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Designer Diary: Mindbug, or Four Minds, Eight Hands

Christian K
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Board Game: Mindbug

Christian's Story

In January 2020, I listened to a bunch of podcasts about game design. One I especially enjoyed was Nerdlab. Unlike many other such podcasts, it was quite focused on card games, the kind with monsters fighting, cool card combos...you know the kind. This genre has a huge place in my heart, so I wrote to the guy behind the podcast, Marvin Hegen, and we discussed making a game together. While making the first prototype, this was the recipe in my head for making a cool simple two-player game about monsters fighting with gameplay inspired by TCGs:

1) Come up with a ruleset (as simple as possible) for how cards behave while in play.
2) Come up with a mechanism that keeps the player who draws the best monsters from winning automatically. (Let's face it, if the big companies cannot balance these types of games perfectly, neither can we.) This mechanism could be, for example, draft, auction, or something else.
3) Make a bunch of cool monster cards. Try not to make them too complicated.
4) To play, players will draw some random monster cards. They will use the protocol from (2) to put them into play, and attack with them using the ruleset from (1).

I figured that if the system from (2) is "fair" enough, if the rules from (1) allow some depth, and if the monsters from (3) are not too complicated, you would probably get a good strategic game out of it.

For (1), I used the simplest thing I could come up with: Play a card or attack with a card. Highest power wins battles. This is nothing revolutionary — just a fine simple system. Keywords and special abilities are needed in this system to prevent the creature with the highest power from dominating the battlefield.

For (2), I was inspired by the secretary problem from theoretical Computer Science. In short, this is a problem in which you see a bunch of values and try to guess when you see the biggest one. In Mindbug, players are allowed — twice each game — to steal a card that the opponent plays. You have to steal it at that exact moment, though, so you are trying to guess when the opponent is playing their strongest creature.

This idea turned out to work super well in practice. Players have a lot of fun deciding whether they want to steal this particular monster or wait for something better to come along. This idea almost always results in players wanting to discuss "what if" scenarios after playing and whether they could have changed something to win.

Showing this initial prototype to Marvin, we were both surprised that it was actually fun. Normally, first prototypes need a lot of polish to get somewhere good, but I think we got lucky here and started with something really fun.

As a first-time designer, having seen this game go from idea to finished product has been a ton of fun. I was, of course, really excited when the game started getting some buzz. Some of the first coverage was this video from The Dice Tower, my beloved board game reviewers that I have watched for almost ten years.

They were not as excited as I had hoped (and the image there is the prototype artwork for some reason). They somehow initially thought Uwe Rosenberg was also a co-designer, and they mostly seemed confused about the whole thing: "..and Christian Kudahl? Who is a computer scientist? From Denmark?"

A friend of mine found it so hilarious that he made a comic about it to mock me further:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

After releasing one thousand copies of the game at SPIEL '21, we luckily had a lot more positive (and less confused) feedback from the people who bought it there. As a new designer, I am incredible humbled and excited to see where this journey will take us, and I couldn't wish for a better team to be on this journey. Having Richard and Skaff join the project with their unrivaled experience in card games, insane attention to detail, and exploding creativity has really moved Mindbug forward in a completely new way. And the cherry on top is of course getting to hear a lot of crazy old "back in the day" stories, especially from Skaff...

Christian Kudahl

•••

Marvin's Story

Board Game Publisher: Nerdlab Games
My journey began about three years ago when I decided to work more intensively on my own game ideas. The goal was clear: In the end there should be a self-developed and published card game — but the process of how to get from an initial idea to a polished product was not so clear to me at that time.

That's why I launched Nerdlab in 2018, a podcast in which I describe my journey from being a gamer to becoming a game designer and publisher. For the podcast, I conduct interviews with leading experts of the industry to get advice for myself and create value for my listeners. Through the podcast I made invaluable contacts in the industry. I met Christian, as well as Richard and Skaff, but without the Nerdlab community itself, Mindbug would never have emerged into what it is today. They actively supported me during playtesting and always motivated me to continue when times were tough. Putting yourself out there and surrounding yourself with supportive people is one of the most important things you can do.

When I first talked with Christian about the idea of a dueling card game, we had a common vision for the most part. Our basic premise was that the game should be super simple, but still feel like a classic strategy card game. Based on that simple idea, I did something I often do to prepare for my podcast episodes: I asked the community, specifically by asking the following question in a public forum: What do you like/dislike about TCGs/CCGs? From the results, I then created a Google spreadsheet (something I also love doing) and developed the core principles for Mindbug. Here are a few examples of the 50+ responses from that discussion:

• The problem that I have with TCG games is that usually the fault of all my losses is because of the deck instead of my skill.
• I like it when the outcome doesn't depend on who has the biggest collection.
• I like the incredible amount of depth in terms of tactics and strategy.
• I like when your strategy is going to change every time you play.
• It is so difficult to explain those games to someone who has never played it before, so I can basically play it only with my existing group.

I then clustered those answers and translated them into four design principles for Mindbug:

1. Easy to play
2. Fair and accessible
3. Diverse and exciting gameplay
4. Strategic depth

When I first played the new Mindbug mechanism with Christian, I immediately knew that we could achieve these goals with it. The mechanism allows a player to steal a creature from an opponent two times per game at the moment they play it. It was simple, it was elegant, and it was a lot of fun.

Later, I then told Richard about that Mindbug mechanism during a podcast interview. I said that we had developed a mechanism that allowed us to design incredibly strong creatures without breaking the balance of the game, and that we could do it without needing a resource like mana or crystals. He then said: "That must be an overstatement", which it probably was — but it got his interest, and we started playing the prototype of the game, and since then we have worked together on the development of Mindbug.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

At one point, the card above was a serious card that existed in the game. Who designed it, came up with such an over-the-top powerful effect, and matched the name and image will be a story for another time...

Marvin Hegen
Nerdlab Games

•••

Richard's Story

I was immediately interested in Mindbug based on its simple but interesting concept of each player being able, twice in a game, to steal their opponent's play. My first plays intrigued me in another, unexpected way — the very simple rules that managed to get a lot of the character of more sprawling card battling games.

One of the first things I questioned in the original was how big your starting hand was and how many cards you drew during the course of the game. We were dealt a hand of seven cards and the remaining three would be drawn when we lost lives. While I liked the way this played, and it did feel fresh, I worried that it would be too chesslike, meaning that you could plan out so much in advance. This ability to plan meant that for new players or for players who didn't want to analyze too much, they would make stupid mistakes until either the game became second nature or they relented and thought their way through the possibilities. Giving a smaller hand — five cards, with five unknown cards to be discovered as play developed — allowed players the ability to make plays more from the gut. Playing a card just to see how their hand developed and possibly lure out a mindbug was more viable.

This also led to us dropping the idea of drawing cards when taking damage. This mechanism is reasonably fresh and often feels good to beginners, but it has been done before and had some consequences that I had concerns about. The problems come when players don't mind losing life or, in fact, seek it out. Something I have seen play out with other games that have this mechanism is beginners attacking successfully, then feeling like rather than doing something good, they have simply given their opponent a card. Of course, it doesn't really matter whether this is true; what matters is how people choose to play, and making it so that attacking generally has a negative consequence will push people away from that. As a "catch-up" feature, it succeeds by making loss of life much less actual progress than it appears, and really a catch-up feature as strong as that is more necessary in a long game.

Another area that interested me with regard to how the game played was whether the game would play better with some of the cards duplicated. Is the best play environment one with all unique cards? To get a handle on that, I mixed together a dozen decks; each was 50 cards at the time, so there was a stack of 600 cards. We started to play and quickly found that the presence of duplicates often led to interesting situations for a number of reasons. For one, you couldn't count on another copy of a card not existing. Also, some cards get more interesting with multiples because whatever they do stacks well with itself.

It is my experience that multiples also help people play better faster since the environment of cards is easier to learn. Many games, and Mindbug is solidly among them, become more fun when the players get better at them, so I like any tool that helps players speed along that route.

We ran into a major hitch with the first implementation of duplicate cards, however, and it confused me until we figured out what was going on. I began by adding common cards and made the easiest cards common. From trading card games, I firmly believed common cards should be broadly powerful and easy, while the rares could be more specialized and complex.

The feedback was that the game got duller. Soon we realized that the standard shouldn't be simplicity as none of the cards were that complex anyway; the standard should be cards that become more interesting when the possibility of a duplicate is out there. For example, Gorillion, which is simply a power 10 creature, I would have made a common before this but is instead unique. It just isn't that interesting if two are floating around as often they simply cancel each other out. On the other hand, Grave Robber, which when played allows you to play a card from the opponent's discard, is more interesting if there are two because this effect going off twice can be more interesting, and if both of you play one, they don't cancel each other out in the same way.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

This new philosophy lead us to be less aggressive with the duplicated cards and also very selective of which ones contributed to the environment in such a way that they benefited with multiple copies.

Richard Garfield

•••

Skaffs's Story

I came to Mindbug later than the other three designers, so unfortunately don't have as many interesting stories to tell. I was introduced to Mindbug by Richard Garfield. He is my business partner and had gotten involved earlier in its development. He recommended very strongly that I play it, and I wasn't disappointed. When Richard recommends something, especially a trading card game, there is a guarantee that there will be some interesting aspect of the game. It doesn't necessarily mean that the game is good or will stand up to repeated play, but it always means there is something seriously worth paying attention to.

When I first heard a cursory sketch of the rules, I was intrigued, but to be honest assumed I hadn't received the full story. Shortly afterward I played and found the game to be excellent! The most surprising aspect to me, given its stage of development, was how complete it was. I had a similar feeling playing Magic for the first time — the game seemed perfectly "ready to go". Of course there was still a lot of work to be done, but the play experience felt satisfying in a way that often doesn't happen early in a game's life.

But much more important than its completeness was its simplicity. This was the thing that truly excited me in the beginning. The lack of the need for a heavy rules structure while still giving such a complete and deep game experience was inspiring. The key to the release of this structure was the lack of "casting costs", even in a generalized sense, that most card games need. This game had cards of substantially different power levels without the need for the complexity that generally makes up a large portion of card games. This is because the need for a casting cost to make a card "fair" is eliminated by the mindbug mechanism.

Board Game: Mindbug

In some sense, every card play is an auction. You are effectively bidding against your opponent and the future utility of your mindbug cards. The "fairness" enforced by a normal casting cost becomes an iterative decision on all the future possibilities of you and your opponent in a very simple play system. Simultaneously a significant portion of rules structure is eliminated while strategic depth is added. If the base system weren't so simple, this calculation would be a lot less tractable and probably a lot less fun.

The very simplicity of the play/combat system is what allows this thinking to be accessible while thinking multiple moves ahead. The low number of total turns in the game goes hand-in-hand with the low number of mindbugs, and this all works in virtuous cycles since thinking about the endgame is almost immediate. Many games use an auction system in place of explicitly balancing assets, but Mindbug might have the simplest version I've ever seen done well.

But that's all just exposition. The simplicity of the system for me was the exciting part because of what it enabled. The mindbugs freed up enough rules space that you could get a deep play experience cognitively easily. You didn't have to learn a lot of rules or memorize a lot of cards. You didn't even have to construct decks. The simplicity of the system meant that it was easy to reduce playtime. The shorter playtime coupled with the simple board state meant that the possibility for excellent team play was likely. When I first saw the game it was only for two players, but it immediately jumped out that we should be experimenting with teams. Many good trading card games have an excellent team version, but almost always this version has some major drawbacks with length of playtime and complexity of board state. Mindbug seemed like a great opportunity for a much more reasonable team game. The simplicity also seemed to open the possibility of a solo game. Almost always this is impossible for a TCG because the rules for an "enemy AI" are too hard to adjudicate — or at least not fun to do so. At this point, this case hasn't been cracked, but it's one of the few TCGs for which it seems even worth trying.

The simplicity and low rules complexity also had another immediate advantage. Almost everyone who is interested in a card game of this depth already has several other games they are playing, especially TCGs. It's a big ask to learn a new trading card game, but asking someone to learn and play Mindbug in a serious way is trivial. Mindbug isn't quite a traditional TCG, but it has many of the aspects of one — for example, many cards with many possible interactions, and an ever-expanding universe of cards. For a game with a complex system this would take a lot of time to master, but with Mindbug it was evident that anyone, even someone already deeply entrenched in a TCG, could pick this game up and start playing seriously with amazingly low effort relative to the depth returned. We always like games with this quality since players' time is so precious.

Anyway, those were my first impressions of the game. These factors immediately jumped out, and all hinged on the simplicity of the rules system. It was a big bonus that the other designers were extremely intelligent, really nice, and mainly just very fun to hang around with.

Skaff Elias

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Tue Nov 23, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Floriferous, or Flowers Are More Than Their Parts

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Floriferous
Floriferous — a design by Steve Finn and Eduardo Baraf from Pencil First Games for 1-4 players — features a lot of design elements that you might recognize from other games:

• Over three rounds, players collect cards from a grid in a Kingdomino-style system, with the order that you pick a card next round being determined by where you picked your card in this turn's column.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Starting round two, with blue having chosen the top card and first pick next turn

• Most cards on their own are worthless, but when you combine flower cards with the scoring condition on a desire card, you gain points based on how well you satisfy that desire, similar to how in Point Salad vegetable cards are worth points only relative to how well they satisfy the scoring condition on point cards you collect.

Each column has a number of flower cards equal to the number of players along with one desire card, with the desire card being the bottommost card (punishing you with last pick next turn in exchange for grabbing a possibly valuable card). Some of the flowers near the bottom of the column bear rock tokens that are worth .5 points, and two of the topmost cards are face down to make you wonder whether you really want to go there.

• Three bounty cards are revealed at the start of play, with each card showing three icons on it that match either types of flowers (with five of those being in the game) or types of insects (with five of those as well), e.g. lily, poppy, moth. As soon as you have three cards, with each of those cards having a separate one of those icons, you score the bounty card. The earlier in the game you complete the bounty, the more points you score.

• Five of the larger cards show arrangements that feature a type of flower, a type of insect, and a color (of which there are five), and you score 1/3/5 points for having cards in your collection with 1/2/3 of the depicted items.

• Five other larger cards show sculptures, and you score 5/3/1 points for having the most, second most, or third most sculptures, with ties being friendly.

• Whoever collects the most rocks receives a 2-point bonus card.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My final collection in a 4p game; scored bounties not shown

This familiarity is not a bad thing. Viewed together, the design choices all make sense and mesh to create a tiny game that plays out in 20 minutes, with each choice typically mattering somewhat in your final score. In the image above, for example, everything counts: 10 points for purple cards, 4 points for poppies, 8 points for mums, an arrangement worth 3 points and another worth 5, a sculpture worth 3 points since someone else had grabbed two, and three rocks for 1 point.

Sometimes you'll grab a useless tulip or a point card that doesn't pay off in the end based on what others snatch before you can get to it, actions that make the tagline of "A relaxing game" feel ironic since you are often shaking your fist at the opponent who took your flower. How dare they!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
40 points, despite several useless cards

All of the larger cards — flowers, arrangements, sculptures — are in play in a four-player game, so theoretically you'll have a shot at all of them. Only fifteen of the 21 desire cards will be played, though, so you can't go into a game collecting, say, mums or orange flowers with the goal of flooding that desire for points since it might not even turn up. In the image above, I had all five different flower types for 5 points and five cards of the same color for 7 points.

With fewer players, you put out fewer cards in each column, so potentially, say, ladybugs won't show at all, making it impossible to complete a bounty or max out an arrangement, but you won't know this until the final round — and possibly not even then since some cards are hidden.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The solitaire game is set up similar to the two-player game, but with the sculptures stripped from the deck (since a majority bonus makes no sense) and with a crow deck serving as your adversary. For each turn after the first in a round, you reveal a crow card before you choose a card; the crow will remove either of the top two cards or the desire card, replacing it with either a face-down card of the same type or 1-2 rocks. This mimics the action of another player taking what you might have planned to pick up, with the risk of stealing another card from you at the end of the round depending on how many rocks you leave behind.

The video below includes a complete playthrough of a solitaire game should you want to see it in detail. I'll note that I've now played four solitaire games and two four-player games on a review copy from Pencil First Games, with victories in both of those four-player games thanks to the tie-breaker. Despite the inviting, casual nature of the design and its colorful art from Clémentine Campardou, competition is tight!

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Mon Nov 22, 2021 1:00 pm
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AMIGO Puts Its Cards on the Table for 2022

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game Publisher: AMIGO
Almost as soon as SPIEL '21 ended in October, German publishers started teasing their early 2022 releases, with AMIGO sending out this teaser image ahead of more details at the start of January 2022.

Interestingly, three of the four titles depicted are new editions of older games. Not sure what that says about the market or the quality of submissions AMIGO is seeing. Perhaps nothing because I can imagine that thanks to Covid-related restrictions regarding public gatherings in 2020 and 2021, a company might have decided to return a proven game to market rather than futz around with Tabletop Simulator. This theory might be all wrong, of course, but it came to mind anyway.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

• The headliner in this batch is probably Bohnanza 25 Jahre-Edition, the 25th anniversary edition of Uwe Rosenberg's card game Bohnanza, which I've already covered in this September 2021 post. To repeat what I wrote there:
Quote:
At Gen Con 2021, head of AMIGO Games Alex Yeager passed along a few details about this title, namely that it will be released as a single large print run to ideally last for a decent portion of the year, but not stick around forever; that it will retail for at most US$25; that it will contain a new bean type (my money is on "jelly"); and that it will contain three variant games, one of which will use a collectible coin packaged in the box.
Board Game: Linko!
The original
Abluxxen is a fantastically good card game from Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer in which 2-5 players compete to score points by playing cards and stealing cards from one another. As I wrote about the game in 2014, accompanied by a poorly lit video of me explaining the game in detail:
Quote:
The first game is fumbly and awkward, with you staring at the jumble of numbers in hand and not being sure what to do — but everything clicks after a few turns once you've seen your stolen cards sunning themselves with others of their kind in an opponent's playground. "What the...? You are going to pay, sucker!" Or stuff gets stolen, and you realize that you're upgrading in the process, perhaps not making progress now but readying a high-powered card missile for imminent launch once someone else lays down a few cards that look tasty for you.
I should get this game back to the table again to see how well it holds up...and to create a better-looking video to show how much(?) I've learned(?) in eight years.

Ghosts is a Reiner Knizia card game for 2-6 players that debuted in 2005 as Im siebten Himmel (In Seventh Heaven) before being released in 2007 as Spirits!, then Capt'n Sharky: Piraten-Rauferei, then Ghosts. Gameplay seems like a mash-up between UNO and Knizia's Poison, which also debuted in 2005:
Quote:
Players have a hand of five ghost cards (with values from 1 to 3 in six suits), and on a turn you play a card, then draw a card. Keep a running a tally of the sum of cards played. If you play a card of the same suit as the topmost played card, you keep the sum the same and reverse the order of play. You cannot bring the sum above 7, and if you cannot play or choose not to play, remove all the played cards, take a ghost marker, then play a card to start a new pile. When all the cards have been played, the round ends; shuffle the cards and deal a new hand of five cards to each player. If a player collects no ghosts in either the second or third round, they discard three ghost markers from their collection.

Board Game: Im siebten Himmel
Board Game: Ghosts
Board Game: Ghosts
Board Game: Ghosts
Earlier incarnations

Whoever has the fewest ghost markers at the end of three rounds wins.
• I have no clues at the moment about Haim Shafir's Schnattergei, a card game for 2-4 players aged 6+, but you can probably expect a real-time game with a matching element given Shafir's design history.
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Links: Playing UNO for Cash, Cheating at Bridge, and Going from Game to Puzzle

W. Eric Martin
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• UK book publisher Welbeck Publishing has already released three puzzle books based on games in the Asmodee family — Catan, Unlock!, and Ticket to Ride — and in 2022 it plans to release two more based on Pandemic and Dobble (a.k.a. Spot it!), with these being authored by Jason Ward, who wrote the Unlock! Puzzle Book.

Here are short descriptions of these upcoming titles:
Quote:
The Dobble Puzzle Book contains more than 100 visual puzzles based on the award-winning and best-selling card game. Favorite Dobble icons appear in puzzles ranging from Spot the difference and Mazes, to Odd One Out and cartoon Sudoku, including head-to-head puzzles to be played against others.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The Pandemic Escape Room Puzzle Book features images and locations familiar to anyone who knows and loves the original board games in a series of chapters containing visual cryptic conundrums for the reader to ponder over, translating the Pandemic game into a thrilling global narrative.
From gallery of W Eric Martin
• In the "old news that's new to me category", since 2018 MyMiniFactory has offered an online store for "3D designers to monetize their STL files and creations", and it's now expanded its offerings to have crowdfunding campaigns, a "stories" section in which creators write about their work, and a Tribes subscription system that has more than 60 creators promising to release new 3D content each month. MMF promises that creators receive 90% of the sales revenue generated on the site.

• BGG admin and sometimes Queen Melissa Rogerson is overseeing a survey related to playing games during the Covid-19 pandemic. You can go directly to the survey here, or you can click through her Twitter and Facebook posts, perhaps sharing them with others at the same time to expand the potential pool of respondents.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

• How did 30 bridge teams respond when asked to face off against alleged cheaters in a tournament? They refused to play, as explained in this highly entertaining article by David Owen of The New Yorker. Here's an excerpt from this October 2021 publication:
Quote:
[Fulvio] Fantoni and a regular playing partner of his, Claudio Nunes, were once ranked No. 1 and No. 2 by the World Bridge Federation, but, for years, opponents suspected that they were cheating...

In 2014, videos of matches at the European bridge championships were uploaded on YouTube for the first time. Maaijke Mevius, a physicist in the Netherlands, had heard the rumors about Fantoni and Nunes — or Fantunes, as they are sometimes known — and decided to study some of their games. She wasn't an expert player, but she thought that her training as a scientist might help her spot anomalies that better players had missed. Sure enough, she noticed something odd: when Fantoni and Nunes played a card in certain situations, they sometimes placed it on the table horizontally, and sometimes vertically. She shared her observation with Boye Brogeland, a Norwegian professional player, who has been instrumental in exposing prominent cheaters. An ad-hoc team of expert players quickly cracked the code: in eighty-two of eighty-five instances, they determined, Fantoni and Nunes placed a card on the table vertically when their hands contained an unseen ace, king, or queen of the same suit, or when their hands contained no other card of the same suit; otherwise, they placed it horizontally. (Fantoni and Nunes have denied all allegations of cheating, and have declined to comment.)
From gallery of W Eric Martin
• In November 2021, as part of its 50th anniversary campaign for UNO, Mattel hosted the "first-ever official UNO Championship Series Vegas Invitational Tournament", with the champion — Sacramento State college student Aldwin Rodriguez — winning a $50,000 grand prize.

Oh, wait, a press release from Mattel notes that the event is actually "the first-ever official UNO Championship Series Vegas Invitational Tournament powered by Mobil 1" — and that "powered by Mobil 1" is an odd thing to see in a game tournament logo, but perhaps only because I don't normally follow auto racing events...although this quote from the press release doesn't make things any less odd:
Quote:
"The Mobil 1 team is thrilled to partner with Mattel for this unique consumer experience celebrating a half century of the iconic family card game, UNO," said Bryce Huschka, North America consumer marketing manager for ExxonMobil. "Mobil 1, the world's leading synthetic motor oil brand, strives to partner with other industry leaders to give fans one-of-a-kind experiences that can be valued and cherished for years to come."
The event was hosted by professional gamer and YouTuber Ninja (Tyler Blevins), who I learned about years ago thanks to a Fortnite-playing son, and internet personality Hannah Stocking, whose existence I learned of while writing this post, with tennis star Venus Williams(!) recording a TikTok video for Mattel's UNO channel.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Aldwin Rodriguez
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Sat Nov 20, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Preview: Defeat Monsters in a Shifting Labyrinth in Pathfinder Arena

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Board Game: Pathfinder Arena
Italian publisher Giochi Uniti is launching a Kickstarter campaign on November 23, 2021 for their upcoming big release, Pathfinder Arena, from designers Flavio Anzidei, Giorgio Serafini, and Roberto Tibuzzi.

In Pathfinder Arena 2-4 players compete as heroes in a labyrinth-style arena to gain the most glory and be declared the Champion of the Arena . Pathfinder Arena is set in Pathfinder RPG's "Age of Lost Omens" setting and will not only will include highly-detailed miniatures of the most iconic monsters of Pathfinder, but also features awesome artwork from the prolific fantasy RPG artist Wayne Reynolds. The publisher kindly sent me a prototype copy so I could check it out and provide context on how it plays.

When you set up Pathfinder Arena, the first thing you do is assemble the game board with a variety of arena tiles. There are eight summoning tiles, four rune tiles, and four trapdoor tiles which are randomly placed in their designated starting spaces. Then the remaining arena tiles are randomly placed on empty spaces, leaving the central space, the Doom Area, open.

From gallery of candidrum
Arena tiles at setup (prototype components)

Each player chooses a hero sheet and takes the corresponding figure, card decks, and components to set up their player area. Hero sheets allow players to keep track of physical and mental abilities which can be improved over the course of the game.

From gallery of candidrum
Player area set-up for Kyra (prototype components)

The first player rolls the summoning die (d8) to determine which summoning tile the level-1 monster starts on, and then you place a number of ability tokens, element tokens, and item tokens on summoning tiles as well.

Pathfinder Arena is divided into four summoning phases which are played through a series of rounds where players take turns in clockwise order. Each turn begins with a hero phase where you spend action points to collect tokens, defeat monsters, move in the arena, and change its structure. After the hero phase, there's a monster phase where monsters attack all heroes within their reach. If there are no monsters left in the arena at the end of any hero phase, a summoning phase happens instead of the monster phase, spawning new monsters and allowing all players to level-up their heroes.

At the start of the hero phase, the first thing you do is reset your marker tokens. Your marker tokens could be on other players' hero sheets giving them temporary immunity from certain monsters, or they can be on cards you've activated, or on monster sheets. You take them all back at the start of your hero phase.

Then you reallocate your ability tokens to optimize your hero before performing actions. Over the course of the game you'll gain more ability tokens, either from collecting them on the game board, or from leveling up during each summoning phase. At this point on your turn, you have to carefully decide how you want to allocate your ability tokens, which is rarely an easy decision.

From gallery of candidrum
Ability tokens allocated on hero sheet and cards (prototype components)

On one hand, building your ability tracks up with a a lot of tokens is very helpful because you unlock other benefits with every two ability tokens you place on a given track. For example, the more constitution ability tokens you have, the more your base defense improves. On the other hand, your hero's special feat/spell cards and item cards require certain tokens in order to be activated and they can be very powerful too. This part of your turn can be really fun because you're customizing your hero, but it's usually a tough decision to figure out the best way to allocate your ability tokens for the upcoming round since you are thinking about preparing offensively for your turn, but also need to be prepared defensively for your opponents' turns.

After you've allocated your ability tokens as you see fit, you can spend action points to perform actions. Each player has a base of 4 action points, which can be increased by collecting and allocating more dexterity ability tokens. You can perform the same action as many times as you'd like as long as you have the action points available to spend.

You can spend an action point to move your hero to an orthogonally adjacent arena tile. By default, you cannot move through walls or into the Doom Area, but any number of heroes can stay on a tile at the same time. Moving your hero isn't the only way to get around the arena though. There are two different actions that allow you to manipulate the structure of the labyrinth.

From gallery of candidrum
(prototype components)
First, you can spend an action point to rotate the tile your hero is on, 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise. Even more impressive, you can spend an action point to magically, and more dramatically, change the arena's structure by choosing an arena tile orthogonally aligned with the Doom Area. You choose a tile and then shift all tiles between the chosen tile and the Doom Area toward the latter, so the Doom Area essentially replaces the chosen tile. Both of these labyrinth-shifting actions help create movement opportunities, block other heroes, bring monsters within a hero's reach, or heroes within a monster's reach.

Aside from enabling more flexible movement options for your hero, one of the ways you gain glory points (victory points) in Pathfinder Arena is having monsters attack your opponents on your turn. Therefore changing the arena's structure strategically can have many benefits, in addition to being a unique feature of the game.

Another key action in Pathfinder Arena is simply collecting a token. You can spend an action point to collect a token from the arena tile your hero occupies. When you collect a physical ability token, you also get to take any mental ability token and add them both to your hero sheet. When you collect an item token, you get to draw three cards from your hero's item deck and play one face-up in your player area to be used going forward.

From gallery of candidrum
(prototype components)
You can also collect element tokens which can be spent to modify damage from monsters (+/- 2), or modify a hero's action points (+/- 1). It's worth noting, the element tokens can be spent anytime, even during other players' turns. Meaning, you could have a whole plan for how you are going to spend your action points and then at the start of your hero phase, an opponent could play an Earth token making you lose one of your action points. You definitely have to keep an eye on which element tokens your opponents pick up and factor that into your turn decisions.

Pathfinder Arena is all about defeating monsters, so naturally, you'll want to attack monsters. You can spend an action point to strike a monster in the same arena tile as your hero. In this case, you deal damage based on your hero's strength, which can be increased with more ability tokens. You cannot attack other heroes though, only monsters.

The rest of your action choices are based on your cards. Assuming you have the required tokens allocated, you can activate a card by spending the required number of action points. Cards have very different effects, such as special movements or attacks, and each hero has their own deck of feat/spell cards.

For example, had the player allocated a strength ability token on their Powerful Leap card in the photo below, they could spend two action points to move through a wall. They can use their Sly Striker card to apply x2 damage to an attack this turn since they allocated the required ability tokens on that card.
From gallery of candidrum
card examples (prototype components)


From gallery of candidrum
Monster sheet for Ettin (prototype components)
After you perform actions in the hero phase, there is monster phase where all monsters attack all heroes within their reach. The current player gains glory points when monsters attack other heroes.

There are four different levels of monsters based on the summoning phase. The game starts with one level-1 monster, then two spawn on the 2nd summoning phase, three on the 3rd summoning phase, and four on the 4th summoning phase. For each level, there are more monsters available than you will use in a single game, so you shuffle monster sheets to randomly determine which monsters will be in play and assign their initiative order accordingly.

After any hero phase, if there aren't any monsters on the board, a summoning phase follows, instead of the monster phase. Each summoning phase, more monsters appear and they are increasingly more difficult to defeat as the game progresses. Monsters have base stats such as life points, melee and range attack values, but most of them also have a variety of special attacks and abilities that make them even more challenging.

As the monsters get increasingly more difficult, your heroes also level up each summoning phase. Players are able to choose a new feat/spell card in addition to gaining an extra ability token. Then you also reseed the board with more tokens similar to how it's done during setup.

In Pathfinder Arena, heroes and monsters fight each other repeatedly. Both heroes and monsters can attack only if their target is within the reach of their attack. In order to defeat a monster, you must inflict enough damage equal or higher than the monster's life points in one turn. Each monster grants glory points at the end of the game. If you are attacked by a monster on your own turn, you get as many misfortune points as unblocked damage you suffer from the attack. As I mentioned earlier, you can also gain glory on your turn when monster's attack your opponents.

From gallery of candidrum
Glory point & Misfortune point tokens (prototype components)

When you gain glory points and misfortune points in Pathfinder Arena, you take the corresponding tokens (value-1,3, and 5) from the supply and place them facedown in your player area, so all players can see the amount of tokens your have, but don't necessarily know the value of the tokens until you score up at the end of the game.

A game of Pathfinder Arena ends when a player defeats the last level-4 monster. When this happens, players sum up all the glory points obtained and subtract their misfortune points from the total. The player with the most points is declared the Champion of the Arena and is the winner of the game.

From gallery of candidrum
Deity card example with its corresponding shrine tile (prototype components)
In addition to each hero's unique decks of feat/spell/item cards, the game also includes five special deity cards which you can claim when you have at least 2 ego and your hero occupies a shrine tile. By collecting charisma ability tokens, you can gradually increase your ego to meet this requirement. The deity cards provide another way for players to gain special abilities in Pathfinder Arena.

Deity cards are double-sided and can be powered up and flipped to the other side by further increasing your hero's ego. In addition, the deity cards also may grant glory points at the end of the game, depending on your ego level.

If you enjoy games with miniatures where you can customize heroes and fight monsters, you should definitely check out Pathfinder Arena on Kickstarter.

It's interesting and unique how players can manipulate arena tiles to position their heroes and monsters strategically to get an edge on other players. There also seems to be a decent amount of variety between the different monsters and each hero's special feat/spell/item cards which should keep things interesting over time.

While not necessarily thematically accurate, I really liked that when other players "take damage" from monsters on your turn, you gain glory, but the other players don't actually lose anything per se. So even though it has a take-that spirit, it doesn't really feel bad when it happens to you.

I would hope that they include player aid in the finished game so that you don't have to dig through the rulebook to remember how the different element and rune tokens work. I did not mention rune tokens above, but they are a different type of token you take (not as an action) when you land on or move through rune tiles that modify damage and defense values. Between these and the element tokens, it can be a lot to remember how each one works, so it'd be very helpful to have a player aid.

The Pathfinder Arena BGG page has an estimated playtime of 60-80 minutes, however my couple of 4-player games ran well over 2 hours. I'm not sure if others who have played it were able to complete a game in 80 minutes, but I would plan for a longer game depending on how fast and aggressive players are with defeating monsters. Also, as the game ramps up, it can take an increasing amount of time for players to decide how to reallocate their tokens, so that could slow things down as well.

Even though there weren't sample miniatures included for all of the monsters and heroes in the prototype I received, the ones that were included looked solid. I suspect the finished version of the game will be pretty epic-looking, and there may even be stretch goals for more monsters, so be sure to check it out!

From gallery of candidrum
(prototype components)
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Fri Nov 19, 2021 1:00 pm
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2021 BGG Holiday Gift Guide: Top Heavy Games

W. Eric Martin
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While BGG's 2021 Holiday Gift Guide features more than 100 titles from 19 categories, today wraps my video coverage of select titles from the guide with brief summaries of a handful of heavy games.

Partly I thought these videos could serve as an experiment to see whether they have any use for folks outside the BGG environment. BGG has a larger percentage of heavy game fans than the population at large, but plenty of heavy game fans have never heard of BGG, so maybe they'll come across this video — or those about family games, party games, and two-player games — and discover something new.


Should you care to explore the remainder of BGG's Holiday Gift Guide, you can do so here, with this link automatically forwarding to whatever the most current gift guide happens to be.
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Thu Nov 18, 2021 2:56 pm
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2021 BGG Holiday Gift Guide: Top Two-Player Games

W. Eric Martin
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Let's follow up my video overviews of the top family games and top party games in BGG's 2021 Holiday Gift Guide with a quick take on our six suggested games for couples, which range widely in complexity and style of play.

I mean the games, not the couples, although the same probably applies to them, too.

Anyway, here's the overview, which features footage of some of the games in question:


Next year we'll have to start this series earlier so that I have time to get my hands on all of the featured games — or perhaps we'll do something else entirely. We'll see!

To check out the other 100+ titles on BGG's Holiday Gift Guide, head here, with this link taking you to whatever is the most recent such Gift Guide. (We do this annually, after all, so we set up a link that redirects to the most recent such thing.)
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Wed Nov 17, 2021 1:23 pm
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2021 BGG Holiday Gift Guide: Top Party Games

W. Eric Martin
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Today's video highlights the party game suggestions from BoardGameGeek's 2021 Holiday Gift Guide, which features more than one hundred game suggestions in 19 categories. I've already covered gift suggestions for family games, and while I suppose you could play party games with your family, you are not legally obliged to do so.

By chance or through the happenstance of trying to ensure that all of the suggested games are in print in the United States (and ideally around the world, although it's hard enough to track stock where we live), all six of these party games have an element in common. Watch and find out:


Curious to see what else is suggested? Check out the complete 2021 Holiday Gift Guide yourself!
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Tue Nov 16, 2021 3:18 pm
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Designer Diary: The Seeds of Stardew Valley: The Board Game

Cole Medeiros
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Microbadge: Magic Realm fanMicrobadge: GUBS: A Game of Wit and Luck fanMicrobadge: Web of Spies fanMicrobadge: I design games for the love of itMicrobadge: 5 Year Geek Veteran
Board Game: Stardew Valley: The Board Game
"If you're reading this, you must be in dire need of a change..."

So begins Grandpa's letter to you as you set out to start a new life in a little place called Stardew Valley, arriving at an overgrown farm filled with memories and hope. Stardew Valley the video game has captured the hearts of many. It's a special place where we can relax, make friends, fall in love, and build something special — and the fact that Eric Barone keeps pouring more love into it keeps it rich and alive season after season.

From gallery of MrJade

When I first spoke with Eric about creating a Stardew Valley board game, neither of us knew exactly what it should be. We were introduced by a mutual friend. I remember feeling a little bit nervous, chatting while we played Stardew together online. Here was the man himself, ConcernedApe!

I was more than a little intimidated by this amazing thing that he had made, but as we spoke about Stardew and about how fun it would be to see it as a board game, the conversation became very easy. We knew Stardew had all the makings of a great board game experience: lots of resources and items, characters and locations. So much lore just waiting to be put to paper — but despite our excitement at the thought, we still had no idea how to capture all the cool little bits that work so well as a video game.

From gallery of MrJade

Right at the beginning Eric said something to me that I never forgot. I was asking him, who is this board game for? Who was the "target audience", as they say in the biz. But he wasn't interested in starting that way. He said, "Let's just make a game we love to play." It caught me off guard at the time (though I am not at all surprised by it now) as this is very much his style. Through intuition and lots of hard work, just keep moving towards something that you think is fun. Iterate and explore and be honest with yourself about what is working or isn't. It seems so simple, but it's very profound. With this in mind, we got to work.

From gallery of MrJade

I had already been playing Stardew Valley quite a lot, but now I started a new game, setting my sights on the Community Center. I missed a seasonal fish and had to wait for the following year. I fished a lot, I grew crops, I explored the Mine. I did everything I could think to do and took a lot of notes. I used Tabletop Simulator to brainstorm and discuss ideas.

From gallery of MrJade

I started to outline what felt like the core of the game: resources and building; relationships with characters; plants, animals, discovery, and collection. My first prototype was not even a playable game — just some pieces and cards near a clunky looking board. Tracking the time and the seasons seemed very important, so I had a track for that. The Community Center Rooms had big tiles you flipped once you restored them. It was very fiddly, but it was a step towards something, and it got the conversation moving.

From gallery of MrJade

Over the next year or so, we would move through something like 15+ different iterations. These were wildly different games and ultimately not the right direction. Eventually something started to emerge and it stuck, and we began to iterate on the smaller systems and mechanisms. We wanted each area of the game to feel different. Fishing should not feel the same as mining, for example. Foraging was originally an action, but then became a free action that happens during movement. The board was originally broken up into regions, but the foraging rule converted it into locations with paths.

We always knew we wanted a game that was highly collaborative, so we needed to make sure people could discuss their intentions, then be left to carry them out. Stardew is a game about connecting with people and places. We wanted that to happen every turn.

From gallery of MrJade

I remember Eric said of an early prototype, "I want more items. I want epic loot." Originally I wasn't sure how we'd do this because I didn't think of all the stuff you gain in Stardew as "items" or "loot" so much as tools or structures you build.

But it became clear over time that we could take pretty much everything you use in the video game to be either a discarded single use or an ongoing upgrade or ability, so that's where we landed. Certain things had their abilities changed and adjusted. (One early playtest revealed a set of items that could create an infinite loop of forageable gathering, oops!) Starting Tools went through a whole slew of variations, some with tech trees, some with resource costs, and more, but we eventually found what they could do and also how to make each Profession feel unique and interesting. Lots of playtesting and excellent feedback by wonderful playtesters.

From gallery of MrJade

We used Tabletop Simulator a lot. It's a fantastic tool for prototyping, playtesting, and very fast iteration. We could never have tried so many things so quickly without it. I highly recommend it for game designers to prototype with.

That recommendation comes with a few words of caution, however: Playing board games digitally takes longer. Everything is slower, and it's harder (for me at least) to keep track of all the info and components on the "table", so it's difficult to gauge the true pacing in Tabletop. Also, when you finally do make a physical version, some things that work well digitally do not work as well on a real table (for example, stacks of tiles or pulling tiles from a bag too frequently). The point is, the physical prototype is critical and you should expect it to feel very different if you prototype heavily in Tabletop Simulator.

From gallery of MrJade

Slowly our game stopped changing. I continued to find little tiny tweaks: the wording of an ability or the cost of an action. Eric was concerned that the game was too easy. It was a valid concern as we won a lot. Ideally a co-operative game should defeat you the first time, be a close loss the second try, and from then on continue to be close.

One day we started losing. I was elated.

From gallery of MrJade

I would continue to test the game for another year. It underwent a lot of additional changes to hammer out the rest of the mechanisms.

I went back to the drawing board on several different areas of the game. I don't even know how many times (though I have a list of 1,357 edits that were made after I started keeping track).

I came up with a lot of things that didn't work at all. Originally there was monster combat involved in the mines, chit pulling involved with fishing, foraging was not a free action, and on and on. Sometimes I came up with excellent ideas, but they were way too complicated. I condensed down the strengths of these ideas and tossed out the weaker parts to arrive at what is currently in the game.

From gallery of MrJade

From gallery of MrJade

From gallery of MrJade

Once the gameplay itself seemed to be settling, we started seriously investing in the artwork and graphic design of the game. I reached out to a handful of very talented folks. (Please take a look at the credits in the rulebook as I highly recommend every one of them!)

I am sitting here trying to tally up all the unique pieces of art that were created for this game, and I can't figure it out — several hundred pieces at least. That does not include icons or textures or all the small touch-ups that were done to many pieces to adjust them to fit with the graphic design and layouts. Villagers were probably the most heavily revised, not because we didn't love what we got from Gus (one of the main artists), but because each character was so important to Eric.

From gallery of MrJade

Icons were very important to the language of the game and underwent a lot of exploration to get them right. We focused a lot on silhouettes to make sure everything read as cleanly as possible, even when small.

From gallery of MrJade

I was very nervous about the board artwork. The map of Stardew itself is so critical. I wasn't sure how we were going to pull that off, but Alex (another one of the artists) brought the perfect level of zoom and attention to detail. I was blown away.

From gallery of MrJade

From gallery of MrJade

The look and feel of the game was so important to us. I'm extremely happy with where it landed.

The first print run sold out in a little less than a day. We thought we had ordered enough to hold us for a little while, but we dramatically underestimated the demand. I was eager to meet that demand and reprint quickly, but Eric was wiser than me. He said, "Let's gather some feedback and see how we can make it even better." That took a little time, but I'm very glad we did it. The reprint has some nice improvements that we feel will enhance the experience — not least of which is the additional tray for storage of all the pieces!

The new print run is now available for purchase at our Shopify site. For those of you in the EU, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, it'll land in stores shortly. (We'll post more info when we know more details.) We really hope it brings you joy and is something your friends and family can enjoy together.Stardew Valley: The Board Game is a game we love to play, and we hope you feel the same.

Cole Medeiros

P.S. If Lewis is still alive, say "Hi" to the old guy for us, will you?

From gallery of MrJade
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Tue Nov 16, 2021 1:00 pm
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2021 BGG Holiday Gift Guide: Top Family Games

W. Eric Martin
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BoardGameGeek's 2021 Holiday Gift Guide is live, and it features more than one hundred game suggestions in 19 categories.

To help others figure out what they might want to give — or get! — I've created video overviews of the titles in four categories. Here's the first video, covering family games:


Curious to see what else is suggested? Check out the complete 2021 Holiday Gift Guide yourself!
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Mon Nov 15, 2021 1:00 pm
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