Both designer Cyrille Leroy and publisher Catch Up Games debuted in 2015 with the tile-laying game Sapiens. I previewed that title in this space in September 2015, and while I correctly remembered Leroy using domino-style tiles to challenge players in their efforts to build a tribal civilization, I misremembered that space in which players competed, thinking that everyone was competing on a shared playing area instead of having their own boards. How quickly memory fades...
Unlike that earlier game, the 2018 Leroy/Catch Up title Fertility does indeed feature a shared playing area, with players once again placing domino-style tiles to do things and score points. The games lasts nine rounds, and on a player's turn they must place one of their three tiles on the board next to something that's been played previously, matching at least one symbol on their tile with an adjacent symbol in play. The more you match, the more resources you receive — but everything you receive other than wheat must be spent the turn you get it.
Nearing the end of play, with monuments starting to spring up
Every player has their own metropolis that they develop over the course of the game, with each player starting with a few basic shops, then acquiring districts — sometimes for free, sometimes for the cost of any 1-2 resources — that bear more shops. By "spending" resources in these shops, you can earn points, increase the value of the resources you've used, collect more wheat, and record the presence of gods.
You want to specialize as you build, but you're restricted by the tiles available for drafting, the districts available for purchasing, and the opponents who will keep you from placing tiles where they'd be the most use to you.
My metropolis at game's end
In addition to scoring for districts, gods, and wheat — which sounds like the name of an obscure Fleetwood Mac cover band — players can place their monuments on the game board by enclosing a single square between tiles, wheat, water, and the edge of the playing area. Whoever places the most and secondmost monuments on the board scores a bonus. Instead of competing to be a big shot, though, you can grab a resource of your choice from an enclosed area, but I hardly think that one resource is going to make up for the seven or fifteen points a monument might bring, so stick with the monument plan, I think.
I've played Fertility only twice so far on a review copy from Catch Up Games, both times with two players. The game provides a quick challenge, with all the thinky moments that one might imagine: Which tile do you place and where? Which districts should you buy and where should you spend resources? Which tile do you grab next? It's a fine example of the genre, marred only by cardboard components that feel thin and that have cutouts too narrow to pull apart from the sprue in a satisfying manner, leaving you to pick slivers of cardboard from the monument parts in an extremely unmonumental way.
My party game Say Whaaat?! will debut from Drawlab Entertainment at SPIEL '18 in late October 2018. It's the latest version of a simple game I made almost 18 years ago. I'm really looking forward this new edition, and I'll explain why at the end of this post, but first please skim along as I take this opportunity to reflect on some highlights in the game's history.
I know most readers will not be familiar with my game. I hope aspiring designers and creative types in general will find something of interest. I will drop some names that will be recognized by those who have been in the hobby for a long time. Many friends I met along the way have gone on to enjoy a lot more success than I have, and I'm so grateful for the roles they played in the development of my game.
I jumped into game design with both feet over twenty years ago after discovering modern games like Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, and some abstracts. I was well aware most designers never made a lot of money with their designs, so money wasn't my main motivation. I kept at it because I loved games and I got many ideas the more that I played them. When I had an idea I thought was promising, I felt a responsibility to see it through. I wanted to see how far my ideas could go.
Also, I went into education — initially teaching high school math — hoping to encourage students to follow their dreams. I played many games with students at lunch, including ones I made. Telling them about my small successes and inviting them to take part at times was one of my favorite ways to do that.
I ended up using this particular game in school far more than any other. (Teachers might be interested in this recent blog post about the many ways that I and other educators have used the game in the classroom.)
2001: Einstein and What Matters Most
I used to keep all my game ideas, no matter how rough, in a text file on my computer. When I had time, I'd skim through them and flesh out any that sounded promising. For a long time I had a quote from Einstein written in that file. I've seen it worded different ways, but here's how I remember it now:
Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. That's relativity.
I found that fascinating, and I felt there had to be a game in it somewhere. Over time it developed into the idea of arranging random words relative to each other in some way. I eventually made a small deck of word cards and tried the core activity with my wife. She has always been my faithful encourager and ever-willing playtester. "Light" and "chocolate" were a couple of the words I recall. The question we used for that initial test was, "Which do you need most?" For each round, we'd draw five cards. One of us would rank them, and the other would try to guess the ranking.
There wasn't much to go on, but the idea had something to it. (Will Niebling gave a talk to the aspiring designers at an early Protospiel gathering. He called that elusive quality of promising games "a spark of life". That term has stuck with me whenever I'm playtesting games and deciding which ideas to pursue.)
After that brief playtest session, I remember thinking the question should be changed to "Which is most important?" From then on, the design became the party game of what matters most. I called it What's It to Ya?
In July 2001, five or six of us, all mutual friends of designer Stephen Glenn, met in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the first Protopsiel (which Stephen called "Protospiele" at the time). I didn't play What's It to Ya? there, but I learned that my prototypes looked terrible compared to the ones Dominic Crapuchettes and Greg Daigle made! I decided to spice mine up, drawing a couple characters in the shape of arrows named "Up" and "Down" and adding them to the ranking cards.
2002: James Droscha and The Low-Budget, Low-Risk Approach to Game Publishing
I built up the deck and kept trying the game with friends. One early playtest (again, as more of a ranking activity than a game) was with my friend Terry Carr. We laughed hysterically while we played. I was fascinated that a game about the most important things could be hilarious at times. I also saw how it could spark brief conversations and that I was learning things while we played.
As the rules were finalized, I considered the partnership game the official way to play. Players paired up and would score points by guessing each other's rankings. I worked out rules for groups of odd-numbered players, too. I have a fond memory of testing that version with a couple of students at a Taco Bell on our return trip from a chess tournament. All the playtests with students were a hit, which was very encouraging.
That summer I met James Droscha (who goes by James Kyle when designing) at the second Protospiel. Our guest of honor was expected to give a presentation back then, so James shared the process he went through to get his game HellRail to the world. In those days, before Kickstarter and POD services, an aspiring designer usually had to make connections with publishers or risk losing a fortune (and a ton of storage space) by self-publishing thousands of copies.
James' method was to slowly build up attention for a game by starting with a low-budget, hand-assembled print run. He printed and cut the cards for the first edition of HellRail himself. The game ended up in Games Magazine's "Games 100", which in turn led to a contract with Mayfair Games, then with Franjos.
I came home that summer excited to try the same thing with some of my designs. I called them Black & White Games and I sold them from Terry Carr's online game store, Fair Play Games. Near the holiday season, What's It to Ya? became the second title I produced following James' low-risk approach.
I remember getting some copies at Office Depot. For that first run, I printed only ten for a little less than $10. The low-risk and low-budget approach was just my style! I hoped the amount of fun in the little box would be perceived as a bargain.
Pictures of that first edition, which sold for $5
2003: Yes, It Really Is Fun
I made another print run of around thirty copies and sold them throughout the year. That will seem like a ridiculously slow pace, but I was always working on other games, learning what worked and hoping eventually one game would catch some attention.
I met Kory Heath and Dave Chalker at Protospiel that year. I especially owe them and Greg Daigle a huge thanks for their encouragement to keep moving forward with What's It to Ya? I used to start with a few blank cards and ask the group to write words on them before I even explained the rules. Kory wrote "Mike Petty" on one of the cards. They all felt awkward ranking me less important than telephones later in the game, but I understood.
About a month later, an up-and-coming reviewer, Tom Vasel, had some nice things to say about the game. Then at the end of the year Bernie DeKoven (author of The Well-Played Game and giver of the Major Fun Award) wrote a short positive review, too. I sold out my second print run at that time. One cherished memory was assembling those final copies with my family. My two children were only three and four, but they enjoyed folding the small boxes I used in that inexpensive edition.
2004: The Games 100
Terry Carr teamed up with me to make the second edition of What's It to Ya? He paid for a slightly better small printing of 250 copies at a local print shop. Scott Starkey (another designer who had joined the growing ranks of Protospiel regulars) provided the art for that edition, and I loved the style he brought to it. One of my favorite pictures from those cards is still my avatar here on BGG.
The second edition, with Scott Starkey's art
The highlight that year didn't come until November. I was overjoyed to learn then that my game had been selected for the "Games 100"! Just like my friend James, I had reached that milestone without paying a fortune. The remainder of our print run sold out quickly after that. I anticipated the next mile marker: Would a publisher show interest in the game?
No image included, but they picked it!
2005-2008: Making, Being Made, and Letting Go
It turns out publishers were not interested. I tried shopping it around for a few months, but eventually Terry and I decided to publish a quality edition ourselves. He graciously put up a considerable sum of money for it, and I did the legwork to bring the production together.
I wish I could say it was a huge success, but I soon found out I wasn't much of a game publisher. We took too long to get started and we lost momentum as the big shipment didn't show up at the Fair Play Games warehouse until late summer 2006.
The 2006 edition of What's It to Ya?
I had a ton of fun promoting that edition with many groups at that time. We were in local papers. I was able to watch many players have interesting conversations as they played, laughing and giving high-fives while pondering big ideas. I made videos about people playing and ran contests in the Fair Play newsletter. I used it to kick off lessons in school about values and priorities.
Watching people play and hearing how they think (or don't think) about values and preferences made me consider my own priorities. In time it changed how I think about life. I've had spiritual discussions with people during the game or I've used it as an example after the fact. Those reflections on what really matters and why have informed my theology.
But as much as I saw its value affirmed time and again, our efforts to promote it ended with less than stellar results. Some of our business and production decisions as well as my written rules hindered sales. I eventually concluded that print run would be the end of What's It to Ya?
Shortly after my decision to let it go, I got a call from Tim Walsh. He had enjoyed a lot of success with mass-market games years earlier and he was working as an agent at the time. He came across my game and contacted me. When we first talked, he told me he felt God brought us together at that time. I had a lot of respect for Tim's work and his faith, so I took that comment seriously. I was excited to see where he could take the game.
Tim was great to work with. Compared to working hard to make something happen, I only had to read his regular email updates. By late 2008, I was offered a contract from Find It Games for publication in North America.
2010-2012: Oh, Really!
They finally released my game in the middle of 2010 as Oh, Really!. My kids, now old enough to appreciate the significance, were excited when the big stack of designer copies arrived. They actually had never played the previous versions, so it was a memorable time for us as we enjoyed the game that day as a family.
I was grateful for their work, but honestly a few of the publisher's decisions about the rules and components left me scratching my head. That was the trade-off for letting someone else do the hard work of publication.
In time, we watched Tim promote the game on a morning news program. My son and I saw it on the shelf in a family bookstore that year, too. Seeing it in a store was a big deal for both of us since all of my other games sold online or through direct sales.
During this time, I made a number of digital resources for the classroom based on the game, and the subject-specific activities and lesson plans based on Oh, Really! were a popular section on my blog.
Though personally satisfying, these highlights didn't equate to significant sales, and the publisher eventually decided it didn't warrant a second printing. It was still a blessing to see that my simple idea had gone quite far. I realized it sometimes continued better without my efforts. I came to appreciate it as the gift that it was.
2016 to Present: It's Still Going
In the middle of 2016, two publishers contacted me about printing a new version of the game. I'm grateful to both of them for reaching out. I hadn't been focused much on game design in recent years and had done absolutely nothing to promote What's It to Ya? or push it to other publishers.
The first surprise email came from Happy Baobab, asking for rights to publish in Asia, then a couple of months later Drawlab Entertainment asked to publish in all other regions.
Happy Baobab's edition (which brought back the original title of What's It to Ya?) was released in late 2017 in Korean with English rules and translations on the cards. They were the first publisher to change my ranking mechanism. The previous editions had players use cards that represent the random words, and the player placed those cards in order from most important to least. Happy Baobab flipped that around, having the player place cards numbered 1-5 next to the word cards to signify relative importance. I had considered something like that many times, but always opted for the tried-and-true method. I agree now their new method is more intuitive.
They also decided not to include (or possibly they completely overlooked) the partnership rules. Because of that, some graphic design choices, and some of the card content, this has not been my favorite edition. I understand it was aimed at a different market, though, and I respect their decisions. They've sold a lot more games than I have!
I appreciated Zee Garcia's positive review of the game, but had to laugh when he said he wasn't familiar with the original game. I wondered if he asked his partner, Tom, about it. Maybe he would have remembered reviewing it fourteen years prior...
And that brings us to the new version coming out in October 2018. I'm really looking forward to Say Whaaat?! because:
• This is my first game officially being released at SPIEL. • They included the original partnership rules. Yes! (Most people tell me it's their favorite way to play.) • I love the look. I proofed the rules a couple of months ago, and I've been excited about it ever since. The team at Drawlab Entertainment did a great job!
I'm grateful to see the game is still going. I hope it results in much laughter, amusing thoughts, and fun conversations for those who discover it.
As SPIEL '18 gets ever closer — or rather, as I move ever closer to SPIEL '18, it being an event fixed in time whereas I travel through that substance in a predictable and mundane way — I find myself racing to preview as many games as possible. I receive samples of many titles that will be widely available at that show for the first time, and I play as many as I can in the time available to add a bit more information about this game or that to what's already available, especially since feedback from actually playing a game usually provides a better understanding for what it is compared to reading a description or the rulebook — at least I hope that's the case.
Yu Wang's Majolica from Blue Magpie Games sort of made sense after a first (and second) rules reading, which admittedly was undertaken by a Chinese-speaking guest who was presented with the rules upon arrival at my house and ordered to teach us the game. (I've now played the game a second time with English rules from the publisher.)
The basics of Majolica are straightforward: Draft tiles from a central pool, assign them to workshops, complete orders for points. If you've played games, then that won't be new to you. What is new is how the components are put together and how the logistical challenge of managing everything feels like an actual business — at least in one regard.
Each player has four workshops where they are creating tiles, with each workshop having a different condition for when the ovens are fired and tiles delivered to an order. The leftmost workshop needs two sets of three tiles, the next one three sets of two, then two sets of two, and finally one set of four. When a workshop is full, then it "runs" and delivers 1-3 tiles to the order currently assigned to it, after which it ships most or all remaining tiles to the next factory down the line. You can picture yourself being the owner of a chain of tile-firing workshops, and as one batch is completed, you deliver some to an order while restocking another workshop. (I'm not sure why you wouldn't fill the order completely from the tiles in hand, but I suppose you're trying to supply stock to multiple outlets so that you can partially satisfy all available customers instead of frustrating some by having nothing at all. That's how many businesses seem to work, after all: "Yes, you can certainly order that mattress. Just place a hold and down payment on that, and we guarantee we'll have the box spring in stock next week.")
As you draft tiles, you must assign them to a single workshop, and when it's full, it runs, shipping extras to the next one, and if that one is now full with the right combination of goods, it runs as well. As a business owner, you want to see everything humming along, with orders being filled regularly — but your ability to do that depends on whether you can draft the right tiles.
The central board has four copies of four colors of tiles in a 4x4 grid, and on a turn you draft either (1) one tile from an exterior part of the grid and a new order card that you must assign to a workshop, (2) one tile from an exterior part of the grid, with the ability to reassign orders as you wish at your workshops, or (2) all continuous tiles on one exterior edge, which in the picture above would be three tiles from whichever edge you chose. When you take more than one tile, you must place them in the same workshop, but since everyone's dipping into the same pool of raw materials, you can rarely take everything that you want at once.
I wish that I could play more than the two games I've played so far on a review copy from Blue Magpie Games, but other games need attention as well, so I'll pop this write-up in the kiln and make my way to the next workshop to keep going...
I've always enjoyed the "I split, you choose" board game mechanism: One player divides a group of items into smaller sets, but the other players then get to choose one of these sets first. It's a fabulous and underused concept most famously employed in the classic San Marco and more simply in New York Slice (formerly Piece o' Cake) — with games such as Coloretto, Isle of Skye, Castles of Man King Ludwig, and Biblios using a take on the system in their mechanisms.
Of these, I found Biblios most fascinating. One player takes as many cards as there are players (plus one) and they give one card to each player, while setting one on an auction pile for later — but what makes the decision delicious is that you see only one card at a time, so you have to allocate them as they come out, adding a big "press your luck" element to the game (another mechanism I really like). But while I enjoyed my first few plays of Biblios, this is only about half the game — and I didn’t find the other half very compelling. This drafting is followed by an auction phase that just doesn't do it for me.
Don't get me wrong. It's a great and well-respected design, but the overall package just wasn't for me — so as you do when you're a budding game designer, I set out to try to make something that was.
The First Draft (Ho Ho)
I made the first cards for the game in December 2013, with the intention of making a tiny two-player microgame. (Hey, they were cool at the time!) The basic mechanical ideas for the game were in place and haven't changed since: Player 1 draws a card and assigns it to either themselves or their opponent. The next card will go to the other player — but on either pick the player could spend energy (generated by some cards at the end of each round) to draw one extra card, giving them more of a choice. After drafting, the drafter would attack their opponent: wounds vs. defense, plus a (1-3) dice roll. This would go back and forth until one player had lost all of their 25 health and the game was over. A simple use of the excellent Biblios mechanism in a smaller, faster, nastier, and sillier little battle game.
For first testing, I created a 14-card deck. (It was to be a 16-card game for Brett Gilbert's Good Little Games website, with the other two cards being a scoring and a health card.) There were eight weapons and six armors. Each player could have one of each and could never refuse a card drafted; any new card discarded the old one. Weapon strength ranged from 2-8, with armor 1-6 to ensure players would always be going downhill health-wise — although energy could also be spent to heal at the end of your turn. I dubbed the game "War!Drobe" (a title which, pretty unbelievably, would be taken by another game in the following years). The theme was simple: Two wizards each powering an automaton, which they were manipulating through time and space into odd fighting machines. Half the cards were medieval, the other half sci-fi.
The First Hurdles
Having damage and defense on every card was quickly dropped as it was a pain to add up each time while offering nothing of real worth to the game. At the same time, two card slots and just 14 cards made for very little replayability — and every time I played, I was thinking of (and being given by opponents) great ideas for new cards. I instead made the decision to go to three slots: one weapon, one armor, and one "enhancement" — an idea I'd toyed with as an extra list of things you could do on your turn with energy, but which had proved unwieldy in practice. As cards, though, it helped to add loads of cool special powers.
I also abandoned the idea of this being a pure micro game. There were way too many fun ideas to play with, and ideas for extra sets of cards. But what about a microgame that came in two-set decks? The first could be "Medieval and Sci-Fi", but you could also buy "Ninjas and Buccaneers" or "Crusaders and Magicians". I moved to eight-card decks, each of which had three weapons, three armors and two enhancements — and each of which had mechanisms I tried to fit to theme: magicians gained and used more energy, sci-fi items did big damage, crusaders healed well, etc.
Testing Testing Testing...
Other mechanical issues included game duration, deck size, and card balance. Health dropped to 20 (or a 12-point short game) to stop the game overstaying its welcome, while I settled on a three-deck (so 24-card) standard game, or two-deck tactical game in which you'd have a much better idea of what was coming. I also moved away from any thoughts of a microgame as the general gaming population quickly fell out of love with the format (as sales of Empire Engine will sadly testify!). This freed me to add "concentration cubes" (to replace an energy track), a custom die for damage, and player sheets to keep your cards on.
Card balance was an interesting one. In theory it didn't matter much as the game used a shared deck of cards, but many small issues developed in terms of decks clashing with each other in annoying ways. Some deck combinations would lead to way too many concentration cubes or to too few; some would see very slow damage, others ridiculously fast wins. It took a lot of combo plays to ensure they all fell into an acceptable (but still random and fun) range of results over any given game.
The final big change to the system was to do with healing, which was slowing the game down a little too much and adding an extra decision point to every round that felt unnecessary in many situations. I solved this by making healing a last-gasp desperate act you could call upon only if you had five health or less left at the end of your turn. Having this as a late game decision added a bit of extra arc to the game, too.
The Publisher Problem
I took the game to SPIEL in 2015 to show to publishers. While several found the concept intriguing and enjoyed their play, it became clear the bigger publishers weren't looking for a two-player game. I went away and made rules for a three- and then a four-player variant. It was surprisingly easy to up the number of players — a good lesson for anyone who gets stuck in a rut of their idea of a game. Taking on other ideas while occasionally taking a big step back from your game can be hugely useful.
Also, while perfectly playable, the lack of art on the prototype failed to convey the playful feel of the game. This hadn't been an issue with other games I'd demoed as they were more "Euro", and publishers were used to seeing them as drier prototypes! I thought about better ways to present the game and came up with the idea of locking the cards together to make a larger picture. I didn't make the whole game into cards in this way, instead doing example cards to show a publisher how it might look finished.
I hoped this would fire the imagination, without having to spend an awful lot of time, energy, or money creating a bunch of art that would probably never be used. I settled on making the image the actual wizard, simplifying the theme a little in the process. I found some art online which luckily depicted a wizard, a ninja and a Viking in the same style — three of the themes I'd chosen for card decks. I feel they got the idea across image-wise, without me having to do too much extra. A talented graphic design friend at work (thanks, Simos!) helped me with the layout, and I was ready for round two of facing publishers, this time at UK Games Expo in 2016. (Sorry, I would have linked to the original images, but I can't re-find them on Google).
War!Drobe Finds a Home — as Witless Wizards
Unfortunately, UKGE wasn't the best place to meet publishers back then. While many companies had stands, their decision makers were rarely in attendance (with some notable exceptions). However, a productive meeting with LudiCreations saw head honcho Iraklis suggest I contact his friends at Drawlab Entertainment. We met up at SPIEL '16, and the deal was done. After a frustrating 2017 (for both of us) when progress stalled due to reasons beyond our control, Drawlab got into top gear in 2018. Asterman Studio were brought on to do the art and have done a magnificent job.
Drawlab also made some changes to the rules, simplifying a few things but largely keeping the original game intact and changing the theme slightly, for the better I think, while we worked together to add a lot of humor to the card titles. A close-to-finished version was demoed at UK Games Expo 2018, which was followed by a successful Kickstarter campaign a couple of weeks later, and now a five-year process is coming to an end with Witless Wizards set to debut at SPIEL '18.
So that's that — how a marvelous design concept introduced to me by excellent designer Steve Finn was adapted from a serious hand management auction game into a humorous take-that fighting fantasy game.
This game didn't need a theme or story behind it, and you can ignore the story if you wish as the game remains the same, but the addition of this story makes the game more than what it already was. People hook into games through different points of entry, and this flavoring gives you a way to imagine the gameplay beyond simply placing transparent plastic tiles on a board.
I mean, yes, that's what you're doing in the game. On a turn, you place 1-3 of your tiles on the 3x3 grid to create one or more "styles", with a style being a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal pattern in the same color or symbol. If you create three styles on the same turn, you win. If you create zero styles, you lose. If you create one or two styles, then you draw one or two cards from your deck to refill your hand.
The next player must eliminate each of the styles you created by covering at least one of the three spaces in it. If they can't do so, then they've given up and acknowledged your wallpapering suggestion as superior to theirs.
When you use the special tiles in the game, each player has tiles that feature a gray square that doesn't contribute either a color or a symbol to the creation of styles. Instead, it emblazons the wall with your personal symbol, whether orthogonal or diagonal, and if the opponent doesn't cover it, then they lose.
I've played Papering Duel seven times on a review copy from Mandoo Games, and the game has a similar feeling to Quadrio, an abstract strategy game I covered in January 2018. The games aren't similar in playing style, but rather in how you can lose in a couple of moves through thoughtless, haphazard play or carry out a tense, tiny battle if you're aware of what the other player is doing and trying to look ahead past the current turn. It's a tight little game that Mandoo should try to license through Pier 1 Imports or some other home-furnishing store because the gameplay is simple enough that you can jump into in a minute, and I can imagine it serving as a nice add-on item for those buying new pillows and a decorative lamp for their home.
(Disclosure: Mandoo Games hired me to edit two rule sets for other games it's releasing in 2018.)
• Sand Castle Games is a new California-based game publisher run by Maud and Cyrille Daujean that will debut in 2019 with the Tom Lehmann title Res Arcana, which features engine-building, deck-management, and resource management. As for the setting:
In the four corners of the world, the sky is covered with clouds, the oceans change color, the atmosphere crackles with magic. In the dim light of an alchemical laboratory, on the snowy summit of a sacred mountain, in the depths silent of a corrupt temple, powerful mages prepare for confrontation.
They harvest, handle, and consume the essences that make up the magic of the world to create mysterious artifacts. As they bring out strange creatures from the void, they conquer terrible places of power and invoke gigantic dragons to defeat their opponents!
In Res Arcana, you'll get to do the same...
• German publisher ABACUSSPIELE will debut a new title by Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert at SPIEL '18: the draft-based, city-building game City of Rome. What's more, the publisher will have limited quantities on hand at SPIEL '18 of the English-language version of the design from Z-Man Games, which is titled The Great City of Rome — which kind of says something about how those in Germany and the U.S. think about such things. Here's my summary of the rules:
To rebuild the Eternal City, the Roman Emperor summoned the most talented builders of antiquity. Each of them is trying to draft the best city — but talent is not enough. Only those who know how to please the Emperor, cleverly exert their influence, and invest at the right time will succeed in City of Rome.
In more detail, the game lasts fourteen rounds, and in each round, players draft one of the building cards in play and add it to their hand. The drafting order depends on how closely you stand to the emperor. At the start of a round, you reveal a new "action strip" that has three bricks and two cogs in some order, then players take turns placing their figure on one of these five spaces; the closer you are to the emperor, the earlier you draft, but the fewer resources (bricks and cogs) you receive. (With only two players in the game, each player places two figures on the action strip and takes two complete turns each round.)
After drafting, you can take one build action and one produce action. To build, you must pay the cost in bricks — paying two coins for each missing brick — then place the card you're building adjacent to another card of yours already in play. You start with two building cards in play, so you'll have at most sixteen cards at game's end. These cards must fit in a 4x4 square, so plan carefully since you'll want to place some buildings next to other ones to earn the most points and to get the most out of a produce action. Some buildings give you a special action or influence tokens when you build them.
To produce, you must have two cogs — paying one coin for each missing cog — then use the production action of each building in your city once.
Every few rounds, an influence card is revealed, and whoever has the most influence tokens at the end of that round collects the card, then discards their tokens.
At the end of fourteen rounds, players score points for their residential buildings, temples, aqueducts, coins, and influence cards and tokens. whoever has the most points wins!
• U.S. publisher Pandasaurus Games has announced that it will release Arraial — a Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro and Paulo Soledade design that MEBO Games will debut at SPIEL '18 — in the U.S. in Q2 2019.
More and more deals for SPIEL titles are being announced prior to SPIEL itself, which I suppose is one way of ensuring sales for the licensed version. Don't bother carting that game back from Essen now because you can get it stateside from us in the future!
• Another license being picked up is the older — some might even say "classic" — Lords of Vegas from Mike Selinker and James Ernest. Mayfair Games first released Lords of Vegas in 2010, following it with the Lords of Vegas: UP! expansion in 2014, and now Z-Man Games has signed a deal to distribute the remaining inventory of the Mayfair Games' editions of these titles, in addition to developing and releasing the Lords of Vegas: Underworld expansion that Mayfair had teased prior to its demise.
I love introducing games to people, but you need to have the right games on hand for this process to succeed. My favorite game is Carl Chudyk's Innovation, but I'm unlikely to whip out Innovation at a casual gathering and coerce folks into building and splaying because it's a thinky game, a focal point for the evening rather than something to play on the side while waiting for burgers to finish on the grill.
One of my go-to games for several years was Dieter Nüßle's Strike, which debuted from Ravensburger in 2012. It's a great game to play at a restaurant, as long as you can keep the dice on the table, and when I brought it to a picnic for high school exchange students, Strike had a crowd around it for hours, with players tag-teaming in and out of games as they ate, played soccer, and hung out with friends who were all heading home to different countries.
Strike is simple. Each player starts with 6-9 dice, and on a turn you must throw a die into the arena. If any die in the arena now shows an X, remove it from play; if any dice show matching numbers, claim those dice and end your turn; if nothing matches, you can end your turn or throw another die in. If you run out of dice, you're out of the game. If the arena is empty at the start of your turn, throw all of your dice into the arena instead of only one. Whoever stays in the game the longest wins.
The goal of Strike is equally simple: Hang out with people, and enjoy moments created by the gameplay. You're not making plans for anything, and you're not building an engine for the future — you're hoping to make crazy shots while watching others (and yourself) get exasperated or surprised when the unexpected happens. I've played Strike with some people who don't bring the same enthusiasm to the game that Manny shown above does, and it falls flat. Some games create an experience all on their own, but others — including Strike — are a facilitator of moments, assisting players in creating memories.
With Strike off the market in the United States and possibly in Europe (although I saw copies for sale at retailers in early 2017 while at the game fair in Cannes), Ravensburger has now released Impact: Battle of Elements, which is largely the same game. The box includes five fewer dice, so now players start with 5-8 dice instead of 6-9, and the box is smaller, although the floor of the arena is roughly the same size as the one in Strike.
The presentation of the game suffers from the smaller size, though, despite being mostly the same. The large golden bowl of Strike — which resembles an arena — creates a focal point for play; the box is a target for the eyes, then you have the target within a target. With Impact, you have only the box and its thin plastic insert, which resembles, well, a box. You lose the feeling of the arena, and with that the feeling of you being a spectator for some kind of dice-y combat.
The gameplay itself remains the same, so again as long as you're also doing your part, the game remains enjoyable. Beyond that, Impact has replaced the pips of the original dice with elemental symbols, and the game includes variant rules in which the starting symbol in the box affects what happens when you collect dice showing the symbol during play: stone makes you stack those claimed dice into a single object, and you'd throw them all in together on a future turn; fire makes everyone race to build a tower, with whoever does so first claiming the matching dice; and so on. I don't know whether this game needed special powers, but they exist for those who want it and easy to avoid for everyone else.
Which comes first: a game's mechanisms or its theme? In a March 2018 interview, Kuba Šotola opened by asking Katka from Delicious Games and me about the theme of our upcoming release, Underwater Cities. The question started me thinking about theme vs. mechanisms in game design and about what I focus on first. I've come to realize that it really depends on the game — and sometimes they both come first!
The mechanisms are the essence of a Eurogame. As a player, that's what I'm looking for — innovative mechanisms. The theme is less important. For example, when I'm playing my favorite game, Castles of Burgundy, I know I'm building something in Burgundy, but that's about it. Of course I also appreciate games like Amun-Re or Terraforming Mars with mechanisms that nicely tie in with their strong themes.
Even though I play games mostly for their mechanisms, as a designer, I often develop theme and mechanisms simultaneously.
Let's look at Shipyard. I started with the action-selection mechanism — the idea that some actions would be chosen frequently, but you could get paid for choosing actions no one else had used recently. As soon as I had that mechanism outlined, I decided on the theme of shipbuilding, then each individual action was designed around that.
One action gets you smokestacks or sails for moving your ship. (I liked the idea of setting the game in that slice of history when both sailing ships and steamships were viable.) Another action gets you a canal for your shakedown cruise. Another action gets you crew. Everything, except the core mechanism, was designed around that theme.
Theme was integral to 20th Century. I had this idea for an auction game with two different methods of payment, and I knew I wanted to make a game about ecological principles — about the tradeoffs we have made between economic and ecological prosperity. I ended up with a game that has multiple auctions in which you pay with the science or money your economy produces, but you also might have to "pay" by taking on garbage or pollution. The theme worked really well with the mechanism that interested me.
Theme can inspire game design, but you have to be sure it doesn't tie your hands. During development, you might discover that you need to alter a mechanism to make the game better. It's hard to make that change if it goes against the theme. For example, in a historical setting, it could be difficult to explain why the farmer should collect taxes from the nobility, even when you know that mechanically the game needs that rule.
Of course, some themes are more flexible than others. In a fantasy setting, you can find a way to justify anything.
My strongest theme may be in Last Will. You've inherited a nice sum of money from your rich uncle. Whoever can spend it the fastest will get a huge fortune. Some people play the game just for that experience.
The same theme is in the movie Brewster's Millions, which I didn't see until I read the Last Will reviews that mentioned it. I didn't get the theme from the movie. I was actually trying to make an economy-building game in reverse. The idea of a game in which you try to get rid of your resources goes hand-in-hand with the theme of Last Will — and once I had that solid theme, I could build all the mechanisms around it.
Last Will started out as a pure card game, by the way. The worker placement mechanisms came in later.
So in Last Will, theme came first, and the development process was mostly about refining the mechanisms. It's not always that way. Pulsar 2849 started out as a historical game about noble families in a period of coup d'état.
The playtesters' response wasn't as positive as I would have liked, but they agreed that the dice-drafting mechanism was good, so I revised the design. This time the game was set in the Early Middle Ages in Great Britain. The prototype required a lot of material, and I discovered that it would probably be too expensive to produce, so I revised the game again.
The third revision was still built around the idea of choosing stronger or weaker dice and receiving balancing compensation. Most of the supporting mechanisms were inherited from previous versions, but I added a traveling component that inspired my revised theme. Now the game was about English merchants visiting villages.
These revisions took about five years, and finally I had a game good enough to license to Czech Games Edition. They liked it, but their playtesters weren't keen on the medieval setting.
So we made some changes. England became a huge star cluster, the merchants became interstellar energy corporations, and those villages off the beaten path became pulsars. Sören Meding gave the game beautiful futuristic artwork, and we were suddenly in the year 2849.
And it works! Those mechanisms didn't care if they were in medieval England or a 29th Century star cluster, but I don't think the theme feels "pasted on". You know you're building something in Burgundy — I mean, in space.
Testing of Underwater Cities
Underwater Cities is another game I've been working on for a long time. Like Last Will, the game is based on a design idea — worker placement where the available actions are always changing. I played around with lots of mechanisms inspired by this idea, and finally I settled on one in which the actions don't change, but you have the ability to augment them with cards, so an action that might be somewhat weak could become really good if you combine it with the right card from your hand.
For most of the game's development, the cards were the workers, and I was thinking of it as a "card placement" game.
Once I had the core mechanism, I looked for a theme to build around. I liked the idea of building cities under the sea — you don't see a lot of games like that — and that theme led to all the domes and tunnels and kelp farms that you need to support an underwater economy.
I ended up with 220 cards, each unique, each related to the theme of settlement on the wet frontier. Milan Vavroň's artwork has brought the theme to life, and we're coming out with it at SPIEL '18.
Continuing my practice of highlighting SPIEL '18 titles that are only edging their noses on the periphery of most radars, I thought it time to cover Terra Shifter, a co-operative puzzle game from Shou-Fu Chang and Sharp Point Publishing that was *surprise!* available at SPIEL '17 in a booth about as far away as possible from the front doors. (I've already covered Sharp Point's Game of Suspicion, a micro-deduction game also available at SPIEL '17, in this space, so this video relieves one tiny sliver of obligation from my shoulders.)
Terra Shifter challenges 1-4 players to transform the Earth — whether by rotating a tile, flipping a tile, or shifting a row or column to move one tile to the other end of a line — in order to complete one of the personal missions held by the active player. Missions will be something like having exactly five penguins in a snow terrain or having two sets of exactly four sheep in different grasslands. If this player completes a mission, then they can also complete one of the four goals that need to be fulfilled in order to win the game. If you can't complete a mission in the five actions available on your turn, then you burn mission cards from your hand and the deck — and if you can't draw a mission card when you need to, you lose.
While marketed as a co-operative game, Terra Shifter doesn't fit the "fighting arm-in-arm against a common foe" model of most co-operative games because it's difficult for players to team up or chain their actions together. You do your thing, then I do my thing, and so on. Maybe we'll be able to knock out a goal together, but it's hard to work in concert since I don't know what your missions are. I suppose that we could all reveal our missions, but at that point why are we bothering to play together since we've eliminated any need for other players?
Just play the game as a solitaire challenge, and spend as much time as you want puzzling over how to do things without forcing others to sit around waiting for you — and when you're ready for it, start adding disasters to the mix to up the difficulty level.
Did you know that Japan (Nippon) consists of over 6,800 islands? The four largest are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, and those four are referred to as home islands. Hokkaido is the northernmost prefecture, and it is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait. The center of the island has a number of mountains, and there are coastal plains in all directions.
Those Wikipedia passages were the inspiration for Hokkaido, the second game of the Nippon series. How did that inspiration lead to this soon-to-be-released game? Read on and I'll tell you.
Honshū, released at SPIEL '16 by Lautapelit.fi, was quite successful and has been in the BGG top 800 for some time now. After that game's release I thought: Was that it for the game? Does it need something else? Should I continue the series or not? How do I feel about (standalone) expansions?
As a game designer, I had many games under development and a new Honshū-like game was not at the top of the to-do list. However, I got a little push from the publisher. They asked me whether I would be willing to continue the series and where we'd go with it.
One of the most common points of feedback from Honshū is that the trick-taking/auction phase is a lesser part of the game, and players want to focus more on the map building. The most common suggestion was to include drafting as an official mechanism for the game, so we decided then that the next game would be a drafting game, while the number of rounds and the player count should be kept the same. We initially tested drafting three rounds of four cards, but in the end two rounds with six cards felt much better. The two-player drafting rules idea came from a playtester and is inspired from Among the Stars.
But how do you make the game feel different if you change only the card delivery system? Drafting is done very quickly, and players can move on to the map building in an instant — which suggests that an easy card delivery system needs a harder map-making phase., and harder map-making means more restrictions. How would that be implemented?
That is when I went to see the map of Hokkaido, and my first idea was to use the Tsugaru Strait as an focal point of the game. That idea dissipated quickly, however, as Hokkaido needs to stand on its own without connections to Honshu. One thing that then popped into my head when looking at the map of Hokkaido is the mountainous area in the center of the island. That's it! The map you build should be divided into two with a mountain going through the middle of it.
What does that mean? Well, there's a new element in the game: mountain. Each player has at least one mountain square on their starting card, and all further mountain squares must be connected to one another to form a mountain range. The function of that range is to divide your city building into two cities. In Honshū, you got points from the biggest city; now in Hokkaido, you score points from the smaller of the big cities on your map. This means the question of where to play city squares becomes an issue of balance. Then you go further with your thinking: If I play it here, what is my next move? What do I need, and is the player next to me paying attention to my needs and taking those away?
A few other differences can be found between the two games. The water strategy is not as effective, but can still be a game-deciding element as there are fewer water squares. Additionally, Hokkaido has only four-point factories. The reason for this is that factories below four points were not interesting in the draft and were usually an afterthought of the map making.
There are also more production squares than factories because we've introduced a new mechanism to the series. Terraforming now exists in the game to ease your thinking and to give a new use for unneeded cubes. Terraforming is done by discarding two resource cubes of the same color from the production squares to place a tile over a fallow. The color of the cube pair dictates what the fallow is terraformed into: grey cubes create mountains, blue water, brown a city, and green forests. Used properly, terraforming can lead to victory. For example, let's assume you have two separated water areas, one of two squares with the other having one square. If you manage to play a fallow between these areas, then terraform it into water, you've turned two (possibly unused) cubes and clever card play into six more points.
The same goes for mountains when you're stuck with bad cards. Extending your mountain range with a terraforming tile can open up the map, and suddenly all the cards fit your map.
Prototype images, using two cubes to represent terraform tiles
As an option in Honshū, we had endgame scoring cards. For its part, Hokkaido has optional "first to" cards, inspired by Race for the Galaxy. If players want, they can include these cards in their game to make it more competitive. With these cards, players compete to be the fastest to have all different types of resources on their map or a big difference between their large cities. It is a nice little addition to the game.
Finally, I must mention that the cards in Hokkaido have numbers on them, even though they have no function in this game. Why? Because this second game in the series is designed to be backwards compatible, which means that you can use the trick-taking/auction card-delivery system of Honshū with the cards in Hokkaido. Similarly, you can play Honshū with drafting rules. The scoring is mainly the same in both games, and they're comparable to each other as the scores in Hokkaido are on par with Honshū.
At this point, I must praise Ossi Hiekkala for the illustrations. The cover is once again amazing, and the squares are winter-like. One nice tidbit is that the lady found on the Honshū cover is resting in the carriage.
There are tons of ideas for where we can go with the series. Hokkaido is an answer to the gaming community that I'm listening and want to improve, but without needing to discard the old. When Honshū was released, I was unable to attend SPIEL. Hearing the feedback, I was a little saddened about not being there. This year, however, is another tale. For SPIEL '18, I will be at the Lautapelit.fi booth intermittently demoing Hokkaido and answering your questions. Hope to see you there!