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SPIEL '17: Pics from the Press Room — Charterstone, Gaia Project, and More

W. Eric Martin
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The first day of SPIEL '17 is over, but as is often the case for me at conventions, I'm not even caught up to date after SPIEL's 0th day, that being the press day in which you get to take pics of all the new games in the press room. Here's a sampling of the 250 pics that I took on Wednesday, a ridiculous amount of photos to take given that I can hardly post them all publicly in a reasonable amount of time — yet not taking them also seems wrong given the opportunity. Hmm...


Charterstone


Frank Heeren from Feuerland Spiele told me today that their line on opening day stretched from their booth (about one-third of the way into Hall 3) to almost the back wall of Hall 3, a distance he estimated at 200 meters. Charterstone above and Gaia Project below were among the most anticipated new titles at SPIEL '17, and the Fields of Arle: Tea & Trade expansion further down hasn't been a slouch either.

Gaia Project


Fields of Arle: Tea & Trade


The 2016 Brettspiel Adventskalender came in two formats: one giant box in which each item was packaged in an individual space and a compact box in which all the promos were stacked togethere. The 2017 Brettspiel Adventskalendar is once again giant, and Matthias Nagy of Frosted Games told me that the large size is due to a special The Castles of Burgundy promo that can't be folded, which means that a small size box would still have been roughly two-thirds the size of the large box, which means it wasn't worth the hassle to offer in two sizes.

2017 Brettspiel Adventskalendar


You know what photographs terribly most of the time? Card games. They look somewhat lifeless or the light glares across them, obscuring the faces. In any case, here's one of Alexander Pfister's new titles at SPIEL '17, co-designed by Dennis Rappel and published by Österreichisches Spiele Museum e.V.

Tybor der Baumeister


One month ahead of the Justice League movie, Spanish publisher ABBA Games has brought its Justice League-themed game (which we previewed at SPIEL '16) to market.

Justice League: Dawn of Heroes


Another title that's not in the BGG database, must less on our SPIEL '17 Preview, is Terraformer by Russian publisher Rightgames. We'll see whether I can manage to discover what the game's about in the next few days.



Looking forward to running through these scenarios, whatever they happen to be, and Space Cowboys has already stated that they're working on more.



Simple yet appropriate decorations on the 2F-Spiele table.



Not sure what to make of this as "Pylos Brexit" seems like a joke, yet someone went out of their way to number boxes as if these were part of a limited edition production run and demo them in the press room. Bizarre.

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Thu Oct 26, 2017 11:15 pm
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Designer Diary: Flamme Rouge: Peloton, or From One to Twelve Racers

Asger Harding Granerud
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Early Flamme Rouge prototype
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If you have at all followed Flamme Rouge's life here on BGG, it should come as no surprise that an expansion would be coming. From before the base game released in late 2016, I had released extra print-and-play expansions in the files section. Since then, fans from around the world have helped develop these things and provided lots of input that has inspired me — not least the awesome Benoît Gourdin from France, who contacted me out of the blue and asked whether he could turn the Grand Tour campaign mode into a completely free companion app (Android and IoS). This is just one example where a fan vastly improved upon what I was doing, and personally I haven't looked back. However, the community has also worked on solo play, lots of stages, velodrome rules, mountain and sprint jerseys for the tours, and much, much more.

Therefore, the hardest choice was to decide what to include and what to cut (for now!) in the Flamme Rouge: Peloton expansion — and I am certain that whatever I chose, there would be some who wished I had prioritized otherwise. Nonetheless, I decided early that I really wanted to expand the player count of the base game. I hated the idea of Flamme Rouge staying on the shelf simply because five people had turned up for game night. If you like the game, I want to give you as many opportunities as possible to bring it to the table, so we added two new teams: white and pink.

From One to Twelve in...One Box

We didn't stop there, though. We also added official solo rules with two different types of AI directly developed by ideas from fans here on BGG. It is fantastic to see how the solo community here has embraced the game! These AI teams can be added to other player counts, too. Add a peloton team to a two-player game, or add two different AI teams to your four-player group and experience the full twelve riders on the road.

The official variant included in the expansion also allows you to play with up to twelve players, all playing free for all! This twelve-player game still plays in 30 minutes because each player has to consider only one rider. Since you can't coordinate your two riders, this variant emphasizes that you have to second guess what everyone else is doing. Of course twelve players also means that on average you will win only 1/12 of the games played, so as in real-life cycling, you have to learn to lose MUCH more than you win and still love it just for the chase! WARNING: You might need a very large table or have all players stand for the entire game.

Design Challenges

When I first designed Flamme Rouge, I actually had it as a 2-5 player game — so why was it released as a 2-4 player game? The explanation is quite simple. During the first year, I introduced the game to a lot of people. If there were 2-3 of them, I almost always joined (because I enjoy playing it myself, and still do!). If there were four players, I started skipping and staying out simply to watch. To me, the game got a little worse at five players for a primary and a secondary reason. First, breakaways were harder to pull off, and they provide a lot of the game's tension. Second, congestion meant that riders could end up losing several movement points out of the blue.

These are what I see as the key design challenges in expanding the player count here: congestion and randomization.

CONGESTION: In Flamme Rouge, the road is only two lanes wide. This means that any third rider trying to access a square is blocked and loses movement. Each point of movement is important, so this is a big deal, particularly because losing movement can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and can escalate. You start at the back, try to leapfrog ahead, get blocked, and find yourself in the same position. The issue increases just at the foot of ascends as that terrain feature further blocks your move. With four players and eight riders (two per player), this effect is already present, but at this player count it is a feature, not a bug — something occasional that catches unaware riders out.

However, with twelve riders on the track at the same point, this effect greatly increases, and the risk of chained blocks where you can't even fit on the next free space but end up losing 2-3 squares at once explodes.

Solution? The first solution to this problem is pretty straightforward. Widen the road with a third lane, and the risk of blocking declines dramatically. We tested and found that having these at the start of the stage where riders are most bunched, then at a few key other points of the stage, was again enough to make this congestion a feature and not a bug — well, once we included the solution to the randomization issue explained below.


When you are used to seeing at most eight riders on the track, twelve looks intimidating


RANDOMIZATION: I'll explain the main crux of this problem by first exaggerating it. If you roll a single die, there is a 1/6 chance any result will show up. If you roll one thousand dice, the average will be very close to 3.5. Why is this important in Flamme Rouge? Because the game needs random outliers or else breakaways will never happen. Regardless of how wide we make the road, if we gather one hundred riders in a pack, then breaking away will be almost impossible because somebody in that sample will play (or be forced to play) a card that catches you immediately.

The game lives off the tension created by chases, with the chased trying to stay ahead, burning high cards to do so and knowing they now can't compete in a sprint, and with the chasers trying to spend just enough energy to catch them, but save enough to beat the rest in the sprint. Tipping that balance one way or the other can quickly remove some of the key tension.

Solution? The idea I came up with is to reduce the number of dice I roll, or rather reduce the number of riders in the pack. That idea goes counter to the stated goal of the expansion, which is to increase the riders in the pack, but what if we split the pack from the start of the race by taking 1-2 of the riders that would otherwise add to the congestion problem and moving them ahead of the pack. We do this from the start when the congestion problem is largest, and thus minimize it. In a 5-6 player game, up to two riders can go into a breakaway, but the rules also transfer to lower player counts where you send only one rider ahead.

Of course this idea needs balancing to ensure the breakaway has a shot at winning, but not too big a shot. Initially I tried to brute force this balancing, which never quite worked 100%. Then the game's graphic designer Jere Kasanen suggested the perfect solution: Bid for it! This means that the "correct" bid can change based on the stage layout (as some are more suitable for breakaways than others), your starting position, or any starting exhaustion (from handicap or Grand Tours). If you've ever seen the start of a cycle race — and I don't mean when the broadcasting normally starts two hours into a race — there can be quite hectic "bidding" to get away. This solution was less clunky than my first attempts, and it also benefits from mimicking the existing round structure, now just translated into a two-stage bid/auction.


Whenever I do get into the breakaway, the lead always seems so fragile, and the peloton so large


Regardless of whether or not you envision Flamme Rouge as only the last kilometer or as the last one hundred, the narrative holds, and all we've done is to speed forward a few turns from a normal race in which a breakaway succeeded.

However, the best part of these breakaways to me is that they also create tension from the beginning. Yes, they help solve a mechanical problem of occasional congestion at larger player counts, but they always add drama at any player count by injecting asymmetry from the first round. I've seen breakaways hold all the way because the peloton didn't agree to chase or split up into multiple minor packs themselves. I have also seen breakaways fail to cooperate or attempt to get greedy with low cards initially, then be caught within the first round or two.

Unfamiliar Roads

The Peloton expansion also includes two new tile types, aside from the breakaway tile, namely the cobblestones prominently featured on the cover of the box and the supply zones that are also three lanes wide to accommodate the congestion issue. I enjoy how I have been able to change gameplay just by manipulating the tiles and using the already introduced rules in slightly new ways.

SUPPLY ZONES: Supply zones in the Peloton expansion introduce a new rule, or rather an old rule as it has a minimum speed of 4. They work almost exactly like the descends, but the reduction in speed is much more important than you would think at first glance.

From a micro-level perspective, these zones are an abstraction, but only in timed delay. The effect of supply/feed zones in a real race is that you get a small burst of energy if exhausted. In Flamme Rouge, the effect is immediate, whereas in real cycling the effect is in the following kilometers. Despite the delay, these rules achieve just that, and everything in Flamme Rouge is already compressed timewise.

Second, feed zones open the possibility for unsportsmanlike attacks, while everyone is predictably taking supplies. These rules also achieve just that. The peloton is going slow and predictably enough that an attack can be easy to get through — unless of course someone else reads your move.

Finally, these rules slightly favor the sprinters over the rouleurs. This is not super important in the base game, but in Grand Tours or in the three square extended 5-6 player stages, it is a good counter balance. (Yes, the 5-6 player game is longer than you're used to.)

I can understand how it can look like "just" a slower descent, but it was one of many solutions considered, and it was picked because it achieves the macro level feel of real life supply zones in the smoothest way. I hope you will agree once you try it.

Crashes, Why Are There No Crashes?

The last tiles we have in Peloton are the cobblestone tiles. Again, these use existing rules — no slipstream, but any max speed allowed — and otherwise "just" manipulate the number of lanes. So far we've done a lot to minimize the issue of blocking by widening the road, but cobblestones are their own beast.

The cobblestone sections range from 6-11 squares of length and are mostly just a single lane wide, with a few exceptions of two lanes. This dramatically increases the chances of getting blocked, and though there are no added rules for crashes, the macro level effect is almost the same. I've seen sprinters shoot off a nine (their best card) and end up moving only 3-4 squares, effectively removing them from contention.

As a result, much like in real-life cycle races, everyone is quite eager to zoom ahead and be the first to enter the cobblestones as that effectively eliminates the risk of "crashing" too hard. This also means that once entering cobblestones, players seem to get a little more timid for fear of riders ahead of them slowing down, which opens up the possibility for riders in the lead to break away (taking advantage of the lack of slipstream). Cobblestones can make or break your chances, and sometimes it breaks simply because you get unlucky. For me, they are usually some of the most uncomfortable sectors of a stage to navigate, sweaty palms and all.


A shot from testing, illustrating how cobblestones can split the peloton into fragments


New Stages

We have included six new double-sided stages as well, with each side slightly different as one is adapted for 2-4 player games and the other for 5-6 player games. Of course you can always build your own stages; my only concern is if you attempt to overdo it. The more I play, the more I'm growing fond of the simpler stages with just 1-2 sectors of hindering terrain features.

The Finish Line

As you have probably guessed by now, I can keep talking about Flamme Rouge indefinitely. I still love playing it to this day and have played 67 games so far in 2017 — and that accounts only for physical games; the awesome Play By Forum organized by Almarr here on BGG isn't included, nor are stages 14 to 21 in our six-player 21-stage Grand Tour that I finished on the Saturday just before SPIEL '17.

The new expansion has only added to my and my friends' enjoyment, with the breakaways creating tension from the start and the new terrain types providing new challenges. I love playing the game at twelve riders because the pack becomes so massive that it really starts feeling like a peloton. I tend to root for the breakaway, but nonetheless there is something satisfying about seeing a ten-rider peloton charge after them on the final finish, with most of their riders having no exhaustion and plenty of energy. It just feels right, too...

As always, I think Ossi the illustrator has done an outstanding job catching a tense moment on the cover of the box, and it tells a story that is easy to find in the game.

If you're attending SPIEL '17, you can find me signing copies of the base game and expansion in the Lautapelit.fi booth on Thursday (13:00-14:00) and again on Sunday (10:00-11:00). Do come say hi!

Asger Harding Granerud

P.S.: Of course I'm lobbying the publisher to commit to a 2018 expansion, too, as we've already tested new tiles, new card distributions for the riders (including special abilities), Grand Tour rules, weather, and much more! If you are as enthusiastic about the Peloton expansion as I am, then it should be easy getting them on our side...

In this shot, the crashes are just looming in the air...
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Wed Oct 25, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17: Set-Up Day, Late Surprises, Missing Games, and Outrageous Booths

W. Eric Martin
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It's amazing how good eight hours of sleep can feel sometimes, and I should enjoy it since I probably won't clock that number again for several days. I landed in Düsseldorf, Germany around 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday after not having slept on the red-eye flight, made my way to Essen with designer/publisher Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games (who I taught The Game on our sideways-turned suitcases while waiting for the train), then hung out at the Messe during set-up for SPIEL '17 until I collapsed at 21:00. Such is the convention life sometimes.

You can't see too much in the way of games in the publisher booths right now because most booths are still in a state resembling this:


Zoch Verlag


The walls and banners might be in place, but that's about it. Heading out to Hall 6, you'll find this group getting ready:


Yu brothers Brian and Dale at right


Unlike all the game publishers at SPIEL '17, BGG's convention opens on Wednesday, Oct. 25, with us starting to broadcast livestream game demos at 10:00 (GMT +2) and continuing until 18:30. (Yikes, that's less than four hours from now. Type faster, Eric!)

Our broadcast schedule is packed for five days, yet we can't even begin to cover ever single new game at SPIEL '17 as I'm still learning about some of them, such as Across the Iron Curtain, a new game from Kolejka's Karol Madaj that's co-published by Czech Board Games and Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (Kolejka's original publisher). Across the Iron Curtain is a cooperative game for 1-6 players in which you're trying to help characters escape from Communist countries to the West. CBG's Jakub Tesinsky told me that game originated from an effort to give kids and teenagers an idea of what life was like for some families when Europe felt divided decades ago between East and West.

I just added this title to our SPIEL '17 Preview, and now I can't get that to fully load for me. Great timing! I'm sure that Scott has nothing else to prepare for in the next couple of hours and will fix that soon...


Forest Fire was the CBG surprise at SPIEL '16


Games are also lacking with some of the vendors, including Japon Brand, which has had all of its games held up in customs. In mid-2017, convention organizer Merz Verlag sent notes to all of the vendors to remind them that the products they sell must meet certain packaging guidelines. An excerpt from one such letter:

Quote:
Please note that we were required to point out that all products presented at fairs in Europe need to fulfill the conditions of the Directive 2009/48/EC of the European Parliament and of the council of 18 June 2009 on the safety of toys.

This Directive shall apply to products designed or intended, whether or not exclusively, for use in play by children under 14 years of age.

Therefore only toys/games can be sold to the public, if
1.) the toy/game is provided with a recognizable and durable serial number,
2.) the producer and his contact details are indicated on the toy/game (European address required)
3.) required safety notes in German language are declared clearly visible and understandable on the toy, the label or on the box,
4.) the CE marking is indicated clearly visible on the toy, the label or on the box.

This list is not conclusive, you will find the full text of the directive via the following link: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/DE/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32009L0048

As noted in the letter, this directive has been in place since 2009, so it's not new, but apparently someone has decided to forgo the spot inspections of earlier years and crack down on publishers across the line. Multiple publishers have had to get German language choking hazard stickers (shown at right) from Merz Verlag so that they can apply those stickers to products before making those products available for purchase.

What's more, another note that I've seen mentions that if these standards aren't met, then "no sales (also no advanced sales) is allowed in any way". Thus, paying ahead of time outside of SPIEL and still acquiring the game at SPIEL would be prohibited. I'll be visiting multiple publishers on Wednesday to find out who else might have their games go missing and whether these problems can be resolved in the next couple of days.

[Update, Oct. 25, 14:33: Japon Brand's games have now been cleared and will be available at SPIEL '17.]

Right now, though, the only place you might find games available on Tuesday are at some of the used game vendors, many of whom already have their mountainous stacks ready for gamers to paw through.




This vendor is near BGG's booth, so we'll have to keep checking to see whether any treasures pop up as the owner keeps organizing the stacks. Me, I'm just curious to see how many copies of Lotti Karotti move by the end of Sunday...

Speaking of moving, some publishers have really upped their game in their display booths for SPIEL '17. KOSMOS has multiple backlit display banners in their open-air booth, and AMIGO Spiele has these as well, with the banners projecting only about 4 cm from the thickness of their normal walls. (I used to write for trade publications in the 1990s and early 2000s, and I did many articles about advancements in sign and banner technology, with the creators of that technology being as eager to talk about their work as the game designers and publishers that I interview today. It's great to speak with people who are passionate about their job, whatever it might be, as they give you a new perspective on some aspect of the world you might never have considered previously.)


KOSMOS


The real convention game-upper, however, is Asmodee, which has unveiled a new logo:


Shadow of my head not included in all versions


And spent a kajillion dollars on a series of displays that resemble booths from E3 and PAX more than SPIEL. You can't get the full effect in this image from midday Tuesday when its booths covering 40% of Hall 1 were still being constructed:




But this video will give you a better feel for how SPIEL attendees will be bombarded once Thursday arrives and the doors open onto this spectacle:


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Wed Oct 25, 2017 5:43 am
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Designer Diary: Paper Tales

Masato Uesugi
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How It Began

I started game designing in 2010. Around that time, the board game scene in Japan was growing rapidly; more overseas games were imported and localized, participants of Tokyo Game Market increased year by year, and so many new games were self-published by Japanese indie designers every year. That was such a good environment that I started trying to realize my boyhood dream: making and selling my own game.

At first, I tried to make a tableau-building game (like Race for the Galaxy) in which players assemble their kingdom by buying units and buildings from an open market (like Dominion). After several playtests, I abandoned the game because it was just boring. However, I liked a mechanism in the game, which was that units got experience counters and grew up through the game. I decided to focus on that. I thought the idea was a bit too straightforward — gaining experience was always good, and experienced units were always better — so I needed a small twist. I turned experience counters into age counters, and now aged units may be better, but units that become too aged must die.

Age counters brought a time cycle to the game. Units come, work, fight, then die. Since units constantly come and go, players must make their plan and keep managing their armies and workers. This idea became the core of the gameplay. It also had a strong feel of a story and defined the theme of the game: a hundred years war. However, I found that buying units from an open market was too slow in comparison with the aging cycle, so I wanted to change the method of gaining units from an open market to another that could deliver units to players more smoothly.

Just then, I heard that a game featuring CCG-style booster drafting had attracted attention in Essen. It was, yes, 7 Wonders. Though it was a little difficult for me to import it immediately, it reminded me of another drafting card game, one published in Japan in 2004: Fairy Tale. So I grabbed that game from my shelf and found that the drafting method would fit with the aging cycle of my game.

In these ways, the prototype got the two core mechanisms: aging and drafting. I renewed the list of units and buildings, then started countless playtests.

Designing Unit Cards

Being a long time CCG player, I wanted to make a card game with a bunch of cards, so I did.

At first, I defined a pool of 72 cards, considering shuffleability and printing cost. Then I divided them into three rarities (common, uncommon and rare) and four categories (military, income, production and others). I used this as a design skeleton and started to design individual cards for each slot. The first card designed was Knight (1 coin / 4 strength), and it became a scale of the power balance.




Since there are a bunch of cards and each player receives five cards at once in a draft, I thought that the majority of the cards should be simple, so most cards have only one role. By doing so, when drafting players can choose not a specific card but what they want to do.

The majority of the cards should be simple, yes, but the others should be something special, so I made rare cards that were powerful, challenging or different. Most of them cost a lot of money but had high potential. In particular, Relic and Kraken provided a unique path to win the game.

As a CCG player, I love combos, so I wanted to put combos in the game. To interact with each other as a combo, cards need some kind of a "common language" that is used by all cards and can be utilized or manipulated in various ways. In the game, there are age counters. All units receive an age counter at the end of a round, and age counters have a basic role of defining the lifetime of each unit. Aside from that, age counters can be placed, removed, counted or converted into coins or VP by abilities.

Thus, the age counters became a "common language" of the cards and made open-ended combos possible. Age counters basically just define a unit's lifetime, but sometimes they bump up strength, provide coins, produce resources, or can be harvested as VP.

Designing Building Cards

In this game, all men must die. To contrast this fatalism I made buildings, which never die.

At first, each building just had a single ability, and there were no levels. Players built buildings by paying resources, and buildings provided their benefit until the end of the game. No more and no less than that.

Trying to make it more interesting, I added three levels to them; the buildings were built at level 1 and could be upgraded to level 2 or 3 later. The higher the level, the more abilities the building has. I like growth, and upgrading is fun. But to indicate its level, each building needed level counters, which I thought were not elegant. After several sessions, I came up with the idea that levels could be indicated by just flipping the card instead of putting counters on it if I decrease the number of levels from 3 to 2. Since it seemed worth doing, I did just that. This change also helped to make each building simpler.




At that moment, putting aside their immortality, buildings still didn't have enough difference from units. I thought that since they last until the end of the game, they should be the axis of each player's strategy. As a result, I changed one of their abilities to something that continuously provides VP by meeting a condition during the game (and I cut down the base VP of the buildings that can be gained at the end of the game automatically).

Through this change, each building came to push players to a specific direction. It allowed players to select their strategy through the choice of a building.

Self-Publishing in Japan

Playtesting the game was always fun. I tested it mainly with my friends from university. They were skilled gamers and gave much helpful feedback. We played from morning to midnight. Sometimes I missed the last train and had to walk home, but I was happy because it meant that the game was so fun that I lost track of time.

After playtesting for half a year, I decided to self-publish the game and bring it to Tokyo Game Market in Spring 2011. I named it [thing=130548]Vorpals[/thing]. I asked a friend of mine to draw illustrations, and I designed components by myself. It wasn't perfect, but that process turned out to be a great experience.




I printed only one hundred copies at first. Back in the days, even one hundred was a big number for Japanese indie designers (as many of them were making copies by hand with a home printer). As it turned out, the copies sold out in thirty minutes, and the game received many positive reviews.




Half a year later, I made the second edition. Some of the cards were tweaked for balancing, and a few new buildings were added. I asked Tori Hasegawa, who is a representative board game artist in Japan nowadays, to draw the new box art and redesign the board and counters. I printed and brought five hundred copies to Tokyo Game Market Autumn 2011. They also sold out in a day.




It was a great success for a beginning indie designer in Japan. Following this, I got to work on a small expansion, which features new units and buildings. To accelerate the development process, I made a small program to playtest automatically. A human playtest takes twenty minutes per game, but an AI playtest takes only twenty seconds and can be repeated all day long: Make changes, AI test, human test, make changes, AI test, human test... This process was iterated rapidly.

After another six months, the expansion was completed, and I printed one thousand copies of each of the base game and the expansion. I brought half of the copies I made to Tokyo Game Market Spring 2012 and sold another half to distributors.




I was very satisfied with both the base game and the expansion, so though they've been reprinted continuously, I stopped working on the game and moved onto the next one.

Catch Up Games and Paper Tales

After Vorpals, I designed a micro dungeon-crawling game, Dungeon of Mandom, and Oink Games published it in Japan. Then Yannick Deplaedt, an agent living in Japan, picked it up and introduced it to IELLO, and IELLO published the game worldwide as Welcome to the Dungeon.

Coincidentally, Yannick and I lived in the same city, Nagoya. Thanks to this opportunity, we became good friends and played games together on weekends.

A few years later, I co-designed a two-player card game, Twelve Heroes, with Takashi Sakaue. Yannick linked us to Catch Up Games, and they liked the game and decided to publish it in France. In addition to that game, they also showed an interest in my older design, Vorpals.

Vorpals was successful, but it was still available only in Japan, so I thought this was a good opportunity. Fortunately, they liked Vorpals, too, and I found that they were solid gamers who I would like to entrust the game to.

We started working together, and we exchanged many long emails.

First, they suggested changing the theme and the art. Vorpals had a dark fantasy theme because death and war were at its mechanical core. But to fit in the European market, they proposed paper-cut style art and a theme like a picture storybook. I liked the concept very much because it emphasized the storytelling feeling of the game, and the initial sketches by Christine Alcouffe were awesome. So the game changed into a different outfit and got a new name: Paper Tales.

Second, they asked for optimized two-player rules. Though Vorpals supported a two-player game already, it had fewer options and less surprise. Developing two-player rules was easy and fun since I could playtest with my wife every night. Ahead of this, I had developed two-player drafting rules for Twelve Heroes with Takashi Sakaue, and that experience helped a lot. I had learned that the important elements of two-player drafting are to 1) present enough options and freedom to players, 2) hide some information for hope and surprise, and 3) allow players to appeal or bluff in some way. We tried several methods and found the best way.

Third, we had to make the definitive card pool. Since there was both the Vorpals base set and the expansion, Catch Up Games could make the card pool for Paper Tales by combining them. Receiving their feedback, I tweaked the cards and the card pool one more time. The playtest program worked hard again. We fixed the final card pool and the rules. Some materials were spared for possible expansion in the future.




My job ended here. Even after that, Sébastien and Clément from Catch up Games worked hard to turn the game into reality. They did a great job on the graphical design in terms of ergonomics. Christine Alcouffe produced fabulous artwork. Now the printing process is ongoing, and I'm very excited. I can't wait to receive my copy and play with it... No matter how many times I've played, this game is always really fun.

Paper Tales will be available at SPIEL '17, so please visit Catch Up Games at booth 3:O108 to play!

Masato Uesugi
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Tue Oct 24, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Battlefold, or Fancy Face Beating with a Twist

W. Eric Martin
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Fold-it, released by designer Yohan Goh and Korean publisher Happy Baobab in 2016, is a representation of a game that we've seen many times before: Here's a pattern; now recreate that pattern before anyone else can. If you do so, you get a reward. Collect enough rewards, and you win the game, which of course is a reward of a different kind.

The innovation of the game came in each player having their own patterned cloth, with players needing to fold that cloth along the depicted crease lines to create the target pattern. Fun! Manipulating the cloth is pleasing in its own way, different from the tedious cloth manipulations required to fold sheets or clothes as the cloth is light and you can fling it any way that you want, including in the face of those who make the pattern faster than you do.

The designer of that game, working with Dave Choi, has now expanded upon the original idea in an ingenious way. You like folding cloths? Well, let's do more of that, but with everyone having a unique cloth this time. What's more, the folding is no longer its own reward, but a tool in a larger challenge, namely the killing of everyone else.


Four-player battleground


This new game —Battlefold, which Happy Baobab will release at SPIEL '17 — puts you in the role of a traditional fantasy character: warrior, elf archer, wizard, or feline assassin (since felines always make ideal killers, as the extinct birds and mice around my house will confess in the afterlife). Everyone starts with the same number of health points and basic actions on their player board: move one space orthogonally, attack with a strength of one.

As in Fold it, each round starts with the revelation of a target pattern, with many of the patterns showing question marks that players can fill in as they wish. As players finish making the target pattern on their individual cloth, they grab one of the available numbered action markers, with one marker less than the number of players. Once all the markers have been grabbed, players then take actions in the order shown on the action markers, with each player being able to take their basic actions — move, attack for one — as well as all of the actions showing on their folded cloth.


Some of the target pattern cards in the game


This is the beauty of the game. No longer as you simply attempting to be the best pattern-making machine; now you can attempt to make patterns that suit your current needs in the game, while yes, still meeting whatever standards have been set for the round.

As I mentioned before, each player has a different pattern and mix of symbols on their cloth, each specialized to match the nature of the characters, who each have their own ways of attacking along with special powers:

• The warrior is up front about things and can attack only those orthogonally adjacent to him — and if he's standing on the same space as someone else, he does two damage instead of one. Piledriver!

• The wizard attacks all those diagonally adjacent at the same time — bzzt! — and if any of the damage is not prevented by shields, then the wizard regains one life point. (When someone has a shield on their cloth, they take a shield token that they can hand in at a later time to reduce by one damage done to them.)


Elf and warrior


• The assassin also needs to be diagonally adjacent to someone to attack them, and while they can attack only one person at a time, they have the unique skill of ignoring traps on their cloth. (Normally, whenever a player has a trap showing on their cloth, they take a point of damage. The threat of this pain often has you wanting to fold those traps underneath other symbols to both avoid damage and do something positive for that action space instead, but this takes time! Time in which someome else can grab an action marker instead of you!)

• The archer can damage someone exactly two spaces away from them, and when that damage takes place the wounded body is pushed back one space. Thus, the archer tries to dance around the borders of the playing area, while the other three characters want to get in close, hit someone, then move away.


Sample treasure cards


When you take actions, you can do them in whatever order you want. A treasure chest gives you a random bonus that you can pocket for use at a later time, whether an extra point of damage, a healing potion, the ability to freeze someone if you damage them, diagonal movement, and more, so naturally you want to grab the treasures first so that you can figure out what best to do on a turn. Whoever is last in turn order has only the basic actions available to them (along with previously acquired treasure), so they often don't have much to think about beyond hoping that they don't get hit too badly before the end of the round.

Take enough damage, and you die. That's not good, of course, since death is kind of a bummer, but dying doesn't spell the end of the game for you. No, you become a ghost in the game. Now you're no longer interested in damaging other players (or perhaps you're simply unable to damage them, what with being a ghost and all), and instead your quest is to return to the land of the living. To do that, you must attack the other players (as before because attacking is all you know), but instead of doing damage to them, you simply regain a soul point for each damage you would have done.



Target acquired, with one solution


This solution to the death issue in what is ostensibly an elimination game is a winner. You're not simply out of the game watching others to see who wins as you still have a shot at winning as well — yet you don't have a good shot because your basic actions consist solely of one move. You can't use heealing potions to gain soul, and you can't acquire treasure items and shields because they slip through your fingers. Thus, if you don't finish your folds in time to collect an action marker, you have zero chance of "damaging" someone and reclaiming any sould bits. You're still in the game, yet you're penalized for having the poor judgment to die ahead of others — a great compromise for a game with this goal.

I've played Battlefold twice on a review copy from Happy Baobab, both with three players, and I got to experience the afterworld once as my self-healing wizard didn't heal himself sufficiently to stay among the living. Not finishing in time to take actions is frustrating, but you have only yourself to blame — and when you do manage to land a few blows (on targets that can't damage you since you're already dead), it feels good.

As for actually winning the game, you need to either be the last player standing in a field of ghosts, or you need to reclaim enough soul to return from the dead; apparently that feat will serve to impress everyone else enough to drop their weapons and fold before you in awe.


"Just remember that death is not the end"
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Mon Oct 23, 2017 8:40 pm
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Designer Diary: Building John Company

Cole Wehrle
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John Company debuts this week at SPIEL '17, and it looks like copies will be shipping to those who preordered the game in the coming weeks. Given that the design of the game has taken nearly a decade to realize, I thought that I should offer some accounting of the time I've spent on the project.

The Idea

In 2009 I was living with my wife in a ramshackle cottage on the steep southern shores of Lake Monroe in southern Indiana. I had never lived in such a remote place before. It was a solid twenty minute drive to the nearest gas station, and days could go by without seeing a single car drive down our road. In the winter, a big snow could leave us homebound until a neighbor with a plow would bother to dig us out.

We were both newly out of college and working low-paying jobs. Gas was precious, so we spent most of our days out in the country, tending to the garden or reading. I also had a big pile of games. Getting enough friends together for a game was a logistical nightmare, however, so the games mostly sat on their shelf. At some point that autumn, I found myself reading rulebooks of older Avalon Hill games to pass the time. Though my wife and I played plenty of two-player games, my tattered copy of Squad Leader didn't entice her. Thus, I found myself learning games, setting them up, then packing them away after I moved through a few turns to make sure I had the rules right. I could never muster the focus to manage a full solo play of anything, but I liked the exercise of mastering an unfamiliar and erudite book of rules. I must have been missing my undergraduate coursework.

In any case, it wasn't long before I got to my old copy of The Republic of Rome. I believe I had scrounged a copy on eBay for twenty-odd dollars the year before but hadn't had time to fight through the rulebook. Well, I had time now, so I set it up and got learning. It didn't take long before the design overwhelmed me. I had never encountered anything so immersive. It was a perfect combination of a strategy game and a role-playing game. I needed to play it, now. I convinced a bunch of friends from out-of-town to come down for a visit, and that night we put Republic of Rome on the table. The game exceeded every expectation. I loved the game's core tension: the game's winners needed the other players to win. The game was about interdependency and all of its horrible and necessary complications. I wanted more games like it, and before long I stumbled on a host of economic games that were covering similar ground such as Container, Brass, the Winsome train games, and, eventually, 18xx games.

Those games got me thinking: Was it possible to create a historically sensitive and immersive "experience game" like The Republic of Rome that was built around a business rather than a state? As a late November storm rolled in one afternoon, I scribbled a list of possible subjects in my notebook. At the top of the page, I listed my first entry: the British East India Company.

The Problem

In my experience, learning about any subject follows a little cycle from ignorance to mastery, then back to ignorance again. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't understand a particular thing. When I first thought about making a game about the British East India Company, I thought I had a pretty good sense about what it was. I knew it was a ruthless monopoly that was propped up by the British Empire and that ruined India. I had a sense of its internal organization and its behavior. I knew the key figures and that the Battle of Plassey happened in late June of 1757. I could tell you the difference between the Nawab of Bengal and the Nizam of Hyderabad.

But as I attempted to deepen my understanding, I began to lose my footing. India was more nuanced than I had first thought, and the operation of the East India Company stunned me in its complexity. My sense of the Company's behavior and that of its officers moved from clichés about British imperialism to total bewilderment. I lost the narrative thread.

So the idea for the game gathered dust. I didn't have a story I wanted to tell about the East India Company. I also didn't know much about game design, and my early attempts were mostly just loose re-skin built on the bones of The Republic of Rome. Over the next couple of years, I would revisit the design a few times, but nothing ever came together.

But if the central design was proving to be a dud, it was at least generating interesting offshoots. My reading on the cosmopolitan life of British and Mugal families living in the eighteenth century lead me to William Dalrymple's writings and his work on Afghanistan. These books would in turn lead to a serious interest in the Company's policy on the Northwestern frontier, and those ideas eventually became Pax Pamir.

At some point I decided that perhaps the best way to tackle the subject was to look at the end of the monopoly. Now deep in graduate school and desperate for a side project to distract me from my dissertation, I tried to make a game on the Great Rebellion of 1857. After that design failed, I turned my attention to the trade in China and tried to make a game about the end of the Company's monopoly and the Opium Wars. This game, too, seemed destined for failure when while reading about some of the critical figures engaged in the opium trade, I had an insight: These people did not care about selling opium; they cared about respectability.

I'm sure I had been told this before. Certainly, I could have taken that insight from Edward Said or from just about any Victorian novel about business, but for whatever reason, I hadn't thought of it in terms of building a model on which to construct a game. I'm sure my heavy playing of Splotter's Greed helped, too. In any case, I now had the proper lens and the game An Infamous Traffic snapped into complete focus almost immediately.

As I finished An Infamous Traffic, I started thinking about taking that lens and applying it to John Company. Though I was happy with how AIT had turned out, I thought the core idea could work in a bigger format. It was time to take on the East India Company once more.

Production Limitations

From the start, I knew I wanted John Company to be published by Sierra Madre Games. I could not think of a better and more dedicated audience than the one that Phil Eklund has cultivated over the past thirty years, and I knew they would be interested in this design. But publishing with Phil likely meant working once more with a very small form factor. I wanted a game that would give players the entire history of the Company — but could I fit that game in just 60-120 cards and a small box? My production limitations for An Infamous Traffic had brought that game to life. Perhaps the challenge would be just what the game needed...

An early attempt at the cover, back when the game had a very different feel
While I worked on my geopolitical and economic models of eighteenth century India, I also kept in mind that I would need to fold this game into a very small box. I wasn't sure how to do it until I played Food Chain Magnate. Perhaps the various offices of the company could be captured by cards. Instead of each player having their own company (a là FCM), players instead would temporarily take control of aspects of the Company. I built my first draft on the premise that I would have sixty cards. If the entire company could be done in twenty cards, that left forty to cover prizes, player aids, and events in India.

That brought me to my second problem. With 25 cards likely taken up by player aids and prizes, how in the world was I going to manage with a deck of only 15 event cards? With eight regions in play, that means fewer than two event cards per region. By this point, I had written extensive notes on over one hundred events I wanted in the game.

At that point I did what any self-respecting graduate student would do: I went through my collection and pulled every title with an "event deck" so that I could look for good ideas to steal. This tried-and-true method has saved me more than once, but in this case it just made the problem worse. I discovered that I hated event decks. Even in The Republic of Rome, the universe of the game is so arbitrary and produces more-or-less the same type of game each and every play. In a standard event deck, players can more-or-less bank on certain things happening; they are just unsure when the event will happen.

This works for certain kinds of games like Richard Borg's Commands & Colors line or for Cosmic Encounter, but it did not work in John Company. The chief problem had to do with timing. In John Company, players needed to know a lot more about which events were likely to be drawn that particular turn than an event deck could provide. In effect, I wanted something like an adaptive event queue in which players could see certain events on the horizon and react to them, but where the resolution of an individual event could shift the order and contents of the queue. I didn't want my players to have complete knowledge of what was coming, but I wanted them to be able to make good guesses. Somehow I had to squeeze those ideas into 15 cards.

The old idea of the event table came to the rescue. I decided to make each of the eight regions in the game "players" in a simple game of geopolitics. Each region would have four event tables that would dictate their behavior depending on their status, so Bombay would behave differently when dominated by the Mughals than it would as an independent state. Initial reports for this new system were good, but I needed some way to prioritize certain regions so that they acted more. To this end, I created an initiative system whereby events "move" through India. Here's how it worked: After an event in region two, the next event will be in region three. Then, to stop it from being a fully predictable cycle, I put in a couple of redirects that will accelerate either the expansion of Indian empires or their disintegration.

In testing this system, I wrote a little Python script that would allow me to easily make adjustments to the characteristics of each region, then I ran hundreds of thousands of games. From those runs, I was able to look at a wide range of metrics that helped me get a sense of whether India was behaving in a way that seemed sensitive to historical circumstances. Even when the simulations produced odd results, as long as I felt like I could offer an explanation, then see that explanation operate mechanically, I could let it stand. I was helped in this process greatly by my friend Chas Threlkeld who also served as the game's developer and was kind enough to rewrite my messy script about halfway through playtesting and to help me make my own studies of the game more rigorous.


Before I learned the virtues of outputting to a .csv,
I had to sift through pages data that I was just spitting into the console.
My training in the humanities had not prepared me for a project like this!


Playtesting

Over the past few years, my development strategy has undergone considerable changes. Originally I opted to put my designs out there for anyone to mess with and provide feedback on. Like many young designers, I had a habit of making my projects available before they were ready. Playtesting was chaotic. There were always too many voices in the room, and too often I pushed design problems onto my playtesters that I could have easily solved myself.

Now, any designer, developer, or publisher will tell you that the process of playtesting is critical for a game to succeed. However, folks tend to say less about the huge differences in development processes and the different ways playtesters are deployed. In my experience, I find playtesters are best at recognizing ergonomic problems in the design. There's no substitute for a second set of eyes on a pair of rules or watching someone who has never played your game attempt to teach it to another new player. I do a lot of playing of my games in spreadsheets and in my head, so having unfamiliar players go through the various phases and procedures gives me a critical window into how a design works in the wild.

I've gradually created a system for organizing a game's development based upon a simple insight: Most playtesters will burn out after about 3-5 sessions. I've seen this in every single project I've ever worked on as a playtester, developer, and designer. The burnout happens for lots of different reasons. Sometimes there's a new game they want to test, sometimes something has shown up on their doorstep, sometimes they just get tired of having to keep up with rules changes. To address this problem, first I figured I should get as much life out of my playtesters as possible. To that end, I try to be abundantly clear about when updates are coming to a game, and I try to limit myself to a big update once a month. I also designed the playtesting kits so that they would be easy to assemble and I always had "patches" to update old kits if a group didn't want to rebuild everything. In short, I did my best to respect my playtesters' time. Far too many designers and publishers just explore a big pile of jpegs for their testers to sort through.

Back when the game was lighter, I had planned on using
illustrations drawn and painted by my wife, Cati
Second, I tried to use my playtesters strategically. Instead of letting everyone in at the start, the testing for John Company was invitation-only until the last phase of testing. Furthermore, I organized my testers into waves, with certain kinds of groups going earlier in the development and others not being deployed until the final stages. Game development is a marathon, and there's no sense in spending all your best blood in the opening sprint. I also tried to have a clear development schedule composed of different cycles. Each cycle had a set of goals that needed to be addressed before we could move on. Sometimes cycles got added if new problems were found, and sometimes they got taken away as problems resolved themselves. I was transparent in this schedule so that my playtesters would always know what they were looking for when they played.

In December 2016, after about six months of local testing in Austin, John Company entered its closed "beta" phase. For this first phase, I knew the game worked, but I wasn't sure whether its presentation needed adjusting. At that point it was a card game, and players had to visualize the Company. I didn't think this was too much of a problem, but my opinion didn't count for much; I had been living with the Company in my head for too long.

To my surprise, my first playtesters didn't have too much trouble with this, but as I brought in new waves of playtesters over the winter, I noticed these new groups were having trouble keeping their games on track. There was clearly a problem with the game's presentation. Early in the design, I had wanted to build something much lighter — even real-time — but as the design grew up, it also grew more procedural. Freeform elements were abandoned in favor of rigid processes. The game was better for it, but despite that shift in design, the physical profile of the game was largely unchanged.

It needed change, though, so following the suggestions of my playtesters, I constructed a game board that we could use for testing and lobbied Phil for an expanded production. The reports on the board were overwhelmingly positive, and the switch to a board game was made. At the time, I was sad to lose the small profile that had informed so much of the game's design, but the fact that the switch to the board required only two small rule changes was a sign that the game had changed dramatically from that earlier vision. At this point, development was mostly about being a good steward of the version of the game before me — not the version I had first imagined.

Another place where the development took me away from my original intentions was in the negotiation rules. In its early iterations, Pax Pamir was dominated by negotiation, but as the design grew up much of the negotiations were baked out. With John Company, I initially had built a system of subtle, implicit negotiations in hopes of recreating the respectability politics and social mores of the time. The whole thing was built around a "letter writing" system which I loved, but found too cumbersome for a design of this scope.

Eventually, I decided to make things explicit, and like any game with explicit negotiations, they had a way of taking over the design. Originally I had planned on having binding agreements between players to represent the advantages of the British legal system and the culture of respectability that characterized upper-class transactions at that time. However, binding negotiations are a nightmare from a design standpoint for all the reasons why you might imagine. Players have to word their agreements very carefully, and even when they do, there's still a good chance that players will look for a way out. I needed some way to adjudicate these agreements. At one point, I even had a lawsuit system in which players could sue each other for damages or contractual infractions. Things were getting out of hand.

Exhausted, I threw up my hands and reverted the game's negotiation format to that old standby of political games: non-binding agreements. Say whatever you want and let the table of players punish you in its own way. Ugh. The design worked fine, but the reversion felt like a serious retreat. I wanted the legal system in the game to be a central mechanism, and the prize system in the game benefited from the ability to make multi-turn agreements.

This was the first game I've designed that Cati enjoyed playing,
so it got a lot of two-player testing after the kids were in bed
Then the answer came. Through many long conversations with my playtesters, we arrived at something that I'll call the "Promise System". Basically, in addition to offering each other money and promotions as currency in negotiations, players can also give each other cubes. These cubes, called "promise cubes", represent an obligation from one player to another. Let's say Dick really wants the new house, but needs cash. Jane offers him the cash if Dick will give her four promises cubes. When Dick gives her those promise cubes, he loses control of them. He can buy them back for 2 bucks a pop or if he shows her some favoritism through a promotion or any other thing they might agree to, but for every one of Dick's promises that he can't get back by the end of the game, he loses 2 points. In this way players can offer each other loans under a huge range of terms and interest rates. Suddenly multi-turn agreements were possible without derailing the game.

Content with Chaos

With the negotiations solved, the rest of the development went smoothly. My incomparable playtesters provided wonderful feedback throughout the process and stress-tested the game's many systems to a degree far beyond what I had been able to give to Pax Pamir or An Infamous Traffic. By the time I sent the files to the printer, I was about as proud of this design as anything I've ever had a hand it making.

It wasn't until weeks later when I found myself playing the game at summer conventions and with old friends that I began to realize how difficult a game it was. I don't mean difficult in terms of rules. Though the game certainly isn't for everyone, I remain convinced that it is Sierra Madre's most accessible offering since Greenland (at least in terms of the rules). Like Greenland, John Company embraces the vagaries of fate. There are dice, and no how much you spent on an action there is ALWAYS the possibility for catastrophic failure.

What's more, in a world ever more filled with milquetoast event systems and other light points of friction, in John Company the movement of the elephant through India and the roll of an event die could upend the game. I don't use that word lightly. More than once in a post-game discussion we've been able to point to a single chain of events where all of India turned upside down. Fortunes were lost. Empires fell. There were usually warnings, but when the money is rolling in, you tend to feel like the good times are never going to end. John Company, in so many ways, is about that precise myopia. It seemed perfectly natural to reflect that in terms of the game's mechanisms.

However, as I played the game over and over again that summer, it occurred to me that if I was being true to my reading of the history and to the game's core argument, I was also treading through some tricky territory. A lot of folks like An Infamous Traffic, but that game didn't overstay its welcome. If the game could be tricky, it was also short and simple. A lot of folks who are excited for the game would probably want something a little more traditional. Even the venerable Phil Eklund, after a training session with some folks who will be demoing the game at SPIEL '17, suggested that I should soften the endgame a little for the game's living rules. My summer games had prepared me for this suggestion, and I already had some variants prepared that would answer his concerns. I'll be publishing these on BGG in the coming weeks, and soon new players will have a way to adjust the amount of chaos in the game to a more palatable level. There are even ways to play without any explicit negotiations.

While I'm comfortable providing these variants to players, I won't be including them in the core rules of the game. John Company was and is a game from another time. It's my love-letter to the big, open, unforgiving systems of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I don't mean to make apologies for it. It's exactly the game I wanted to make, and it's one that I would have loved to discover during those quiet summer days back in 2009. Taken on those terms, I think it has a lot to offer.

Cole Wehrle

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Mon Oct 23, 2017 1:00 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Destination X, or Where in the World Is Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

W. Eric Martin
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Rarely do you learn about a game and immediately wonder why it doesn't bear the licensing of some well-known IP, but should you bring Destination X to the table, you will undoubtedly share the same thought I did: If this game had a Carmen Sandiego license, it would kill wallets across the U.S. game market.

By chance, Pressman Toy introduced Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Card Game in mid-2017 as a Target-exclusive title, and while that game is a decent deduction design, Destination X — designed by Bård Tuseth and Kristian Amundsen Østby and released by Norwegian publisher Aporta Games — does a far better job of channeling the edutainment experience of Carmen Sandiego and is a more interesting game to boot, at least for most of those playing it.

As with other spy-themed games such as Scotland Yard, in Destination X one player is the spy who is hiding somewhere and the other players are detectives who are trying to find the spy. The game includes 197 destination cards that represent the 193 UN member states and four areas that claim statehood and have some international recognition: Palestine, Taiwan, Kosovo, and The Vatican. The game includes a thick handbook that repeats the information shown on the reverse side of these cards, in addition to other information that isn't listed.




To start a round, the spy lays out six destination cards at random, then chooses one of them to be their secret location. The detectives shuffle a deck of 16 investigative cards, then each take a hand of three. On a turn, the active detective plays an investigative card from hand and draws a new card, then the spy reveals information from the handbook about their destination that relates to the card played. If the detective plays the area card, for example, you give the size of the destination in square meters; if they play the government card, you reveal the nature of that destination's government, typically republic or monarchy; if they play history, you reveal a detail about the destination such as "Former Spanish colony" or "Was part of the Mongol Empire".

After learning this bit of information, the detectives must remove one of the six country cards from play. If they remove the card that matches the spy's location, the spy wins; otherwise the next detective plays a card — perhaps population, language, or GDP per capita — then the spy reveals that detail about their location. At any time, the detectives can guess where they think the spy is, with this guess either winning or losing the round for the detectives.


Seven of the sixteen investigative cards


All of this sounds relatively straightforward and not much more than a trivia game, but the twist comes from the combination of two elements: (1) at the end of a round, whether the spy wins or loses, they lay out six new destination cards, choose a new hiding place, then the next detective in turn order chooses an investigative card to play, and (2) the first side to win three rounds wins the game, yet the detectives have only 16 cards for the entire game. This tiny deck is what puts the screws on the detectives, limiting their ability to pepper the spy for information over and over again until they narrow the choices to a near-certain candidate. Sure, the detectives can play four or five cards in a round before guessing a location, but if they miss one of those guesses, they've put themselves in a hole for the rest of the game.

Destination X rewards detectives for making smart choices. If you look at the destination cards on display – each of which shows the name and flag of the destination, along with a dot on the globe showing where it's located — you can sometimes choose an investigative card that will eliminate one half of the cards in a single go. Sometimes, depending on what the spy chose and what you play, you might have the answer handed to you immediately. In one round, I chose Cuba as my hiding place, and the first investigative card played was "Capital". For this card and a few others, the spy gives only partial answers (e.g., the first letter) because the full answer would give away too much info; even so, my answer of "H" put a flashing beacon on Cuba, and the detectives played only one follow-up card to confirm this choice before selecting it.


Handbook vs. card back, with underlines showing what the spy gives as an answer


Detectives are limited to cards in hand, though, so sometimes they just have to wing it as they won't have any ideal choices, but their need to wing it will also depend on the spy's ability to pick a good hiding place. If five of the destination cards are in Asia and you choose Guatemala to be contrary, then the playing of the Atlantic Ocean investigative card will give you away immediately. You just have to hope the detectives would think it fruitless to play such a card (or the language investigative card, or the history card or the agriculture card — okay, Guatemala is pretty much a terrible choice if you otherwise have five Asian countries in play).

This brings up the odd role in the game, that of the spy. You have to make a good choice at the start of the round, one that will ideally force the detectives to burn at least three cards before having a hint of your location, but you do nothing other than reveal information from the handbook while trying not to reveal other information by staring at the card you chose or letting the detectives see that you're looking at the front of the handbook (because then they'd know the country starts with a letter early in the alphabet) or smiling when a detective says something the reveals they're thinking of the wrong destination. All of your effort in the game is at the start of the round, then you sit and wait and hope the detectives can't detect you.

As I've learned over two games on a review copy, both with three players and both with me as the spy (and different detective teams), listening to the detectives' banter and watching them squirm is enjoyable, but if you're hoping for something more active and Mr. X-y, then you better sit on the other side of the table so that you can be the one asking the questions.

Destination X does contain a few other twists that I haven't experienced yet, partly due to my limited playing time, but mostly due to all of us players not being geography buffs. First, you can simply increase the number of destination cards in play to even the odds against knowledgable detectives. (For young players and, ahem, those who don't know a great deal about different countries, you can give the full answer for the capital or name of the currency instead of only the first letter. Learning might ensue!)




Second, the game includes seven red-starred investigative cards that can replace the starred cards in the normal deck, and these cards provide even less information than normal to the detectives. Instead of simply playing the religion card and getting the religion spit back at you by the spy — in shorthand, mind you, with the spy saying "Christian" instead of "Roman Catholic Christian" — you must instead choose to ask whether Christianity (or Islam or Buddhism) is a major religion in this destination. Instead of asking whether the destination is on the Indian (or Pacific or Atlantic) Coast, you ask simply whether it's on a coast at all. Heck, one of the questions is whether they drive on the left or right side of the road!

Third, the "Mission: Impossible" variant is for those with large tables and encyclopedic knowledge. The players lay out all 197(!) destination cards, then the spy writes down their location. The detective chooses any of the 16 investigative cards and learns the appropriate info, then must eliminate at least ten destination cards from play before playing the next investigative card. If the detective manages the find the right needle in this worldly haystack, they score points equal to the number of unplayed investigative cards, then players can reverse roles to see who does the job better. A true "where in the world" challenge worthy of an absent license!


Where will you hide this time?
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Sun Oct 22, 2017 6:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Minute Realms

Stefano Castelli
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Hello! I'm the designer of Minute Realms, and I'd like to share some of the development phases of my new game.

It’s been a while since I decided that I wanted to design a card-drafting game. My goal was to scramble the typical clockwise/counterclockwise draft a bit, replacing it with something more…multi-directional. Thus, I started experimenting in several ways, thinking of new ways to pass cards among players, while trying to give players deep choices and a fair amount of control over the draft.


Set-up for a four-player game


I thought about a typical medieval setting for the game, using the very nice Travian buildings for the prototype! Players would draft buildings with various effects in order to develop their personal realm.

After some attempts, I understood two things. First, secret and simultaneous drafting had to be ditched in favor of a turn-based structure in which each player takes a turn to draft. Second, due to this turn-based structure, I could not allow lots of cards to be displayed at the same time.


The first prototype of the game


This brought me to the point that each player would draft just one card per round. This stands in stark contrast with games like 7 Wonders and Fairy Tale in which players draft entire hands of cards. The result is a game based on what I call asynchronous draft, and I happily discovered that it worked quite well.


Development of the cathedral card, from prototype to production


Most importantly, playtesters liked it a lot — or at least they didn't boo me when I brought the prototype to the table, which is, per se, a very satisfying achievement!

Furthermore, thanks to the idea of placing only two cards in the middle of the table in addition to one in front of each player, I understood that I could trigger specific effects based on the position of cards drafted by players, i.e., there is an important difference if I pick a card from the middle of the table, from in front of another player, or from in front of myself. Is it worth mentioning that of course once a card has been drafted, nobody else can take it away from its owner!


The cards show a specific bonus/penalty — highlighted in yellow — that triggers when a player drafts the card;
these triggers have a different impact depending on the position of the card on the table


After a few tests, the two main mechanisms of "Realms" had finally been tuned: the asynchronous drafting (or whatever you want to call it), and the "triggers" on the cards. While continuing to design the game, I added some twists to spice things up:

Coins to balance the strength of the different cards and to introduce some micro-resource-management. The higher the cost, the more the points it would score at the end of the game — provided that you manage to defend it from invaders.


You must pay 2 coins to build the Monastery. At game's end, it's worth 9 victory points minus the number of coins you have


Invaders as an unpredictable threat that menaces the realm of every player. They bring climax, suspense, and more emphasis to the overall experience.


These bad guys march on your lovely realm, so build enough shields to keep them out!


• A defensive bastion on the back of every card in order to give players more choices while drafting by always giving them a chance to defend their realm from invaders and gain coins.


Every card has a defensive bastion with two shields on the back


Bastions are useful for defending yourself from invaders. If you erect a bastion, you immediately gain two coins and two shields. However, you also renounce the chance of building the wonderful building on the front, which would have given you victory points at the end of the game!


Luckily, some buildings provide shields even on the front of the card!


This has been a "one shot-one kill" operation: I went straight to dV Giochi to propose the game, and they were immediately very interested. Since then, the development of the game went quite smoothly, although it required a lot of time to make sure everything was well-balanced.

Regarding the final title, it is not very different from the original. Both the publisher and I wanted to keep the word "Realms" in the title, and in the end we decided to add just an adjective to underline the quickness of the gameplay and the short length of the game. We went from "Small Realms" to "Tiny Realms" (naaah, too many "Tiny" games around) to "Little Realms", then the publisher came and said "Okay, let's add 'Minute' to it." The word fits because it identifies something small — heck, a realm of just eight cards! — and at the same time it reminds you of minutes, which is fitting for a game that literally takes minutes to play.

Stefano Castelli
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Sun Oct 22, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Wanted: Rich or Dead

Dariusz Kułak
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Hello! My name is Dariusz Kułak, and I am the designer of Wanted: Rich or Dead, a Western-themed party game scheduled to debut from Galakta at SPIEL '17. I wish to tell you a little about my newest game and how I created it.

Actually, despite being a quick and easy game, Wanted: Rich or Dead (as it came to be known) took a long time to design. Its first version left my drawer over four years ago in 2013! Considering that people like Uwe Rosenberg manage to create, say, A Feast for Odin — a game the size of a giant — in half that time or less, I guess I should be ashamed of myself.

Anyway, the first version of the game was called "Acreage", and it was supposed to be a rather simple strategic game of Small World weight. Different races controlled by players would fight for resources, land, and food. The thing that would make this title stand out was its theme: birds, with tomtits that specialized in quick food collection, combat-oriented grackles, and the sparrows who are builders extraordinaire. Most of the mechanisms were based on action cards being played simultaneously and used to create paths to resources, build nests and storages, or expand to new territories. However, a hexagonal board and units with unique statistics resulted in many similarities with Neuroshima Hex!, and in the end I stopped on an early-prototype level.




Some time later, one of the Polish game publishers proposed that I create a strategic game that would consist of only 55 cards. Although it seemed like a tough task, I returned to the idea of "Acreage" and started making serious cuts. After some time, I was left with a number of areas presented on cards, simultaneous actions, and a deck of items providing certain bonuses.

I also created a more sophisticated background to strengthen the theme; the game was still about birds, but they turned into bird gangs trying to prepare for the coming winter by gathering sunflower seeds. Each bird species became a different organized crime group such as Yakuza or Cosa Nostra. I even drew my own art so that playtesters would be immersed even deeper in this brutal world of bird-eat-bird. (Plus, it's quite hard to find gangster bird artwork...) In this way, "In Your beak!" (more commonly known as "Birdies") was born.





In "Birdies", each player controlled one of five different bird gangs. Five areas were placed on the table, and players simultaneously played one of six action cards to move their pawn to a certain area. If a player was alone, they got their resources. Otherwise, a quarrel had to be settled. It can't be simpler than that, right?

The things that people liked were very quick gameplay, practically no downtime, and a light, amusing theme. One of the unique mechanisms was based on the birds getting "fat" with sunflower seeds; the more a player had, the weaker they became, which is the opposite of a snowball effect. By doing this, players who were short on victory points at the beginning could quickly catch up with the leaders. Effectively, this led to an exciting game finale as everyone had a strong chance to win. The playtesters liked it very much, and I knew the development was going well. At some point I even added a neutral bird, a kind of a swallow "Robin Hood" controlled by the poorest player. That bird could steal seeds from rich birds to give them to the poor, which resulted in even more balance.




Lots of playtesting later, "Birdies" was ready for production. However, at that point serious problems with my publisher started. Not to dwell on the past, but the company that ordered the game chose not to produce it after all, so I had to look for a publisher the usual way — by sending the game wherever I could.

At some point, another company (which also refused to cooperate with me on this project) stated that the bird theme is too narrow and the target group too small and I couldn't hope to publish the game with anyone until I changed it. I had to consider some other ideas for the setting, and after giving it some thought I chose to go for the Old West.

I did not have to change much, to be frank: seeds were replaced by cash, birds with gunslingers… The original mechanisms were perfect for accommodating a game about robbers! But I did not feel like it would be enough, so I changed the statistics to introduce a four-sided die. What's more, instead of using the same set of action cards for all players, I made each player deck unique. As a result, each bandit had a unique feel and strategy. Additionally, I removed the "Robin Hood" part and exchanged "getting fat" with "getting burdened by cash". Then I prepared a nice-looking prototype and got to playtesting. That is how Wanted was created.





The playtesters immediately got to like the game. Some of them even compared it to a better and less random BANG!, which is a great review to hear considering that both games have the same setting and BANG! is a worldwide bestseller.

Anyway, because of the changes, I had to balance the game yet once again hoping that some publishing opportunity would present itself so that my toil would not be wasted. It seems I must have drawn a lucky hand then as Galakta announced its yearly prototype competition. A few weeks later, I was ready to send Wanted to them along with all necessary materials…suddenly realizing that I was meeting the deadline with only one day to spare! I got lucky again as maybe three weeks later I got a call from their lead developer asking for a meeting. I felt that something big was coming! By the way, I won the competition in my category, which tells something.




The meeting was more than fruitful. Aside from some minor changes, we reached a conclusion that the very unintuitive D4 die should be changed to a D3 (which meant more balancing and tackling numbers), then we were ready to send the game to a wider group. The game was scheduled for the 2017 SPIEL game fair in Essen, which meant we had about half a year left to work with it.

While I was perfecting the game, Galakta was working on game components. It came as a great surprise that the game originally based on 55 cards swelled to much bigger dimensions. First, the great comic book artist Rafał Szłapa was hired to prepare the front cover and the characters. Michał Lechowski was responsible for items and the general layout, and together they created a really impressive piece of work. Second, the game attained its 3D aspect with thick cardboard buildings and stagecoach tiles. Finally, the dice were custom made to feature bullets and resemble in color real dice used in the Wild West, while the pawns actually started to look like cowboys!

With some cards left on the printing sheet thanks to various changes, I could design a mini-expansion with a completely new building and action cards. The final touch was the title — Wanted: Rich or Dead — and a short background story to make the characters more believable, then we were ready to go.





As you can see, my game has undergone lots of changes, both its rules and its graphic design. I am more than satisfied with the final result, and I am already thinking of some bigger expansion, perhaps adding new players, new characters, new buildings… Just get the game and experience for yourself how much fun it brings. I hope you will have as much good time playing as I had designing. Visit Galakta's stand during SPIEL '17 at 2:B130 to check it out!

Dariusz Kułak
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Sat Oct 21, 2017 1:00 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Cuckooo!, or A Blackjack to the Head

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
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Every day with every play I relearn the folly of thinking that you can play a game once and understand how it works, especially when you make small rule errors that destroy the effect the designer intended to create. Even if you manage to avoid making such errors in the first place, the second play is almost always better than the first simply because you start the game already embedded in the experience.

The latest game to retransmit this lesson is Cuckooo! from József Dorsonczky and Mind Fitness Games, a card game that will debut at SPIEL '17. I've loved Dorsonczky's Six Making and Hack Trick, both two-player-only games that reward heady thinking and outreading your opponent.

Cuckooo! is for 3-5 players, and your goal each round is to come as close to 21 as you can without going over that total — but don't mistake this game for a Blackjack variant as the two games share only that magic number and nothing more. Each round, you'll sum the numbers on one of the two owl cards in front of you, 0-2 sparrow cards that you play from your hand, and possibly a cuckoo tile that you were forced to take from the table. That cuckoo is your nemesis, but if you literally play your cards right, sometimes the cuckoo can turn out to be your savior.

The game uses a unique deck seven-color deck in which one color has sparrow cards numbered 1-8, another 2-8, another 3-8, and so on up to the seventh color with cards 7 and 8. With four players, you strip out the 8s, and with three you also remove the 7s; this ensures that you deal the cards at the start of the round, each player has exactly seven cards, and you know all the sparrow cards in play. You also start with two randomly dealt owl cards, with these going from 7 to 18. A number of cuckoo tiles equal to the number of players are revealed at random, with these tiles being numbered 1-6.

After looking over your hand, you pass three cards of your choice to the player on your right and collect three cards passed to you. What will you want to pass? You'll have no idea until you've played a few rounds, so just roll with it and learn as you go.

Whoever has the highest card in the longest suit places this card in a discard row, then the player to their left takes the first turn, and on your turn you can:

• Discard a sparrow face down in front of you as part of our flock; you can have at most two sparrows in your flock.

• Discard a sparrow card to the discard row as long as it matches the number or color of the most recently discarded card in this row.

• Discard your entire hand, but only if you cannot discard a card into the discard row; place these cards face up by the cuckoo tiles, then add the highest-valued cuckoo tile to your flock.


Components


Once only one player has cards in hand, this player takes one final action, then everyone reveals their hidden sparrows, discards one of their owls, and sums the value of their flock. Why does this matter? Because you then reveal the topmost card of the magpie deck, an eight-card deck in which cards numbered 17-20 appear twice. If you fail to sum higher than the magpie, then you're out of the round and score nothing; sum higher than 21 and you also get the boot. But if you beat the magpie without going over 21, then you get a share of the magpie's loot, which is 5-7 silver coins depending on the number of players. Anyone who hit 21 exactly gets a special gold coin in addition to some (or all) of the loot.

You then reshuffle the sparrow cards and play three more rounds, with each player drafting a new owl before the round begins. After four rounds, anyone who has collected four gold coins — i.e., hit 21 each time — wins the game immediately. If no one has, then you convert gold coins to silver, and whoever has the highest total wins.

Like Dorsonczky's other designs, gameplay in Cuckooo! is easy to understand, but having some idea of what to do is not. You want to pass cards to your right-hand neighbor that might help you discard cards to the central row so that you can avoid taking a cuckoo, or maybe you want to void your hand of a color so that you can't play and can instead grab a cuckoo, or you want to do a little of both to leave yourself options. I've played only twice on a review copy sent by Mind Fitness Games, both times with three players, so I have no idea for sure right now. Your choices will depend on the cards you hold, the owls in front of you, and the cuckoos — in other words, on everything that's present in the game. Take the entirety of the game, evaluate it, then do the right thing. Good luck!


Artwork on the seven suits


One small error on my part nearly destroyed the game. I missed initially that you had to take the highest-valued cuckoo tile when you discarded your hand, so in the first two rounds of our initial game, we were placing down lots of sparrows, then discarding and grabbing the cuckoo tile we wanted, the one that would boost us to 21. Easy-peasy, but also wrong. (I also overlooked the last player rule, giving them the opportunity to play as they wished, which again made things far too easy.)

Once we started playing with the correct rule — a teensy change from what I initially thought was correct — the game improved a hundredfold and all three of us were tense throughout the round. Suddenly you had to balance all of your plays. Which cuckoo will you collect, if you collect one at all? Which owl will you use? Which sparrows in hand might combine with which cuckoos and which owls to get you to the magic total of 21?

Every time you commit a sparrow to your flock, you're boosting your sum on a one-way path, possibly cutting off future discard possibilities since you have only seven cards in hand, which means you're voiding colors and numbers fairly quickly. You want to time the plays so that you can pocket the sparrows you need and grab the cuckoo you want, but you can't discard your hand if you have discardable cards in it, so what did you give the RHO? Which cards have they played, and which do they still have in hand — except they might have played one to their own flock, which means you can't rely on them to play that pink 3 so that you can discard the pink 4 and stay in the round longer to grab the lower-valued cuckoo since you have owls 16 and 18, so now what?!


Optional action tokens


In our second game, which started immediately after the first, we made smarter plays, paying more attention to which numbers are present in each suit so that you can try to finesse your hand exactly as you need, so that you can discard in the central row and try to influence what others do so that you can hit the next play you want to make. Such plans didn't always pan out, but we now knew the game enough to attempt such things, which is a plus.

We also used the optional action tokens in this second game. When you draft an owl, you take a token as well, and these give you options such as picking up cards passed to you before deciding what you'll pass, or swapping two owls (ideally to stick others with high numbers as those seem to give you little leeway), or looking at magpies to see the target number for the next two rounds. These small tweaks don't make a huge difference in the gameplay, which is all about the challenge you face when you stare at those cards and wonder what you're going to do this time...


Your turn — do something
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Fri Oct 20, 2017 7:00 pm
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