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W. Eric Martin
• Guillaume Besançon's Cité, which was shown at Spiel 2010 but apparently not widely available, will have a few dozen copies (with English rules) available via an online U.S. retailer, most likely before the end of April. These copies effectively serve as a test run for the game's demand in North America.
• On his blog, designer Antoine Bauza writes about Rampage, a design under progress with Ludovic Maublanc. The key attraction: You are a monster attacking a city, with skyscrapers constructed from meeple supports, and as you wreak havoc on the town and bring the buildings down, the meeples fly everywhere. Sounds realistic! French site Jeux sur un Plateau has a video demonstration of the game, listing it as a future release from Repos Production.
• French publisher Gigamic has released new French-only versions of Jacques Zeimet's Kakerlaken trio (-poker, -salat and -suppe).
On a related note, my German exchange student was astonished a few months ago when I blurted out the German word for "cockroach" during some story that she was telling. She couldn't think of the right word in English and was trying to describe the object when I interjected, "Kakerlaken?" Jaw drop. This message brought to you by the "Yes, these games really are educational, I swear" Council of Board Game Publishers.
• Hints at another title coming from Ystari Games? French site Tric Trac highlights a video with actor/director Alexander Astier in which he states that he's been working with Ystari in relation to a TV series called "Kaamelott". And yes, Ystari's Cyril Demaegd has confirmed with me that Ystari will release something tied into "Kaamelott" – no details yet as to what that might be.
• In yet another recording from the Cannes game festival, Tric Trac previews the Cranio Creations title Dungeon Fighter.
• Moonster Games reports that Gosu: Kamakor is taking longer than expected as cards are balanced and other issues are worked through, but in the meantime the publisher offers you a "making of..." video showing the graphic work done on a single card in the expansion. Bonus (or penalty): Elvis sings background.
• With Eminent Domain still a month (or two or three) from release, designer Seth Jaffee is already running through the possibilities for the game's first big expansion, dubbed Exotic.
• Designer Alan Paull's next game will likely be Origins of Civilisation, according to this blog post from Tony Boydell, Paull's partner in Surprised Stare Games.
• As Fantasy Flight Games does on many Fridays, the publisher has announced a couple of new items, starting with the third adventure pack for The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, this being A Journey To Rhosgobel. The other title announced is the standalone game Deadwood from designer Loïc Lamy.
• The standard edition of the Catan Dice Game will be available in U.S. stores once again on April 21, 2011. Stefan Feld's Strasbourg has been released in Germany by Pegasus Spiele.
• New titles of interest in the BGG databse include Chad Jensen's Dominant Species: The Card Game (which just launched on GMT's P500 system), Survive: 5-6 Player Mini-Expansion, Alcatraz: The Scapegoat (a Spiel 2011 release from Kuźnia Gier), Midnight Men (a cooperative deck-building game from designer Yves Tourigny in which the players are superheroes) and 18OE, a ten-hour 18xx game themed around the Orient Express.
Snag is the result of the Blue Panther LLC 2010 Small Games Contest. I don't enter many design contests because I find they distract me from the games on which I'm currently working – and I already have plenty of those. For some reason, this time was different and I decided I would enter.
I caught wind of the contest from a post at the Board Game Designers Forum, and the contest guidelines required that the design use both dice and cards, that the game materials fit in Blue Panther's card/dice tower, and that the game be short.
The length turned out to be the sticking point. Every idea I came up with was obviously going to exceed 30 minutes. After wasting a lot of time just coming up with an idea to work on, I was ready to give up and move on to another project. Sometimes giving up is what you need to do. I don't necessarily mean "giving up" as in "quitting", but "giving up" as in "letting go of the notions that you have yourself locked into". In this case it was little of both.
Having decided that I wasn't going to be able to make the deadline, I stopped trying to create a 30-minute strategy game. That's when it dawned on me that a mix of pattern recognition and speed could be fun. I did a quick write-up of the idea and WHACK I realized I had just designed a party game. This was a surprise to me since in all my years I had never designed a party game of any type, nor had I even tried to do so.
The game came together quickly, which was fortunate since I had used a lot of time on the other concepts. I'm not going to get into much detail about the design process as the game is incredibly simple and most the work involved working out the distribution of card symbols, which I am certain would be a real snore fest to read. Instead, I'll tell you how to play Snag, along with a few things I did that may not be obvious at first glance.
As previously mentioned, the game comes in a dice tower box, with 2D6 – one red die and one blue, each having six of twelve symbols on them – and thirty square cards, each showing four different symbols. Players take turns drawing a card and playing it into a field, then they roll the dice.
The players simultaneously try to find the symbols shown on the dice adjacent to one another on the playing field. The symbols can be on the same card or (preferably) on different cards. When you find a match, you place a finger on each symbol to claim the card(s) on which the symbols are located. In the example above, there are two opportunities to score.
Each player may score only one set, so claim the set on two different cards, if possible. You probably have noticed that a given symbol may appear on either color background, which may or may not match the die color. Color is irrelevant for claiming pairs and is there to help confuse the eye. The game is played until all cards have been exhausted with the winner being the one who claimed the most.
I didn't hold out much hope of winning because I knew Blue Panther didn't publish party games. I even went as far as making a bit of a joke out of my submission by stating that the development team at PyroMyth Games (my business entity) had determined Blue Panther LLC was in need of party games in its line and Snag was designed specifically to fill that gap. I figured if I was going to lose, I might as well have a little joke to myself.
Months passed, and I had all but forgotten the contest when the email reached my inbox. But I didn't read the message, at least not right away simply because I hadn't checked my e-mail. Instead, I learned about it when another game designer congratulated me on winning.
Thinking back on it, being congratulated by my peers is better than an e-mail any day...
W. Eric Martin
• TV commentator Mo Rocca took a trip to Gen Con, took a few swipes at gamers on the way – "...as many as 30,000 gamers crawl from their basements..." – interviewed Scott Nicholson and Mayfair Games' Robert Carty, and featured Piece o' Cake, Incan Gold, and other modern games for a six-minute segment on CBS News Sunday Morning in April 2011. (HT: David Knepper)
• Jeremy D. Salinas, aka Drakkenstrike, has posted his 100th "components breakdown" video, highlighting War of Honor, due out June 2011 from Alderac Entertainment. In honor of this milestone, Salinas is hoilding a contest on BGG for War of Honor and other Legend of the Five Rings material. Amazing attention to detail in this video!
• Designer Reiner Knizia has added a mobile gaming page to his website, which lists 20+ apps (!) currently available for the iOS, along with other digital versions of his designs.
• In other Knizia news, an April 7, 2011 tweet mentions that a lawsuit against one Michael Powers is headed to court, with the subject under dispute being an unauthorized iOS version of Knizia's Schotten-Totten called 3-Card Brigade Poker.
• On Go Forth and Game, Tom Gurganus interviews designer Seth Jaffee on what's coming from Tasty Minstrel Games (aside from Jaffee's own Eminent Domain), the ins-and-outs of game design, and more.
• Cranio Creations has a downloadable map pack with a half-dozen new maps for Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space.
• Stratus Games has released instructional videos for its two releases to date: Gold Mine (YouTube link) and Launch Pad (YouTube link). Very nice productions, and a good model for future releases from Stratus and other small publishers.
• Issue 2011/2 of Spielbox will include a new game from Martin Wallace created exclusively for the magazine, with three more Wallace designs coming in the future.
• Issue #28 of the Z-Man Games newsletter (PDF) is available, with short write-ups on Dark Minions, Grimoire and Wok Star.
• On State of Play, Thomas L. MacDonald discusses who might best qualify as the patron saint of gaming.
• A roundtable discussion on Opinionated Gamers asks "Is This the Golden Age of Boardgaming?" I find the discussion puzzling as most of the participants debate the merits of releases in one calendar year or another and try to weigh them or rate them in some manner.
When I think about that question, I can relate to it only in personal terms and therefore find it meaningless. I think back fondly to the games that I played non-stop in my youth, mostly with my brother, games like Pay Day, Bermuda Triangle and Bonkers. I loved those years! So much fun and good memories. I think about being immersed in Magic: The Gathering for most of a decade and how enjoyable those years were in terms of endlessly cogitating on the game, with the actual playing of games being only one small aspect of Magic itself. I think about the games that my wife and I get hooked on, games like Familienbande and Qwirkle, and I'm delighted that something has grabbed the two of us and given us a pastime to share. I think about the games I'm obsessing over in present times – Innovation, 7 Wonders and Lords of Vegas – and how I can't wait to get them to the table once again.
Trying to compare the experiences I've had with these disparate titles over the decades seems meaningless. The experiences created via the various games is more valuable than the games themselves.
W. Eric Martin
Antoine Bauza's 7 Wonders was the buzz of 2010, getting advance play at conventions in the U.S. and Europe and exciting players with the thought of a good, fast game for seven players. Since its release at Spiel in October 2010, the game has largely met expectations, with the one major critique – aside from complaints about thin cards and a flimsy insert – being that the game is largely tactical and can feel like it plays itself in some stages of the game (although exactly which stages has differed depending on who is making such comments).
Anyone who falls into this camp would do well to check out 7 Wonders: Leaders, the first expansion for this game from publisher Repos Production. Leaders includes 40 cards – 36 leaders, three new guilds for use in age III, and a wonder card for inclusion in that deck – along with a Rome wonder board, showing the Roman Colosseum.
With Leaders, players add one set-up round at the start of the game and one additional step before each age. During set-up, each player is dealt four leader cards. Each player drafts one leader, passes the other three cards right, drafts another leader, and so on until each player has four leader cards. At the start of each age, the player chooses one leader card from his hand and plays it exactly as he would any other card:
• Pay the cost and put it into play.
• Pay the cost of the next stage of your wonder and tuck the card under your wonder board.
• Discard the card for three coins.
The leader cards cost 1-5 coins, and each player starts the game with six coins instead of three.
"This expansion adds strategy to the whole game," says Repos' Thomas Provoost, "as players make choices at the start that run through everything. It also adds replayability as with 36 different leaders, the more you play, the more you discover new strategies and combinations." Money management becomes more of a concern as players now need to keep money on hand to pay for their leaders, forcing them to think more across the ages about what to keep when and how to bring everything they want into play.
What does these leaders do? All types of things – provide money, discounts or extra points for building your wonder or particular types of buildings; allow you to buy goods from the bank; provide extra points for military victories or sets of science buildings or particular combinations of other buildings; boost your military; provide points or money directly; add to your science holdings; and so on.
Provoost notes that each leader is thematically tied to the bonus provided – Midas doubles the points provided for money at the end of the game; Salomon lets you build a discard building for free; Ramsès allows you to build any guild for free; Hatshepsut gives you money whenever you buy resources from a neighbor – but (as is typical for a Eurogame) without having a special rule for each leader. Instead, all the bonuses are relayed through graphics on the card, with most of them being decipherable on first glance and others being understood after a first description.
The new guilds in Leaders are mixed with those of the base game, and the appropriate number shuffled into the age III deck. Two of the three new guilds tie into the leaders directly, with one providing a point for each leader that you and your neighbors have put into play and another allowing you to immediately copy one leader held by a neighbor. The third guild provides an additional bonus for money held at the end of the game.
The new wonder – in the spirit of Douglas Adams, the ninth in this game of seven wonders – provides no resources, as was the case with the Manneken Pis bonus wonder. Instead Rome provides its holder a bonus in regard to leaders, with one side allowing a player to nerf the cost of all leaders played and the other providing a discount on leader costs as well as additional leaders and opportunities to play them as that player completes his wonder. I played one three-player game with Rome, Manneken Pis and another wonder in play, and the lack of initial resources was an interesting challenge – especially since the guy who could actually produce something started with the leader who lets you buy goods from the bank! Lots more to explore in the weeks ahead...
W. Eric Martin
As every game designer – and more than a few game players – knows, no game design is ever complete. You can always tweak the game board, the card texts, the costs, the use of special tokens, the value of bonuses, the winning condition, the end of game triggers, and so on to create a game that lies at some different point on the evolutionary scale of game design. The change will create two games that are related, perhaps even nearly identical, yet their genes differ in some way that will lead to different patterns of play as gamers take the designs out for a ride.
Thus, even when a game is published, the design isn't necessarily final. Instead it's only frozen in amber, then placed before the eyes and hands of gamers who chip away at the casing to get the goods inside. Such is the case with Alan R. Moon's Airlines, his first published board game in 1990 from then-newcomer German publisher Abacusspiele. Nearly a decade later, Moon revisited the design with Union Pacific, which kept the same core game – claiming transportation routes and taking and playing company shares – while adding and subtracting peripheral elements.
Now for 2011, Airlines has been reborn again as Airlines Europe. "It's sort of fun to work on an existing game and try to improve it," says Moon, who started work on what became Airlines Europe in 2007. "The design has been around so long and been through so many different versions. I'd do something, then change something else. The prototype went back and forth between a railroad and airline game a number of times."
Asked what's changed over the past two decades in the process of game design, Moon says, "The biggest difference is how much easier it is to do the physical things thanks to scanners and modern computers. I used not to do blind testing via mail, but that's also easier than it was years ago. As for the design process itself, I'm more methodical now. If I'm working on a brand new game, it's more open, but working on an existing game I have an approach as to how to do it – and it really is as much work as fun."
While the game core is once again largely untouched, many other details have been added, subtracted or square rooted in the process. Says Moon, "The basic dilemma of the game – get more stock by building routes or play more stock to earn more – hasn't changed, but the overall system has changed. You have more of a resource element where you have to manage money as well as cards."
To put that quote in context: In Airlines, a player could claim a route only by playing a flight card at least as valuable as the route he wanted to claim. Players could draw a new flight card each turn, but if you didn't have what you needed for a particular route, you had little choice but to play elsewhere or sit on your hands while waiting for another chance to draw the right flight card. In Union Pacific, track cards replaced the flight cards, with four types of track being laid from coast to coast in the U.S. Once again, though, if you failed to draw the track desired, you were stuck.
For Airlines Europe, the alternative currency systems of flight and track cards have been replaced by a more familiar system: cash. Players start with €8 million and as long as you have the cash, you can buy the route you want, giving you more freedom to build where you want. As always, buying a route puts a new share of stock in your hand, but in Airlines Europe players who lay down stock earn money immediately – €2 million per share – which fuels future route purchases.
A player can also just take €8 million as an action, but stockpiling loot for a string of future turns can be risky. If the bank ever runs out of funds, everyone with more than €8 million discards down to this amount. "If players play optimally, this probably won't happen," says Moon, "but it's one of those things where you have to take into account that type of play, someone who tries to take lots of money to break the system." Moon relates the tactic to players who hoard train cards in his Ticket to Ride – something that seems like a good idea, but is almost never a winning strategy.
In addition to adopting a more straightforward currency, Airlines Europe streamlines other design choices Moon had made in Airlines and Union Pacific. During a scoring, for example, players no longer have to count the number of tokens on the game board for each of the companies in play to determine the value of those companies. Instead, with each new route added to its network, a company's marker is moved along a share track that circles the game board. Now during a scoring, you merely consult the victory point distribution for the region where the marker is located and hand out the VP chits.
"I probably worked on this game even more than the evolution of Elfenroads and Elfenland," says Moon, referring to a self-published design that he later transformed into the 1998 Spiel des Jahres winner. "Even now, looking at the game there are a few things I could have gone either way about."
One of those "things" is the scoring card distribution, the set-up for which requires eight lines and a large graphic in the Abacusspiele rules. "I prefer totally random scoring," says Moon, with the scoring cards shuffled into the deck and having them come up any which way, "but I think most people prefer more structure." As a result, the current set-up gives gamers a good measure of predictability as to when scoring will occur. Another alternative Moon likes as a balance between predictable and random is a set-up in which the deck of share cards is divided into thirds, with one scoring card shuffled into each stack.
Which way is the correct way to play? If you're like most people, you'll read the rules for Airlines Europe and stick to what's written. Moon, on the other hand, has no problem with players adopting one of the alternatives above or any other scoring system. "Play the game the way that you want to play it."
As for the in-jokes with the airline names – Air Amigos, Days of Flying Wonders, Brooms Bewitched, and so on, all of which relate to game publishers that have published Moon designs or are run by friends of Moon – that's something that hasn't changed over the years. Says Moon, "In the original version of Airlines, I had takes on some of my friends. That was the same with Elfenland. For this, I thought it would be good to take off on game companies."
As for whether Airlines Europe is his final take on the game system, Moon says, "I've already seen comments from people saying they're looking forward to Airlines 2020." Time will tell...
W. Eric Martin
Antoine Bauza's Ghost Stories is an incredibly fun and thematic cooperative game that often has players on the edge of their seats with uncertainty over whether their monks will be able to protect a village against the many aspects of Wu-Feng that threaten it. The 2009 release of the White Moon expansion gave players an additional challenge – protecting the villagers themselves against the haunting ghosts and other threats – while also bringing them new means with which to stand up against the forces of evil.
With the release of Ghost Stories: Black Secret in Q4 2011, the players will face an even more powerful dilemma: Wu-Feng himself. (Or perhaps "itself" – hard to know how to refer to a lord of evil properly) Yes, the player count for Black Secret will be 2-5 (instead of 1-4) as one player will take on the role of Wu-Feng and harass the monks in a more direct manner than they've experienced previously.
To start with, when a new ghost appears at the start of each player's turn, the active player no longer has the ability to place the ghost where she might want. Wu-Feng is now calling the shots and can use the power of the ghost in three ways:
1. Wu-Feng can place the ghost on the appropriate monk's board following the standard rules for placement. (Alas, the ghost will likely no longer arrive in the spot most advantageous to the heroic monks, but this change makes more thematic sense.)
2. Wu-Feng can use the power of the ghost to cast a spell, with a green ghost powering a green spell, a black ghost powering any colored spell, and so on. The ghost is discarded, but each spell inflicts its own pain on the players, with more powerful ghosts bringing about more powerful spells. A level 1 spell, for example, might cause one player to lose a Tao token with Wu-Feng choosing who gets nipped, or it might bring a new ghost into play, thereby possibly swapping a weak ghost for a stronger one. A level 2 spell might allow Wu-Feng to move a ghost, while a level 3 spell might strip a player of all Tao tokens.
The spells are placed in a pyramidal structure, with the level 2 spells building on those in the first level, and so on up to level four, the apex of the pyramid which is, as you might expect, a Wu-Feng icon. If the Wu-Feng player reaches this level, he immediately draws a Wu-Feng card from the deck, then plays one from his hand.
(Oh, yes, Wu-Feng has a hand of Wu-Feng aspects available to him instead of these cards being placed at particular intervals in the deck. In Black Secret, the ghost deck instead has placeholder cards for whenever an aspect of Wu-Feng would appear, and when one of those cards is revealed, Wu-Feng chooses which aspect of himself comes into play. Better choice for Wu-Feng = more pain for the players.)
3. Wu-Feng can use the power of the ghost to call additional forces into play. Wu-Feng has access to three special figures: discard a ghost of resistance 2, and you can play the smallest figure, whereas a resistance 3 gets the middle figure and a resistance 4 the largest figure. These figures roam the catacombs, a 3x3 playing area that lies underneath the village; one of these spaces is black, and the other eight are divided equally between red, green, yellow and blue.
Wu-Feng awaits your attention...
On each player's turn, an active figure can move or dig in the catacombs, and if a figure digs through enough dirt, it might find something. A skull brings a new ghost into play, for example. If the figures find the three Wu-Feng icons hidden in the catacombs, then the shadow of Wu-Feng descends upon the village, ready to harass the monks and strike them down. On a turn, the shadow of Wu-Feng can move anywhere in the village or attack monks located on the tile where it's located, possibly causing them to lose Qi or forcing them to roll the black die.
The players don't have to allow these figures to roam freely and dig in the catacombs, however. Each village tile has a ladder; after a monk moves for the turn, it can change levels. If a player is down in the catacombs, it can choose to fight these figures, but fighting can be tough as the figures change color depending on where they stand in the catacombs. Everything is all about timing, and good Tao in one location will be useless in another. What's more, while your presence alone is enough to deter the smallest figure from digging, the medium-sized figure will dig despite you standing nearby. Even worse, the largest figure will fight back, possibly costing you movement or life or both. Some new ghosts in Black Secret remove ladders when they enter play, making it more difficult to move between levels – and if a village tile is overrun, your options are limited even further.
To aid the monks in their fight against this more devious incarnation of Wu-Feng, they have access to blood mantras, special abilities that come in different levels to adjust for the difficulty of play. With the level 2 mantra, for example, when a monk loses a life, the Qi token is placed on the mantra. When two tokens are on the mantra, one monk of the players' choice gains a Qi. With the level 4 mantra, all tiles will be dehaunted when it triggers. Says Repos Production's Thomas Provoost, "It's a lose-win mechanism. If Wu-Feng is strong, then the players will lose life, but have help from the game. Of course if they lose too many lives, they'll all be dead."
One new village tile will be added to the game, and when monks activate this tile, they can add more dirt in the catacombs to keep Wu-Feng from finding things too quickly.
"The challenge of Black Secret is managing the different fields of war in the game," says Provoost. He mentions that he, Repos partner Cédric Caumont, and Ghost Stories designer Antoine Bauza are all fans of Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings, particularly the Sauron expansion. "We want the bad guy to have lots of choices. We're not basing Black Secret on LotR, but the Sauron expansion made the game even better with more choices. Similarly, with the village, with spells, with the catacombs, We-Feng is always divided in things to do."
Not that Wu-Feng is weak, mind you – Provoost says that the monks have a tough time in Black Secret, even with experienced players. The game is still undergoing final development, though, and details of play might change before the expansion is available in late 2011. One change Provoost mentions, for example, is that initially the game ended if the three Wu-Feng icons were uncovered in the catacombs. "That felt really abrupt, and not fair to the players," he says. Now the shadow of Wu-Feng comes into play, escalating the tension and the danger to the monks, but still giving them a chance to prove themselves stronger. Says Provoost, "We need to help the monks a bit more..."
(Artwork is in progress on Ghost Stories: Black Secret so there's nothing to show for now. —WEM)
Preorder One Night Ultimate Werewolf now from www.beziergames.com
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
I like to keep pushing the Age of Steam/Steam expansion envelope. In 2010, for the first time ever, I'm releasing three double-sided MOUNTED expansions, as well as a double-sided bonus map. There's a fair amount of additional cost involved in printing up mounted expansions, especially at the relatively low volume necessary for expansions to AoS/Steam, but I know that's what most players really want, and I fall into that category as well. Mounted gameboards are more durable, store better, and seem more fun to play than paper maps. Without exception, all the maps I've printed on paper I would have loved to have mounted, if the math were to work out. With a slightly weaker Euro, I decided to take the plunge, and the new boards look just amazing.
For all the mounted maps I've produced, I've always used LUDO FACT, known in the industry for the highest quality game components. All the big German publishers use them for most projects, and Rio Grande uses them as well. I had the good fortune of visiting them a few years back with the Valley Games folks, and LUDO FACT has an amazing operation. That's why every single mounted map you get from Bézier Games is super high quality.
Okay, enough of the sales spiel – this particular set of maps is in many ways more "typical" than what I've released in the past. (Three years ago, I released a set of one- and two-player maps; two years ago, I released the totally unique Secret Blueprints of Steam series in which each player had his own map; and in 2009 I released four two-player maps on the back of "regular" maps.) Every one of this year's maps plays with three players, and all but one plays with four or five people. For uniqueness this year, I've included a three-player-only map and a co-op map. I really don't like co-op games, so I had a bit of fun with the latter (see below).
Steam vs. Age of Steam
As the only publisher who is releasing dual AoS/Steam expansion maps, I've run into a bit of a challenge: How to make maps that work for both systems, as while they are very close, they have some fundamental differences. In some cases, as with Atlantis, the differences are erased by rule modifications. (Production and cube dispersal via the traditional AoS/Steam rules is eliminated, replaced by an integrated system.) In other cases, like California Gold Rush, the map is more interesting for AoS players than Steam players, as there's no income reduction in Steam (thus removing most of the value of having a real "end game" advancement to VPs). However, my #1 goal with this year's maps was to make them work as well with both systems as possible, with as few tweaks specific to AoS or Steam as possible.
Not only that, but this year's maps have a single set of rules, not one set of rules for Steam and another for AoS. This cross-platform goal was challenging to create and test and keep everything straight, especially without making the maps too generic, but I'm really happy with the results. What came out of this "cross platform" rules goal was a leaner ruleset, something I favor anyway over the more verbose, involved rules of some of the other expansion maps out there.
(I know that many players have both games, and while pretty much everyone prefers one or the other – I'm agnostic in this regard – the ability to be able to play expansions with either game is huge. I wish Railways of the World / Railroad Tycoon had normal-sized tiles, so I could make these maps work with that system as well...)
Simple Rule Changes
When I play an AoS/Steam expansion, I don't want to have to refer to the rules during the game, but instead get a quick summary of them when we start and be able to keep them in mind while we're playing. My philosophy is that expansions for AoS/Steam are rarely played multiple times within a few weeks or even months, so players can't be expected to have a learning game. If they can't "get" the rules upon an initial reading to everyone at the table (with the exception of the game set-up, since that doesn't have to be memorized), then I need to scale back the rules.
One of the areas I've tried to focus on when developing new AoS/Steam maps is to keep the rule changes interesting and compelling without adding all sorts of exceptions and clarifications; it's amazing how a simple change to an existing rule often causes a domino effect that can result in paragraphs of explanatory text. You'll find the rule changes in this new set to be very crisp, even though they have to address both AoS and Steam.
The California Gold Rush rule change (only one in this case) is simple and doesn't have a dramatic impact on regular game play rules: Gold (yellow) cubes can be delivered at any time, but they don't count as income until the end of the game...after income reduction. That tiny rule change has a dramatic effect on how you play AoS/Steam, requiring you to weigh the value of 5 income at the end of the game vs. 4 or 2 incremental income on a six delivery (thanks to income reduction) during the mid- and endgame.
Another simple rule change appears in Sharing, which again has a big influence on how the game is played, but in this case the change does require various clarifications in the rules because it "breaks" some normal conventions. Sharing allows a player to become a co-owner of any link by paying the current owner(s) one share. While this seems straightforward enough, clarifications are needed for all of the situations where things are a little odd. Like what if one of the owners is at two shares already? He gets $5 from the bank. What happens if you become a co-owner of an incomplete link? Any owner can extend that link and complete it. Who gets the income when goods are delivered across a co-owned link? It's determined by the player who makes the delivery. And so on. In this case, the fundamental rules change was so compelling and interesting that it was worth the additional clarifications.
Another area of rule changes is a result of optimizing for a certain player count. In the case of Trisland, my goal was to make a three-player map that really worked for three players. There are a few other maps that work well for three players – Montréal Métro is the best of the lot, though one could argue it's a four-player map with rotating control of the "dummy" government player – but in general players run into the issue that AoS/Steam really isn't a great three-player game. Ireland tried to solve the problem by essentially removing the Locomotive action. My Essen Spiel map scales in size to the number of players, making a much tighter map for three players than six – but Trisland is different. I took the approach of thinking that if I had to sell AoS/Steam as a three-player-only game, what rules would I change? How could I retain the elegance of AoS/Steam as well as the cutthroat nature of the game when it is played with four or five players in a three-player environment? And how could I do this without totally changing the fundamentals of AoS/Steam? Here are the three things I did to make this the perfect three-player map:
1. I made the map perfectly symmetrical. A huge problem with three-player games of AoS/Steam is that board position is absolutely huge, with more impact than with more players. A player who "lucks" into being left alone while the other two duke it out for cubes and track position is guaranteed to win. Having a symmetrical map means that the only variable each game is the initial outlay of cubes. And making the center spots rather costly prevents a player from hogging the center of the map without a significant investment early on.
2. I reduced the number of goods colors by one. No purple cubes means no purple cities. It also has the effect of making it harder to create 6-link deliveries. This isn't something particularly new: I used this to great effect in last years' two-player maps (Alabama Railways, Antebellum Louisiana, 1867 Georgia Reconstruction and South Carolina).
3. I reduced both the number of actions and how many times during the game a player can choose each of those actions. This piece was key. Gone are First Move and Turn Order (arguably two of the weaker actions anyway); I also limited each player to choosing the remaining actions only once or twice per game. This had the added benefit of making turn order important in the last few turns if your remaining available actions were the same as any of your opponents, regardless of what those actions were.
The great thing about these changes is that #1 is all on the map; no rules explanation is necessary. And #2 is just a set-up rule, and since there are no purple cubes or cities, this change is something that players don't have to think about for the rest of the game. The action selection mechanism is the only real change, and that's easy to grok by the use of tokens on the action spaces.
The result is AoS/Steam for three players with a minimum of rules tweaks. Understanding the rules is as simple as saying, "You can only take the actions represented by the tokens on the action spaces" and then players are off and running. It's super streamlined and provides what I consider an ideal three-player AoS/Steam experience.
When it comes to environments, this set has something for everyone: Historical scenarios in California Gold Rush and Underground Railroad; real world locations with Amazon Rainforest and Sahara Desert; imaginary locations with Atlantis and Trisland; and unnamed areas that may or may not exist with Sharing and Really Friendly Sharing.
I've wanted to do a map based on the Underground Railroad for a long time, as the thought of smuggling slaves to freedom in the North seemed like it would be really compelling. Because it's such an important goal, this is a place where I changed the winning conditions for AoS/Steam: the winner is the player who frees the most slaves. Slaves, represented by gray cubes living in towns and cities in the South, are treated mechanically like any other good: You need to connect to a city that will accept them – several cities in the north are gray as well as another "standard" goods color – and must have a locomotive that can travel enough links. However, you don't receive any income for delivering those slaves. Instead, you hold on to them for the end of the game, at which time the winner is the player who has freed the most slaves by delivering them to the North.
Adding to the tension is that there are only 16 slaves available to deliver during the game, so you have to figure out how to balance the financial needs of your railroad with your ultimate goal. And lest you think you can beat the system, you can't win if you go bankrupt during the game...
For Sahara Desert, the challenge of building a railroad network across a wasteland of sand and barren land seems unthinkable. To prove my point, the game play in Sahara Desert is brutal, requiring the limited resource of water for each delivery, or a substantial payment (or action choice). Rushing to get water early on seems like a good strategy until you realize that the cost to build track to the water ends up costing more than just paying for it...and you might end up with an inefficient set of track as a result, too. Getting ahead and being financially stable by the mid- to endgame is absolutely critical here – if you wait too long, you'll be shut out, and if you crest too soon you'll run out of viable deliveries.
Really Friendly Sharing, the bonus map to the Sharing bonus map, is the cooperative game version of AoS/Steam. If you find current cooperative games to be challenging or frustrating, I think you'll find Really Friendly Sharing to be right up your alley. Most of the decisions to be made are group decisions, such as where to build track and which cubes to deliver each turn. You even work together to place cubes during the setup phase to ensure optimal deliveries later in the game. In addition, many of the more harsh rules in AoS/Steam have been relaxed to take the edge off of game play. In fact, this is more of a novelty map than any other you'll find out there, so don't expect an edge-of-your-seat I-hope-we-don't-go-bankrupt playing experience.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Atlantis. When I originally designed this map, I was making maps that were impossibly brutal. Most playtesters back then hated this map. Even the grizzled old AoS/Steam players who were famous for being efficient found themselves unable to successfully run a railroad here. After years of being stored in the "Game Designs That Need a Break" cabinet, I brought this out to see whether I could make it at least playable and fun, specifically with AoS/Steam players in mind. It's still a very tough map, and the six-player game can easily cause someone to be eliminated if he isn't careful, but it's more accessible and playable now. One of the key elements of Atlantis is the central spoke and hub design: Cubes are generated in the center of the island and need to travel to the outskirts for delivery. This in itself makes traditional "loop" building ineffective and costly, and requires a whole new track building strategy.
(This designer diary was first published on BoardgameNews.com in October 2010. —WEM)
W. Eric Martin
Game news, weekend edition:
• Which game beat out Power Grid, Race for the Galaxy, Le Havre and Thunderstone in best game of the year voting? Ryo Kawakami's Cat & Chocolate. Yes, really.
The voting was for the 2010 Japan Boardgame Prize, and while you might think that hometown pride played a role in which game ended up on top, the write-up on U-more.com notes that 2010 is the first time that a native Japanese game has won the prize. The four titles listed above came in second through fifth. Cat & Chocolate was released in Japan by Qvinta Essentia and distributed globally by Japon Brand; a French edition will appear in late 2011 from Moonster Games as Texas Zombies.
• In 2006, North Star Games was able to get Wits & Wagers into a small number of Target stores as a sales test, a test that the game subsequently passed, leading to the game being sold through the chain nationwide, even five years on.
Now Steve Jackson Games is trodding that same path with Munchkin. As noted in a March 31, 2011 Illuminator post, "selected Target locations will be carrying special Munchkin sets during the month of April. These locations are a test; if Munchkin sells well, more Target stores might pick up Munchkin..." As one might expect if one knows the history of Munchkin, these Target-bound sets will include special Munchkin-related goodies available nowhere else.
• On MeepleTown, in an article titled "Complex Scoring and 7 Wonders", Derek Thompson uses this Antoine Bauza design as an example of what not to do when constructing a scoring system:
I liked 7 Wonders
; it's fast and the gameplay is unique and fluid, but I did feel a sense of "idiocy" regarding the scoring. I didn't know what I was doing, but neither did anyone else. All I had figured out was that military seemed strong and I didn't understand science, so I didn't bother. But even for an experienced gamer like me, one aspect of the scoring was so unclear at the beginning that I simply ignored it, and that's not good game design.
I get what Thompson is saying – especially since the rules explanation for 7 Wonders combined with scoring seems to take as long as the game itself – yet after 30+ plays I do have a sense of how I'm doing during the game, as well as how my neighbors are doing and what they're trying to achieve. You get a sense for the game's flow and what you need to do in the next turn or two to prepare for the next age. You learn the composition of the decks and which cards you can pass on the assumption that another might be coming. Not everyone will want to give a game thirty tries to gain that insight, though, especially for a game lasting more than 30 minutes.
In some ways, 7 Wonders compares with Agricola in that the satisfaction from playing comes from building your own world/farm. You decide whether you want, say, huge pastures or a strong military presence based on both your style of play and the opportunities left to you by other players, then you try to make the most of each action to put the shine on everything. In Agricola, sometimes you look at your farm and know it pales in comparison to someone else's, with the scoring only serving as an official way to record this difference; 7 Wonders comes across the same way. Thoughts?
• GameZebo interviews Milton Soong from Zabu Studio, which has produced Facebook versions of three designs from Reiner Knizia: Lost Cities, Pickomino and Poseidon's Realm, this last design being a Bejeweled-style of game and something new for Facebook and not a solo adaptation of a previously released game. The next title from Zabu for Facebook is Take it Easy!, with a few more Knizia games in the pipeline.
• Canadian publisher FoxMind has overhauled its website, with special sections for newly released and upcoming games, as well as its most popular titles. A fair number of the game listings include downloadable rules, with a select few having rule videos. More rules please!
• French site Tric Trac has posted a slew of photos from the 2011 GAMA Trade Show.
As occurs all too often in tabletop game design, a game reaches publication about a year after it is tested and two years from when it was conceived. Even with extensive documentation, a designer is forced to dig deep to recollect the thoughts, feelings and ideas that were once so salient, immediate and grueling. Just as the game is about to become a fresh new experience for the rest of the world, the designer finds himself asked to refresh his old memories.
Fortunately, the release of a game is usually an opportune occasion to play the game again, to see the fruits of all your labor and to discuss with ordinary people things that you didn't get a chance to talk about earlier. So just as easily as the feelings were forgotten, the experience of the game quickly comes back and the opportunity to express all those earlier joys and frustrations again can be seized.
Lords of Scotland was conceived in an Irish pub in Santa Monica. At least, thematically and materially, I realized I wanted to make a card game about commanding troops in the Scottish Highlands while enjoying a meal at Finn McCool's with some IDGA members. At the time it was just a nice thought in my head and I didn't have a clue how the game would actually play, so it entered that nebulous region where I'm sure hundreds of thousands of great games exist and it stayed there for a while. I didn't have the chance to make real on the theme until over a year later while surfing Pagat.com.
Pagat is a repository for card game designs. I'm not sure who runs the site, or why, but Pagat is an attempt to compile the rules for most public domain playing card games and their variants. Using a pseudonym, one of the authors of Havoc: The Hundred Years War posted a version of the game which uses ordinary playing cards. The two extraneous suits in Havoc were removed, the odd six-card poker hands were reduced to ordinary poker hands, and the fixed battlefields in the game were replaced by random cards drawn from the deck. It was from this variant that Lords of Scotland was born.
After comparing the playing card version with the published game, a lot of the mechanisms in Havoc seemed unnecessary. The playing card version was more elegant than its published version and would take much less time to play. However, it was clear that there was still room for additional elegance and balance, so I went about working on a version of the playing card game which could fit my desire for a pub game about Scottish lords.
At first, I got rid of the cards that seemed to not balance with the main mechanism of the game. Games like Condottiere and Havoc have a number of special case cards which don't have a normal play value and produce an effect that cannot be compared with the other cards. Usually this makes a card either something you always want to have (a trump card) or something you never want to have. The existence of these cards tends to change the game from contextually advantageous actions to situations where (un)luck of the draw impacts your strategy. Instead, I borrowed an idea from Three-Dragon Ante and added a special action to every single card.
Next, I added a feature of true poker to the game, by giving players the ability to "withdraw" their troops from the battles they were losing. At first, this seemed like an adequate balance to the advantage of winning, but the game stalled right around the rules regarding withdrawal as it became increasingly clear that you would tend to see the exact same hands over and over again. So the game languished for a while...
The biggest breakthrough in the design of LoS was the transition from a poker-based mechanism of set collecting and strategic withdrawal to a clan-matching mechanism with irreversible commitment and greater card draw. The game was turned into a much more metabolic auction, a prize was added to the pot for each player at the end of each battle, and players were given the opportunity to hide their play at the expense of not activating a power.
It was at this point in time that I realized that I had a publishable game in my hands. The design still would need a few minor tweaks before it would become what you see today, but with hidden play, play or draw, and at least a few points for each player at the end of each skirmish, it proved in multiple playtests to be light and quick, yet surprisingly strategic. I played a number of two- and three-player games, then sent it to Zev Shlasinger of Z-Man Games, who had published my card game Court of the Medici in 2009.
While the design was being evaluated by Zev's team, I continued to test the game and made a few minor changes to the design to alleviate the one problem that everyone seemed to encounter: time tracking. "Is this round two or three?" "Did I start this skirmish or did you?"
In LoS, it really matters who gets to go last in a skirmish and it can change each round depending upon who won the last round, so it was not always clear by the fourth or fifth round exactly how many plays were left. So we changed the recruit pile into a five round clock and an additional dynamic – the pressure of disappearing resources – was born. Even though you could always draw something on your turn, the opportunity to grab a card was now linked not only to your opponents desires but the refresh rate of skirmishes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Lords of Scotland, and the last tweak to the game design, came about when Zev played the game. He called me up while I was having a discussion about game designs with my resident game counselor Luca Holme and he wanted to know what happened in a couple of the situations that his testing group had just experienced. After attempting to clarify how each power worked, it became clear to both of us that he and his team did not play the game that I sent them. At least, not by the rules I gave them.
In my version of the game, a card could not activate its power unless it was the lowest card in play of all cards. In his version, it had to be the lowest card of only its bloodline, so he was generating tons of questions about how a high-value persistent power targets a lower value card. There were questions about whether you could copy other cards and whether copies replaced other cards. Basically, he had invented the first home rule for the game and discovered that there were a lot more questions than the rules I gave him could answer.
After we talked it over and discussed our mutual testing experiences, we resolved the questions regarding persistent effects without too much issue. But we also determined that the game needed to play one way for two or three players and another way for four or five. For almost the same reason that you need to be able to limit activation in small player games, you need to be able to permit a lot in big player games. So that players can feel like they have an consistently diminishing range of choices from their first turn to their last turn of each skirmish, players in small games need to be able to spike all powers with any low card and in large games, only be spiked by cards in the bloodline.
I'm not sure we would have discovered this issue if it weren't for a misinterpretation of the rules by the publisher, of all people. But ironically the game became better off because, apparently, I'm such a poor rules writer.
After we agreed on the publication of the game and how Evertide Games would contribute the art as well as the design, the game entered production and a whole new set of developments came about – but that is a story for another time. I'm just happy to now see the final vision of the card game realized. With its release in late March 2011, the color, theme and elegance of Lords of Scotland is now in my hands as I originally envisioned it, and all those who supported me throughout the process can see the benefit of their support.
W. Eric Martin
As always, be careful what you read today...
• Tim Buckley, creator of the Ctrl+Alt+Del comic, has announced that attendees to Digital Overload 2011 (held May 27-29 in Baltimore, MD, USA) will be able to sign up for beta tests of the Ctrl+Alt+Del board game that he's been developing. A short description from Buckley: "It's a dungeon-crawl type game with a strong cooperative/selfish attitude to the playstyle. If you've ever played any Munchkin game, you've got an idea of the sort of mentality the game is going for." (HT: Sean Johnson)
• Alderac Entertainment Group has announced Nightfall: Martial Law, the first expansion for its deck-building game Nightfall (released in March 2011). Nightfall: Martial Law, which is also a standalone game, is due out July 2011.
• Martin Wallace has posted rules (PDF) for A Few Acres of Snow, due out April 2011 from his Treefrog Games.
• Final rules (PDF) for Seth Jaffee's Eminent Domain have been posted on the Tasty Minstrel Games website.
• Emanuele Ornella's card game Oz is due out April 2011 from Ystari Games. French site Jeux sur un Plateau has posted details of the game beyond what's listed on the BGG game page and includes additional images.
• April Fool's Day alert: Moonster Games announced a new version of Full Métal Planète for December 2011.
• Similarly (and more obviously), Steve Jackson Games has announced Munchkin ___________, the Munchkin game with 168 blank cards that you can customize as you like. What a bargain!
• Recent game releases in the U.S. include Lords of Scotland, The Heavens of Olympus and Anima Card Game: Twilight Of The Gods.
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