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W. Eric Martin
• Polish publisher REBEL.pl will have an expansion for K2 at Spiel 2011. Details in a thread on the BGG game page.
• Mayfair Games has announced an October 2011 release date for its version of Martin Wallace's Discworld: Ankh-Morpork.
• And Mayfair has also announced that 1830 "is delayed in production due to issues beyond the scope of our control". As a result, Mayfair expects that the game will ship in September/October 2011.
• Stronghold Games has announced that Crude: The Oil Game will be ready no earlier than Q1 2012 due to its "technically-demanding production".
• Valley Games has released replacement dice – "lacquered black wooden dice embossed with the symbols for the game" – for Commands & Colors: Napoleonics.
• Italian publisher dV Giochi released an expansion for Lupus in Tabula on August 8: La Vendetta della Lupa Mannara, aka Lady Werewolf's Revenge. This expansion includes new special characters, wicked and innocent Auras, Hamlet's skull (!) and other additions for the base game, with rules in English and Italian for 4-30 players.
• Not new so much as new edition, but in any case Bernd Eisenstein has informed me that a new edition of Peloponnes should be available in September 2011. He previously noted on BGG that the printing company that first manufactured the game no longer exists, so this edition has been produced as if for the first time, with the following changes:
-----* The box is 1 cm longer on each side (31 x 31 cm).
-----* The rulesheet is bigger.
-----* There are no gold coins in the game, only silver (grey).
-----* The countersheet is more stable and the misprint of one tile is corrected, with the rules being corrected as well.
• Along the same lines, Histogame has opened preorders for Friedrich Jubiläumsedition, a reprint of the 2004 release from designer Richard Sivél that has a few minor changes.
• At Gen Con 2011, Wizards of the Coast announced that it had taken Dungeon of Dread off its publication schedule and added on a new title called Lords of Waterdeep. In his Gen Con coverage, Matt Carlson describes the game as follows: "[A] Euro-style game set in the famous city of Waterdeep. Players recruit adventurers, put plans into motion, and backstab each other in order to win the game."
• Munchkin Deluxe is now available in U.S. game stores.
The Case for Cooperative Gaming
I discovered cooperative board games fairly late, starting with Pandemic. After many years of gaming, here was a revelation: Players don't have to compete to have fun! I know that the gaming community is divided on cooperative games - many refuse to play these games, and some don't consider them games at all. On the other hand, there are as many people who refuse to play games because they are "too competitive". The last few years have been good for cooperative titles, but they are still massively outnumbered by their competitive brethren.
I settled on the theme of firefighting very early in the design process. It has everything: danger, strategy, heroism, and above all teamwork. Upon reflection I was surprised that this theme was not more popular. I've never particularly wanted to be an orc, or a paladin, or a space marine, but firefighters and police officers and doctors were cool when I was five and they're still cool today. That said, these professions are under-represented in the hobby today. The reason for this is that their roles are largely defined by teamwork. Most games choose to emphasize conflict over cooperation, making these professions a "bad fit" for gaming. That at least is the prevailing wisdom. I hope that this assessment is challenged by a new generation of gamers; I hate to see any kind of limitations imposed on what a game "can" or "should" be.
Defining the Game
The process of going from a concept to a working prototype is never without complications. That said, my first prototype of Flash Point: Fire Rescue (originally "Flashover") still closely resembles the game that has developed. My goal was very specific: Create a cooperative tactical interior firefighting game on the operational level – interior firefighting because that is the sort emphasized in so many TV dramas and movies. By "operational level", I mean that my focus was on a single firefighting operation in a small structure. This would enable the players to role-play as individual firefighters, rather than as squads or departments. Role-playing is important in a cooperative game. Players who can relate to their role will be more engaged with the game and their fellow players than if their role in the game were more "macro-level" or abstract.
Fire Is the Enemy
This being a firefighting game, of course the antagonist was the fire itself. Here again, I was taken by how simply and effectively Pandemic models the spread of disease. I'm no doctor, so I couldn't say whether the process is realistic or not, but as a game designer I am attracted to simple systems that produce elegant results. That said, fire does not spread like disease. Fire is dynamic: it creeps, it crawls, it smokes and smolders and dies back only to explode when resupplied with fresh air, fuel, or heat. Devising a system to model the spread of fire that was true to life but also simple to understand was my first and greatest challenge.
From research I learned of the dangers of a flashover, which is when suspended gases reach a critical temperature and explode violently. This was modeled very simply in the game. As smoke spread throughout the house, it became at first a nuisance, then a threat. By itself smoke was harmless, but whenever smoke came in contact with fire... vooosh! the entire mass caught fire. This led to some tense moments when a section of the house that was merely smoky suddenly transformed into an impenetrable wall of fire.
Another danger is the backdraft, immortalized by the 1991 film with the same name. A backdraft occurs when fire becomes starved of oxygen, sputters, and appears to die. But really it is only waiting for someone to open a door or window, at which point the oxygen-starved fire feasts and explodes. This was also modeled in the game, albeit crudely. Whenever a player rolls two dice to advance fire, there is a chance that the space they target will already be on fire. In which case the fire explodes, rolling over nearby fire and crashing into walls, door, people...and destroying anything it touches. In later versions of the rules the "backdraft" became the generic "explosion", mostly because this was easier to explain.
The decision to use dice to determine the spread of fire (rather than cards, or some other arrangement) was made for several reasons. One, it differentiated this game from other cooperatives. Two, dice are inherently unpredictable. I wanted players to always be on their toes, never knowing with absolute certainty that the fire might not spread in their direction. Third, dice are cheap, easy to handle, and take up little table space.
My original board was a black-and white rectangle composed of four sheets of cardstock. The board loosely resembled a house, with one door on each side and many black lines denoting walls. There were doors which players could open, and if necessary players could even destroy walls to open up their own path. The board today looks much nicer, but is not so different than my first.
Admittedly, there were some differences. I had this crazy idea where the four quarters of the board took fire damage independently, and collapsed when they took too much damage. Victims died, firefighters were buried, and the fire was smothered. The collapsed quarter was flipped over and replaced with "rubble", which firefighters could move through only with great difficulty. It was pretty neat in principle, but introduced some problems. The moment my playtesters realized the best strategy for attacking the fire was to isolate it to one quadrant, then destroy the supporting walls was the moment I decided to get rid of this element. Oddly enough, my research has revealed that in fact collapsing a building can be an effective approach for smothering a fire. Live and learn.
The game as it stood was fun, but I felt it would be better if players could better differentiate their characters. Many games, and especially cooperatives, allow each player to choose a unique role with distinct advantages and disadvantages. This makes every player feel important. So of course I went in a different direction, by introducing firefighting equipment. Players chose which two pieces of equipment they wanted to carry, and that equipment would define their role. The radio allowed players to command rescue vehicles from afar, while the proximity suit was fire-resistant, and so forth. Players could switch their equipment at will, but only in front of the fire engine. The concept was interesting, but after all there weren't that many combinations of equipment which were viable or interesting. Which is why I scrapped the whole idea and replaced it with (you guessed it) specialist cards. Sometimes backwards is the surest way forwards!
The Game Crafter
This was around the time I discovered The Game Crafter (TGC). This is a print-on-demand company based in the United States that will help intrepid game designers design prototypes and even publish their games to the Internet. There are some shortcomings to the service: a limited parts inventory, no folding game boards (yet), and a high per-unit cost. But the advantages are compelling: TGC will save you time slavishly printing and cutting things out of cardboard. It provides a community and a marketplace for you to sell your own games, even if you don't have connections in the board game industry. It allows you to retain full rights to your game. And it will do this without the high up-front costs designers would incur with conventional publishing. I decided that the pros outweighed the cons, and set about creating Flash Point on TGC. I published in July 2010.
I had a few initial sales, which soon enough dwindled to nothing. Let this be a lesson to all self-published game designers out there: You must be proactive and look for every opportunity to promote your product. Don't expect the game to speak for itself. You must speak for your game, and you must be loud. A good start would be to list your game on BoardGameGeek.
I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends
After toiling in obscurity for a couple of months, I had a wonderful surprise. A complete stranger on the Internet named Thomas Arnold sent me a geekmail saying he had coded my game in Java, and asking whether I was okay with him releasing it the public. I admit to having low expectations - free games are never any good, right? But I downloaded his game (by which I mean my game) and was floored. It's fully animated in 3D! I can rotate the table and zoom in and all my graphics are there and there are particle effects, and, and... oh my!
(NOTE: The rules and graphics for the Java game are outdated, but this still gives players a feel for how the game works.)
I must give credit to Dan Brooke of TaDa Ministries, who offered to review my game and did a great job. And also Ward Batty, who runs Atlanta Game Fest and does so much for the hobby here in the American Southeast. And to Frank Branham, who brought my game to the attention of publishers I could never have reached on my own. Word of mouth was extremely important for this game because I had no marketing budget. The amazing thing about board games is that they they can only be enjoyed in the company of others. Good board games spread like a virus, as one enthusiast introduces a cool new game to his friends, who buy their own copies and introduce it to others, and so on. And so it was that the orders started to trickle in.
Finally, a Publisher
In the past I have sent countless emails to game companies, asking them whether they'd be interested in looking at my game. You have to have thick skin because 90% of the time your email will go unanswered, 5% of the time they'll say they're not interested, 4% of the time they'll look at your prototype but decide not to publish it, and maybe 1% of the time they'll make an offer. I'm sure games do get published this way, but it's very, very hard.
This is why it was such a pleasant surprise to be contacted by a publisher who expressed interest in Flash Point and asked for a playtest copy. That was Travis Worthington of Indie Boards and Cards. I hadn't heard of his company, but soon enough began seeing his games everywhere: Haggis, The Resistance, Triumvirate – a small company, apparently, but one with a reputation for quality. About a month later, we had terms for publication.
The game has gone through many changes in only a few months. Most of these have been in the direction of making the game easier to learn, faster to play, and more exciting. I'll admit to having butted heads with Travis on a few issues, but only because we are both passionate about making a quality product that everyone can enjoy. If pressed, I might grudgingly admit that the game that has developed is more polished and playable than my own version on The Game Crafter – but don't tell him I said that!
The Road Ahead
Flash Point: Fire Rescue will be released at Spiel in late October 2011. Right now there is a Kickstarter campaign underway to help with financing. Kickstarter-exclusive content is available, including a secret specialist, a scenario booklet full of new challenges, and a second board. We've already reached our $5,000 and $15,000 goal, but why stop now? If we meet the $30,000 challenge we can all have FIREMEEPLES! Or... rescue meeples, or whatever they wind up being called. Maybe you can help with that too?
Above is one of several worthy candidates. It's shameful how much I want these. Less than a week remains to "kickstart", and if we reach our goal these too will be part of the package!
W. Eric Martin
Let's kick off with lots of reports on Gen Con 2011:
• U.S. publisher Fantasy Flight Games posted a separate video covering each of the four days of Gen Con, with highlights of Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition), Wiz-War and Rex: Final Days of an Empire coming in the day three segment.
• Steve Jackson Games posted a set of convention photos on Flicker
• On Opinionated Gamers, Dale Yu posted a mostly photographic summary of his one-day outing to Gen Con.
• Matt Carlson followed Yu on Opinionated Gamers with a loooong report of his single day at Gen Con.
• Pete Ruth at The Superfly Circus created a 14-page PDF of his Gen Con, complete with recommendations for food and drink after the show and plenty of phrases you wouldn't say in polite company.
• Trask at LivingDice.com has filed two Gen Con reports to date, the first featuring an H-bomb of hatred directed at Terrorwerks and the second featuring a report on the long-in-the-works Leviathans.
• Episode 13 of "The State of Games" podcast includes coverage of both Gen Con and the World Boardgaming Championships, which took place the same weekend as Gen Con.
• Marc Specter gives his impressions of the con at Dice Hate Me.
• Eric Franklin wrote about his experiences as both a Gen Con attendee and Asmodee demo monkey in multiple posts on his blog Talking Game, but I'll instead highlight his game of the year post praising Gosu.
And posts of a non-Gen Con nature:
• Belfort's Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim explain how to negotiate a contract with a board game publisher and what to expect in terms of payment. Part 3 of this topic is still to follow.
• Tom Gurganus at Go Forth and Game interviews Dennis Hoyle and James Tanner, founders of Bellwether Games, which debuted with Drop Site – winner of a game design contest that treated them to 1,000 free copies of their game as a prize.
• Want an unusual treat for your next game night? Joe Sack explains how to make chocolate meeples.
W. Eric Martin
Designer James J. St. Laurent, whose only published design – Crude: The Oil Game from 1974 – was a highly-desired "grail" game for decades before Stronghold Games announced a new edition would appear in 2011, passed away on Monday, August 8. Stronghold Games has sent the following statement:
It is with sadness that Stronghold Games acknowledges the passing of game designer, James St. Laurent. Mr St. Laurent had been battling an illness for some time, although bravely insisted upon being involved in the re-design and development of Crude: The Oil Game, known to some gamers as McMulti.
"In our time working with Jim, we found him to be pleasant, intelligent, and full of good ideas. We couldn't have hoped for a more rewarding experience, and his input was invaluable to the completion of his project," said Kevin Nesbitt.
Mr. St. Laurent leaves behind a legacy of family and friends and a special place in the hearts of boardgamers everywhere. He will be missed.
For the history of Crude and St. Laurent's thoughts on game design, head to this interview reprinted on BGG News.
W. Eric Martin
The finalists for the 2011 International Gamers Awards have been announced in both the multi-player and two-player categories, and those finalists are:
• 7 Wonders, by Antoine Bauza (Repos Production)
• Airlines Europe, by Alan R. Moon (Abacusspiele)
• Asara, by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling (Ravensburger)
• Die Burgen von Burgund, by Stefan Feld (alea)
• Dominant Species, by Chad Jensen (GMT Games)
• Inca Empire, by Alan Ernstein (White Goblin Games)
• K2, by Adam Kałuża (REBEL.pl)
• London, by Martin Wallace (Treefrog Games)
• Navegador, by Mac Gerdts (PD Verlag)
• Troyes, by Alain Orban, Xavier Georges and Sébastien Dujardin (Pearl Games)
• Vinhos, by Vital Lacerda (What's Your Game?)
• A Few Acres of Snow, by Martin Wallace (Treefrog Games)
• Battles of Westeros, by Robert A. Kouba (Fantasy Flight Games)
• Earth Reborn, by Christophe Boelinger (Ludically)
• Famiglia, by Friedemann Friese (2F-Spiele)
• What's My Word?, by Joli Quentin Kansil (Gryphon Games)
Games released between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011 were eligible for consideration, but those dates are flexible for titles released in the month immediately before and after the deadline, as can be seen by the inclusion of both A Few Acres of Snow and Battles of Westeros. The winners will be announced in September 2011, and the award ceremony held in the BoardGameGeek booth at Spiel 2011.
For more info on the awards, visit the IGA website. Note that BGG co-owner Scott Alden is an IGA jury member as am I, although I abstained from voting this year due to physician-prescribed rest to treat my Innovation addiction.
R. Eric Reuss
Fealty is a game of positioning and territory control that packs lots of strategy and forethought into a short playing time. Pieces (such as Knights, Scholars, Generals and Nobles) are placed on a board, and at endgame capture territory around themselves. Faster pieces claim less space, but pre-empt the slower pieces which claim more. For full rules, see the Game Preview, or download the rulebook (PDF). Fealty had a limited release at Origins 2011, and preorders for the full printing in Q4 2011 are now open.
(Editor's note: Asmadi's Chris Cieslik has announced that the retail price of Fealty will be $30 instead of the previously anticipated $40, and the funding levels on Kickstarter have been adjusted accordingly. Also, the two $1,250 pledges – which include hand-delivery almost anywhere in the U.S. – have been claimed, which surprises the heck out of me; aim high, future Kickstarterers! —WEM)
I've broken this post into two pieces: discussion and timeline.
Part 1: The Easy and the Hard
Easy: The core concept. I generate way more game ideas than I'll ever have time to work on. Sometimes they start with a theme; sometimes with a mechanism; sometimes with a vision of game-flow. Fealty was born from the marriage of a mechanical concept (pieces radiating territorial influence) with a game-flow concept (fewer but high-impact decisions). Many of the central ideas came together the first afternoon, and playtesting quickly revealed what people liked most: placing pieces in the face of interesting constraints. Some constraints are created by your own plays (as you cannot play into a row or column where you already have a piece), some by the opponents (as each Duchy can be played into only once per turn); the player who can best work within those constraints to position themselves against their foes will win.
Developing that central kernel into a balanced, engrossing game took a great deal more time and effort than discovering the heart of it.
Hard: Balance. During early development, game length was six turns, which made it very important to balance pieces against each other. If one piece was notably better than the others, a player who didn't draw it would be at a disadvantage. If one (or more) pieces were notably worse than the others, experienced players would never use them, diminishing the possibilities of play. Ideally, all pieces would be situationally good or situationally bad.
Each set has just nine pieces. How hard could it be?
It turned out to be one of the trickiest balance problems I've tackled in a long time. Changes to one piece altered the usefulness of every other piece in the set, based on the likely board interactions between the pair of them; then those secondary utility changes reverberated and collided further, like ripples in a pond. For the base set, my use of special powers to tweak balance was somewhat constrained: there should not be too many different types of powers, they should all be fairly straightforward, and they should include the core concepts of "place Conflict" and "move another of your pieces" at least twice each; this made fine-tuning rather tricky.
Some prototype iterations,
leading to the Inquisitor
In addition, I found that I had a fair margin of error when balance-testing against myself: at least once, I went down a long, painful dead-end because of a balance issue I'd found during self-testing that didn't manifest in play with other people. After that, I made preliminary conclusions when playing solo, but never took them as final until I verified them in real games.
We eventually found that an eight-turn game added a lot more meat for not too much more time. Plus, with eight turns, each player will eventually have access to all of their pieces, and play all but one. This made the balancing act less critical, though I still did much balance-testing using shorter six-move games to try to keep things tight. The breathing-room feels good, though; it's almost inevitable that hundreds or thousands of players will find patterns and nuances which mere dozens of playtesters might miss.
Easy: Iterating piece designs. This was easy because I deliberately made it easy - I find the surest obstacle to working on a game is getting too fancy too quickly. If creating a new iteration of components requires any notable graphic design work, it takes much longer to happen.
When Fealty became my top priority, I put in the up-front effort to make templates for cards and pieces that were dirt-easy to edit. The hardest part of making a new card was replacing the slips of paper in four stiff-backed card sleeves.
Eventually, when doing first-pass solo testing, I didn't even bother making cards - I'd just scrawl out pieces by hand, with cryptic abbreviations for special powers.
Hard: Coming to grips with final-move analysis. Through most of a game, optimal play is genuinely ambiguous - the move which would claim the most territory is often not the best choice. But the very last placement of the final turn of the game is full-information: the board state will not change further after it is done. Playtesters felt they should check every single legal play to see which was the best. We tossed around a number of ideas for fixing this, but everything which made the expected outcome of that final play uncertain enough to short-circuit the analysis also undermined the ability to make meaningful decisions about placement.
So we switched gears, and instead explored reducing the scope of that final-final-move analysis rather than making it ambiguous. This led to the "one play per Duchy" rule, which narrowed the scope of that decision - now the final play usually had 5-6 options. Checking to see which was best doesn't take long.
We didn't want a final-turn special case, so we tried the new rule throughout the game. It changed the feel substantially - slower pieces now had an extra disadvantage, and placement as a whole was much less efficient - but everything still worked, and the underlying dynamics still felt good. The last play of each turn did feel a touch too constrained... but the process of fixing that led to the deeper eight-turn game. Win!
Easy: Working with Asmadi Games. Chris Cieslik has been excellent about letting me be involved in the production process - bouncing card layouts and graphics off of me, for instance, or giving me free rein to look into whether wooden pieces would be financially feasible for the limited run. At the same time, I haven't needed to be involved: When I get really busy – which has been increasingly true as of late as my wife and I are moving to a new house soon! – everything keeps rolling because Chris is driving the process.
Hard: Researching production possibilities. This is my first published board game, and I wanted to put a good foot forward, so while Chris was concentrating on the Innovation expansion, I looked into a variety of production possibilities to see if any might work well for the limited run of Fealty. Let's just say that I now have even more respect for game publishers!
Easy: Playtesting. It's amazing how much easier it is to playtest a 15-30 minute game than a 75-100 minute game – not just because you can fit in more plays per unit time, but because people are far more willing to commit themselves to half an hour than an hour-and-a-half, especially for something that may not be polished yet. They're also happier to play it at one weekly gamenight after another, which allows for more rapid iterations. And because I'd signed with Asmadi before I ever got to the point of blind-testing, Chris ran blind tests rather than me having to set them up myself.
There are a thousand and one things I've omitted - some because they were neither easy nor hard, but somewhere in between (e.g.: getting the modular maps working; discovering types of boards that work well/don't work well; working out how "place an influence immediately" powers should interact with cities) and some because they were so trivial that there's little to talk about (e.g.: cities being worth an extra point - it was one of a large list of tweaks to try, and in just a turn or two it became obvious that it was a keeper).
Part 2: The Diary
I started developing Fealty in October 2010 - one of several designs I was working on at the time. Around December 2010 or January 2011, Chris from Asmadi Games said that he'd like to publish it, and it took over pretty much all of my design cycles. Here's a (fictional but mostly-accurate) diary of the process.
-3 days: A notion has floated through my head: "Chess-like pieces which control territory instead of capturing each other."
The First Day
+0 minutes: Time to take an afternoon and work on one of these game ideas. What sort of game? I'd quite like a thinky game that plays quickly. Perhaps something with a lower decision count but high decision impact, like King of Siam?
+15 minutes: That territory-control idea! Many possible placements x many possible pieces yields greatly branching decision trees. I have scribbled down some tentative notions, based on a contested royal succession, because I am still thinking about Chess.
+30 minutes: Yes! Commanding pieces will activate claiming-territory pieces within some range. Using few commanders will allow for greater efficiency of play, but create vulnerability to disruption. Precise positioning will be important, so movement should be limited: most pieces will stay where they're placed. This permits good planning, as once an opposing piece is played, you'll know it's not going to move far. Perfect!
+35 minutes: ...what happens if Piece A neutralizes Piece B which commands piece C to neutralize piece A? Ah, crud.
+1 hour: Timing rules prove tractable, but the resulting game seems un-fun. The "commanding" dynamic means one minor misplay can result in several excellently-placed pieces having no game effect. That is a recipe for Annoyance Stew, not Tasty Gamer Nirvana.
+2 hours: Dropping the "commander" notion but keeping some timing rules yields interesting results: early-acting pieces can block mid-acting pieces, running interference for late-acting pieces. Vaguely reminiscent of the "My 1 blows up your 2 saving my 4 which blows up your 7 so you don't mine" dynamic of Light Speed, only less extreme and more carefully developed. I like it! And it plays well into the theme: minor players in the succession struggle will have very limited spread (purely local appeal), but can block the major players in their own small bailiwick by claiming first. For further differentiation, each piece will have an action it can use after placement - moving some other type of piece, perhaps, or replacing one piece with another?
+2.5 hours: To further keep game-time down, players choose moves simultaneously: each has nine cards for pieces, nine cards for rows, and nine cards for columns. I have cunningly convinced myself that two players placing in the same location shouldn't be a difficult edge case to handle. Ha ha ha ha ha.
+3 hours: Let's make the row/column cards a finite resource, so as the game goes on players are more constrained in where they can play. This adds the consideration of "not precluding future desirable plays" to the more greedy short-term planning.
+5 hours: I have a notional set of pieces and actions! Some of the archetypes seem like they should interact with specific terrain features - forests, or roads, or cities - so I add these to the board.
Components from early-ish prototype,
late prototype, and limited printing
The First Month
+1 day: Plays OK with just me, and the core dynamic comes through about as I'd hoped. Time to throw it to the wolves.
+5 days: Playtesting accomplished! Shockingly, the players didn't like juggling 27 cards at once - should have seen that one coming. However, the constraint of not playing again in the same row/column was seen as very interesting, as was the core territory-contention dynamic, and playtesters had a number of excellent (if sometimes contradictory) suggestions on tweaks, re-workings, and ways to elimimate start-of-game information overload.
+8 days: Dropping the row/column cards permits use of modular maps. This is so patently the right way to go that I wonder how I missed it before.
+12 days: Updates accomplished, and self-testing looks good. But is this really the theme the game wants? "Medieval succession" is a very dead horse. Perhaps it should just be an abstract positional?
+13 days: Verdict: NO. Way too many concepts which want to be hung off of a theme. After brainstorming, a likely alternative emerges: a clash of different protest groups, all demonstrating in the same city. The street/avenue (row/column) restrictions are local crowd control ordanances; instead of terrains, there are different types of residents (veterans, union, etc) who may be be swayed by different types of protesters.
+14 days: Hmm, the information presentation on this city-block prototype is proving a bit tricky.
+15 days: More than a bit tricky. *twitch*
+16 days: After several days of work, this map is still so confusing that I can barely play a game against myself. Icons just aren't cutting it, and texturing makes busy patterns more suitable for hypnotizing the nation's youth than conveying useful information. Heck with it: I'll spend the effort on gameplay instead, and bring the originally-themed prototype to BGG.CON. Perhaps playtesters there will have some helpful thoughts on the matter.
+30 days: BGG.CON was awesome, and playtesting went well: reactions were positive, game-time averaged 20-30 minutes, and even people who lost terribly wanted to try it again. Players thought the theme worked fine, and one pointed out that it's a classic theme for a reason: lots of people like it.
+45 days: Playtesters are optimizing the final move of the final turn in mind-numbing detail because it's a solvable problem. Brainstorming leads to a drastic solution: once a sub-board is played upon, no further pieces can be played there that turn. It's a huge change, but doesn't break the game – just shifts how it plays. It also adds new tactics: playing early purely to block off a board, or choosing which board you play onto based on which pieces your opponents have chosen. It also brings the number of legal final-moves down to a reasonable "analyze all of these" count.
+50 days: Enheartened, I have roughed out several sets of pieces. I don't expect they'll all be good - in fact, I strongly suspect some of them are hideously broken - but trying them out should be interesting, teach me more about how different types of pieces and powers work, and perhaps give me further ideas down the road. Asmadi has said that they'd like to include two sets of pieces with the base game.
+2-3 months: Extensive self-testing with the main piece set has revealed a critical gameplay flaw: certain stupidly greedy choices are competitive with more strategic play. Crud. I regroup and come up with a new set of pieces designed to handle the problem.
+3 months, 1 day: Extensive testing with other people has revealed a critical development flaw: when playing against myself, I am susceptible to groupthink. The problem I just spent a month fixing doesn't manifest in actual play, and instead of fixing it, I've developed a slightly dysfunctional piece-set and needlessly tweaked the rules. *facepalm*
+3.5 months: Testing continues. Pieces in base set almost balanced.
+4 months: Testing continues. Pieces in base set almost balanced.
+4.5 months: Testing continues. Pieces in base set almost balanced? This is proving trickier than nearly any other balance work I've done. Happily, it turns out that playing a slightly longer game (eight turns instead of six) is both much meatier and smooths out balance considerably; but we're still shooting to be well-balanced in a six-turn game.
+5 months: Both sets are both looking good. Unfortunately, while the second set plays very differently from the base set, it doesn't look much different unless you know the game well. It would be better to have some pieces whose differences are more obvious to someone just flipping through the deck. (Also, I have variants in mind which would benefit from greater set differentiation.) I put together an alternate set with more variety and start furiously testing, knowing that pieces need to be finalized in about a month.
+6 months: Tuning Fealty sets becomes easier with practice! Being able to use more complex powers also helps. The alternate set has come together nicely, and it looks like we'll be able to use it. Fantastic!
+6.5 months: Design and development has pretty much concluded, as Asmadi is moving the game towards production. Still want to test some of the variants I've had in mind which draw upon both sets of pieces.
+7 months: One obvious variant I did not directly design for - because I would have gone stark raving mad - is to have different players using different sets of pieces: some Missives, some Suns. But testing seems to indicate that it works! (So long as there are equal numbers of each, at least.) This is probably a side-effect of keeping power-levels comparable in order for other variants to work; but regardless of the reason, it's a lovely discovery to make.
+8 months: Published! Demoing at Origins 2011 gets very positive responses. Hurrah!
R. Eric Reuss
W. Eric Martin
• At Gen Con 2011, Fantasy Flight Games sprang details of three upcoming titles – all of them more new-ish than new – starting with a second edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark (announced simultaneously on the FFG website) that features eight new heroes, 38 new monsters, a revised experience system for upgrading your heroes, more detailed hero summary cards, and more. The best part of the announcement is this line:
Updated rules will have you battling evil in minutes
I hate when I have to wait an hour or more before battling evil.
To bring ye olde firste editione Descent and expansions up to speed for this new edition of the game, FFG will release Descent: Journeys in the Dark - Second Edition Conversion Kit with "Second Edition-compatible cards for every monster and hero ever produced". Both items are scheduled for release in 2012.
Two items from FFG due out before the end of 2011 are Rex: Final Days of an Empire – FFG's revision of Eon's Dune – and yet another edition of Tom Jolly's Wiz-War. Fantasy Flight first announced that it had licensed the game system used in Dune at Gen Con 2007, along with a potential release date of Q4 2008, but obviously development took longer than initially anticipated. Cover shot here on BGG. (I interviewed Eon's Peter Olotka in September 2007 about the history of Dune, and that article has been reprinted on BGG News.)
FFG's Wiz-War is a gussied-up version of the Tom Jolly design created nearly three decades ago, with a player count of 2-4 and miniatures of all the player figures. Cover shot here on BGG.
• Gen Con 2011 announcements from Steve Jackson Games revealed Munchkin: Conan for release Q3 2012 (box mock-up here), Munchkin 8: Half Horse, Will Travel (for early 2012) and the existence of drafts for two expansions for Zombie Dice (via a tweet from designer Steve Jackson).
• Designer Bernd Eisenstein has opened preorders for two new titles from Irongames: PAX and Pergamemnon, with rules in English, German and French being available for both titles.
PAX has players as escaped slaves in Roman times, with the players trying to increase their strengths in various categories to outdo their Roman rulers – well, unless you as a slave secretly side with Rome to work against your fellow slaves. PAX is for 1-4 players, with the game being playable with up to eight if you have two copies.
Pergamemnon is "a deck-building game of direct conflict" set in ancient times with each of the five nations in the game (Egyptians, Persians, etc.) having a special power.
• Take a glance at who (or what) awaits you in Ghost Stories: Black Secret – the Gravedigger, the Landscaper and the Seeker, three minions of Wu-Feng, who also makes an appearance in one of his many incarnations.
• English rules (PDF) for Sake & Samurai are now available on BGG.
• Eye-Level Entertainment has released full-color English rules (PDF) for Nature of the Beast: Polar vs. Prairie, with those also being compatible for earlier NotB releases.
• Spanish publisher nestorgames has released a nice version of 9tka from Adam Kałuża, the game previously being available only in a print-and-play version. English rules for 9tka are available on the nestorgames website.
• In addition to the forthcoming Rattus: Africanus for Spiel 2011, Dutch publisher White Goblin Games has released a promotional card for the game sold only through the BGG store – Rattus: Jester, featuring BGG's Ernie and allowing the Jester's owner to airdrop two cubes onto the game board from a height of two feet.
W. Eric Martin
• Carlos Abrunhosa has posted two interviews of interest on JogoEu:
-----* Christian Stenner from Pegasus Spiele covers what you can expect to see from the publisher through the end of 2011.
-----* Didier Delhez from new publisher Sit Down! talks about how Wiraqocha inspired the founding of a game company and what's coming with games #2 and #3.
• Stephen Colbert ranked Monopoly as the "#1 threat to America" in his August 3, 2011 ThreatDown due to Hasbro's announcement of Monopoly Live at Toy Fair 2011. (The Monopoly bit starts about five minutes in. HT: Alfonzo Smith)
• Franjos has released four additional puzzles (PDF) for Eric Solomon's Black Box / Black Box +.
• Agricola is now available on online gaming site Boîte à Jeux.
• French website Tric Trac has posted a video from Moonster Games and Cocktail Games that was filmed in June 2011 at the Tokyo Game Fair. If you can stomach the frenetic unsteadiness of the video, you'll get a taste of what's on the tables in Tokyo, along with hints of future projects from these publishers.
• The Lake County News-Sun reports on a man with 1,531 games who wants to take the title of Largest Collection of Board Games in the Guinness Book of World Records. Such records are typically about who wants to grab a label rather than a recording of fact...
• Ready to explore the parallels between product and documentation writing and how to write rules for board games? Then dig into "TechDoc and Board Games Parallels: Terminology Management", an article by a Czech writer featuring many examples from Czech games. (HT: Tim Moore)
• For those who want to know more about the background behind the financial backing site Kickstarter, the August 7, 2011 issue of New York Times Magazine features a long article from Rob Walker, who regularly writes about retailing and consumption for the magazine. The article doesn't mention games, but does include Walker's take on what it's like to run a project:
I can confirm that I had no idea how much work a Kickstarter campaign would be. We had to dream up rewards that someone might actually want but that wouldn’t consume our budget, and I lost a weekend learning how to use video-editing software. But there was also this: for a month, I was shaking down every friend, and online "friend", I could think of, hoping our pitch would go viral, fighting back irrational anger at longtime pals who ignored me and feeling insane gratitude toward total strangers who chipped in $10 or $25.
(HT: Chris Kovac)
• And for a second article not focusing on games but still relevant to the game industry, check out "The Hunting of the Snark" by Francis Wheen in Financial Times, which discusses the sometimes uncomfortably close relationship between authors and those who review them. (HT: Greg Aleknevicus)
The City is a quick card game for 2-5 players, in which players build tableaus using cards that represent various parts of a city: Skyscrapers (Wolkenkratzer), Stadium, Hospital, Luxury Homes, Apartments, Malls, Schools, Freeways, Parks, Office Buildings, Airport, Subway System, etc.
Each card is built by discarding other cards in hand for payment, a la Race for the Galaxy or San Juan.
Turns are simple: Players simultaneously choose a card to build, revealing them once everyone is ready, and discard a number of cards face down equal to their cost to pay for them. Players then draw cards (income) and score VPs for all the buildings in their tableaus (on paper or by giving out poker chips). Repeat until someone has 50+ VPs. The player with the most VPs wins!
Since both income and VPs are scored every round, players must construct both a VP and a card drawing engine at once – the typical approach in many games of "build a large economy first, then buy lots of VPs" usually doesn't succeed in The City, as there just isn't enough time to make it work. A game typically takes 7-9 turns (fewer as players learn the deck and become more efficient).
Of course, building just VPs doesn't work either, as one needs to draw more cards, both to pay for more expensive buildings and to get card selection to find cards that combine well with those you've already put in play. Striking the correct balance between income and VPs is key.
I designed The City in 2004, after designing RFTG. I was interested in seeing what else I could do with the idea of discarding cards to build other cards, with an eye towards making a simpler, more accessible game. I thought about modern cities and distilled aspects of them into four broad concepts:
-----• how the automobile connects a city proper and its suburbs,
-----• how shopping can vitalize either a suburb or a city center, and
-----• how a vibrant city core of parks and civic buildings can provide a sense of pride and identity.
Prestige/happiness became VPs, thus explaining how such diverse things as a skyscraper, park, museum, or stadium can generate substantial numbers of VPs. The other three items became attributes, represented by the three icons that can appear on cards: cars, shopping carts, and fountains (civics).
Some cards, such as Freeway Intersection (Autobahnkreuz) or Central Park or Mall, provide either variable income or VPs (or both) based on the number of these icons in your tableau. Thus, these cards lead to card combinations and define strategies.
I intentionally kept most card powers fairly simple – typically, cards can provide a discount/bonus or require/allow the placement of certain named cards, in addition to any icons. For example, an Upscale Boutique (Modeboutique) provides a cart and a fountain (useful if you have cards that key off of them), plus an income bonus if you have one or more Business Centers in play, allowing a player who builds this specific card combination an efficiency gain.
Luxury Homes (Stadtvilla) feed off of each other for VPs, providing yet another strategic path, if you can find and build several of them.
While The City is primarily a race between players' different competing strategies, some cards also feed off cards in other players' tableaus. For example, the Freeway scores 2 VPs for each Freeway Intersection in play, while the Subway System (U-Bahn) provides 1 VP for each fountain in your tableau, plus 1 per fountain in any one other player's tableau.
Play begins with each player drawing seven cards and keeping five of them, before selecting the first building they will construct. To guarantee that players can always build something on the first turn, each player also has one Architect (Architekt, with a different card back, that is not part of their hand), which they can build for 0 cost, thus allowing them to gain a bit of early income.
Similarly, a player can also choose to "survey" instead of building, to look at five more cards and keep one (plus gaining their normal income from the turn), allowing the tactic of saving for a costly card in the mid-game, while also hunting for a useful card to play later.
Another tension during play is between spending cards as "cash" or saving them for later turns. The deck does cycle quite a bit (even in 2-player games), and valuable cards for the end-game do get hoarded. (The hand limit is 12, checked at the end of each turn.) Incomes beyond 12 are still useful as the player gets to see additional cards (before discarding down to 12 cards).
Finally, as an alternative to the "bigger and better" growth curve, the Construction Gang allows a player to build two buildings of cost 4 or less in one turn (paying for both of them normally), which can open up some other strategies, particularly if a player has some cards that grant discounts in their tableau.
The 110-card deck contains 51 different cards. Twenty-two cards are unique, many of them high-scoring endgame cards (Symphony Hall, Opera House, etc.), while the "building block" cards have 2-5 copies each (except for Luxury Homes, of which there are six). A few cards are limited to one per player; otherwise, players can build duplicate cards.
The City was popular as a quick, light card game during its development, as players enjoyed exploring its various strategies. Wei-Hwa Huang liked the game enough to replace my dull, mostly blank prototype cards with "Wei-Hwa scrawl art" (compare the Amusement Park prototype and the final Freizeitpark card with art from Klemens Franz), which enhanced its visual appeal during testing.
Amigo liked the game play, but explored several alternative themes before returning to my original theme. My Amigo game editor, Christian Hildenbrand, worked hard to translate the nuances of my card tiles into German names and concepts appropriate for German cities (which differ in some areas from modern American cities). I hope the published version proves to be as popular with the public as it did with my testers. Enjoy!
As Amigo doesn't print playtester names in its rules, I would like to thank my testers publicly for their time and comments: William Attia, Jim Boyce, Sunshine Buchler, David desJardins, Kirsten Haupt, David Helmbold, Jay Heyman, Brian Howard, Wei-Hwa Huang, Chris Lopez, Charles Patrick, Mary and Ravindra Prasad, Larry Rosenberg, Ron Sapolsky, Steve Thomas, Daniel Tregear, Markus Welbourne, and Don Woods.
Phoenicia is a game of economic growth and advancement for two to five players. Each player guides the development of a village into one of the great Phoenician city-states: Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Acco, and Arvad.
Each turn, players can initiate auctions for development cards, which give additional workers, storehouses, production, victory points, or new abilities. A player can also train and employ workers in the production technologies they have (initially, just hunting and farming, but mining and clothmaking are available with certain development cards). After all players have done this, they receive income, apply storage limits, and then turn up new development cards to start a new round.
Phoenicia's design was inspired by Francis Tresham's Civilization and Jim Hlavaty's Outpost. I helped Jim develop the "Outpost Expert Game" in the 1990s. Several years later, I began to wonder whether Outpost could be completely redesigned into a much quicker game with more development options. After getting Jim's approval (in return for my contributions to the Expert Game), I began to look for an appropriate setting.
As much as I love both science fiction and Outpost, I've never liked its corporate theme of colony managers competing to be top planetary manager. (Where are the office politics and backbiting that would inevitably be present in such a setting?)
One shortcoming of many civilization games is that they tend to concentrate on great military empires. What about cultures that were economically and technologically dominant, enduring for over a thousand years, despite never amassing great armies or huge tracts of land? What about the Phoenicians?
The Phoenicians were a Semite people who settled a narrow strip of coastline between the hills of Lebanon and the Mediterranean between 1500-1300 BCE. Master traders and builders, they adapted Minoan ship designs, perfecting the bireme and taking over the Egyptian grain trade, following the collapse of the Minoan civilization. In addition to giving the Greeks the phonetic alphabet, the Phoencians planted colonies and extended Iron Age technology throughout the Western Mediterranean, developed the first transparent glass, created a clothmaking industry (based on a red dye, from spiders, and their famous indigo dye, from a shellfish) and, perhaps, circumnavigated Africa.
Phoenician shipbuilding and navigation expertise were so well known that King Solomon negotiated with Hiram, Prince of Tyre, for Phoenician shipwrights, sailors, and merchants to develop the Red Sea trade (possibly with the Queen of Sheba, unnamed in the Bible but Makeda according to Ethiopian traditions).
Perhaps the greatest Phoenician engineering feat was to maintain silt-free harbors – which is still a challenge in modern times in Eastern Mediterranean ports, requiring frequent dredging – for many hundreds of years by constructing elaborate causeways and breakwaters so that tidal forces would constantly flush away accumulating silt.
Rich but not numerous, the Phoenicians never developed a great military nor united politically. To protect themselves, they both paid tribute at various times and built their cities on islands (such as Tyre) or on peninsulas behind huge city walls (such as Sidon or Byblos). There, supplied by their fleets, they could outwait most besieging forces. (Another stratagem was to offer to carry away besieging armies by sea to other destinations.) Tyre was conquered just once, by Nebuchadnezzar II in 573 BCE after a thirteen-year siege, before finally falling to Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. This ended the thousand year Phoenician dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean, though their greatest colony, Carthage, survived until 146 BCE, before falling to Rome.
This setting struck me as perfect for a game of economic competition and advancement, without political or military activity. With this in mind, I started reworking mechanisms.
A lot of time in Outpost is spent dealing and totaling the different production cards, rearranging them when purchasing (since no change is possible), and bidding "one more" than the previous bid. By having just one production deck, allowing change, and scaling costs from 1 to 30, hours of play were eliminated. Production cards average 5 and range from just 4-6, making it easy to estimate a player's current wealth. ("Hmm... 3 cards, 2 treasury, that's 17 on average, maximum of 20 if they are all 6s; I'll bid 19 to be (almost completely) safe.") With this time savings, I expanded the number of different development cards by 50%, adding many new options.
One concern in an economic growth game is catching an early leader. By adding a powerful late technology path (Shipbuilding) and an early victory point path (allowing small economies to secure lots of points while richer ones are still expanding production), I gave players ways to recover in the mid-game from an early mistake or bad luck.
I reduced kingmaking by drastically accelerating the endgame. Phoenicia lasts just 9-11 rounds, spread over four sets of development cards. However, players go through both the last two card sets in just three rounds. By the time a player is truly out of it, the game is usually in its final round and players are mostly just bidding everything they have.
I improved the value of storage by effectively allowing a player who buys a Granary to earn interest when saving. The shorter game length, since there are fewer rounds for growth to compound in, also makes saving to dominate the next round of bidding a much more effective tactic. The result is a very "tight" game. Players must manage their workers, production, technologies, wealth, storage, and victory points simultaneously.
The biggest design challenge was presentation. Originally, the game was implemented as just a set of cards. Not only was this too fiddly, but it was difficult for players to see each other's positions (which is important in a bidding game). The next attempt was to provide each player with a large mat. Now, everything could be seen, but the result was too intimidating and confusing for new players. The final approach was to provide a central board with a common track and discount area (making this information easy to see), and to give each player four tiles, representing their initial villages, which could then be flipped over or added to, as players gained new technologies.
As always, a game changes in response to publisher and playtester comments. David Goering challenged me to do this; Bernd Brunnhofer suggested strengthening the victory point path; Stefan Brück provided valuable insights into the three-player game; the late Keith Loveys came up with rotating the Overlord when tied; Jay Tummelson suggested a first game rule; and Markus Welbourne of JKLM Games, the publisher, advocated reducing the effect of multiple discounts and having an option to reduce luck on the first turn. Thank you. Enjoy!
(Editor's note: This designer diary/game preview first appeared on BoardgameNews.com on May 22, 2007. —WEM)
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