You find yourself back in Sydney, Australia, around Christmas in 2017. You enjoy being back home and escaping an English winter, as well as seeing your family. You have some spare time one day and are wondering what to do.
If you want to design a game by yourself, go to . If you want to try to find a co-designer to generate some new ideas, go to .
In return for meeting up to discuss designs, you offer Phil a veritable horde of riches and wealth, an offer that in reality amounts to paying for a few drinks. Phil, being the extremely kind person that he is, turns the table and in fact invites you to his house to work — no bribes necessary! Go to .
Considering the rough state of the game, you decide to show the game to only a few publishers in Nürnberg. You get some interest — and even play a full scenario in one meeting — but no one quite sees the promise in the game that you and Phil see. That's not surprising considering how new the design is!
One of the final meetings you have is with Wolfgang Ludkte from KOSMOS, someone you have been meeting at fairs for the last eight years or so. It is always a pleasure to meet with Wolfgang, especially as he is particularly willing to be shown absolutely anything you are working on. He always wants to see designs — even if he will quickly say it is something KOSMOS is not interested in.
Brett Gilbert (center), Wolfgang Ludkte (right), and I at SPIEL '18
This is key as you had not really considered showing the Adventure Game to Wolfgang. KOSMOS publishes the already hugely successful Exit series, after all, and isn't this game just a bit too close to it? What do you do?
Leave the prototype in your bag — better not to risk it. Go to . Take Wolfgang's encouragement and show him the prototype. Go to .
It starts with Phil's desire to make a system for an open adventuring game, something that acts as a scaffold for any type of story or mechanism, while offering interesting yet clear decisions. You quickly think about the old point-and-click video games — games, puzzles really, that relied on the myriad possible combinations between a few simple elements. Going straight from this inspiration, you think about having a deck of actions — Search, Talk, Take, or Use — and a set of cards laid out that represent different locations where you can perform these different actions. Players have a hand of action cards, and on their turn will move to a location and use a specific action there. Then they would draw a new card, and the game ends when the deck of actions is depleted.
Because each of the locations potentially has five different results based on which action you choose to use, we needed an easy way to access these results – it would be too difficult to list them all on the back of the card! Sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel, so in the tradition of games like Tales of the Arabian Nights, we turned to a paragraph book. Each action card has a specific number, as do the location cards, and to show the interaction between the two, you would simply add one to the other (a lá Unlock) and turn to that entry in the book. For example, you encounter a knight at a crossroads. Do you...
Search him? Go to . Talk to him? Go to .
Cards from the first prototype; I'm not known for my artistic skills!
You enjoy some alone time, but can't seem to get any new ideas brewing. It's hard to concentrate when the weather is so good! But you still really want to make a new game, so you reach out to some friends. Go to .
One hot December day, you trudge through suburban Sydney to Phil's apartment. Once there, you undergo the usual meeting of design minds: seeing what each other is obsessed with playing at the moment, which games are in your collections, what it was like to work with publisher X. But the question that propels the discussion is this one: "What game are you really itching to make?"
"I want to make an easy-to-learn family game, maybe something with brightly colored pieces?" Go to . "I want to make a crazy ambitious open-world adventuring game!" Go to .
You try to get started on an idea based on a deserted island and pirate treasure, but in the meantime Phil is so productive that he manages to finish a scenario with that same theme in only a few days! Cyberpunk it is, then! Go to .
While you haven't lived in Australia for almost ten years, you reach out to Phil Walker-Harding, having only met him a handful of times — fun side fact: you were the very first distributor of Sushi Go! in Europe, which in reality means posting a lot of parcels to the original Kickstarter backers — to see whether he is open to working on a game with you.
If you want to try to convince him by flattery, go to . If you want to try to convince him with a bribe, go to .
This is the option you should have taken. It is certainly not recommended to show games to publishers that you haven't had time to playtest and iterate extensively. You don't want to waste their time, after all!
But in this case, well, you and Phil just instinctively know you have something here, even if it is still rough. You decide to show it to a few select publishers anyway. Go to .
You want a scenario that is a bit more sinister and dark. What better than a shadowy corporation in the near future that has developed a new wonder drug? And while Phil's excellent graphic skills are on display in his scenarios, your meager artistic skills lead you to rely on images from computer games with the required look. It's a tough slog, building a scenario from scratch, but you eventually have a first draft ready to send to KOSMOS.
Initial prototype location card from what would become Monochrome Inc.
But this is only the start. Over the coming months, you and Phil work with Ralph and Michael Sieber-Baskal, a role-playing expert at KOSMOS who takes the development lead for the project, going through iteration after iteration to find the best experience and story for the two scenarios. A lot of work is done to remove any elements not absolutely essential to telling a compelling story, and to reduce any overly mechanical experiences. You know that you couldn't have done it without Michael and Ralph (and indeed the rest of the KOSMOS team), and when the final product is ready to go to print, you are all extremely proud of what you've accomplished. Adventure Games: The Dungeon and Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc. will launch in German on May 16, 2019, and in English in October 2019, and you and Phil can't wait to see players making their way through the adventures!
The launch is imminent, and you consider writing a designer diary for BoardGameGeek. Do you...
Write a conventional kind of story, with a linear narrative? Go to . Do something a bit different, more befitting the adventure games? Go to .
This system worked well and allowed a lot of surprising results, often from the fact we had to choose relatively generic actions that could work with people and inanimate locations — although even then it stretched logic a bit! For example, what would you happen if you "Interact" with that knight? What happens if you "Talk" to a lake?
But we also wanted a sense of progression, of discovery, of finding that key interaction that suddenly opens up all of these new options. Again turning to the source material of point-and-clicks, we remembered that these usually allowed you to pick up various items along the way, with these items then becoming a new way to interact with locations. It was relatively easy to implement new numbered items that you would receive at different locations, such as gaining an empty bottle when you Search the tavern. A player would keep items in front of them, and on their turn they could combine these with a location, or another item, again looking up the sum of the two numbers in the book. We also added new locations that were revealed if the players did certain actions, again opening up new options. Here we reached the same complexity of combinations from a small number of components that we were looking for!
You meet Phil a second time to work on the scenario in early January 2018, and before long it is time for you to travel back to the UK. With a little bit more writing, you have a full playable prototype, and Spielwarenmesse — the annual toy fair in Nürnberg — is only two weeks away! What do you do?
Work more on the game. After all, it's only about a month old and has barely been tested! Go to . Playtesting — who needs that? Show it to publishers in Nürnberg! Go to .
Hasn't this story taught you anything about following your gut and taking a chance? Obviously it hasn't. You lose. Go back to .
You wax lyrical to Phil about the elegance and simplicity of his designs, from the moorish Sushi Go! to the chunky decision making of Imhotep. Despite him being extremely modest about his accomplishments, you sense your words have convinced him, and he invites you to visit him. Go to .
Phil takes out his enormous box of many colored cubes, and you start randomly moving them around on a piece of paper. Then a kind of slot machine mechanism starts to form, with you dropping pieces into different chutes and trying to get them to match colors where they land. Maybe the pieces are differently colored candies? But most importantly — there is something here with this idea...
You have designed a different game than what you were destined for. This is the end of this story, but it will be continued...! Go back to .
Here goes! You set up the game and start explaining it to Wolfgang. Within five minutes, he gets up and gets a colleague to join you at the table. This turns out to be Ralph Querfurth, the person at KOSMOS who had the original idea for the Exit series. Immediately they are both extremely excited by the game and start thinking about possibilities for the system. Rather than this idea competing with Exit, they think it could be a new line to follow it! They ask to be able to take the game back to their offices and test it further.
In the meantime, Phil has been working on another version of the system called "Trek" in which there are no specific action cards; instead the location cards simply show a series of numbers on different features of the card, and players can choose which thing they want to interact with by turning to that number. If, for example, you are in a dungeon, you can examine the window or the door, or perhaps look under the bed, and in each case you turn to a different number. You still have items, and these can be combined with any number present in a location or with another item; to do this, you place the smaller number in front of the larger number, then to that combination. In the example below, if you turn to entry 1011 this details your success in using the can opener on the can of cat food, and it gives you item 12 — an open can of cat food!
An example of how combining items works in the Adventure Games
Seeing as the game is still progressing, we send this version to KOSMOS as well, and they begin testing both versions. It is quickly apparent that the Trek system is superior. Gone are the strange combinations of action and place, and it more closely resembles the adventure games: You can look at a location and directly decide what you want to investigate more closely. Furthermore, you can control the rate at which new location cards are added to give a better sense of pacing. Finally, the game is simple. On your turn, you simply examine a location or use an item.
KOSMOS agrees as well, and within two months they sign the game for publication! But the work is now only just beginning: KOSMOS wants new scenarios to test, to see what works and what doesn't. Phil continues to work on his dungeon concept, as well as [redacted] and [redacted] scenarios. Now you get a chance to write your first scenario with Phil's new system — what type of story do you want to tell?
Pirates! Go to . Cyberpunk! Go to .
(Real entry from the initial prototype) Hello, stranger! I am afraid I cannot let you pass. But I am extremely thirsty and would happily share a drink with you if you had one.
Hmmm...where will you find a drink for him? Go to .
In some adventures you have to take a chance...but this is not one of those times. You leave Nürnberg with no interest in the game, and your adventure ends here. Go back to , and maybe try taking a chance this time!
(Real entry from the initial prototype) "What are you doing?" The knight doesn't take kindly to a stranger attempting to search his person, and he "thanks" you with a punch to the head. Discard all of your action cards, then draw three new action cards at the end of your turn.
Well, that didn't go too well! Go to .
I hope you enjoyed your adventure! You have made it the end of this designer diary, and the Adventure Games have become a reality. You win!
• Let's look at another batch of games that will debut at Tokyo Game Market in May 2019, with these titles joining the others on BGG's TGM May 2019 Preview. For every game that I add to that preview, at least ten others are announced and will never be seen outside TGM. So sad, but I'm doing what I can to shine a light on some of the newness, such as Heiki Strike Alternative from Jesse Li, Afong Lee, and Moaideas Game Design.
Yes, Moaideas is a Taiwanese publisher, not a Japanese one, but for the past couple of years they've used TGM as a launching ground for new titles that will be available at SPIEL later that year, so it's good to take our previews when we can. Heiki Strike Alternative is a two-player-only game that works as follows, assuming that I've understood everything correctly in the Google-assisted translation:
In Heiki Strike Alternative (兵姫ストライク オルタナティブ), the two players each build their own deck from the cards in the box, then deploy their princesses and anthropomorphized weapons to sea and air spaces in a fight to occupy the battlefields. To do this, a player must meet the "occupation conditions" for a battlefield, after which they take the battlefield card. Whoever claims three battlefield cards first wins.
Players will grow stronger over the course of the game through the playing of cards. If a player empties their deck, they shuffle the discarded cards in their reserve to create a new deck, rebuild their base, and now get more resources each turn — but if they run through their deck a third time, they lose.
The phrase "anthropomorphized weapons" was used a couple of times in the description, and one post about the game had what looked like a WWII airplane transformed into a manga-style princess — but with propellers and wings.
• Moaideas Game Design will have two other new releases at TGM in May 2019: Shadow Rivals, a 2-5 player design from Halifa in which everyone is trying to rob the same mansion, and マーダーミステリー～約束の場所へ～ (Murder Mystery: To the Promised Place), a six-player-only murder mystery game that plays in 2-2.5 hours and initially seems available solely in Japanese (whereas most Moaideas titles include rules in Chinese, English, and Japanese).
You've opened a new board game café and want to earn as much money as you can — but others are doing the same thing, so you better figure out how to succeed better than them!
Board Game Cafe Frenzy is a tactical trick-taking game that consists of two phases, "Preparing" and "Opening the Door", with each phase lasting ten turns. In the "Preparing" phase, each player buys a card from the market each turn, and cards come in five types: board game, snack, clerk, store, and wi-fi. Each kind of card gives you different items that are important for managing your board game café.
During each turn of the "Opening the Door" phase, each player plays a card from their hand that they acquired during the first phase; players must play a different color than what's already been played, with higher numbers also being important. Hope that you prepared well! At the end of a turn, each player can use one action disk from their action bar to perform one specific action. After this phase ends, players undergo a final scoring, then add their coins to see who has the most money and has won the game.
The Eternal Throne sits empty as scions of the royal family struggle for control. Dispatch those who oppose you by recruiting allies to your cause, researching powerful spells, and acquiring valuable relics!
Eternal: Chronicles of the Throne combines deck-building games and strategy card battlers into an intense strategic experience. Summon powerful allies to attack your opponents, or build an unbreakable defense. Will you exhibit patience and seek the power of the Eternal Throne, or forgo such a risky path?
• Dragon's Interest was released by designer Jesse Li's Bwunsu Games in 2018, and now Tasty Minstrel Games plans to run a crowdfunding campaign in May 2019 for a new version of this 3-5 player design that plays in 60-90 minutes. What is the dragon interested in, you might ask? Interest, as explained below:
The war just ended. You spent almost every coin for the war, so now you need more funds to rebuild your kingdom. You have no choice but to beg the dragon for help. "Money for a new harbor? Interesting. I am happy to help you with all my treasure, but...", says the dragon, as she stares through tiny glasses on her nose, "...how much should you pay back?"
You don't have to worry about the financial crisis for now — but if you don't pay the debt on time, the flame from her mouth will bring an end to your kingdom!
In Dragon's Interest, players are going to borrow money from the dragon to build their own kingdoms. To pay the interest, players have to manage their money and knights carefully. Players are also able to activate their buildings' special abilities and buy buildings from their opponents. If someone cannot pay the interest, the game ends immediately. The player who can pay the interest in the last round and has the most victory points wins!
• U.S. publisher North Star Games plans to release Wolfgang Warsch's Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal in English in Q4 2019. (For those curious to know more about this big box game, you can watch this overview video from Spielwarenmesse 2019 or await my personal overview video that I plan to publish on May 20, 2019, the day that the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres nominations will be announced. I'm not saying that I know anything about these nominees in advance — only that I suspect this title might be on that list. We'll see.)
• Ahead of the May 16, 2019 retail release of two Adventure Games titles in Germany by designers Phil Walker-Harding and Matthew Dunstan, KOSMOS has announced that a third such title will be released in the second half of 2019. (For more about these titles, check out Dunstan's designer diary on BGG News on Monday, May 13, 2019. The English version of these titles is due out in October 2019.)
• Ahead of the 2019 UK Games Expo, Board&Dice is teasing two announcements: a deluxe reprint edition of a game originally released in 2012 and a new design from Daniele Tascini that will be delivered with a cat on top of it.
Let's sample another batch of games that will debut at Tokyo Game Market in late May 2019, with all of these titles and a few more appearing on the Tokyo Game Market May 2019 Preview that I've put together. This list barely scratches the surface given that hundreds of new titles will be released at TGM — check out the vendor list here! — but I do what I can. I also appreciate the efforts of Saigo, Jon Power, James Nathan, and Rand Lemley to dig a few scoops out of the mountain and add more titles to the BGG database!
In DAZZLING DICELINE, use your red, green, and grey dice to perform dice actions while creating horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines with the bonus tiles you collect in order to score the most victory points. You need to anticipate what the other players will do and use your bonus tiles to perform bonus actions if you want to efficiently perform dice actions and score victory points.
• Suga also has a second title coming from new publishing brand POLAR POND GAMES, with this being a 2-6 player game for younger players that plays in 10-15 minutes. An overview of insect inc.:
In insect inc., a game that combines puzzles, cards, and picture searches, you are a researcher for a company of the same name that's developing colorful insects as art. A new kind of insect has fled to the forest thanks to a minor mistake by one of your colleagues, and because it is a new undiscovered species, it needs to be recovered quickly.
You must be careful when collecting insects for if you surprise them, they will mimic nature through camouflage. Can you safely recover the insects that fled?
• Oink Games has a new tiny title from Jean-Claude Pellin — designer of Oink's 2015 release Nine Tiles — and Jens Merkl, a frequent design partner of Pellin's. Like Nine Tiles, Nine Tiles Panic is a real-time game in which players race to place tiles in a 3x3 grid; aside from that, the games are not similar:
In Nine Tiles Panic (ナインタイル パニック), each player has a set of nine double-sided town tiles.
At the start of a round, three scoring cards are revealed, such as most aliens on a single road, most dogs visible, or longest road. All player then race to assemble their town in whatever pattern seems best, trying to score points for one, two, or three of the scoring cards as they wish. As soon as the first player decides that they're done, they flip the sand timer and everyone else has 90 seconds to complete their town, then players determine who scores for which cards, with ties being broken in favor of whoever finished first. Players score points based on the number of players in the game, and players track their score on a chart over multiple rounds.
• We'll close for now with カラーギャングルズ (Color Gangsters), a trick-taking game — a popular genre among JP designers — from designers Takafumi Asano, Emi Hirano, and Yuya Hirano of BREMEN Games. This 3-5 player has a fair amount of Japanese text that is crucial to gameplay, so I can't even give you examples of the scoring conditions in the description below, but as is often the case with these games, I add something to the BGG database with the hope that others will add more information later:
In カラーギャングルズ, players attempt to meet certain conditions while playing through their hand of cards.
To set up the game, shuffle the sixteen tiles, then lay out nine of them at random in a 3x3 grid. Each tile has a different condition on it that a player must meet in order to claim the tile. Players each receive a hand of nine cards from a fifty-card deck, with the deck having five suits of cards, each numbered 1-10. These cards show the color of the suit on their back, revealing that information to all players.
The game includes six color trump cards (one for each color and one for no color) and eleven number trump cards (ditto).
As players complete tricks, if they meet the condition on a tile, they mark it with one of their markers. If a player places three of their markers in a line, they win the game.
Die Hard is for 2-4 players and bears a playing time of 60-90 minutes, with one player taking the role of John McClane and everyone else acting as a terrorist. The game plays out over three acts, mirroring the events of the Die Hard movie, with the actions taken in acts one and two carrying over into the final standoff. I had posted a written overview of the game in mid-March 2019, but now The OP's embargo on our video preview has ended, so take a look:
As a bonus, here are a trio of promotional images from The OP showing miniatures for John McClane and Hans Gruber, along with one of cards from the game:
After a couple of days delay, the Origins 2019 Preview is now live on BoardGameGeek, kicking off with 120 titles, which is nearly half of what was listed in 2018 (263 titles), so it seems likely that we'll hit three hundred listings by the time that the 2019 Origins Game Fair opens on Wednesday, June 12.
As in years past, BGG will be at Origins to livestream interviews with designers and publishers for five days — June 12-16 — about their new and upcoming games. Given that we have five days of coverage without a huge number of Origins-debut titles, you'll likely see a lot of prototypes for games due out in the second half of 2019 or in 2020. We'll start putting together that demo schedule in mid-May 2019 with publication of it scheduled for Monday, June 10.
One big addition to this convention preview — and the reason for its delayed arrival — is that we have added a preorder system to this list and now publishers can take preorders from you for titles that they will have on hand at Origins 2019. Here's an example of what those preorders look like within the Origins 2019 Preview:
Yes, you can place a preorder and pay for a new release from Renegade Game Studios now, then pick it up at Origins 2019. Why would you want to do this? Multiple reasons:
• You know you want to get something, and you don't want to have to rush the doors to get it before it sells out. (Not sure whether that's really a thing at Origins, but at Gen Con and SPIEL...) • You hate waiting in lines to buy games and just want to be able to show a receipt and get the game. • You want to have a better idea of how much you're spending or you want to budget your spending.
I imagine that other publishers will set up preorders on the Origins 2019 Preview in the future, and I've sent instructions on how to do so to the 130+ publishers that I wrote to for information about their new and upcoming games. (If you're a publisher who will have new titles and prototypes at Origins 2019, and I haven't contacted you, please Geekmail me or write to me at the email address in the BGG News header.) Setting up preorders in the Origins 2019 Preview is voluntary for a publisher, but we know that it's a pain to manage such things, so we implemented this system to (ideally) streamline the process.
One of the biggest reasons that a publisher might decide to take preorders this way — aside from having a better idea of how much inventory to bring to the con — is that they'll have to handle less cash at conventions. This isn't a big deal at Origins and Gen Con given how much those in the U.S. use credit cards, but it could be a huge deal for publishers at SPIEL. Multiple publishers had thousands of Euros stolen at SPIEL '18, and if they can instead complete a decent percentage of their sales via preorder ahead of time, they will be a less attractive target in Essen. (Scott Alden has told me that the thefts at SPIEL '18 were the primary motivator to get this preorder system in place after years of me having on my wish list.)
BGG earns a 5% commission on these preorder sales, so I won't pretend that we're doing this entirely for altruistic reasons, but I think this preview preorder system offers positives for both publishers and players, especially when we look ahead to Gen Con and SPIEL where the lines are much longer, publishers worry about whether they're bringing too much or too little stock, and players want to know they can get something without having to buy a VIP badge. The Origins 2019 Preview is our test case, and if all goes well, this preorder system will be in place in the Gen Con 2019 Preview, the SPIEL '19 Preview, and many other such previews in the years to come.
Because of the number of conventions that I attend, I sometimes feel like I'm previewing the same games over and over again — and sometimes I am.
We first recorded an overview of the two-player game Nagaraja at Spielwarenmesse 2018 in the Hurrican booth, but the presentation was not ideal, so we never published that video. At Gen Con 2018, co-designer Théo Rivière showed off the game in the BGG booth (video), then at the FIJ fair in Cannes in February 2019, co-designer Bruno Cathala and illustrator Vincent Dutrait got their turn in front of the mic (video).
What's more, Nagaraja was actually released at FIJ 2019! Yes, the game was available, and I went home with a review copy courtesy of Hurrican. Now the game is available on the U.S. market as well, and in case you need one more video about the game, I've posted one below from my perspective.
The gist of the game is that you want to find 25 points worth of relics in your individual temple before a competing archaeologist finds that amount of points in their temple. I'm not sure whether we're competing in mirror universes or side-by-side temples or in mock temples set up by our university sponsors to determine who they should put on staff. It feels odd us competing in this way, somehow having nearly identical temples, but at a certain point, you wave it off as game logic and get on with things.
Each player starts with a hand of five cards, and cards can be used for their bidding power — that is, access to fate dice that come in three types — or their special ability, which can be used on yourself, your opponent, or either player depending on how the card is labeled. Each round starts with players revealing one temple tile, then simultaneously bidding for that tile with one or more cards from their hand; cards come in four families, and all the cards you bid must come from the same family.
Once you reveal the cards, you roll the dice shown on your cards, with brown dice giving 3-5 fate points, white dice giving 2-3 fate points or a naga (snake), and green dice giving either 1 fate point or a naga. After rolling dice, players can spend nagas to play cards from their hand for their special abilities. Whoever ends up with the most fate points claims the tile, adds it to their temple, then reveals any relics they've reached with the paths that they've constructed. Relics are worth 3-6 points, but the three 6-point relics are cursed, and you lose the game if you reveal all three of them at once.
The player who didn't win the tile draws three cards, keeps two of them, and passes the third card to the opponent. Rounds continue until someone loses, someone reaches 25 points and wins, or someone fills their temple with tiles, at which time the player with the most points wins.
Nagaraja is simple at heart, but features delicious tension in its choices. You want to win temple tiles since those allow you to reach relics and score points — but if you just place lots of tiles, you might lose due to curses. You can use special abilities on cards to peek at your relics or swap them or rotate tiles or swap tiles in order to stay away from curses or hide relics previously found, but each card you use this way is one you can't use for bidding. You want to bid high for tiles (mostly by bidding brown dice), but if you overbid, then you've effectively wasted bidding power or cards, and cards are precious since you receive only one of the opponent's choice when you do win a tile. You might then bid more conservatively and hope to use nagas to play special powers if needed to beat the opponent, but you then roll no snakes despite having four green dice.
I've played three games to date, and each has been tense from beginning to end. Every choice seems important, but you also have to deal with fate in terms of the dice you roll. You have some say over how fate will treat you given that a brown die at worst ties a white die, and a white die always beats a green die, yet you don't know what your opponent will bid as you'll rarely know all of the cards in that player's hand. All you can do is make choices, then see how things play out, you and your opponent in a tug-of-war turn after turn for tiles and cards as you race one another for points in twin temples...
There's an old saying that I'm sure you've heard: "It takes a village to design a game." I'm about a dozen games into my career, but I don't think any of my designs has been quite as collaborative as my small drafting game Bugs on Rugs.
After each convention, I have a steak dinner. It's a treat, a way to wind down, an excuse to put meat in my mouth-hole. At the end of Field Marshall Gaming Con 2016, as I was eating my New York strip, I decided to go through the "game ideas" folder on my phone.
I'm sure every designer has something similar: a list of themes, names, mechanisms. Most of them will never leave the folder, but sometimes you'll find a 3:00 a.m. idea you had that has some potential.
In this case, it was a drafting mechanism that caught my eye, specifically a Rochester draft — a draft from the table, a là The Networks — in which the undrafted card affects everyone.
When I originally thought of the mechanism, I was imagining it as a small part of a larger game — players choosing a Greek god to worship, with the remaining deity getting mad and smiting the town — but I'd just started to find success with Jellybean Games, so my focus was on small, family-friendly games.
Instead of this mechanism being part of a whole, what if it were the entire game?
I landed on the bug-catching theme pretty quickly: The cards had to be something collectible, and the unchosen card having an effect suggested it had to be something active, alive.
I could have gone with hunting safari animals or even my original "picking a god to worship" idea, but once the idea of bug-collecting struck me, I knew it was the perfect fit. My love of ants (no idea why, but I truly love ants) certainly helped.
By the time my meal was done I had two pages of notes, and within the week I had a prototype:
My worst habit is overdesigning. The first draft had 21 unique bugs, in four types: standard, pest, butterfly, and dragonfly (which existed as an elaborate mechanism to determine each round's starting player). For comparison, the final game has nine bugs, and the first player role passes to the left at the end of each round.
This is where the village began to weigh in. Two designer friends of mine — Allysha Tulk and Kevin Carmichael — had a design night at their house. The first time we played, the (then-untitled) game wasn't fun. A lot of the effects involved cards moving in and out of your hand, so you'd pick a card, then immediately lose it. Kevin made the first big suggestion of the development process: Have everyone take two cards before the effect kicked in. The game immediately got a lot more interesting.
Before I left, Allysha made the second big contribution: "Net It", a working title for the game.
Over the next few months, "Net It" became my most playtested game. It was the easiest to teach, it required very little set-up or table space, and people understood it almost immediately. I remember playing it in a Korean restaurant at 1:00 a.m. with Eric Lang, who suggested I start everyone with a card to discourage everyone memorizing each other's picks.
Cardboard Edison (Chris Zinsli and Suzanne Karbt) helped me tweak the numbers higher and lower, seeing how the incentives for different bug combinations changed.
But the next huge change to the game came after BGG.CON 2016 when I showed the game to Jonathan Gilmour — but before we get to that, let me lay out a few details about gameplay at that time:
The game is simple. To set up, shuffle the deck and have everyone draw a card. Each round, lay bugs on the table: twice as many bugs as players, plus one, so in a three-player game, seven bugs and in a five-player game, eleven. Choose a starting player. They take a bug. Go around to the left until everyone has taken two bugs, then trigger the final bug and move it to the side. (At the time, this was called "the garden").
Keep playing until the first butterfly card is exposed — these are placed at the bottom of the deck at the start of play — then finish that round and calculate points from your hand. Whoever has the most points wins!
Each bug had a different scoring method: Fireflies gained a point for each bug of a different color in your hand; ants were worth more the more you have; bees were worth 2 points each, plus a point for each bee held by another player; flies were worth 2 points each; and spiders were worth 2 points for each fly you held.
The garden effects were pretty simple as well: Everyone draws a card; everyone discards a card; discard all other garden cards; activate some more garden cards.
I'd first met Jon at Metatopia. To my amazement, he recognized me as the guy behind Dracula's Feast (which had just wrapped up on Kickstarter). Dead of Winter was one of my gateway games, so I was more than a little starstruck.
At BGG.CON, I didn't really know anyone. That was the con where I met my future best friend/business partner Nicole Perry, but I'd literally just met her and didn't really love the idea of saying, "Hey, can we hang out all day every day at this convention please?" Jon saw me wandering around, found me on Facebook, and sent me a message asking whether I wanted to come play with him and his crew.
If you're looking for a physical representation of the spirit of kindness, warmth, and inclusivity in this community, you need go no further than Jonathan Gilmour.
I spent most of BGG.CON playing games with Jon and his group — the "Jontourage" — all of whom I'm now good friends with. We played published games, prototypes, the whole gamut. By the end of the convention, I'd shown him every game I was working on, and he'd offered valuable feedback on all of them.
The trouble with someone as nice as Jon Gilmour is that he's nice, so after we played "Net It", he told me that there was no real feedback he could give. By that point, I'd spent months cleaning everything up and sanding off the rough edges. It was a difficult game to give feedback on because there was nothing obviously wrong with it.
But I pushed.
"I know it's fun", I asked, "but as a product, why would anyone buy this if they already have Sushi Go?"
I assured him that I really did want an honest response, and after a few moments of thought, he told me the truth: He couldn't really see a reason.
When you're designing a small drafting game, the comparisons to Sushi Go are inevitable — and I'm sure the fact that Phil Walker-Harding and I are both extremely handsome Australians doesn't help.
Sushi Go is incredible, a flawless execution of a very simple idea. It's a small game that casts a long shadow, so I asked JG what he thought I could do to differentiate my bug-drafting game. He looked through the deck, pulled out the ant and the beetle, and pushed them towards me. "These cards," he said. "These cards have you interacting with other players in a way that Sushi Go doesn't."
As I said above, most of the cards had simple, global effects — effects which, looking back, weren't particularly interesting. The two that Jon pulled out? The ant's effect was "Pass a card to the left", and the beetle's was "In turn order, each player swaps a card from their hand with a card from the garden."
I thanked him for his candor, then put the game away for a year.
Jon's advice was absolutely correct. I knew it was the right direction to go. The trouble was that I had no idea how to do it. The game was so simple that I didn't have eight different ways for players to interact.
"Net It" ideas continued to brew in my head, and almost exactly twelve months later I sat down and assembled a new prototype. The changes were simple: "Draw a card" was still there, as was "Pass a card to the left". Joining them was "Pass a card to the right", "Return a card to the top of the deck" (so it would be an option in the next draft), and "Everyone places a card in the middle; shuffle them and redeal."
I was surprised by how effective these changes were. The game was still 90% the same, but it was suddenly so much more dynamic. Interactive. Fun!
It turns out — and this may shock you — when it comes to game design, Jonathan Gilmour knows what he's talking about.
Over the next month or two, I continued to clean up the game, all little things at this point. For a long while, "Net It" had cards that you removed for two- or three-player games. This was unnecessary, and including all cards at all player counts was a flat improvement to the game.
Buffalo-based game designer Joel Colombo spotted and immediately solved a problem I hadn't seen. Going last in a five-player game was a miserable experience because you got last pick twice, then second-last pick twice, then third-last pick twice, so by the time you got an early pick, the game was almost over and you had a hand with zero synergy. He suggested a snake draft (with players drafting one card in clockwise order, then the second card in counterclockwise order starting with the last player), and this change eliminated the issue entirely, while also making the role of first player more interesting. Now you got first pick (giving you the most options) and last pick (which meant you were choosing the global effect to activate).
After another few months of playtesting, I'd taken the game as far as I could.
I was still getting notes (too many cards in-hand for a two-player game, too much math in scoring), but I didn't think any of them were solvable — at least not without making the game significantly worse in other ways.
I'd shown "Net It" to my team at Jellybean Games, but the theme didn't grab our art director (and I wasn't interested in changing it), so for the first time since starting my company, I decided to try my hand at pitching to outside publishers. Kids Table Board Games was also based in Toronto, and I was a huge fan of their aesthetic — the look of a game is so important to me as you'll know if you've played any Jellybean title — so I sent them a prototype and waited to hear back.
To my delight, they loved the game and immediately signed it.
I consider myself a good designer, but a better developer. I'm also handsome, witty, and extraordinarily modest — just spectacular on all fronts, basically. As a result, I (arrogantly, I now realize) wasn't expecting to see many changes from the prototype I sent them. I'd spent two years developing it, after all. What else was there to fix?
Helaina Cappel (the woman behind KTBG) and I live in the same city, but we mostly see each other at conventions. At Origins, we made the time to sit down and play "Shutterbugs" (as she'd renamed it), and I was absolutely blown away by the changes.
One of my design weaknesses is this obsession with things being fair. Fairness can obviously be a good thing, but I almost always take it too far, adding unhelpful rules and restrictions in pursuit of Ultimate Fairness.
Each of the bugs in the game had its own unique scoring mechanism, and many of them relied on collecting the same bug repeatedly. Seeing every card in the deck, I reasoned, was vital. What if you started collecting one type of bug, and it came up less than the others? So I had added butterflies. Eighteen of them were placed at the bottom of the deck, and they served as the endgame trigger. You'd reach them only once you got through every other bug, and I used eighteen of them because I'd sat down and done the math; it was the exact number that meant even in the worst-case scenario, you'd never run out the deck.
Did I mention I tend to over-design?
Helaina (and her husband Josh Cappel, who did the graphic design) had very wisely taken that mess of a mechanism out and simply added a card that triggered the end of the game. This may sound like a simple change, but it more than tripled the speed of set-up ("Shuffle the deck, then add the 'Game End' card" — no more sorting out butterflies) and fixed the problem that I'd falsely seen as unsolvable, that is, each player having too many cards at the end of a two-player game.
They'd also swapped out the words for icons — which makes the first play a little confusing, but by the second play you'll know them all by heart — and cleaned up basically every card in the game, reducing the amount of math at the end of the game and removing a bunch of rare, unfun interactions.
Here's an example: In the draft I submitted, flies were worth 2 points and spiders 3 points for each fly in your hand. This was a lot of fun, but it made two-player games really cutthroat. If one player got all the spiders and flies, they won. Every time.
When I'd been developing, I'd thought this was interesting, but Helaina decided that "mandatory hate-drafting" wasn't well-suited to a light, family-friendly game. In retrospect: Duh. They kept flies at 2 points apiece, but bumped spiders up to 7...but only if you discard a fly. No more multipliers, no more out-of-control point engines. Simple, clean, and much more fun.
I could spend pages listing the changes they made, but by the end of the process, Helaina and Josh had solved every problem I'd seen as unsolvable. It was a genuinely humbling experience; the amount of time and love Helaina and Josh poured into this simple card-drafting game has put KTBG (and their Burnt Island Games studio) at the very top of my list of publishers to work with.
They love their games, and they know what they're doing.
The final step was to come up with a name. "Net It" was a fine working title, but it hadn't tested well with her retail partners. For a while the game was "Shutterbugs", but another publisher had a game of that title in the pipeline. We spent some time brainstorming:
Finally, they landed on Bugs on Rugs and brought Shawna J.C. Tenney on board to bring the gorgeous bugs to life, while Josh provided the titular rugs.
I took the game as far as I could, and Kids Table Board Game took it much, much further.
I'm the credited designer for Bugs on Rugs, but without Kevin Carmichael, Allysha Tulk, Eric Lang, Cardboard Edison, Jonathan Gilmour, Joel Colombo, dozens and dozens of playtesters, and — most of all — Helaina and Josh Cappel, the game would be one-tenth of what it is now.
Fortunately for me, there's not enough room on the front of the box to list everyone, so I get all the credit!
The reviews for this game have been overwhelmingly positive, and I was thrilled to notice that so far, each of them has specifically mentioned that the game stands alone from Sushi Go. It started as a simple concept in an idea cocoon and, thanks to the tabletop design community, has become a beautiful butterfly of a game.
Thank you, village. I'm extraordinarily proud of this game and literally couldn't have done it without you.
If you add a new and good game design, old mechanisms can be revived and get a new lease of life. The best example here is Kingdomino by Bruno Cathala.
Let me begin by saying that Foggy Island is my first game as a designer. A few dozen times I have tested prototypes, sold games, recorded game reviews, and organized conventions, but the emotions behind those activities are way different from the ones you experience when creating something new.
The basic idea was simple: While working with children and youth, I often make up games for them to play, and the easiest way to do this is to offer them something with which they are already experienced. Foggy Island is a game that uses your previous experience of playing Tic-Tac-Toe.
But the algorithm of this game is so well known, why drag it up?
I couldn't help it; I went on. The first idea was to expand the gaming field. Playing on a 6x6 grid was far more unpredictable. The algorithm grew like a snowball, and it became impossible to put it out as a single scheme. Moreover, adding more spaces opened lots of new possibilities for players. I am sure, however, that many people have played this version, or even on a larger grid, on their own. But what if the goal is different? What if your aim were not to put three in a row, but to fill in the whole field? What if long lines were more valuable than short ones? Well, this requires an absolutely new approach. All your previous gaming experience is irrelevant for you have to change your strategy completely.
The mechanisms worked perfectly, and players found it easy to get into the new game as it took almost no time to explain the rules: "Have you ever played Tic-Tac-Toe? Do you know how to build three in a row? It's something like that, but...."
At this point, I became adamant about developing this game — and to develop it so that it may be of use not only to me but for other people as well. But the roll-and-write mechanism is not my cup of tea, and back then it was not that popular. I decided that we will use tokens, some of which would be more valuable, thus increasing the interest. By "more valuable", I mean they would have unique kinds of features. Tokens that double the score were obvious, but spies turned out to be a real treasure. These tokens count for your opponent's score, and you must play them, although depending on the position they may become even useful for current play.
At this point, our idea started transforming into the game and product. I started posting hints, designs, and ideas on the Kozak Games Facebook page to show the process of making the game step by step.
By then, testing had already spread outside our workshop. At least a dozen activists, clubs, and bloggers were interested, and it was an incredibly strange feeling to understand that now total strangers will try out your creation. What if they dislike it? What if they fail to experience all the profundity of your game? What if they don't get the rules? Or don't like the setting?
While presenting a prototype at a convention, I met a very interesting group of people. We talked a lot about the mechanisms, about what these people would have added or changed, and everyone had completely different ideas of how this game may evolve. We tried experimenting with the board, adding players, changing characters abilities, and going blind.
Then I came up with the idea of making the game as a kind of "game constructor", something in which you can easily change the rules, add something, or omit something. The game-constructor idea allows other players to construct a new game. That's how weather cards, which set the rules for the current round, were added. They determine whether we play on the whole field right away or open it quarter by quarter, whether we play with open tokens or play blind.
I turned on the heat with my idea of a game that can be constantly improved, a game in which the rules can be modified or added to, a game in which you can add new tokens. But how to proceed? If you were joining this project, what would you add as an expansion or as promo cards or tokens?
• I posted about a couple of games with post-apocalyptic settings the other day, but apparently we just need to make that a category of games in the BGG database as here's another one in the same vein, with Gordon Calleja's Posthuman Saga from Mighty Boards building on the world in his 2015 release Posthuman. Here's an overview of this July 2019 release:
You are a survivor in a near-future Europe that has collapsed under the weight of its own political errors, in the wake of a bloody class-war fueled by genetic modifications. In Posthuman, you journeyed to the last bastion of organized human society in the area: The Fortress. A year down the line, you have become an active part of that society and honed the skills you need to fulfill your role there, but the mutants are gaining ground...
Posthuman Saga is a standalone survival game in the Posthuman universe. You play a seasoned member of the Fortress' militia, sent out beyond the defensive perimeter to explore and hopefully reconnect with outposts the Fortress has lost touch with, while searching for scavengable sites along the way. You have to forge across a crumbled land where resources are spare and mutants roam the ruined mansions and forests alike.
Like the initial Posthuman, this is a sandbox-style survival journey, but the game system in Posthuman Saga differs from that of the first game in the series. Players win by completing various objectives that suit different characters and playing styles. It has an emphasis on tactical choices on two levels: the journey expressed through an innovative modular tile map puzzle and the individual story and combat encounters. The latter are fast, card-based affairs involving tough choices with future consequences. Posthuman Saga boasts over one hundred, finely crafted story scenes with a simple, push-your-luck mechanism that supplements the emergent narrative afforded by the game. Mutation is a way of life in the Posthuman world, and it can have its advantages, but it can easily get out of control...
• And here's yet another one, with James Vaughn of Ndemic Creations funding Plague Inc.: Armageddon, an expansion for Plague Inc.: The Board Game, on Kickstarter (KS link) ahead of release in November 2019. A short description from the designer: "Get ready to laugh as global vaccination rates drop, cry as your friend evolves a particularly lethal strain of athlete's foot, and cheer as your bioweapon devastates entire continents in a single turn." Yes, that fits the post-apoc category nicely.
• U.S. publisher APE Games has posted a teaser about a deck-building war game from Kevin G. Nunn set in Europe two hundred years in the future titled Dealers in Hope. In its introductory post, APE Games explains how it moved the game's setting from the Napoleonic era to the future, with the setting being "Europe at war after sea levels rose, resulting in reduced land mass and insufficient resources".
By using GlobalFloodMap.org, APE Games was able to determine how high the water should be to create a properly pinched map.
• Constantine Kevorque's MonstroCity, which is coming from Vesuvius Media in Q4 2019 and which is based on the MonstroCity: Rampage! app, doesn't quite qualify as a post-apocalyptic game, but I'm including it in this post since players get to be the apocalypse, as it were.
In this co-operative game, which can also be played solitaire, you and other players each control a monster. With this monster squad, you must destroy the city in a quest to find the evil genius Dr. Spotnik. In more detail:
The game is played in a series of five rounds that each last two minutes. During the round, each player simultaneously rolls four dice and resolves them quickly to activate their monsters' abilities. Keep moving through the city destroying buildings, while defending against the city's turrets and Dr. Spotnik's obstacles: tanks, helicopters, road blocks, etc. Depending on how well you perform and whether you manage to reach certain milestones, you gather victory stars, and you need three such stars to win.