gathered and needed to spend in order to achieve goals and upgrade their player boards. In a sense, we had only Damage, which was not enough to build a game around.

VB: Defense was the most awkward of all the attributes. It didn't help you win; it just prevented the damage you would be getting. While it could be important in the game — for example, a character could play the role of the "tank" and absorb damage while the rest of the players would attack the enemies — it wasn't very fun to play with and it also wasn't a viable strategy on its own. You couldn't play solo and win just with a "defender".

This inconsistency in the resources also made creating new abilities problematic. While it was normal to say "I have five mana", it was weird to say "I have five Melee Damage". Damage should be the outcome of your actions, not something you accumulate to spend. What's more, the way mana worked also had a few issues. The spells you had on your character required mana to be used. That meant that not only did you have to land on them, you also had to land on mana-producing spaces with your other dice to cast them — double the work for something that should be much simpler.

We knew we could do better, so we decided to start from scratch and try a different approach.

Attempt 2

VB: For our second attempt, we decided to examine everything from the beginning. The basic goals were still there, but the approach could be anything we wanted; we wouldn't be tied to the previous version. The brainstorming started with what was creating the most problems last time: the resources. They had to be thematic and fit with the dungeon-crawling theme, and they had to allow for different strategies. A fighter and a wizard, for example, would focus on different ones, but they should both be able to defeat enemies and win the game somehow.

AG: When something doesn't work, you go back to basics. The goal now was that each player would chose a different class — basic archetypes: fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue — and all together would fight the big bad boss at the end of the game. We agreed on Combat, Dexterity, Magic, Holy, and Cunning as the resources that would be used based on what the characters could produce and what they would need to defeat the monsters. Those five attributes could create various combos and thus different sets of actions for each class, allowing each player to interact in different ways with the monsters.

VB: For the monsters, we decided to go with a very different approach. Enemy cards would be drawn each round and they would have three options on them: Evade, Push, Defeat. Evade (which would require few resources) would allow the players to prevent the damage the monster would deal. Push (costing slightly more) would be a temporary solution to the problem; you would scare the monster away, but you would have to deal with it later. Finally, Defeat would be a permanent solution; it would get rid of the monster forever but would require the most resources to do it.

The concept behind this approach was that each monster would ask for different "resources" on each level, which in turn would allow each character to deal with them differently. Some of the monsters, for example, would require a lot of Combat in order to be defeated, which the fighter would be able to easily provide. The wizard, on the other hand, would have a hard time defeating them through combat, but would be able to drive them away via Magic or just evade them. Similarly, against monsters like ghosts Combat would be useless but Magic or Holy would be very useful. Depending on how you dealt with each monster, you would draw cards that would be the upgrades for the players' characters.

When the final boss would appear, it would be accompanied by all the monsters the players pushed. It would have to be dealt with differently compared to the monsters, but the players would still be provided with some options (so that each class would have a chance against it).

AG: This implementation was closer to what we wanted and the feeling was much better. Now the players were focusing on how to advance their characters and how to interact with the monsters which was closer to the basic concept of dice-crafting: roll the dice, do something (in our case: fight the monsters), upgrade your character.

VB: We did numerous playtests with this build, but once again the actual game turned out differently compared to what sounded cool in theory. If you made the monsters easy to defeat for one class, the others would struggle too much. If we made monsters meant to be defeated by all classes (containing different combinations of all the resources), then every class would struggle since they wouldn't be able to produce everything. Therefore, there would be enemies that could not be defeated and would have to either be evaded constantly or driven away, only to make it even harder to win at the end.

AG: Welcome to asymmetric balancing! In RPGs, every player usually has a different role that works in different ways from the others. Players should feel important during the game no matter the role they play, and characters must be balanced and (most importantly) feel balanced even when they do totally different things. RPGs usually are played in groups of 4-5 players plus a narrator, and in my groups when someone is missing, we play a board game or do something else because the absence of that player will have a significant impact in our game.

Board games accommodating 2-4 players, on the other hand, must give the same gaming experience whether you play it with two or four players. That means that with two players you are lacking two characters and what they bring to the party. Usually this is not a problem, but when a game wants to be theme-driven and has different roles, then you have issues that need to be addressed.

Another issue was the resources that our characters were producing. Although closer to our goal, the economy of the game was again not solid. Removing a class was weakening a resource. The classes that were played were trying to match up the lack of other classes but not very effectively, and that lead to weaker characters overall, characters that could not interact in a proper way with the game.

VB: Essentially what we had was not necessarily resources but different types of attacks. It still was a bit weird to say "I get five Holy", but if everything else played all right, we would have worked with it. Unfortunately, everything else didn't play like we wanted. Players weren't as excited as we'd like, and it gave the impression that it was lacking something.

Back to the drawing board…

Attempt 3

VB: Once again, we started from scratch and again the brainstorming focused on the resources. We knew that it was the most crucial part of the game, and if we could fix that, the rest would easily follow from the theme. We needed resources that you could gather, resources that made sense having a lot of them, that it was intuitive to say "I have three of X". Up to now, the only one that came close to that description was mana. With that as a basis, we decided to explore the option of having different types of mana. We could go the "elemental warrior" path which would mean four different types of mana: earth, fire, water, air. The players' abilities would then all be spells, each requiring different mana and focusing on different aspects. This also meant a change in the theme. Instead of "sword-and-sorcery" fantasy, we would go to eastern fantasy with a focus on the elements and different types of magic. That was not necessarily a bad thing since sword-and-sorcery has been overused in gaming and something different would look more appealing.

As far as the mechanisms were concerned, we also tried another approach. Dice City had a system with three resources and it worked. You would spend those resources to get new cards on your board (which in turn did not require resources to use them). You could also use those resources to get closer to winning (Trade Ships). The abilities you got would grant you other things (like Army strength or VP) which would also lead you to win through other means. Was there a way this approach could be applied to this game? Why try to re-invent the wheel when you have something that works well?

Fire, Earth, Water, Air: The four types of mana we used

We started with the abilities. Each would cost an amount of mana to "build" on your character just like in Dice City. Some of these abilities would generate damage which would be used against minions, a similar approach to the army strength and the minions of Dice City. This covered one way to win, but there needed to be more. An interesting thought we had was of large spells with a big effect for which you had to spend a big amount of mana in order to cast them. This was something similar to the way Trade Ships in Dice City made use of resources. In the end, we changed it a bit and instead of them being spells, we had the cards represent Magical Seals that granted abilities to the boss, making it uber-powerful. You would be able to break these Seals before reaching the boss, thus weakening it enough to kill it more easily. That added another strategy. Could we do one more?

Dice City also has the cultural strategy, that is, building locations that don't do something when you land on them as they just grant you many victory points. Since we wanted to have a rogue-like character, we combined the two and ended up with another strategy: What if you were able to search the dungeon you were in and come up with magical artifacts? You would add them to your character and they would grant passive abilities (like deal one damage for free wherever you want, get free mana, etc.). It made sense thematically, and if you were to focus on it, you would become powerful enough to overcome even the boss.

So the basis of the game was this:

• Players explore a dungeon, and each round they are in a different area/room.
• They are attacked by minions which they need to destroy.
• They can search the rooms they are in to find artifacts.
• They can break magical seals that make the boss very powerful.
• After a finite amount of time, they come upon the boss and they must destroy it.

AG: Abandoning the classic path of fantasy RPGs was the right call, and it was not the only one. Keeping basic mechanisms from Dice City actually solved most of our problems. This greatly affected the way we designed the game: If we wanted to have different roles, equally important in the game, we needed to create different ways to interact with it.

In the end, we had four different types of resources and three key characteristics that players advanced in to interact with the game: Damage, Insight and Health. Based on that, we instantly knew that we had created four distinctive roles in the game:

The character that would focus on damage — They would deal with the minions and apply a lot of pressure to the final boss, despite it being very powerful.
The character that would focus on gathering mana — They would break the boss' seals and make it much weaker.
The character that would focus on items — They would search each room, getting a lot of magical artifacts that would "work on their own". Effectively that character would become "Robocop" (as Vangelis used to joke) before getting to the boss, dealing damage and generating mana without even needing to roll the dice.
The character that would focus on the group's Health — They wοuld ensure that the party would reach the boss in good-enough shape to have a chance of defeating it.

Although this is almost the classic archetype of fantasy RPG with wizard, fighter, rogue and cleric, our characters were using different types of mana that they needed to produce and spend in different ways to activate their cool powers.

VB: After some tests, it was clear we were on the right path. Going with mana solved all the problems we had with resources, and the different paths to explore made each character unique and interesting to play with. That was obviously the way to go.

Achieving Mastery

VB: With the game's basics in place, it was now time to deal with the difficult part: the details. The first thing to do was define our setting and the exact way the resources would work. Having played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, I was aware of the importance of a "color wheel". Each type of mana should have its own identity. It would be associated with certain things, and the various classes would have different access to it.

For example, fire mana would be used mainly for abilities that caused damage, while water would be used mainly for healing. The earth mana would be associated with mana generation/conversion, while air would be used to stun/disorient the opponent along with searching the rooms.

Since we had shifted to elemental warriors, we spent quite some time examining what the races should be. At some point we realized that in the theme we had chosen, it made more sense to go with monastic Orders instead of races.

AG: Every resource should be used differently inside the game, but at the same time they should all have equal value: Fire=Air=Water=Earth. In the color wheel, no resource is above any other. All are equal, but at the same time they have a different impact on the "world". Also, based on the wheel we could safely say that:

• Fire is the opposite of Water
• Earth is the opposite of Air

VB: What we needed to settle on pretty early was how the "mix-and-match" of the boards was going to work. In other words, what was each part of your board (class/order/weapon) bringing to the table? What abilities would they have?

This was important because we wanted every combination to be viable. However, that was harder than it sounded. We had assigned some characteristics to each type of mana and as a result, each class was focused on one of them (based on the same characteristics). But what about the Orders? If we also focused the Orders on the types of mana, then there would be certain combinations that would be way more advantageous. The other important aspect that we needed to nail down was what exactly their abilities would be. The abilities between all three separate boards needed to be distinct to let them have their own identity. If we were going to focus the damage-related abilities on the fire-class, then what would go on an Order ability? And how would we make them feel different?

After a lot of brainstorming and many playtests, we settled on this: What would define each character would be the class. That's where most of the abilities that would determine each strategy would be. Then the Orders would all have the same abilities but in different quantities. Each Order would be focused on two of the mana types, and it would offer higher quantities of the abilities that required them. It would still have the rest of the abilities (in small quantities) to give access to everyone if they so wanted.

This solution offered some important advantages:

• The Orders had focus but were not limiting the class you could match them with.
• Having the same abilities in all of the Orders made learning the game easier as you had less information to overwhelm you when trying a different combination.
• It gave us more flexibility with the design of the classes' abilities. We didn't have to worry about putting a new ability on an order.
• When combining a class with an order that focused on other types of mana, it allowed you to play the same character differently and do new things. That was exactly what we wanted in the first place!

AG: In RPGs, the races are actually templates that can be used to alter the way classes are played, e.g., Elf Warrior and Half Orc Warrior. This was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the Orders. In our game, our heroes are trained differently in each Monastery Order. They all share a basic training but focus on a different path and obtain a different mastery. In game terms, we needed to create a pool of abilities that would be bound to a certain color, then distributed to each Order based on their focus. It was again harder than we thought because we needed to create four universal (for our game) thematically driven powers. If I remember correctly, all but one changed — some of them more than once!

We also did another cool thing with the Orders. We added a static ("ongoing") ability to each of them, which we called "Masteries". Each Order's mastery is unique, and they give a special ability that actually changes the way a player interacts with the game.

VB: The next problem that we had to solve was that of scaling. Changing the numbers of minions drawn each round or the seals that the players would have to break was the easy part. The biggest problem was elsewhere, rooted in the game's design.

The "threat" in the game consisted of mainly two parts: the minions drawn each round, and the boss at the end. The minions would have to take damage in order to be defeated, which meant having the fighter-class (which we ended up naming "Avenger") was crucial. The boss, on the other hand, was made powerful through the seals that needed mana in order to be broken, which made the mana generating-class (a.k.a., the "Mystic") very important. But what about the other two? What were they adding to the game? Moreover, if the first two classes were that crucial, was there a point into playing the other two races in a two-player game?

We considered various solutions to this problem. One thought we had was to dictate the exact classes that the players would get at each player count. Unfortunately, that was a very bad solution as it meant that certain classes would never be played in a two-player game and it made them feel like lower-class citizens.

What we needed was for the classes to be equal. Each of them should be able to hold its own and be fully playable, offering a different experience/playing style. They should all have equal chances of beating the game, regardless of the players' combinations.

AG: One of the most important things that we try to keep in mind when developing a game is that the number of players must not affect the experience you get from a game. In RPGs, the narrator reveals the challenge of the party following certain rules, e.g., how many are playing and what their current level is, thus keeping the session challenging. In board games, we have plenty of examples where the number of turns, the number of VP that you need to score, or the number of foes and obstacles change based on the number of players. In our case, this was more complex since classes have equal roles in the game but are totally different at the same time:

The Avenger
• All classes can do damage but none can be as good as the Avenger.
• All classes can generate mana but none can be as good as the Mystic.
• All classes can heal themselves but none can sustain an entire party as well as the Warden.
• All classes can try to search rooms and improve their characters with artifacts but none is as good as the Loremaster.

We decided that since the class affects the way our players interact with the game, then the challenge rating would be created by two things:

• The minions (in quality and numbers) are generated by the classes that participate in a game.
• The seals (in quality and numbers) are generated by the number of players that are playing.

VB: The main problem in scaling was the minions drawn. If the Avenger was in play, things were easy as he would deal with them and everyone else would be able to advance their character as needed to achieve their own goals: the Mystic would add mana-generating abilities to their board, the Loremaster would generate Insight to search rooms, and the Warden — the healer of the group — would work on those crucial healing spells. However, when the Avenger was not in play, the rest of the classes would have to compensate, but the threat was so big that everyone needed to focus on dealing damage, neglecting their previous focus. Even when they weren't losing horribly, the experience was not fun.

Since the problem was in the minions, the solution that we settled on was based on them. The minion deck would change its contents depending on the classes present in the game. If the Avenger was present, it would include more difficult-to-beat monsters. If the Mystic and the Warden were the only ones playing, it would contain mostly small monsters which would be easier for the players to handle. They would still pose a threat, but not one that would distract them from their main goal.

Although we were a bit skeptical to try this solution, it worked like a charm. It achieved exactly what we needed and helped the different classes to stand out. We were no longer worried about the class combinations. Each and every one of them could stand its own.

The Loremaster
While the Avenger and the Mystic were quite straightforward, the Loremaster — the character that searched the rooms — was trickier to design. We had settled on having another resource in the game called Insight. Players would gather Insight and that would be used to search the rooms. It would work similarly to damage in that, if unused, it would reset at the end of the round. If a character matched the room's Insight difficulty, then they would draw Artifact cards that would grant them powerful ongoing abilities.

Even though the Loremaster would have no trouble gathering Insight and using it to get more artifacts, the other players would completely ignore it. That wasn't necessarily a problem, but it would get worse due to another factor: After a point, experienced players would become quite powerful and near the final rounds they would generate a lot of Insight, but they would no longer need it as much.

It was clear that we needed to find other uses for Insight as well.

Around the same time, we had another problem to deal with. They way the Seals worked, one player had to generate enough mana to break them. More often than not, that player was the Mystic. However, inexperienced players would have a hard time generating enough mana for the more expensive Seals. Since they were the more powerful ones, not dealing with them usually spelled their doom.

The Mystic
During development, we examined a solution that solved both of these problems. What if you could spend Insight in order to "unlock" the Seals and allow everyone to spend mana on them? That provided another use for Insight (which all of the classes could use on the small seals) and interesting options for the Loremaster (Do I go for another artifact, or do I help the group by unlocking a seal?), while making it less demanding for the Mystic who now didn't have to generate all that mana on their own.

AG: Although this is a dice-rolling game, we love the idea of "tough" decisions. During your play, you will always have to decide whether to spend the resources you gathered to remove an obstacle or to improve your character? With the new approach to Insight, it became the party tool to deal with high level seals. Insight was now an equal answer to threats and was helping the party to interact with the seals more efficiently.

VB: Near the end, most of the issues had been solved and we were happy with how the game was playing. Although it was already quite challenging, we even thought of some additional hurdles to throw to the players who wanted more.

There was now only one thing remaining: the solo game.

With the game being cooperative, we knew that it was suitable for solo play. The problem was that it would be difficult for a single character to deal with everything that was happening in the game. Not only that, but since each class focused on different things, the experience would be different with each of them. If we were to make the game easier, one of the classes would still struggle while another one would find it way too easy. On top of that, we wanted the players to play differently with every class. If only one was present in the game, they would all have to play the same way to defeat the game.

The Warden

That's when it hit me. Why not change the requirements? For each character, the goal would be different. The Avenger (who couldn't easily generate a lot of mana) would focus on killing minions and would have to kill the powerful boss. The Mystic (who could easily generate a lot of mana but had trouble with dealing damage) would not have to worry about killing the minions or the boss, but would have to break numerous Seals in order to win. The Loremaster would need to gather as many artifacts as possible, while the Warden would bring a companion along and would have to make sure they stayed alive.

This way, not only would each character play the way they would in multiplayer, the game would offer four different solo experiences. It felt very different with each class, and we knew the solo gamers would absolutely love it!

AG: Regarding the solo version of the game, I wanted three things:

• To be fun and challenging for all classes
• To be an excellent tutorial for new players who wanted to explore the game before playing with their friends
• To give players the opportunity to explore all aspects of a class

I strongly feel that we addressed all the above.

AG & VB:: All in all, we are very excited with how the game turned out. It went through a lot of rough periods, with many changes and complete overhauls, but in the end we created something that we are really proud of. The work we put into this game is probably more than what we've put in any other game we've worked on, but it was totally worth it.

As soon as you open the box, we are sure you will agree!

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SPIEL '17 Preview: Origami, or Eric Folds Five Families

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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I love card games. I'd be fine with never playing a board game again as long as I had card games available to me. Each time you pick up a hand of cards, it's like opening a present. You have some idea of what might be inside, but the details of the thing are what's important. Which cards do you have in hand this time? What don't you have? What's possible?! The more that you play a card game, the better you get, and as your knowledge of the game increases, you start playing the same hand three times: once when you first look at the cards and imagine what could happen, again when you're actually playing, and a third time when you're assessing how things went and what you might have done instead.

I'm not even close to that level of understanding with Christian Giove's Origami, which dV Giochi will debut at SPIEL '17 in October. I've played three times on a rough preproduction copy from dV Giochi, each time with three players, and I still haven't even seen all the cards in the game.

Origami is for 2-4 players, and the game includes five families of animals with each family being a different color. To set up the game, choose 2-4 families — with that number matching the number of players — shuffle them, then deal each player face-up cards until they have ten or more folds on their visible cards. "Folds" are the currency in the game, and one of the few nods in the game toward the "Origami" name, the other being the origami-like animal images on the cards.

Once everyone takes their cards in hand, you lay out four cards in a face-up market, then start taking turns. On a turn you can:

• Draw cards from the market that sum up to at most four folds. Refill the market to four cards, then add these cards to your hand, discarding at the end of your turn if you have more than eight cards.

• Spend cards from your hand to pay (exactly!) the cost of a single card in your hand. If a card costs 6, for example, you must discard cards that feature exactly six folds. Place this card on one of two collections in front of you, making sure that each collection is no more than one card larger or smaller than the other collection.

• Use the special effect of an animal card on top of one of your collections.

That's it! Rinse and repeat until you've gone through the entire deck twice, shuffling discards as needed to create a new deck, which you will need to do since after the deck runs out a second time, you still complete the current round, then each player takes one final turn, then you count your points on cards played to see who wins, with some cards having special scoring bonuses.

Four savannah animals; the number at the lower-left shows the number of copies in the deck

Gameplay in Origami is simple and straightforward, with most turns presenting you with the best kind of tension in any game: the pull between picking up more cards (i.e., resources) to give you more options in the future vs. playing cards now to put points on the table and possibly give you special powers to use.

With every play, you want to be as efficient as possible. Don't pick up cards with only two or three folds when you're allowed to pick up four. Don't play a card with a scoring bonus if you don't plan to make that bonus worth anything. Don't play a card with an instant effect (which most of them have) if you can't make use of it that turn. The gorilla, a savannah card, lets you pick up all savannah cards on the market when you play it. Should you play it if only one savannah card is available? What if that one card is another gorilla, which gives you four folds in hand (i.e., a free draw action) and the threat of another gorilla action in the future?

Every time you pick up cards, you're putting new cards into the market for the players that follow, something that might affect your choices during play. In one game I managed to play two chicks and pick up a third without yet having a chicken in hand, the chicken being worth 2 extra points per chick you've played. My right-hand opponent couldn't stop drawing cards completely, but he kept taking actions that would reveal several new cards at once, thus giving me greater odds of grabbing a chicken, which I soon did. Bok bok!

On right: Barnyard success, plus a vulture-powered butterfly

A lot of the special actions are conditional. The spider, a lawn card, lets you draw cards from the market that have exactly six folds. If you can't do this, then you must take the boring regular draw action or do something else. The vulture (sky) lets you use the top card on the discard pile to play an origami from your hand, and while free money is nice, sometimes you don't have the cards needed to pay a cost exactly, which leaves you staring at that top card like a $5 bill just out of reach on the other side of the fence.

Each family has their own type of powers and effects, giving Origami a different feel based on the cards in play. The savannah cards are all instant effects, mostly related to drawing cards in some manner. The sea cards give you discounts off the cost of a card or the ability to play a second card immediately (while still paying the cost of it). The lawn cards tend to benefit from other cards of the same family, such as the ant cards that jump from 3 to 5 points if you have at least two of them or the caterpillar that can transform into the far more valuable butterfly. The sky cards interact with other players, the cards they have, and the discard pile. I don't even know what the farm cards do as I haven't played with them yet.

Origami combines the joy of card game randomness with extra variety of play thanks to the five families of cards, of which at most four will be used each time. The only downside is that the graphic design isn't ideal, with a card's cost and fold count being bunched together in the upper left corner and not differentiated enough, with the fold digit being too small for my old eyes. Aside from that, right now Origami is the game I'm most regretful for not having played more times before writing about it, but SPIEL '17 is almost upon us, so I wanted to give a head's up about the game to fellow card game lovers.

Sample critters from the other four families
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Mon Oct 16, 2017 7:33 pm
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Designer Diary: Origami

Christian Giove
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The idea for Origami started a couple of years ago, but I'm not able to say which arrived first between the game mechanism and the setting. In my memories, it was always about origami and with its core system. I've always liked card games in which a card can be used for multiple purposes and I wanted to create something like that. Meanwhile, the correlation between origami and their folds seemed to fit perfectly.

At first, I defined the concept of adding victory points and various kinds of special effects to the cards in order to have a lot of possible combinations and to give the player many ways of scoring and performing actions over time. I then tried some "mental playtests" — I usually play out 5-10 rounds in my mind, assuming different cards are drawn, in order to spot big errors or bugs BEFORE creating the first prototype — and I immediately discovered that the possible actions could grow too quickly due to some special effects.

Thus, I decided each player could play their origami on only two different stacks, called "collections", in order to limit the number of special effects a player can benefit from at the same time. This arrangement of the origami also creates more timing issues for the players and makes them face harder choices.

Then I created my first prototype, searching for images of animal origami on the web to get a better feeling of what it could look like and to help playtesters recognize the cards. At that time, the game was a single deck of 90 cards, and I played it with 2, 3, and 4 players.

The game worked quite well, aside from a couple of flaws, mostly due to the deck containing too many cards for a two- or three-player game. I needed to adapt the deck to the number of players, but it was hard to identify which cards had to be removed and this procedure was also very time-consuming for the set-up of a quick game like this.

In the end, I decided to divide my cards into five different decks called "families", and each game would play with one family per player. This set-up was much simpler and also gave the game a lot of replayability.

Cards from the first prototype

Because the game was fun and the rules were stable, I started showing it during fairs and events. (Its first public appearance was during IdeaG, an Italian meeting of game designers and publishers happening each year in Turin, Italy.) I got a lot of positive feedback and a couple of proposals from different publishers.

The most interested publisher was dV Giochi, but they asked me to reduce the game length — which was very good advice, so I reduced the number of actions per turn to two and in the final playtesting this number was reduced to just one. Originally, with four players and three actions per turn, nine opponent actions took place in a round before your next turn; now there are just three!

Work in progress…

In the end, we came up with a game that has fast yet satisfying turns in which players have more control, while at the same time they must face deeper and harder choices.

I also reduced the number of folds required to play an origami and the folds given by each origami to create faster and simpler calculations when playing. This made everything much smoother and more player-friendly.

After tons of playtesting and balancing, dV Giochi decided it was worth publishing. They did a lot of additional playtesting and we changed a lot of card abilities, mostly because we wanted to balance and differentiate the families: Each deck now focuses on a specific kind of effect: draw, play more cards, instant effects, special actions, interaction between players, etc.

During this time, the game also got its final artwork — nice low-poly origami — and new graphics. A lot of things remained similar to my prototype, but this happens often because I'm a graphic designer, so I create prototypes by studying the card usability, too.

Cards from an almost-final prototype

I ran playtest sessions of an almost finished version of the game during a gaming event in Genoa (Italy), where a lot of expert gamers had the chance to play it. This allowed me to polish the game even more, making it the one you will soon be able to play!

Christian Giove

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Mon Oct 16, 2017 1:00 pm
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Publisher Diary: ¡Adios Calavera!, or Days of the Dead Are Different in Mexico

Channing Jones
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Gauck (r)
Joachim Gauck, who served as President of Germany from March 2012 to March 2017, has a strong connection to Martin Luther. After all, long before he became President, Gauck served as a Lutheran pastor in Rostock on the Baltic Sea.

Even though his time as a pastor is far behind him, Joachim Gauck still has a connection to Martin Luther, so much so that when Luther: Das Spiel was published by KOSMOS in 2016, he was so pleased by the game that he invited the two authors, Erika and Martin Schlegel to Berlin to visit the Bellevue Palace. It was a great honor and a first as never before had a game author met with the Federal President.

From left: Erika Schlegel, Martin Schlegel, Joachim Gauck

Games let us explore history and different cultures in all sorts of ways, with the games also taking a multitude of forms to match their subject matter. Martin Schlegel's newest game, for example, couldn't be more different than Luther: Das Spiel. ¡Adios Calavera!, to be released by German publisher Mücke Spiele at SPIEL '17, is a two-player-only game with few rules. This is Schlegel's third game with Mücke, following Atacama and Takamatsu.

From "Zócalo" to "¡Adios Calavera!"

The game was originally called "Zócalo" because it took place on the huge square in the center of Mexico City, which is called Zócalo. Girls would form one team, boys the other, with each headed by a player and with each trying to make it across the square first, encountering those of the opposite sex in both friendly and less-than-friendly ways as they moved.

While the game itself was well received, the theme was not convincing, so we looked for another one with Mexico as the place of action. The gameplay would also stay the same because it was fully developed and gave both players thirty exciting minutes of fun.

The experienced graphic artist Christian Opperer suggested placing the game's action during "Dia de los Muertos", an annual celebration in Mexico. The first reaction to the idea of incorporating a memorial day for the dead into a game was horror and shock. A gloomy theme with dead skulls? This is not suitable for a game. However, as usual, whenever you learn more about a subject, it changes your opinion. The day of the dead in Mexico is not a mourning event, but a colorful folk festival in honor of the dead.

According to the old folk belief, the souls of the deceased return to their families in early November. Everywhere the memory of them is in the foreground. The streets are decorated with flowers, which are symbols of death and transience. Pastry shops produce the Calaveras de Dulce, which are skulls of sugar, chocolate, or marzipan. The Pan de Muerto, the dead bread, is another popular treat during these days, and during parades, calaveras — oversized skulls and full skeletons made of papier-mâché — are carried through the streets.

After the souls of the deceased have been received in the homes on the night of November 2, a farewell to them takes place in the cemeteries, where there is eating, drinking, music and dancing. At midnight, the time has come to say good-bye, and the festival is over until the dead return next year.

It's at this point in the story when ¡Adios Calavera! takes place: The living and the deceased must take leave of one another, going their separate ways until next year. You want to quickly reach the other side of the celebration area, while preventing others from leaving the farewell meeting first.

Powers to the People

In the game, one player takes the role of the dead, the other the living. Each player has eight pieces and places them on the indicated positions of a roughly 9x9 board next to the starting edge of the opposing player. Players are thus not directly opposite each other, but at a right angle.

The first player to get their eight pieces off the side of the board opposite their starting position wins. On a turn, you move a piece a number of spaces equal to the number of pieces (both yours and the opponents) in the row perpendicular to the direction that it will move. Thus, if you move a piece in your front row forward, it will move three spaces (unless it hits an obstacle).

This is the simplest way to play, but each of the eight pieces also has a special power on its reverse side, with each team having the same eight powers. Before starting the game, each player secretly chooses which four of these eight powers they want to use, then flip these tokens to the "power" side while leaving the other ones as is. Each player then secretly arranges their pieces on the starting positions of their choice before starting play. Powers include the ability to move through obstacles, switch with other pieces, push other pieces, attract other pieces, not allow other pieces to move adjacent, move diagonally, and more.

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Sun Oct 15, 2017 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: HUNGER: The Show

Michał Ozon
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Hello, everyone! We at PHALANX fell in love with HUNGER: The Show from the first play. This fast-paced family/filler game with a catchy story and rich player interaction debuted at the UK Games Expo in June 2017 ahead of being featured at SPIEL '17 in October, and I have asked Pim Thunborg to write a few words about the design and publishing process from the author's perspective. I hope this may be inspiring for all of you who dream about publishing their first board game!



As a board game designer, you often get struck by game ideas many times a day. You see a game mechanism that maybe you can build a game around, or a real life happening that you think can be remodeled into a board game. From that start, it often takes months or years before you have a core game ready. Of course, some of the starting ideas may still be part of the game, but a lot has changed.

None of this was true for HUNGER...

The main idea for HUNGER came right out of the blue. In just one thought, 90% of what is still the core mechanism and the game was clear. This is absolutely unique and maybe a part of why this game has been so highly appreciated by the playtesters. It was right from the start.

But of course, there is a lot of testing and remaking to make a great game. This will be shown in this board game diary.

2015-03-21: A New Game Is Born
I had worked for over a year on a board game that I still haven't finished — then the idea hit me: a game on a desolate island where you have to predict what the other players will do to be successful. Simultaneous actions. No tactic is stronger than another. No advanced rules. No downtime. The game was born.

My first working name for the game was the inappropriate "HYSTD — I hope you starve to death", which I already knew was soon going to be changed.

2015-03-23: The First Artwork
After two days, my first artwork and the rules were finished. All I needed was some free clip art, and I had a start.

The first card artwork, showing the action and the areas

2015-03-24: Working Process
The following month was full of playtesting and mathematical Excel sheets. I think I wrote nine versions of the rules in the first month, mostly to balance the amount of food a player should start with versus the food you got when you collected food or stole from the other players. From the beginning, the game was solely about being the player who survived the longest, that is, being the last player who still had food.

The first prototype of HUNGER

2015-04-04: A New Name
I scrapped the initial name I had, and the new name was no less than "HUNGER", which remained the name of the game.

The name was born

2015-05-24: LinCon Board Game Convention
I visited one of the bigger board game conventions in Sweden: LinCon. The game was something of a success from the start, and a lot of players liked it because the gameplay was fast and smooth and the game mechanism was intuitive. One skilled illustrator, Patrik Hultén, liked the game so much that he promised to illustrate some new art for the game. After the convention, I felt that I really had something going here. Maybe I had the hit I had always dreamt about.

Playtesters at LinCon 2015; illustrator Patrik Hultén is on the right

2015-07: New Artwork
Patrik Hultén illustrated new artwork for the cards that truly lifted the game. You shouldn't underestimate the importance of a good-looking game. The first impression is important, even if you are only trying to impress a publisher or test players.

New artwork for the actions: hunt, collect fruits, fish, guard, and steal

2015-08-12: Making Contacts for SPIEL
I was convinced that I had a game that was good enough for publishers to want to publish, so I contacted some publishers before SPIEL and booked meetings with them.

The info sheet that I sent out to land meetings

2015-10-08: SPIEL in Essen
I had mixed feelings after my six meetings at SPIEL. I got a lot of positive feedback, but no one wanted the game. They felt that something was missing. It was too streamlined, which I think is a rather uncommon problem in the world of board game design. Often, they have too many mechanisms, too many things going on, etc. But this time there weren't enough things going on. To play only not to starve was too morbid, and the game needed at least one more dimension.

A little crowded at SPIEL

2015-11: Thinking and Not Enough Playtesting
I was still convinced that I had a game that was something special. I just had to kick it up to the next level. I started to try a lot of new mechanisms. Here are some of the ideas:

Building pacts: Failure

Make the game last three rounds and try to build a raft during this time: Failure

Add coconuts if an action failed: Success (and still in the game)

During the period of experimentation, I also sent the game out to publishers, which afterwards I regretted. The game was not stable, and I should have playtested it more before sending it out. From being too streamlined, it got too complicated. The smooth play experience was lost, and that was the most important part to save to get the game really good. You can't add mechanisms that slow down a fast-paced game because that ruins the game.

After a lot of thinking and more playtesting, we got back to the core and added a new action that didn't impact the fast pace but still gave more dimension to the game. We added the raft. Instead of playing until just one player has any food left, a player can also win by building a raft. We had to take away something, and the fishing action was the one that got removed. Finally, we had found something that saved the fast-paced feeling but still added a new dimension. The game and I got new life.

New action: looking for raft pieces

2016-05-04: LinCon Again
For this convention, I arranged the first Swedish championship for HUNGER. (It was also the first ever HUNGER tournament, but why not make it the Swedish championship?) Again, I got very positive feedback from the playtesters and I felt that I had finally got it. Patrik Hultén also did some complimentary illustration with the tokens, etc. I did more adjustments after the feedback and was proud of what HUNGER had become.

The first and hopefully not last Swedish championship for HUNGER

2016-06-06: Contacting Publishers
Now it's time to show some numbers of the work so far, and I want to point out that this is a simple game:

• 38 versions of the rules
• 4 bigger changes to the game mechanism and core mechanism
• 142 different versions of the sets of cards, tokens, and game board
• Hundreds of mails
• 2 journeys to Essen and 6 conventions in Sweden for playtesting
• Many, many, many hours of cutting prototypes

I felt ready to contact more publishers and sent this message:

Hi, my name is Pim and I want to show you my game Hunger.

Hunger is a fantastic family game or a perfect filler game. For 2-6 players ▪ Ages 7 and above ▪ 20 minutes. After a few years of developing I have made something I'm proud of, and I really want to share with you. I hope you will enjoy it.

The story: You are stranded on a desolate isle, unfortunately not with your best friends. Your goal is to build a raft and get as far away from the island as possible. And you really don't care what happens to the others as long as you get furthest away from the island. But you need to find wood and rope to build the raft, and collect food to stay alive. You have a few tins of food to start with, but you will soon be very hungry. You can collect fruit or hunt chickens to get more, or why not just borrow some from your friends, obviously without their permission.

Mechanic: This is what makes the game so broadly appreciated both of gamers but also non-gamers, families and children. It's fun, fast, smooth and have no downtime, with a lot of player interactions. The players simultaneously choose what action they will do and on which area of the island they will do the action. It's somewhat similar to stone, scissor, and paper but with more depth. To success, the players have to predict what the other players will do, but it's not enough with that. To win you have to collect most parts for the raft, but if you put too much focus on that you will start to starve. So the player has to balance these two needs to success through the game. If you play a lot of games, the best player will win most of them, but in a single game, a 6 year old can beat anyone, which makes it fun for everyone.

The unique: I have done a lot of playtesting with non-gamers, families and game groups and on conventions. And really, everybody likes it. It is a great game for everybody's bookshelf and I really believe that Hunger will be a hit.

More information: The link will show both the rules, info-sheet and also a full complete P&P version, if you want to know what it looks likes. The other link is to my youtube site where you can look at an introduction to the game. You are also welcome to visit my website for more information.

If you have any questions, want a prototype or want to meet me, you are welcome to contact me. I will come to Essen (2016-10-13 – 2016-10-16).

2016-06-20: Yoo-hoo Moment
Suddenly, a mail from PHALANX, the mail all game designers are waiting for:

Dear Joakim,
We like your game and want to publish Hunger!
What are your business terms?

2016-08-20: Contract
Some more discussions and finally...

Happy me holding a board game contract

2016-10-21: Changes in the Rules
After a meeting with the publisher in Essen and a lot of mail discussions and after PHALANX's own playtesting, an illustrator is suggested. No less than Robert Adler. We discuss both big and small subjects about the game: Are we going to keep the theme or change it? The following themes were discussed: The Lost series, Robinson Crusoe, vampires, etc. In the end, PHALANX chose HUNGER: The Television Show.

We also talked about changing game mechanisms like adding variable player powers, secret agendas, different scenarios, and a lot more.

2017-02-01: BoardGameGeek
Now was the time to submit the game to the BGG database. I had to submit myself as the designer as weell. There was also a first vision of the box.

The nice game designer badge on BGG

First vision of the box

2017-02-01: Making Retailers Interested
The game was shown at the Spielwarenmesse Toy Fair in Nürnberg, Germany with good results. PHALANX also added two new rules after more playtesting:

• Events that may bring the end of the game early from the 6th to the 11th round, while making a mess on the island. This works really great as players now have to work for both food and raft parts from the very beginning of the game.
• Different player powers to create some differences between the characters.

Playtesting kit at the time

2017-03-02: Box and Rules
More artwork is coming up, along with discussion about the box and proofreading the rules and info text...

Different box designs, none of which survived to the end

I learned that the release would be at the UK Games Expo, which took place June 2-4, 2017. It felt so great that my game would finally be released.

The final concept

2017-06-02: UK Games Expo
Release party, with more to come!

Thanks for reading!

Pim Thunborg
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Sat Oct 14, 2017 1:05 pm
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Printing Your SPIEL '17 Picks

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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BGG's SPIEL '17 Preview is nearing one thousand listings, and given that I'll be updating the preview for one more week — and that my inbox has recently been hit with plenty of late submissions — I'm sure that we'll pass that total before SPIEL '17 opens on Thursday, October 26.

Scott has updated the preview with an export function that generates a CSV list of whatever you're looking at. To get a concise list of your picks, use the prioritization buttons as you like, sort the list as you like, then use the filters to see only what you like, then export the list and print it.

I hope you've been enjoying all the designer diaries and game previews that I've been running. If so, you'll enjoy what's coming next week as I'm doing more of the same in order to give you an advance look at as many SPIEL '17 releases if possible. If not, well, I invite you to watch this fascinating video that demonstrates an unusual painting technique:

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Sat Oct 14, 2017 5:05 am
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SPIEL '17 Preview: HATSUDEN, or Energizing Found Cities

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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I try to avoid reading or watching reviews of games that I want to play. I prefer to approach such a game with a blank slate — beyond whatever info or description inspired me to want to play the game in the first place! — because I want to develop my own opinions about a game instead of seeing it through a frame that someone else has already constructed.

I take this same approach for books and movies, and it's served me well. Seeing both Inception and Interstellar in the theater, for example, while knowing nothing about the movies other than the director (which is what placed the movie on my "must watch" list) was ideal. Watching the trailers for these movies afterward confirmed the rightness of my approach because I would have hated to have been primed with the material included in them.

(I realize that including this preface in a detailed preview of a game might be contradictory, but if you were like me, then you wouldn't be reading this preview anyway!)

Sometimes, though, you can't help seeing comments about a game, and a single line might be all it takes to put that frame in place. With HATSUDEN, for example, a two-player card game from Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka that was released by itten and New Games Order at Tokyo Game Market in May 2017, I saw a couple of people refer to the game as playing like Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities. Boom — frame established!

When I finally got around to reading the rules of the copy I had purchased at TGM, I didn't see the connection. Sure, you're playing cards in five different columns based on the symbols on them, but that seemed like a weak link.

Then I actually played the game, and after completing three games with the same opponent, the connection was clear. What's more, without prompting, after the game my opponent said, "That kind of felt like Lost Cities, didn't it?"

So what's going on in the game to make that link? In the game, you're competing to provide more renewable energy in five types than the opponent is, while also supplying your two cities with exactly as much power as they need. Provide too little, and you're penalized at the end of the game; provide too much, and you'll have to take a power source offline so as not to blow the city's transformers, which might then put you behind the opponent in a particular energy type.

Set up for play, aside from having my cards revealed

To set up, you lay out the five energy cards to indicate where the columns will be, give each player two cities (to show where you'll place your own cards), shuffle the four technology cards, then give each player a random hand of five cards. Cards are numbered 1-4 in the five energy types, and each number appears twice. On a turn, you play one card from hand in one of four ways:

• Place a card face up in an empty space in the column that matches the symbol on the card.
• Upgrade an existing card by playing a card on top of it that has the same symbol, but a higher number.
• Place a card face down in a space as a pylon; this pylon supplies no energy, can never be upgraded, and serves only to fill one of the ten spaces on your side of the playing area.
• Discard a card face up from play.

At the end of your turn, draw a new card to bring your hand to five, whether from the top of the deck or any discarded card of your choice.

In Lost Cities, you don't compete directly with the opponent when laying down cards and attempting to build profitable expeditions. You build yours, and they build theirs, and at the end of the game you both tally your points to see who wins. However, a large part of the tension in the game comes from you not knowing which eight cards the opponent holds. You might have two great cards to start a particular expedition, but what if the high value cards of that color are in the opponent's hands? You could be setting yourself up for failure and left scrambling for enough cards just to cover your sunk costs.

What if the opponent has already started an expedition and you have a single middle-value card of that color? You don't want to discard the card because they'll pick it up and profit from it, yet you might not want to play it either because you're both cutting off the chance to play low-value cards and risking being stranded if they hold the goods. What to do, what to do?

Great minimalist design

This tension is what HATSUDEN shares with Lost Cities. Once you commit cards to both slots in a particular type of energy, your opponent knows what they need to tie or surpass you. Yes, you can upgrade those slots to larger numbers, but by doing so, you're giving up the opportunity to build something else.

What's worse, each time you place a card in a row, you need to sum all the cards in that row. If the value is 12 or higher, then you must convert one or more face-up cards in that row into pylons so as not to overload the city. Did you just lose a majority somewhere else to gain one here? Possibly, but sometimes you are able to flip down a card that you don't need for a majority because the opponent has already committed in that type of energy and you're holding the sole card that they could use to overtake you. In addition, aside from fighting for majorities, you want the power for each city to sum to ten. Sums of 9 and 11 are also valid and don't cost you points at the end of the game (whereas a sum of 8 or under costs you 1 point), but if a city's power does sum to 10 at game's end, then you score 1 point for it.

A point here, a point there — it doesn't sound like much, but you will likely score at most 5 points in the game overall, so every point matters.

Iconic technology cards

Another minor similar to Lost Cities comes from HATSUDEN's technology cards. In Lost Cities, each color has handshake cards that can double, triple, or quadruple the value of an expedition, but they can be played only before any number cards for that expedition have been laid down. In essence, you have to increase your risk before being sure that the effort will pay off (although sometimes you already have the cards you need in hand).

HATSUDEN has four special technology cards, and when you play a 4 of any type of energy, you draw one of the cards at random from the tiny deck and add it to your hand. One card ("Smart") must be played immediately, and it doubles the value of that type of energy at game's end, making it worth 2 points instead of 1. The other cards stay in your hand until you want to play them: One lets you play an energy card face down so that the opponent doesn't know your strength in that type of energy; another lets you have up to 12 energy in a city, giving you more leeway to overpower the opponent in one or two columns; and another lets you downgrade a power plant. This last card is great because sometimes you lock in a type of energy early, then the opponent uses it to bury cards as pylons or otherwise cede it to you — yet because you played high cards in that column, you have less freedom due to the city limits to play cards elsewhere. Downgrading a 4 to a 1 opens up more room for plays elsewhere.

All of these technology cards are good, but to get them, you have to commit to an energy by laying down a 4, which locks out opportunities elsewhere.

The final point of connection between Lost Cities and HATSUDEN is the endgame. In Lost Cities, the game ends when the deck runs out, so you're often in the position of wanting to delay the game to play more of the cards in hand (so you pick up discarded cards instead of drawing from the deck) or you're trying to run out the clock to stuff the opponent and possibly draw cards that they might need.

In HATSUDEN, once a player fills all ten spaces on their side of the board, the opponent gets one more turn, then you score points, with each 10-power city being worth 1 point and the majority in an energy type being worth 1 point (unless something is doubled). That clock in the form of your opponent's board is staring you in the face all game, and you need to keep watching it so that you don't find yourself stuck with good cards that would have helped you, but...whoopsy daisy, you lost, lost in the cities...
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Fri Oct 13, 2017 6:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Launching the Exodus Fleet

Gabriel Cohn
United States
Santa Cruz
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Exodus Fleet is my baby. It's the first real game I designed, and I absolutely love it.

Now, of course, I've already lied. Exodus Fleet wasn't really my first game. Robbery! was. (Yes, it had an exclamation point.) I made that game 22 years ago as a junior in high school. My friends and I spent days creating stacks of cards and chits and a giant board, played the game once, decided it was awful, and chucked it on a shelf.

Upon moving to North Carolina in 2009 and finding I had lots of alone-time in my new environment, and having rediscovered my love of games over my previous five years of living in the SF Bay Area — thanks to Ira Fay, who also happens to be the main co-designer of Robbery! — I decided to pull Robbery! down from the shelf (yes, it still bore the exclamation point after a dozen years) and try to make it a "playable" game. This was a reasonably low bar, and it let me practice some of the basics of game design. I got it to a playable state, but it wasn't moving me…

That's when I set out to make a game that I would want to play. Thus began the journey of the Exodus Fleet.

From the start, I knew I wanted to meet a few clear goals:

(1) It had to be fun. I mean, I wanted it to be so fun that I would want to play it over and over. I'm not someone who buys a ton of games, so I aim for games with a lot of replayability.
(2) I wanted a smooth integration of theme and mechanisms. There needs to be some degree of logic in how player actions represent something in the "real world" of the game.
(3) I wanted a high degree of player interaction. In other words, players' actions need to impact each other.

Of course, having considered these goals, I had to take them on in reverse order.

My first hurdle was to figure out how I would keep everyone involved. A few of my favorite games sprang to mind, and I liberally grabbed ideas. Most importantly, I latched onto the ideas of role selection and auctions as methods to keep everyone involved all the time, but rather than just having one or the other, why not both? Thus, Exodus Fleet features role selection, in which one player chooses the phase everyone will be involved in, and auctions, with everyone bidding on how much they want to perform that action. Players are constantly tracking each other's needs and goals so that they can outsmart each other in the flow of the game from one action to the next.

Player interaction — solved! I'm really proud that Exodus Fleet manages to keep every player involved in every moment of the game.

A few of the ships available for purchase in a typical game.
(Can I say that I love the way the art turned out? I guess I just said it...)

But a game is more than just mechanisms. From the start, I was working with a vision for the world of the game. Exodus Fleet is set in the future. It's a grim world, one in which humanity's best hope is to escape from Earth. (In fact, the original name of the game was "Leaving Earth" — not to be confused with Joe Fatula's game that beat mine to the punch. Oops.) Players take on the role of the leaders of a fleet of ships setting off to explore the galaxy, and they want to take as many people with them as possible.

From this nugget of an idea, I began tweaking the mechanisms to fit the story of the game. Eventually, the game boiled down to five actions that one can take: gather income, mine planets for resources, use those resources to build more ships, transport people off Earth, and explore deep space. Except for income, each of these actions requires hiring people within the fleet — miners, builders, transporters, or explorers — and that's where the role selection and auctions come in.

Theme and mechanisms united — check! Yup, this part of the process came off smoothly. The actions make sense in the world of the game. If you want to mine, you need to hire miners. To do that, you need to outbid your opponents, and when you hire them, you have to have somewhere to store your resources. Did I mention that each ship has a limited amount of storage capacity? That's another factor to take into account as you look around the table.

A standard array of planets displayed on the central board

As I said, one of my main markers for whether a game is fun is the level of replayability. Exodus Fleet definitely packs a punch there. The game features ten different possible starting Command Ships, two different decks of ships that can be built, and a whole bunch of Explorer Cards that can range from occasionally useful to game-changing. Some of the most significant decisions lie in how you build up your fleet: Will you pick ships within one faction, which synergize for more points, or ones that work together to increase the power of particular actions? The random order in which ships are presented for purchase means that players have to reconsider their strategies from game to game. That was a strong point of the game from day one, and something that players seemed to universally enjoy.

One of the player boards for a four-player game
At this point, all of my base game concepts were working smoothly, but alas, I had to make the game fun FOR EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. And that…well, it was more of a struggle. (Apologies to my early playtesters, especially my most frequent one, my wife.) Initial versions of the game were fun for many of the players, and I was quite happy with it, but as I watched with a better and better eye over time — remember, this was my first real attempt at game design — I realized that what many reported as fun, others experienced as misery. It all came down to how the role selection and auctions mixed. (Yes, for those of you creeped out by bidding games, this is the part where I make it a bit less daunting.)

In the earliest versions of the game, players were forced to place face-down bids simultaneously on six different areas. One of those bids — for the "Fleet Admiral" position — gave players the right to control the order in which the other bids happened. (Imagine bidding on the Governor card in Puerto Rico, more or less.) This could make your day or ruin it.

There was definitely a thrill to this version of the game, but there were a number of players who would bid a lot to become the Fleet Admiral and fail, basically ruining the rest of their round, and often their game. They would still report that they enjoyed some things about the game, but I could see that they were often checked out by the time the game ended.

A mid-game set-up from what I first showed publishers at Gen Con 2011;
I can't believe anyone showed interest in it back then!

The auctions needed a fresh approach. First, the Fleet Admiral bidding had to go; players now rotate making decisions on phases. Eventually, the idea that all the phases needed to happen in any sort of particular order fell by the wayside, too. Players can now freely pick any of the actions when it's their turn to choose, with the exception that they can't pick the one that just happened. This frees up so much space to explore different ways to play the game that I'm shocked I didn't come up with it earlier. Some games can be income heavy, others feature a ton of exploring, but all of them feature this element: You have to pay attention to the other players. Anticipating their moves by studying the flow of actions around the table is one of the keys to winning.

Explorer Cards that can
provide hidden advantages
And bidding! The bidding had to be solved. Bidding on six different things at once was out, but even so, placing blind face-down bids could be too chaotic for players who had trouble reading the intentions of their opponents.

Eventually, I hit on a much simpler method: Bids are now placed face-up, one at a time, going once around the table. This solution creates interesting decisions for players to engage in, especially as positional play becomes important. For each of the actions, the lowest bidder is automatically excluded from participating. (They get their money back, plus a small consolation prize.) This means that the first player to bid plays a large part in setting the "over-under" bar around which other players base their decisions.

What's more, this player is also going to choose which action to pursue next. There's lots of opportunities to use this to your advantage; an overwhelming bid can get you into the current action AND you get to choose the next one, or a bid that's right at the pain point of your opponents can force them to drain their reserves, setting you up for an uncontested action on the next phase. In the end, this new form of bidding and the freedom to choose among any of the actions creates a dynamic game in which every decision you make impacts the play of those around you.

Finally, mission accomplished — a fun game! I'm excited for people around the world to be able to play it. I learned a lot along the way, but in the end, I'm just happy that I managed to make a game that keeps players so intensely invested in every moment of the game from start to finish and can be played repeatedly for years to come. (Really. I recently played Exodus Fleet eight times in a 24-hour period, all with new players, and several of them joined in multiple times.) I hope you enjoy the game, and I look forward to hearing the chatter about it as it hits the table at SPIEL '17 and beyond. Thanks for reading!

Gabriel J. Cohn

P.S.: I'm sad I won't be at SPIEL for the release — teaching doesn't allow for much time off — but I hope y'all will hit me up for a game at BGG.CON this year!

A game at Pacificon 2017
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Fri Oct 13, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Arkham Noir: Case #1 – The Witch Cult Murders, or Crafting a Cthulhu-Free Case

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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H.P. Lovecraft's work has been stripmined repeatedly by game designers and publishers around the world, and why not since the stories are rich with atmosphere, can be applied to numerous types of games, and require no royalty payments to be made for use of the work.

Don't answer it
Designer Yves Tourigny has decided to reframe these stories as noir detective tales featuring Howard Lovecraft in the lead role for a series of solitaire games suitably titled Arkham Noir. Tourigny has self-published two of these games — The Real Leeds and The King in Yellow — and Spanish publisher Ludonova is bringing a third case to market as Arkham Noir: Case #1 – The Witch Cult Murders.

In the game, you are confronted with a handful of victims, and you must create multiple chains of clues that lead you from their cold corpses to the discovery of puzzle pieces that will allow you to solve these cases. Your opponents in these efforts are time and your own well-being. Once five units of time pass, another victim appears on the scene; after five victims, you get to be victim #6, thus ending the game. When you encounter certain clues in the game, you're called upon to perform stability checks, and should you fail five of those, then your mind takes a vacation.

The set-up takes a bit of finagling to get everything in the right place, but the player aid cards include lots of directions and reminders that assist during play, and they also help you monitoring the progress on each victim's case.

In the game, you're confronted with two victim cases right off the bat, along with a line of five clues and a hand of three clues. Each clue is one of six types, and most clues have a mandatory (in black) or voluntary (in brown) action depicted on them. On a turn, you pick up the first clue card in the line, then you do something with it:

• Play it onto an open victim case.
• Take it in hand, then if you hold more than three cards, discard a card.
• Discard it.
• Discard it, then play a clue card from your hand to an open case.
• Discard it, then close a case.

You might notice lots of discarding mentioned above. Whenever you discard a card for any reason that bears an hourglass in the lower-right corner, you must place it in the time area; at the end of your turn, if you have five or more cards in this area, you place them all in the discard pile, then add a new victim to your caseload. Only five victims are available, so don't dawdle! (I'm not sure how you know that the supply of victims is limited, but perhaps someone wrote a threat backwards inside your bathroom mirror. Let's say it was that.)

Sample line-up at the start of play

To play a clue onto a case, the symbol on the left-hand edge of the new clue card must be present on the right-hand edge of the rightmost card in that victim's case. You're following the clues, right? An interview with someone leads to a strange object, then you research that object to find an otherworldly location, and so forth. Some clues have "any" on their left edge, so thankfully you can always enter an alley or discover a fetid odor.

Some cards have a large "3" on them, and you can place these cards only if at least three clue cards are already in the case. Other cards have locks on them, and these can be placed on a case only if you have an unused key in the line — and while you might wonder why you're bothering with locks when you're trying to solve a murder, the lock cards are the only ones with the puzzle pieces, and you need those pieces to win.

But getting the keys to then open the locks and find the pieces is not enough! You must actually close a case in order to make progress. After all, no one will believe your wild rantings about a crime victim unless you've actually closed the case. To do this, however, you need to have at least five clue types in the case (to cover every possible objection to your detecting efforts, I presume); what's more, you can score the puzzle pieces only if doing so would not leave you with fewer than five clue types. In other words, you can find the puzzle pieces only while working on a case, but the clue types of puzzle pieces can't the grounds on which your case rests.

Sample clue cards

The game includes only six types of clues, and two of them appear only half as often as others, so you want to track them closely — but the clues are being presented to you in a random order, of course, so it will take lots of diligence to (a) match the icons on the cards while (b) putting together a full set of clues and (c) duplicating the clue types of the puzzle pieces so that you can score them and (d) suffering under the strain of long investigations. Oh, yes, the longer a case goes on, the more your mind starts going to pieces. In game terms, for each clue card you add to a case after the seventh, you must undergo a stability check, something mentioned way back in paragraph #3 that will add to your woes now.

Each time you add a clue card to a case, you must undertake any mandatory actions on it, with these being to discard a card from your hand or the face-up clue line (losing time along the way should they bear an hourglass) or to undergo a stability check. To do this, reveal the top card of the clue deck and look for a silhouetted detective in anguishing pain. That's you, losing your mind. If you find one of these, place it out of play in the stability area. If it lacks this icon, it might still have an hourglass, so you can still suffer in a less painful way.

Deck breakdown and icon explanation

Voluntary actions are plentiful, and they typically involve you taking a card from somewhere — the discard pile, the time zone, the stability area, a closed case — and adding it to your hand. While this sounds beneficial (and often is), if you have a full hand, then you must discard a card to do this, possibly costing you time, and even if it doesn't, you'll have to discover a clue card anyway to use a card in your hand, and that might cost you time instead. Nothing is good for you, and everything causes you to suffer, and that's precisely what Tourigny wants.

I've played The Witch Cult Murders three times on a review copy from Ludonova, and I think I won once, but I probably goofed along the way. The gameplay seems relatively simple — take the first clue card in the line, then do something — yet the possibilities multiply like tentacles in the oven, with you from the first turn staring at two victims (each with two icons) and three clue cards in hand (with at least two icons on each) and five clue cards in a line (again, icons), with you trying to find a way to get keys into a case (should any be visible) so that locks can follow (and you always seem to get locks first) while also having at least five clue types in a case while not having cases go on too long since you have stability checks and (I haven't mentioned this yet) all cards in a closed case are removed from the game. Yes, that's the topper. Not only must you double up on clues in order to grab the puzzle pieces, but all those non-puzzle cards are out of play — and any time that the clue deck runs out, you must shuffle all the discards, then add a new victim to your caseload.

More clue cards

Oh, and to win five puzzle pieces alone aren't enough; you must have five puzzle pieces bearing five different types of clues. (I had overlooked this detail earlier, so that's likely why my win needs an asterisk.)

With nearly every clue played, your stability and time management is being challenged, and when they aren't, you're trying to figure out all the iterations of how cards could be played should you take this or that voluntary action. It's enough to drive someone mad, I tells ya!
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Thu Oct 12, 2017 8:00 pm
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Publisher Diary: Nomads, or From Jeju to Luma

Anne-Cécile Lefebvre
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The Beginning

In June 2016, Cédric, Ian, and I — the three who comprise the Ludonaute team — first played Jeju Island, a game published by our Korean partner Happy Baobab in 2015.

We immediately felt in love with the mechanisms and the smart style of the game, which was designed by Gary Kim, Jun-Hyup Kim, and Yeon-Min Jung. It is an easy to learn and very interactive game, mainly intended for families and children, about traveling around Jeju Island — the most beautiful island in Korea — and gathering specialty items. The mechanisms are based on awalé games and are very smart. The art is cute and charming, very Korean-style.

At this time, we were starting to set up The Legends of Luma world and game line. The idea of this collection is to tell a big story through a series of games, with the same characters appearing throughout. We have six heroes (Moon, Lys, Siana, Red, Nostromo and Ulrich) who explore a new fantasy world, trying to figure out why they have been sent there. We had a story and a world, and we were looking for games that could be integrated into the collection.

We had the first game of the collection: Oh Captain!, which covers the arrival of our heroes on Luma's world. Oh Captain! is a bluffing game, fun and chaotic. We were looking for a more peaceful and quiet game to tell the story of their journey with the Nomads through the mountains of Luma. Play Jeju, to use another of the game's names, seemed to meet the main criteria we had for the range: a duration of less than one hour, not too many components, and easy to play.

But of course we couldn't just change the title. For the first time, Ludonaute worked on an adaptation of an already-published game. It has been a very interesting experience for us, and it's what I would like to tell you about in this post.

Moving from Jeju Island to Luma: Changing the Theme

We first thought that instead of traveling on Jeju Island, the players could travel on Luma. But the trip is circular in Play Jeju, whereas our heroes travel from Kokota to Wilango, two different places in Luma. Thus, the game board couldn't be a map of Luma. Despite finding another way to transform this game into Luma's world, you'll see that we did not completely give up this idea of traveling between locations.

Since the six characters are traveling with nomads, we assume that at night they set up camp and gather around the fire. Well, that is the perfect place to tell stories and legends. What if they sat around a huge fire with different groups? The atmosphere of such a background fits perfectly with the kind of feelings we wanted to pass on in this game.

Thus, the Jeju tiles became Story tiles and the point cards that players try to claim with Jeju tiles became Legend cards that you capture through stories. The game now tells of an evening gathering with the nomads instead of a tourist trip on Jeju Island. The game's name would obviously become "Nomads".

That was the easy part.

Party of Six: Changing the Number of Players

Since the "Legends of Luma" story has six characters, we first tried to increase the maximum number of players from four to six by simply adding 2x2 additional tokens and 40 tiles. Alas, this "simple" approach raised a big problem: The game became very chaotic with six players and lasted far too long, leading to them losing interest.

Looking at the game again, we saw another approach. Play Jeju has one special object, the Harubang statue, which moves on the board and sometimes triggers a bonus effect. What if the Harubang statue could be represented by one of our characters? And if so, which one? Well, Lys, the old and noble woman of the party, is the most calm and impressive character. She stands up and supervises the evening.

With Lys represented by the game itself, the other five characters would be player options, which meant that Nomads would be playable from two to five players. The gameplay, however, felt very different depending on the number of players. To prevent the gameplay changing this way, we tried to have different set-ups based on the player count, but doing so meant not only having different numbers of tiles, but also a different number of spots on the game board.

In principle, this wouldn't be an issue. We have a fixed box size and shape for this line, which means we're limited in the size of the game board that we can include, but we puzzled things out to have double-sided game board pieces that could be assembled in different ways according to the number of players. In this way, we could have six, seven, or eight spots around the fire.

The problem was that this set-up was complicated and laborious — which is not a good way to create an "easy to learn" game.

We then hit upon another idea that allowed us to make the set-up the same for every player configuration. The whole party travels with the nomads all the way through the story, so let's make all of the characters present for the storytelling in the game as well, but those characters who aren't being played have fallen asleep around the campfire. In game terms, the story tiles that they would collect are simply discarded. With this rule, the game lasts the same duration in any player configuration and has the same set-up. Elegant, isn't it?

Less Chaos, More Tactics

The goal of the game is to collect the appropriate tiles on the board in order to take point cards. To do so, on their turn, a player sows a stack of discs (that must contain one of their discs) on the various spots. After this move, every player who has a disc on the top of a stack collects the tile next to this stack, even during another player's turn.

Collecting the tiles can be very tactical since you have to try to stay at the top of the stacks as often as possible, while burying your opponents' discs under yours or under the neutral discs. This is the part of the mechanisms we did not change.

Regarding the point cards, in Play Jeju, they are revealed at random from the deck in a row of five cards, and you have no idea which card will be available next. Moreover, some cards have special effects such as refreshing all the point cards in play or acting as an everlasting Jeju tile. We felt that this part of the game could be frustrating. For the audience we aimed at with Nomads, we were looking for a little bit more control.

The first change we made was to have all the point cards available at the beginning of the game for all the players so that you know exactly what is available and when. This engages a race between the players.

In Play Jeju, the point cards require you to discard different tiles to claim them, and it was difficult to have a big picture of which tile would be of most interest for you at which moment in the game. What's more, because some point cards had joker spaces that could be satisfied by any tile, sometimes getting one tile or another did not matter, which seemed a pity.

So we changed the requirements of the point cards into identical tiles, with the option of upgrading a card worth few points into a higher point card during the game. This brought more choices to players: Should I get this low point card now before another player gets it, or should I wait to have more tiles of this type to get a higher point card, even if I am not sure that I can collect enough tiles?

Moreover, by creating legend tiles this way, we were able to have continuous legends with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We could really tell stories with the cards, so that is what we did.

The third change was to split point cards and special effect cards in order to create a dilemma over which to acquire, but this change created a pattern in the gameplay that was not so good; players simply took the effect cards during the first part of the game, then the point cards during the second part. Thus, we decided to have only point cards (songs and legends) and to instead place the special effects on the character cards.

Tension and Competition

Scoring in Play Jeju is nice and encouraging. At the end of the game, you count your point cards and every pair of remaining tiles.

We wanted to prevent players from collecting as many tiles as possible without thinking through a strategy, so we imposed a penalty of one negative point per remaining tile at the end of the game. This may seem nasty, but in fact it increased the competition and the tension at the end of the game — and we liked this change of mood in the game flow. At a certain point, players suddenly try not to get too many tiles. There is now a twist, and they play the movement phase differently from the beginning of the game.

We wanted to introduce progress into the game. Of course the tiles that disappear and the race for the point cards give the game a smooth progression, but we felt like the game was made of two parts: before and after the twist. Then came the idea of having this twist several times during the game. What if we do not attend one evening gathering, but several? After all, the journey of the characters from Kokota to Wilango lasts dozens of days, months even.

So we introduced new tiles, moon tiles that are now scattered among the story tiles. When four moon tiles have appeared, it's now the time of the full moon. Our characters do not change into werewolves, but rather they review their situation. There is an intermediary scoring that implies you can't afford to get behind with the legend cards too long. This new game rule brings a lot of tension and offers you choices.

The Cherry on the Cake

In Nomads, players are the heroes of Luma: Moon, Lys, Siana, Red, Nostromo and Ulrich. Each of them has their own personality, and we wanted to show this in every game of the collection. That means that a special ability for each character would be welcome.

For a long time during game development, the "special effects" were available via some of the point cards. At one moment, it seemed obvious that these special effects should be the special abilities of the characters. Thus, these effect cards became song cards, the only cards in the game that you can now acquire by discarding different tiles instead of identical ones. The game includes only four song cards, and each player can acquire only one. You might not want to get one too early in the game because they are worth less than the legend cards, but if you wait too long, you'll collect only a less valuable one or even none at all, which might leave you stuck with leftover tiles.

As for the special effects, it was easy to assign an effect to each character of the story:

• Nostromo has an extra disc: his pet frog.
• Siana is an acrobat, so she can jump over a spot.
• Red is a small boy, so he slips between the other characters.
• Ulrich is slow and heavy, so he can drop two discs at the same time.
• Moon is Lys' daughter, so she gets the bonus of the Lys token more easily than the others.

To conclude, after a year of playtests and design sessions, we are giving Play Jeju not a twin, but a brother: Nomads. Both come from the same family but they have quite different personalities. We thank Gary Kim a lot for his help and his kindness.

I think you did a really good job.
I like Play Jeju, but also like Nomads.
They have their own fun points!
Thanks to all of your efforts for this lovely game!
—Gary Kim
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