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W. Eric Martin
• Orléans designer Reiner Stockhausen of dlp games has announced his new release for SPIEL '17, and you can be sure that this
llama alpaca on Altiplano will be popping up in people's hands throughout the fair. Complete rules are posted on the dlp games website in German and English, but to get you started, here's an overview of the game:
Altiplano, a bag-building game along the lines of Orléans set in the South American highlands of the Andes — the Altiplano — is not a simple game, presenting players with new challenges time and again. There are various ways to reach the goal, so the game remains appealing to try out new options and strategies, but success or failure also depends on whether your opponents let you do as you like or thwart the strategy you are pursuing. The competition for the individual types of goods is considerable — as is the fun in snatching a coveted extension card from under another player's nose!
Aside from building up an effective production, you must deliver the right goods at the right time, develop the road in good time, and store your goods cleverly enough to fill the most valuable rows with them. Often, a good warehouseperson is more relevant in the end than the best producer.
At the start of the game, players have access only to certain resources and goods. This is due to the different role tiles that each player receives and that provide everybody with different starting materials. At the market, however, a player can acquire additional production sites that give new options. The numerous goods — such as fish, alpaca, cacao, silver, or corn — all have their own characteristics and places where they can be used. Whereas silver makes you rich, fish can be exchanged for other goods, and the alpaca gives you wool that you can then make into cloth.
• Minute Realms from Stefano Castelli and dV Giochi is billed as "the most compact city-building game ever", and while Castelli has informed me that the first word in the title is pronouned "mi-nit", I love that pronouncing in "mi-noot" also works for this description of the game. In any case, here's an overview of this SPIEL '17 release:
In a handful of rounds, you have to build up your realm and make it grow by spending your riches. Will you yield splendor to your lands with refined buildings, or will you defend them with imposing bastions to repel the upcoming fall of the invaders?
A king's life is not easy. Every decision is crucial to the fate of the realm — and every single move makes the difference between victory and defeat!
• Speaking of confused readings, Apotheca designer Andrew Federspiel has announced a new title from his own Knapsack Games line, with Masters of Mutanite due out in 2018 and with this game not being about people trying to master minutiae not matter how much I want to read it that way. (Tristram Shandy: The Board Game?) Here's a summary of what to expect:
Save or terrorize the city as a hero or villain! Mutate your character to gain new abilities. Gain fame and new traits by thrashing your opponents or rescuing/knocking out civilians! Light the city on fire, freeze and poison your enemies, and throw cars and trees to your heart's content!
Build your character in Masters of Mutanite by creating unique synergies of powers each game — go from zero to superhero!
• Another recently announced 2018 release is Artificial Intelligence from the familiar team of Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro, Paulo Soledade, and Italian publisher What's Your Game?. Here's the brief right now:
The year is 2090, and the world has witnessed the biggest — the last? — event in human history. Knowledge is the fuel that powers the engine of the new revolution.
Technological Singularity changed everything. Human labor became obsolete; automation and machine learning are the new reality. Machines, run by a flawless artificial intelligence, control production and research, self replicating the answers to problems civilization did not know existed. While prophets whisper the end of time throughout the streets, corporations thrive, pushing boundaries and ignoring old rules. The rush to control the new A.I. era has begun and there’s no time for ethics. Is there time shut down the A.I. Box. Was there ever one?
Artificial Intelligence is an action selection game in which each player plays the role of a big investor pulling the strings from various corporations in order to make money and increase the power of both investor and corp.
W. Eric Martin
As is often the case at Gen Con, I played almost no games during that convention, and of those games that I did play, one of the three was under embargo since it's a SPIEL release about which not much information had been released. Thus, on the Wednesday prior to the start of Gen Con 50, I tweeted this image:
Now the truth can be told...
The game is Azul, a Michael Kiesling design from Plan B Games that fits firmly in the publisher's Spiel des Jahres-friendly line of games with beautiful bits that work for both families and more experienced gamers, a niche that started with Century: Spice Road and continued with, um, Century: Golem Edition. Okay, I'm not sure that one game — even mirrored the way Century has been — can establish a line, but based on two plays I feel comfortable stating that Azul is in the same wheelhouse as Century. Let's see whether you agree once we get past the basic info that Plan B Games has already released:
Introduced by the Moors, azulejos (originally white and blue ceramic tiles) were fully embraced by the Portuguese when their king Manuel I, on a visit to the Alhambra palace in Southern Spain, was mesmerized by the stunning beauty of the Moorish decorative tiles. The king, awestruck by the interior beauty of the Alhambra, immediately ordered that his own palace in Portugal be decorated with similar wall tiles. As a tile-laying artist, you have been challenged to embellish the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora.
In the game Azul, players take turns drafting colored tiles from suppliers to their player board. Later in the round, players score points based on how they've placed their tiles to decorate the palace. Extra points are scored for specific patterns and completing sets; wasted supplies harm the player's score. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
Promotional table covering not included!
Azul is for 2-4 players, and at the start of each round, you fill up five, seven, or nine discs (depending on the number of players) with tiles drawn at random from a bag, then place a first player marker in the center of the table.
On a turn, you choose either a disc or the center of the table, then collect all the tiles of one color from this space. If you choose a disc, you push all the remaining tiles into the center of the table; if you're the first player to choose the center, you also take the first player marker. You then choose one of the five rows on your board — with those rows having 1-5 spaces in them — and fill as many spaces as possible with those tiles. Once you have a particular color in a row, you can place only more of that color in the row (until it is filled and emptied). If not all the tiles fit or you took the first player marker, place the excess tiles or the marker in a discard row on the bottom of your player board.
Players take turns until all the tiles have been claimed. Each player looks at the rows on their board, and from top to bottom they move one tile from each completed row into the grid on the right, placing all other tiles that helped you complete this row in the game box. In the basic game, the grid boxes have images on them, and you must place the tile in the matching space; in the advanced game, the grid boxes are blank, so you can place the tile in any empty space in the grid row next to the tiles — except that you cannot repeat a tile color in a row or column in the grid.
Ready to move three tiles into the grid in the basic game
Each time you place a tile in the grid, you score points for all the other tiles in the row and column of the grid that are connected to the tile just placed. Thus, in the image above, I'll place a blue tile in the second row, then score 3 points for the connected tiles in that row and 3 points for the connected tiles in that column. When I place the black tile in row #4, I'll score 4 points for the column, followed by another 5 points for the column when I place the red tile. After you score all of your just-placed tiles, you lose points for the first place marker and any discarded tiles. All incomplete rows stay as they are on your board!
You then draw more tiles from the bag to set up for the next round, adding discarded tiles to the bag when needed. The rounds continue until any one player has placed the fifth tile in a row in their grid; since you can place at most one tile in a grid row each round, the game must last at least five rounds. After scoring for this final round, players score bonus points for each completed row and column in their grid as well as for each set of five matching tiles. Whoever has the most points gets to watch all of the other players eat a tile as punishment. (Legacy game!)
Endgame bonuses shown at bottom right
I played the game twice with final tiles and non-final game boards and other pieces, both times with the same three opponents. The rules weren't clear when we started the first game, and we futzed around a bit, asking questions and clarifying how the flow of the game works. We finished and were like, okay, sure that was a game.
After we finished playing something else, I insisted upon playing Azul again because I like playing things multiple times. Playing a game once from a position of ignorance is fine for learning how a game works, but it's not great for learning how a game plays. In this second game, now with the advanced board, I was already playing smarter, paying attention to what others were collecting in which rows to have some idea of which tiles I could possibly float around the table, Magic-draft-style, to pick up on the next turn. I could better anticipate what others might do and plan accordingly.
The results of game #2
The problem is that everyone else was playing better as well. All of us scored higher in this game compared to the first one. Taking the first player marker wasn't seen as a drawback, due to the automatic -1 point, but instead as a valid option to take what you needed before too many tiles piled up that would cost you points. You could see opportunities for sticking people with tiles because when someone starts a round with multiple half-filled rows, they have room to take far fewer tiles, so you're happy to force them to swallow a half-dozen tiles at once, especially when doing so keeps those tiles away from someone else.
Like Century, Azul strikes that family/gamer balance in which you can play casually or thoughtfully, and the game will work equally well in either case. Just expect to get soaked until you can start smartly lining up your plays in advance...
W. Eric Martin
• Rumors of an Uwe Rosenberg game set in Norway have been around for a couple of years, and now Lookout Spiele has officially announced Nusfjord as a SPIEL '17 release in October, with Mayfair Games releasing the game in English at about the same time, according to Lookout (which is owned by Mayfair). Here's a rundown of the game's setting and how it works:
Nusfjord is a tranquil fishing village in the Lofoten archipelago in northern Norway. Fifty years ago, business was blooming when the codfish would come for spawning. Today, Nusfjord is more of a museum than a village, with less than a hundred people living there. Imagine how beautiful this place must be given that you must pay a fee to even look at the houses. Cruise ships used to pass by this long and now mostly abandoned island world.
In the time period in which the game Nusfjord is set, things looked quite different. Sailing ships dominate the fjord. The rocks around Nusfjord are covered in trees. As the owner of a major fishing company in Nusfjord on the Lofoten archipelago, your goal is to develop the harbor and the surrounding landscape, and to succeed you must enlarge your fleet, clear the forest, erect new buildings, and satisfy the local elders. Others do this as well, of course, so the competition is steep.
As with Agricola and Ora et Labora, Nusfjord has a worker placement mechanism, with each player starting with three workers that they place on a central board to trigger certain actions. Whether a player wants to clear a forest on their own board, buy a new cutter, or construct a building, they must place a worker on the appropriate space — which is possible only if room is available for this worker. Money is scarce, and one of the quicker and easier ways to get it is to place shares of your own company on the market. This risky action could be worthwhile because if you succeed in buying these shares yourself, you have usually won money and not suffered any disadvantages; however, if an opponent acquires these shares, then you must allow them to benefit from your hard-earned catches at sea. The village elders might want their own share of your catch as well, especially if you've visited them to take certain actions in the village, so if you don't take care, your catch could end up entirely in the hands of others and your camp will be empty.
• Nusfjord is just one of many new titles that Lookout will release at SPIEL '17. Alexander Pfister's Oh My Goods!: Escape to Canyon Brook is the second expansion for Oh My Goods! and it continues the storyline started in the first expansion, Longsdale in Revolt.
• The Agricola: Artifex Deck contains 120 cards for the revised edition of Agricola that debuted in 2016, with half the cards being occupations and half minor improvements. As for the deluxe, all-in-one-box anniversary edition of Agricola that has been mentioned in passing, Lookout's Hanno Girke says that item is still in the works, but:
We absolutely underestimated the timeframe that Mr. Klemens Franz needs to create the amount of new artwork for all the new cards.
Agricola always has been and will remain a modular system. Depending on the players' needs they can add between nothing and everything.
The current specs for the Deluxe Revised edition list several 168 card decks plus major expansions like [Farmers of the Moor], plus several goodies that were available only as a promo or only in German so far.
Some of the decks probably will be released in upcoming years.
Plus some kind of sorting trays, deck holders and whatever we'll come up with. Be assured that we're reading all the BGG threads on the deluxe edition, and we might have a first mock-up to showcase at SPIEL 17.
No promises. We won't rush the project, and we won't rush Klemens.
• Another small box item coming from Lookout is Bummelbahn, a German edition of Seth Jaffee and Dan Keltner's Isle of Trains, which first appeared in 2014 from Dice Hate Me Games.
• Isle of Skye: Journeyman expands the 2016 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner from Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister with new player boards that track "your progress in terms of strength, prosperity and popularity", with new scoring tiles that reflect these traits and a journeyman pawn that travels the islands to activate tiles.
• Finally, Lookout will have a larger game from Michael Kiesling titled Riverboat that plays in about 90 minutes for 2-4 players. This description is rather high-level, but it gives you some idea of what's going on in the game:
Riverboat posits each player as the owner of a 19th century farm on the bank of the Mississippi River. You need to organize your workers to ensure that the fields are ordered according to their type and harvested when ready so that the goods can be shipped to New Orleans.
In more detail, the game lasts four rounds, and at the start of each round players draft phase cards until they're all distributed. The phases then take place in numerical order, with the player who chose a phase being the first one to act. In the first phase, players place their workers in the fields, with each player having the same distribution of colored field tiles, but a different random placement for each player. In phase two, players organize their crops, trying to group like types together, with some fields requiring two or three workers. In phase three, players harvest crops and load riverboats, with a dock needing to be filled with all the goods of a single type before it can be loaded. In phase four, the boats are launched and players can take special actions, with additional victory points possibly coming in phase five.
Riverboat being demoed at Gen Con 50: two player boards and two central boards
W. Eric Martin
• Following last week's busyness at Gen Con 50, I've been racing through my inbox to update our SPIEL '17 Preview, which debuted on Monday, Aug. 21 with 168 listings and which now features 256(!) listings — with me making only the slightest dent in my inbox. Sheesh!
The three latest entries in the SPIEL '17 Preview come from Edition Spielwiese, which debuted at SPIEL '16 with Uwe Rosenberg's Cottage Garden. For SPIEL '17, the publisher has a new puzzle-y game from Rosenberg — Indian Summer — which it dubs the the second part of Rosenberg's "puzzle trilogy". Here's how the publisher sets the mood:
Before winter makes its appearance, a particularly warm fall bathes the forest in a golden shimmer. During the Indian Summer, New England blossoms one last time. Treetops are ablaze with countless colors — a living rainbow, from green to orange to red. Slowly the first leaves are starting to fall. Meanwhile, our steps and the diligent squirrels rustle the colorful foliage.
On our walks through the woods, we discover all kinds of little treasures; we collect berries, nuts, mushrooms and feathers. We pause for a moment to watch the shy inhabitants of the forest before we set off towards home once again. There, a good book and a hot tea are already awaiting.
Indian Summer is firmly geared towards experienced players. At the heart of the game are puzzle tiles with holes that are placed on individual forest boards to cover up treasures. When players get their hands on these, they gain more options and an edge over their opponents. All that counts in the end is to be the first to cover your forest floor completely with leaves.
I've already covered the pirate-based memory game Memoarrr! in this BGG News post, so that leaves Noria, the debut title from Sophia Wagner, who won an author stipend from the Spiel des Jahres jury in 2015. Michael Menzel and Klemens Franz provide the art for this title, which can be summarized as follows:
A new era is looming on the horizon. The future of Noria is right in front of you, and you must guide your flourishing trading empire into prosperity. Discover flying islands, buy ships, and build factories. Invest in prestigious projects, and secure their success by passing on secret knowledge to politicians. For even above the clouds, there is still room for improvement...
At the center of Noria is an innovative mechanism called "wheel building". Each player has an action wheel consisting of three rings, with slots for a number of different action discs. Over the course of the game, players try to obtain new discs and manipulate the rings of the wheel to optimize their action selection. Additionally, to ensure their investments bear fruit, they also need to bribe politicians with knowledge.
• Other recent additions to the SPIEL '17 Preview include a new edition of Günter Cornett's wonderful card game The Bottle Imp from Finnish publisher Lautapelit.fi.
In this 2-4 player trick-taking game that is ideally a three-player-only game, everyone wants to grab the bottle for some of the time as you score more points that way. The bottle "price" starts at 19, and all cards with a value lower than this are trump — but when you win a trick this way, the price of the bottle drops to this new value. Should you still hold the bottle at the end of the round, you lose points instead of gaining them, so you need to find a way to force someone else to buy the bottle. The Bottle Imp is a great game, and it's good to see the title returning to market.
• Lautapelit.fi will also have a new edition of Emanuelle Ornella's Byzanz, which first appeared in 2008 from AMIGO, as well as expansions for two 2016 titles: Flamme Rouge: Peloton, which allows for play with up to six players, and Dokmus: Return of Erefel, which adds a new guardian to play as well as new game boards.
W. Eric Martin
• After a wildly successful Gen Con (not to mention a fine 2017 overall), U.S. publisher Renegade Game Studios is going to close out the year as one closes out a meal — with dessert! Specifically, Renegade has announced two titles — Sundae Split by Nate Bivins, and Pie Town: Spies, Lies, and Apple Pies by newcomer Daniel Fremgen — with both due out in November 2017. Here's a brief rundown of the two games:
In Sundae Split, players try to build the best ice cream sundae from the ingredients at hand. Get just the right mix of toppings and flavors, but avoid the vegetables! At the end, each sundae is scored and the player who made the best sundae wins the game.
In more detail, one player splits ingredients into piles, and the other players take turns choosing one. As the splitter, you get the last pile. You have to be clever and a little sneaky to get the ingredients you want. Collect the best mix of toppings and flavors to make the most valuable ice cream sundae and win the game!
Welcome to Pie Town, a community built on apples and butter. Business here is no cake walk, so manage your operation well and keep your secret recipe secret.
Pie Town: Spies, Lies, and Apple Pies is a worker-dice placement game with hidden information. You need to manage your constantly changing workforce to harvest, bake, and sell pies while deducing other players' secret recipes! Now is your chance to become the best pie shop in town!
Ice cream vs. pie! Seems like a sales challenge in the offing, not to mention an opportunity for booth treats at end-of-the-year conventions...
• Home of the werewolf Bézier Games is presenting a different take on the were-genre with Jeremie Kletzkine's Werebeasts, a game due out in February 2018 in which you (gasp) bid for creatures, not take on their role while slapping your leg to keep others from figuring out who you are. An overview:
You are a key player in the lucrative but dangerous business of collecting werebeasts. Armed with only your good looks and several cans of indescribably tasty werechow, you must bid for the werebeasts you need — and also for the ones you don't in hopes of throwing your opponents off track.
Your fellow collectors in Werebeasts are also collecting certain creatures that have the most value to them. If you can hide your intentions long enough, you'll be rewarded. If you can make it to the end of the game without getting caught, you just might win.
• Ninja Division has signed a deal with Games Workshop to publish a card game based on GW's Warhammer Fantasy world, with John Cadice and David Freeman being the designers in charge of Doomseeker, which is due out in Q2 2018:
In the card game Doomseeker, players take on the role of a mighty dwarf slayer. Each player's character is sworn by the slayer's oath to seek a glorious death in battle for a crime committed or stain on that dwarf's honor. The slayers eschew worldly pursuits, dye their beards and hair in fierce and fiery reds and oranges, tattoo their ruddy flesh, take up their weapons, and wander the old world seeking their doom battling monsters and enemies of their race.
The Doomseeker card game pits players against one another to see who can die the most glorious death! Press your luck and challenge the denizens and monsters of the Old World, with each victory bringing you more glory, and ultimately your death can be met at the hands of a truly worthy foe!
W. Eric Martin
Many publishers had surprise game announcements at Gen Con 50, with one of those announcements being the revelation of Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 6 – France & Old West from designer Alan R. Moon and publisher Days of Wonder.
I had scheduled an interview with Moon in the BGG booth, but my understanding was that we would discuss the Ticket to Ride family, game design in general, and whatever else came to mind. Moon doesn't appear at many game conventions, so this was an interview I was looking forward to — and in the end we filmed a game overview as we did with dozens of other guests. Ah, well, Moon is still a great person to have on camera as you're never sure where the conversation might lead.
We haven't processed that video yet (or the 200-ish others that we recorded over four days), so let's go with a text description for now:
Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 6 – France & Old West
includes a double-sided game board that features France on one side and the western half of the United States on the other.
In the France
half of this expansion, 2-5 players collect train cards and claim routes in order to complete tickets in hand, but most of the tracks on the board aren't colored! Each time that you draw cards, you must take a colored tile that's 2-5 train cars long and place that tile on an empty track bed. Once you've done this, any player can claim that route by discarding the appropriately colored cards from hand, as in any other Ticket to Ride
game. (Single-length routes are already colored, and the map contains a number of gray-colored ferry routes.)
Multiple track beds on the game board overlap, and once a tile has placed on the board, any track beds crossed by this tile are off-limits and nothing can be built on them. To build a route, the player discards the right cards, returns the tile on this route to the pool of tiles, then places their trains on this route and scores the appropriate number of points.
At the end of the game, players score their tickets, with bonuses being awarded for longest continuous route and most tickets completed.
In the Old West
half of the expansion, 2-6 players start the game by choosing (in reverse player order) a starting location for one of their three city pieces. The first route that a player claims must have this city as one of the route's two endpoints, and each subsequent route claimed must connect to that player's existing network.
After claiming a route, a player can place one of their remaining cities on either end of that route by discarding a matching pair of train cards. Only one city marker can be in each city. Whenever a player builds a route that connects to a city owned by another player, the owner of the city claims the points for the route, not the player placing the trains. If both endpoints of the route have cities, then the owner of each city scores these points. Whoever completes the most tickets in this expansion scores 15 bonus points.
As a variant, you can play Old West
with Alvin the Alien. No player can start the game in Roswell, and the first player who builds a route into Roswell scores 10 points, then places the Alvin marker in any city that they control. The next player to connect to this city scores 10 points, then moves Alvin as before. Whoever controls Alvin at the end of the game scores 10 bonus points.
In addition to the interview, I had scheduled a playing session with Moon on Saturday to check out the new expansion, and I wanted to see France in action to discover what it's like when you must first paint the tracks prior to claiming them. You start this board with eight train cards in hand so that you have some idea of which tile colors might be good to place in the early turns. In a first playing, of course, you have no idea which cities might be choke points, so it's all about claiming a few routes, then seeing what happens from there.
Moon setting over a horizon of cards
Within the first few turns, you could already get a sense of what might come. I placed a four-length white route out of a city that someone else had built into as I hadn't seen her picking up any white cards while I had a few already in hand. I then placed a five-length white route connected to that. I needed only one of those routes, and now I felt secure about getting at least one of them. What's more, the game includes only one four- and five-length tile of each color, so those white tiles were locked on the board until someone claimed those routes.
Later, someone placed a two-length black tile in a spot that I might need to get to Belgium, so I claimed it ahead of him, forcing him to spin the wheels for another turn until he could claim it. If we were being mean (and weren't so focused on learning the new board), someone else could have dropped a two-length non-black tile on the other track bed, further delaying his plans should he not have the needed train cards in hand.
Shiny prototype game board
You could imagine the game being a lot more competitive once you became familiar with the tickets and board. Switzerland and Italy all require tiles to be laid before you can build into them, so perhaps you could hog a color of train cards, then lay tiles of that color into the country — assuming you don't actually need those tiles elsewhere, of course. You must place a tile each time you draw cards, so even when you're not planning to claim anything in the next couple of turns, you're locking in new elements of the board that affect everyone, especially with the crossing track beds as you can convert what would have been a 15-point play in a single turn into something that requires two or three turns to complete with fewer points gained. Again, it's all about knowing the tickets and being able to read the holders of those tickets.
In the end, Moon beat the three of us, although only twelve points separated all four players. I drew tickets on the final turn as I had no train cards in hand, losing 7 points in the process; a swing in the other direction would have won me the game, but not knowing the tickets I have no idea whether I could have even scored at all!
Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 6 – France & Old West, which retails for $45/€40, debuts at SPIEL '17 in October, with the game reaching European game stores that same month; the title should be available in North America by mid-November 2017.
W. Eric Martin
BoardGameGeek's SPIEL '17 Preview is now live! For those who didn't immediately leave to go look at it, a few notes about the preview:
• Currently the SPIEL '17 Preview has "only" 168 titles on it. Only. That's it.
I sent out requests for information to publishers on July 31, and in the subsequent three weeks I added some of the info I received to this preview, but not nearly as much as I had hoped to do. Work on the Gen Con 2017 Preview was the usual throw-everything-at-the-wall-at-the- late-minute experience, the internet in the Gen Con hotel was terrible, and I didn't complete nearly as many Gen Con previews as I had wanted to. Cue this convention's laments. I still have designer diaries in the queue that I had hoped/planned to publish prior to Gen Con, for example, and I apologize to those designers. You'll be hearing from me with new publication dates.
• If you are a publisher who has sent me your SPIEL '17 list, I probably have your info in my inbox. If not, it's in a folder for such things. I'll get to it. You're welcome to poke me should you care to do so.
• As I noted in my preview of the new convention preview tool, comments currently don't work. You can thumb game listings, add private notes, and tag games with a personal priority status, but you can't comment publicly on the listing itself. I'm not sure when we might have comments on the preview as I'm not the tech guy doing such things.
• Users have suggested listing the game designer above the fold, adding different printing options, and doing other things with the preview format. We have read those suggestions, and we'll figure out what we want to do over the next two months prior to SPIEL '17. I want to find some way to indicate the languages included with a particular version of a game, for example, with links to rules being a dream addition. We'll see.
As noted above, the past few weeks have been consumed with Gen Con prep, so I'm running with what I have available to me right now — especially since I promised to publish the SPIEL '17 Preview on Monday, August 21 — rather than waiting until some unknown day in the future. Act now! If needed, update later! I'm trying to do more of that, both in work and in life, and so far so good.
That's it for now. Go have a look SPIEL '17 Preview, subscribe for future additions to the list, and don't burn your eyes out staring at the sun!
W. Eric Martin
• Lots of game announcements have been coming forth in the week prior to Gen Con 50. Well, no more than normal actually, but the games being revealed (1) tend to be of higher profile and (2) are being demoed or sold at the convention that opens Thursday, August 17, so they're jumping into the spotlight.
The newest contender for the stage is Clank! In! Space!, a standalone game that uses the same game system as in Paul Dennen's Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure, one of the hits of Gen Con 2016, but with player now trying to escape an alien spaceship instead of an underground dungeon. Makes sense to me — space is a vacuum, so noise wouldn't travel there and you could clankity-clank-clank all you want, but put yourself on a spaceship with, say, a xenomorph-type of thing, and you now have a gaming recipe. Here's the setting of this new title from publisher Renegade Game Studios:
The evil Lord Eradikus has all but conquered the galaxy and is now on a victory lap across the sector in his flagship, Eradikus Prime. He may rule with an iron grip, but his most prized artifacts are about to slip through his cyborg claws. You and your fellow thieves have challenged each other to sneak aboard his ship, hack your way into its command module, and steal from him.
Along the way, you'll recruit allies and snatch up extra loot. But one false step and — Clank! Careless noise draws the attention of Lord Eradikus. Hacking into his command module and stealing his artifacts increases his rage. You'd better hope your friends are louder than you are if you want to make it to an escape pod and get out alive...
Beyond that, we have only a couple of images to share, but soon we'll see a lot more of the game because Renegade is selling "a limited number of copies" of Clank! In! Space! at Gen Con 50, with the game due to hit retail stores in Q4 2017.
• A competitor for the spotlight is Stuffed Fables, a new design from Mice and Mystics' Jerry Hawthorne and publisher Plaid Hat Games. This title will be available for demo games at Gen Con 50, with a release due to happen before the end of 2017. Here's an overview of the game from the publisher:
Stuffed Fables is an unusual adventure game in which players take on the roles of brave stuffies seeking to save the child they love from a scheming, evil mastermind. Make daring melee attacks, leap across conveyor belts, or even steer a racing wagon down a peril-filled hill. The game delivers a thrilling narrative driven by player choices. Players explore a world of wonder and danger, unlocking curious discoveries. The chapters of Stuffed Fables explore the many milestones of a child's life, creating a memorable tale ideal for families, as well as groups of adults who haven't forgotten their childlike sense of wonder.
Stuffed Fables is the first "StoryBoard Game", a new product line from Plaid Hat Games in which all of the action takes place in the unique storybook — a book that acts as your rules reference, story guide, and game board, all in one! Each adventure in the game takes place over several pages of the immersive StoryBook. The book opens flat onto the table to reveal a colorful map or other illustration central to playing the game, with choices, story, and special rules on the opposite page.
On their turn, a player draws five dice from the bag. The colors of the dice drawn determine the types of actions and options available to the player. White dice can re-stuff stuffies injured in battle. Red dice perform melee attacks while green dice perform ranged attacks. Yellow dice search while blue dice are used for special actions and purple dice can be used as any color. Most dice can always find a strategic use, including moving, using items, or contributing to group tasks. Players can store dice for later, combine dice for stronger actions, or use them one-at-a-time for multiple activations. As turns go by, black dice are also drawn, and after enough appear, minions emerge or attack, and the dice bag is reset!
Players can encourage each other by sharing dice or their precious stuffing. In addition to fighting minions, each page of the storybook offers numerous points of interest, charming characters to interact or trade with, as well as many unusual challenges. And each page is but one chapter that folds into a branching, overarching story with a multitude of items and a special discovery deck full of surprises.
• The day before that was announced, Fantasy Flight Games unveiled Sid Meier's Civilization: A New Dawn, a design by James Kniffen for 2-4 players that bears a 60-120 minute playing time — which is half the length of FFG's 2010 title Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, which was from designer Kevin Wilson. Here's a summary of this Q4 2017 release, with far more details in the FFG announcement of the game:
Sid Meier's Civilization: A New Dawn is a strategy board game in which two to four players act as the rulers of history's most memorable empires. Over the course of the game, players will expand their domains, gain new technologies, and build many of humanity's greatest wonders. In the end, one nation will rise above all others to leave its indelible mark upon history.
This new game presents players with an undiscovered country to conquer, built from beautifully illustrated map tiles. These would-be conquerors construct and populate the map with barbarians, natural resources, and city-states, then formulate their plans for how they will shape this world to their vision. Their exact goals, however, change with each game. Agendas are detailed on victory cards, three of which are drawn during set up. Players race to become the first to accomplish one agenda on each of these victory cards, spreading throughout the world and ensuring their civilization’s place as the greatest world power.
• The weekend prior to that saw the announcement of Christian T. Petersen and Fantasy Flight Games' Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition), which is scheduled for a Q4 2017 release, but which (as it turns out) will be for sale at Gen Con 50. Surprise!
The game remains much the same as TI3, which was released in 2005, but with various changes that are summarized halfway down the FFG product page. Here's an overview of the game:
Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition) is a game of galactic conquest in which three to six players take on the role of one of seventeen factions vying for galactic domination through military might, political maneuvering, and economic bargaining. Every faction offers a completely different play experience, from the wormhole-hopping Ghosts of Creuss to the Emirates of Hacan, masters of trade and economics. These seventeen races are offered many paths to victory, but only one may sit upon the throne of Mecatol Rex as the new masters of the galaxy.
No two games of Twilight Imperium are ever identical. At the start of each galactic age, the game a board is uniquely and strategically constructed using 51 galaxy tiles that feature everything from lush new planets and supernovas to asteroid fields and gravity rifts. Players are dealt a hand of these tiles and take turns creating the galaxy around Mecatol Rex, the capital planet seated in the center of the board. An ion storm may block your race from progressing through the galaxy while a fortuitously placed gravity rift may protect you from your closest foes. The galaxy is yours to both craft and dominate.
A round of Twilight Imperium begins with players selecting one of eight strategy cards that both determine player order and give their owner a unique strategic action for that round. These may do anything from providing additional command tokens to allowing a player to control trade throughout the galaxy. After these roles are selected, players take turns moving their fleets from system to system, claiming new planets for their empire, and engaging in warfare and trade with other factions. At the end of a turn, players gather in a grand council to pass new laws and agendas, shaking up the game in unpredictable ways.
After every player has passed their turn, players move up the victory track by checking to see whether they have completed any objectives throughout the turn and scoring them. Objectives are determined by setting up ten public objective cards at the start of each game, then gradually revealing them with every round. Every player also chooses between two random secret objectives at the start of the game, providing victory points achievable only by the holder of that objective. These objectives can be anything from researching new technologies to taking your neighbor's home system. At the end of every turn, a player can claim one public objective and one secret objective. As play continues, more of these objectives are revealed and more secret objectives are dealt out, giving players dynamically changing goals throughout the game. Play continues until a player reaches ten victory points.
"Wasteland Express Delivery Service includes an emergent narrative story that takes place interactively over the course of eight games. Alternatively, players can dive in with a randomly generated scenario that will play out over the course of a single story-driven game session for infinite replay possibilities."
Plus, in case it wasn't totally clear there are a bunch of SWEET minis. Like super, awesome ones where you can actually load the goods right in the back. IN THE BACK. Even the goods are minis because why the heck not.
Hi! This is Matt Riddle. I am generally no one of consequence, but I am kicking off this 4,000+ word designer diary because I am one of the three designers. Buckle up.
Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons. At least compared to the sheer talent, will, and stunning good looks of the designers assembled to create Wasteland Express Delivery Service (WEDS), the new hotness coming soon from Pandasauraus Games. Ridbackmour? Gilbackddle? Pinchmouridle? Manbearpig? Whichever celebrity name you prefer for the trio of Jon Gilmour, Ben Pinchback, and Matt Riddle and wherever you intend to get it tattooed on your body doesn't matter so long as you do not forget to check out this game.
I mean, look at that sexy; there is literally SOOO much of it
At some point nearly five years ago, Ben and I started kicking around the idea of doing a train game. We played a lot of Steam, but we wanted to actually pick up and deliver goods, not just build routes. At the time, we had just seen Fleet released to moderate success, so we were totally prepared to take on Martin Wallace and a top 100 game and make it better — also, not really, as Steam and WEDS have almost zero in common beyond the BGG mechanism classification. Still inspiration is just that, inspiration. Ben is the designer notebook guy. He sketches and doodles and jots down ideas. One of those ideas was octagons with different movement patterns that left squares in the middle that could be cities. As it turns out, not completely original since Keythedral did it ten years earlier among others, but it was very underutilized. Let me turn it over to Ben to discuss some of the initial design.
Early octagonal action... in space — SPACE VIKINGS!
Before I get to that, I want to talk about Jon. I'll never forget the day I first met Jon Gilmour. It was a great day for him. Not so much because he met me, but rather because it was Thursday of Gen Con 2014 and well over a hundred people were wrapping around the Plaid Hat Games booth and down the aisle waiting in line to buy his new game, Dead of Winter. And by down the aisle, I mean so many people that it was blocking the entrance to some other pretty major publishers' booths.
(Matt: Like Queen Games, their booth was completely surrounded. How were gamers going to rush to grab Cubo or Orcs Orcs Orcs…)
The Plaid Hat crew was king at this moment. So Matt says to me, "Hey let's see if Jon's around. I want to say hi." I of course had no clue they had ever talked but apparently they had. This is why I keep Matt around, mind you. Sure, he can design games, but he's also not afraid to make friends with absolutely everyone.
So we walk up to Jon and he's sporting quite a grin. He was just standing there soaking it all in. My first thought was, someday I want this feeling he is having right now. We talked some and I walked away telling Matt how genuinely nice I thought Jon seemed and Matt told me that Jon actually lived only about four hours from us. Huh.
Matt did his thing and within a month or so, we were Skyping with Jon and talking about working on something together, which quickly led to day trips and all day Panera sessions with Jon. Matt does what Matt does — but what Matt doesn't do is sit around on his couch sketching shapes while thinking, "You know the octagon is a very under-represented shape in board game maps today. And wow, when you put octagons together, you get squares left in the voids. How is this not a thing everywhere already!?"
(Jon: Even before I laid my hands on it and did awesome Jon Gilmour theme integration and play experience game design magic, this was already one of the best pick-up-and-delivers I had ever played. Okay, this was actually Matt again, but Jon really said that on multiple podcasts and such.)
Back in 2011, Matt and I were prepping for our first ever game design, Fleet, to Kickstart in the spring, and we were already neck deep in a handful of other designs. The bug had bitten us badly, and there wasn't a spare moment when I wasn't thinking about games themselves or, more likely, game design. So as mentioned above, the simple act of randomly sketching shapes on a notepad while watching TV led me down a pretty serious rabbit trail. A 4×4 map of octagons as terrain with cities/outposts/strongholds being the square voids and the edges was a very quick progression for me that night.
By the time I showed this to Matt probably a week later, I had already decided that we were going to do a pick-up-and-deliver train game using this set-up. My paradigm for train games in 2011 was mostly Age of Steam/Steam, and I thought a game in which you actually hump the goods across the board physically seemed like a novel idea.
It turns out this form of goods pick-up and delivery was actually commonplace, but the board wasn't. As I researched it, I did find some games using octs and squares, but not as many as I thought I might. This map with different octs being different terrain, using squares as cities, and the system of moving around these shapes was there on the couch in 2011 and it's still the backbone of Wasteland Express Delivery Service five years later. It's really cool to see an idea like that come to fruition and better yet to realize you never could have done it right on your own. What I was going to do with this system is a thousand times lamer than what came out of working with Matt, Jon, and the eventual greater creative team Pandasaurus assembled.
The other gameplay element that developed over the next five years that would survive countless thematic changes and mechanical iterations was this idea we had of a player action mat.
If you can remember ever counting to ten a thousand times over and over during two hours of Tikal (a game that I love,by the way), then you can understand the desire to come up with an action selection game in which the game held your hand a little bit more and guided you to the actions you could do and even kept track of them.
Eventually Matt and I came up with the idea that each player has an action mat that lists the actions available to them and has boxes next to these actions for activation with action cubes. Each player has the same amount of action cubes to spend over a series of rounds, and the cool thing we found quickly was that this action cube allocation allowed us to not only present the available actions to the player, but also to limit the amount of times players can take a certain action in a certain timeframe organically because the action cubes do not clear and refresh until they're all spent.
One other thing we loved about this system was that it kept the game moving and the downtime was small because a player's turn is to play one cube to their mat and take that action. Turns then become very quick, and the game hums around the table: Move, Buy a good, Attack, Take a job, Deliver, Visit a shop, etc. Now mind you, I could have never imagined the levels of awesomeness our little player mats would be taken to after we met Jon. Safe to say when we met Jon, we had a very solid system that worked well mechanically, but it was far from awesome. Really, really far from awesome as it would turn out.
Side note: Jon has a rule when talking about design direction. The rule is, "Which one is more fun?" That's it. It seems simple, but so often we aren't wired to think this way. We're so worried about balance and all these other things that we miss out on something as important as, "Which one is more fun?" And the coolest thing is balance came even after choosing fun time after time. The lesson here is that you can balance later; make it fun first.
Mechanically there's the backbone. The octagon and square terrain/cities/outposts works amazingly well for trucking around goods, fighting, and performing missions. The player mats/action cube system has given players a nice and easy way to maneuver through our world. What we've done with this system is add an absolute mountain of special missions to accomplish. The three main factions in the game each have unique decks that give agendas to push, tasks to complete, and possible crazies to join your truck riding shotgun. But for a huge thematic game, the turns seem shockingly simple, and that's probably the thing I'm the most proud of from the mechanical side. Often I feel like I'm playing an RPG questing-style video game on the tabletop. The game mechanisms literally get out of the way and let people focus on the adventure at hand.
ZZZZZZZ... Oh, hi! Did Ben just write 2k words on a shape? Exciting stuff. That wall of text is why I have to write all the rulebooks, or if the publisher will spring for it, pay someone awesome like Dustin Schwartz to write them. Writing rules suuuuuuucks.
As designers, Ben and I are pretty quick to proto and even quicker to cut and run on a game if it's a fail bomb. If a proto sucks or is meh or is even just pretty good, we broom it and move on to something else. We do not hack at games endlessly that aren't working. We have plenty of ideas worth pursuing, so why try to polish a turd? WEDS was the exception — not that is was a turd, but that we would shelve it but never fully quit on it. We knew that in the bones of this sprawling pick up and deliver was a great game.
As I mentioned in passing above, WEDS had so many implementations: train game, soul gathering, regular Vikings, then for the longest time… SPACE VIKINGS! (You have to say it with a 1980s rock screech or the ol' 1980s toy commercial announcer guy voice: SPACE VIKINGS!!!!) I mean, it SEEMED like a really good idea with two awesome things mashed together. When we decided on space vikings as the official theme, I even wrote up the following opening story:
As the 9th century dawned on the Baltic Sea, the Viking Era was in full swing. Viking expansion was rampant and, in the way of the forefathers, the great Viking chieftains of the age were increasing their territories and holdings through hard work, pillaging, trading…and more pillaging! Well, most of the chieftains, that is. Clan Forkbeard did not have a chieftain. It had five. Sort of. Each one was more worthless than the last. Things had been going so well for so long that the five sons Forkbeard had been born with the proverbial amber spön in their mouths. The brothers took from the great Baltic Sea with no regard, no respect, and certainly no tribute. This behavior angered Aegir, the god of the sea. After a score of years with naught a monument built nor an offering left, Aegir had enough. Watching Clan Forkbeard move from island to island in the great Scandinavian archipelago with indifference, leaving destruction and waste in their wake, Aegir decided it was time to teach them a lesson. In his righteous indignation, he would restore the glory of his magnificent Baltic Sea and banish Clan Forkbeard…TO SPACE! Space Vikings!
Clan Forkbeard must restore their honor and earn Aegir's favor if they are ever to return to the only home they have ever known. Spread across a small but habitable system of planets deep in Ridback Galaxy, the brave and suddenly motivated Vikings have rallied their clan and are conquering the solar system the only way they know how — as Space Vikings!
Ya, that was a thing. At one point it even had a Quantum Leap joke about trying to get home and righting what once went wrong, dunno where that went. All that to say we had shelved the game but never stopped thinking about it.
Fast forward in time and I am tweeting away looking for anyone willing to print and test a print-and-play of our then-upcoming card game Eggs and Empires. Lo and behold, I get a DM from Jon Gilmour. Now understand this was pre-DoW, so he was just Jon Gilmour, not JON F@#$ING GILMOUR. Hell, thanks to Fleet Ben and I were considerably more "famous" at the time. (Famous in the context of an incredibly small and obscure corner of the internet…so not famous, but whatever the equivalent is for a couple of tier 3 hobby game designers.) Jon plays E&E and likes it. He and I chat a bit, find out we are pseudo local, and become Twitter friends, eventually leading to this collaboration.
As we turned Space Vikings into WEDS, so much stayed the "same": the player mats, the movement, the action system, and the economy. I am proud of the economy. It is not ground-breaking, but it is clever and works very well. Initially it was a very linear chart-y looking thing.
But the idea that the good in demand would set the price has persisted. We did a lot of work to make it simple and non-maintanence-y. I acutally think it was friend of the team, dicehateme himself Chris Kirkman who first suggested the wheel layout that we ultimately ended up with.
Another area we spent a lot of time on was the combat. We went down some major rabbit holes working on different combat systems that were sometimes clever, sometimes fun, sometimes neither. The more we did this, the more we decided it wasn't helping the game. We knew we were designing in the "mid-atlantic" or "Eurotrash" space, and the folks that play those big, sprawling thematic games are completely cool with a full page of conditional combat rules. We tried some systems that we came up with and a few we borrowed, but WEDS is a Euro pick-up-and-deliver at its core, and they just did not feel right. The closest my Eurogamer heart comes to enjoying combat is the displacement system in Hansa Teutonica. The other end of the spectrum is the simple yet effective X-Wing — roll X dice vs Y dice and hope you win! I think we ended up at a simple yet effective middle ground. It was what worked. We have notes for a few combat variances we are going to try in the inevitable expansion.
The biggest change of all that came through the development with Jon and Pandasaurus was getting rid of victory points. In every iteration pre-WEDS, you would play for two hours, roll some dice, have fun…then count to sixty-something. Again, I LOVE counting victory points. LOVE IT. As a designer, I love the granularity you can put into a game giving out points here, points over there, MOAR POINTS IS MOAR BETTER.
But for WEDS, it didn't make sense and it was NOT thematic. As we spent months working on making WEDS as thematic as possible, the points continually got in the way. Another buddy of ours from The Geek All-Stars podcast, Dan Patriss, had played an early version at Unpub 5 and mentioned in passing we should consider a Twilight Imperium-style system of goals. He is my boy, but I totally blew him off. Fast forward to a Panera Bread in Lansing, MI and Jon, Ben, and I are having that exact conversation, so we did it, and Priority First Class Contracts were born. That change, more than anything else, changed the feel and elevated the gameplay to what it is now.
Look at that super boring Euro-y scoring: blah blah blah monuments, set collection, space bucks! 1vp for $5, how original!
First, I want to say that, while we joke about me coming on board and "fixing" WEDS, that is not something I can take credit for. When I first played the game (when it was "Space Vikings"), I was a bit leery about what I could bring to the project. I don't really have great self-confidence, and to think of how I could possibly come on and make this project better, was a bit overwhelming. I took some time to digest it, think about it, and come up with some proposals for Matt and Ben.
I feel that one of my strengths is knowing what I like in a game and trying to further enhance that, so that is what I focused on. How could I help them make the things that were already great in this game better? The biggest was really theme. Some gamers feel that theme doesn't matter. There are great debates between designers about theme-first vs. mechanism-first design. My philosophy is Experience First. I ask myself what experience I want the players to have, and how I can best evoke those emotions.
When I played "Space Vikings", I tried to ask myself what other themes would fit and what kind of experience did I feel the game was already evoking, then I spent time trying to bring that experience further to life. I feel that when I came to Matt and Ben with a rework of the game, it was really only about 15% different. I cut some things, I swapped some things around, and I put a new coat of paint on it — but the heart was there, beating in this gritty post-apocalyptic shell.
Next, I want to talk about collaboration. It's something I love to do. I really think I work best when I'm not in a vacuum. Matt and Ben are not collaborators. They are much more of a symbiosis. They operate as a single unit, and it's amazing to be a part of it. They eat math and crap out great Eurogames unlike anyone else I've ever seen.
So when we started talking, it was easy to form a new rhythm with them. When I first got married, my father-in-law told me about the concept of an "emotional bank". In a relationship, you deposit into the emotional bank, and sometimes you withdraw, but you want to build a bigger and bigger positive balance. I feel like that is the key to good collaboration as well. I apply this concept to everything I do, so working with Matt and Ben was no different. Some days we would go back and forth on things we were passionate about. Some days I would win them over with my cries of "MOAR FUN", and on other days they would drop math bombs unrelentingly. In the end, we were all passionate about the game, so it helped us all stay invested in building a really good emotional bank account, and I feel like the game shows that love.
Finally, I want to talk about failure. Every game sucks at some point. If you don't feel like your game sucks, you are not being honest with yourself. I am a huge proponent of the "fail faster" school of design, and luckily Matt and Ben are fans as well. While hanging at Panera, we would mark on, tear up, and change things with abandon. You have to be willing to try new things with your designs and explore them. Your prototype doesn't need to look pretty. Don't be afraid to mark it up, scribble on it, and try things that dont make you comfortable.
(Matt here again. We are going to let Nathan chime in here. He and his wife Molly are Pandasaurus Games. They are the ones that decided to go all in on WEDS and make it awesome. They rule.)
This, I suppose, is the part where Molly and I (Pandasaurus Games) enter the picture. I was goofing off at my desk back when I still had a day job and saw a Twitter post from either Matt or Ben — it doesn't matter which one as they are a single legal entity — asking who wants to sign their new co-design with Jon Gilmour about delivering goods in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I replied yes, thinking it was a total lark and figuring that some way-cooler-than-me publisher would get the game.
Then I got a message back from one of Ben and Matt asking whether I was heading to Unpub that weekend. I was in fact not heading to Unpub at all, but was probably heading to Brooklyn to have brunch and watch a bad movie with our friends, so I did what any smart person would do and lied. Of course I was going to Unpub! Plans were cancelled, hotels were booked, and a rental car was procured. Molly, our dogs and I then proceeded to drive through the start of a blizzard from Manhattan to Baltimore.
When we got there, the first thing we did was grab Matt, Ben and Jon and a table outside the main hall where they gave us a five-minute elevator pitch of what was at the time called "Wasteland Truckers". (It would keep this name until about six weeks before we announced the game.) We were absolutely floored by the mechanisms and systems of interaction that were being described. Upgrading your vehicle, delivering goods, taking on jobs for factions — we knew all of those systems would present interesting choices for the players. At the time, the game still had a score track attached to it, but the plan was already in place to move them to the contracts.
Molly and I did not play the game there, but we would get our first hands-on with the game a few weeks later when we got a prototype copy of the game. We were already about 70% sold on the concept, but we obviously had to make sure the game was fun and balanced and all of the things that actually matter for a game to be a good game. About ten turns into our first game, we stopped and looked at each other and our grins were clear what we were both thinking: We were playing something super special.
As a publisher, you see a ton of prototypes, and many of them are good. A very few of them make you want to play the game again right away. Very, very, very few of them feel immersive or thematic when they are white foam core with chicken scratch on them. This one did.
Look at that white foam core! This is much later in the process, but still. So white.
Also, you can see Jason Kinglsey almost. He did the awesome player mat.
From there we knew we needed to throw the right artwork behind the game. One of my favorite comics from about fifteen years ago was a book called DMZ that was put out by DC's Vertigo imprint and had fantastic edgy artwork. I started out looking for art in that style and wound up getting put in touch with the actual artist from DMZ, Riccardo Burchielli, who was available and excited to work on the board game. Cue cartwheels at Panda HQ. This would be the formation for the rest of the graphic design. We wanted everything in the game to feel cobbled together from the leftover remnants of the world from before. Jason Kingsley nailed that exact aesthetic. We then turned towards making sure the graphic design was clear and easy to read, which meant multiple print-and-play iterations being playtested for absolute clarity and smoothness of the play experience.
It was at this moment we realized we had a real problem on our hands. Set up and tear down of Wasteland Express was taking far too long — like 30-40 minutes. I have games in my collection that I love that have really long set-up times, and I know they never hit the table. I asked the design team what could be done about this. Jon put me in touch with Noah Adleman at Gametrayz, and the rest is, as they say, history. Noah came up with the most insane insert solution I have ever seen for a game — not just something used for storage or quick set-up, but also trays that you actually use during the game that label different cardboard chits for easy location. Set-up is down to about 5-8 minutes now, and the experience is vastly improved for it.
I feel really weird being the guy ending this, but I will say that I think the job of a designer is to see the statue in the block of granite. The publisher's job is to smooth out the rough edges and make sure the statue gets placed somewhere for it to be seen. I hope that the miniatures and the graphic design and the Trayz do justice to what is, I think, our best published game to date.
Adam P. McIver
OH, HI BGG! I'm Adam P. McIver. You may know me from the art/graphic design work I've done on the smattering of games flashing in my GIF-y little avatar over there on the left, or you may remember my slick little microgame Coin Age, which won a Golden Geek award a while back, or you may have no idea who I am at all, which is totally fine, obviously. No worries, I get it. There's a lot to keep up with these days, it's hard to stay on top of it all. It's way more important to know your next-door neighbor's name than some guy on the internet. Make connections! Build community!
Anywho, you may be asking how I went from designing a microgame that is essentially a single card to creating Ex Libris, a hotly anticipated Gen Con 2017 release with over 150 cards? Well, it certainly wasn't as easy as just adding 149 or so cards, let me tell you. Turns out I actually had to design a COMPLETELY different game!
Just Another Idea in a Notebook
I, like so many other game designers, keep a lot of notebooks. Over the years I've filled probably a dozen or so notebooks with board game ideas, sketches of components, development notes, and more. A common bit of wisdom you hear from game designers is to get your idea into prototype form and on the table as early as possible. This is one of many areas in which I'm not terribly wise. I tend to keep game ideas in my notebook for a long time, making more and more notes, tweaks, sketches, and more sketches. Ex Libris began in the same way, with a few scribbles and notes to outline an idea.
Also pictured above: a couple of the dozens of doodles my wife Kerry sneaks into my notebooks
I love games where you're visibly building something in front of you as you play, games like Best Treehouse Ever, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Suburbia, Sapiens, etc., games where the placement of the components result in your own little creation by the end of the game. Being a bit of a bibliophile, I realized that one of the most aesthetically pleasing things to me is a well-curated, substantial bookshelf filled with hardcover books and old leather-bound tomes. And graphic novels. I'll be honest, about half of my library consists of comics. I decided to design a game about building libraries. And not just any libraries — fantasy libraries.
Why fantasy? Because I really enjoy when something potentially mundane and dry is paired with a magical setting. I prefer Caverna to Agricola, for instance. I bought into Thunderstone instead of Dominion. I'd likely rather play Dungeon Petz than a pet-raising game set in reality...
Actually, a realistic pet shop strategy game sounds pretty cool to me, now that I think about it. Lemme make a note in my notebook real quick...
Oh, yeah, fantasy libraries. With that seed in mind, I began brainstorming the game's connective tissues: fleshing out a basic theme, identifying the experience I wanted the players to have, and working out the game mechanisms that would tie it all together. From the sketches pictured above (and a few other pages of less visually-interesting notes), I let the concept guide me. I narrowed down to six categories of books that would exist in a fantasy world, then imagined what sort of rules would govern the quality of a bookshelf.
Before long, I broke outside of my notebook, created a slew of book cards, and started to play with them. I quickly realized that I didn't want the game to be solely driven by card-drafting since so many games have already done that well, so I expanded the scope and added worker placement to the mix. The action spaces represented locations where players would gain cards and manipulate their bookshelves. Taking it a step further, I included mechanisms that would vary the available locations so that each round would feel and play differently from the one before it. It all began to come together into something promising, and I'll admit I was very excited!
The Slog of Solo Playtests
A bit more honesty for y'all: I am not good at solo playtests. Having to keep track of the unique objectives of each imaginary opponent, simulating decisions without basing them on information that I know, but my fictitious fellow players aren't supposed to know, but also knowing what they know, but they don't REALLY know it, because they're just a figment, after all...
It may come as no surprise at this point in this rambling designer diary that I have ADD. Solo playtesting is a struggle for me. I ran through the earliest iterations of Ex Libris several times by myself, making changes and tweaks in between tries, but each time felt more like work than fun to me. My largest takeaway was, "It's a shame I wasted so much time on this." I placed it in my prototype closet, in the "maybe come back to these some day" pile. I lost a few nights of sleep turning over and over in my head just what had gone wrong and how I could fix it. Did I mention I also suffer from insomnia? I've got a really fun physiology!
(Don't run away just yet — a mid-post turnaround is just about to happen, I promise!)
Getting Encouraged by Encouragement
Fast forward a short while to pre-Unpub 6 preparations. Unpub is one of my absolute favorite conventions of the entire year. For anyone who is unaware of it, Unpub is a convention that exclusively showcases unpublished games. It's the best. Trust me. I was packing up an armload of other prototypes when Kerry asked me, "Are you taking that library game you've been tinkering with?" As an explanation of why I wasn't planning to, I began to describe the gameplay a little bit. This led to teaching her how to play, which led to breaking it out to play a sample round, which led to playing an entire game. And another one. And another one.
Now, Kerry has played a LOT of my prototypes in varying degrees of polish. She's a great sport. I can usually work out pretty quickly when she is suffering through a crummy experience and when she thinks I am onto something. Her demeanor was unlike anything she had exhibited after previous playtests. "This was fun. You have to take this. At least play it with Alex (J. Alex Kevern) and Chris (Chris Bryan) and see what they think, but I really like it."
Here's the strange part: I really liked it, too! The experience was much closer to what I had intended in the first place, and I was able to connect with the gameplay and strategy much better when it was being bounced off a non-fictitious opponent. Turns out that board games tend to work better when you play them with other people! Who would've guessed?
My takeaway was to accept that solo-playtesting just isn't my forte. I have an incredible amount of respect for anyone who is able to do it, but recognizing your own limitations is an important step, I think. With Kerry's encouragement, I decided I would take Ex Libris with me after all.
The first day of Unpub (and every day, really) was a whirlwind. So many fun prototypes and great people. Seriously, go to Unpub. All day, Ex Libris buzzed in the back of my head, scratching at my brain. I had registered my other games in the event program, but Ex Libris sat in my bag, nagging me to be played. Before I knew it, the day was over and our little crew was headed back to the hotel room to crash. At some point on our walk through the streets of Baltimore, I asked whether Alex and Chris would be up for trying Ex Libris before bed, and they obliged.
These were (and are) two of my very good friends, but I went into that playtest with a fair amount of nerves. Teaching any game late at night to worn-out convention goers can be a really rough situation, and both of these guys were beat from a day of playtesting. We pulled a table between the beds of our hotel room, put on our pajamas, and took a crack at it.
In my opinion, observing your playtesters during gameplay is nearly as important as their responses and opinions afterward. If you're observant, you can pick up on the experience they're having. After a round or two of play, I started to notice everyone waking up a bit. I began to catch sly smiles and nodding glances between my opponents. Kerry (who is one of the world's best sleepers) was sitting up straight and poring over the cards in her hand. As we neared the end of the game, everyone cared about who might win.
It was a hit. I can't remember their exact feedback (my night-brain was too tapped to remember to make notes), but Alex and Chris both made it very clear to me that I had created something special. That I should be proud. That Ex Libris was good.
I slept like a baby. No insomnia for the happy game designer.
A Playtest Leads To a Pitch
The day after our late-night library session, Unpub continued as normal. Alex had the table directly behind mine and had an early pitch with Renegade Game Studios for what would end up becoming Sentient. They had shown immediate interest and left his table smiling and energized (which makes sense as I loved Sentient two turns into my first playtest). After congratulating him and talking a little shop, Alex said, "Oh, hey, I also told them they should definitely check out Ex Libris today if they had time."
Within a whirlwind few hours of exchanging phone numbers and coordinating plans, Scott Gaeta and Sara Erickson from Renegade were at my table, and I was nervously fumbling my way through a rules explanation. Playing the game was a blur. Again, I don't remember much from the playtest, other than a few questions were asked and I air-balled a few bad jokes. They were friendly and seemed like they enjoyed themselves, and before I knew it, we had shaken hands and they were gone.
I wasn't really sure how the whole thing went (or how it all happened, really). Publishers often play their interest close to the chest, which I appreciate. There's no point in getting a game designer's hopes up if you can avoid it. By the end of the day, though, Scott and Sara had swung back around my table to ask whether they could take a copy of my prototype home with them. So that's a good thing, right? Right?
Streamlining, Signing, and Special Assistants
After Unpub, I immediately put together another Ex Libris prototype — as I had given Renegade my only copy, whoops — kept playtesting with more and more people, and began streamlining. I took note of which locations were used the most, which were most often ignored, and which seemed cool, but weren't enticing enough or didn't work exactly as intended. Locations were axed and added, nerfed and nitpicked. It was (and still is) vitally important to shelve book cards in Ex Libris, but only a few of the early locations allowed you to do so. The number of cards in a player's hand occasionally slimmed to frustratingly few toward the end of the game. I needed more ways to get cards and more opportunities to shelve them.
The further I developed the game, the more fun I was having with it. It was scratching an itch that no other game in my collection could get to. I've heard game designers say, "Design the game you want to play", and I found myself always wanting to play it. Feedback from playtesters was clear and consistent. They were all having fun, and I was feeling great.
Then one evening as I was wrapping up work, I received an email from Scott Gaeta letting me know that they had been playing Ex Libris with their groups back home, that everyone had really been enjoying it, and that they wanted to offer me a publishing contract. I was ecstatic and let the whole world know via social media as soon as possible. You know, as you do.
Working with Renegade was a treat from the start, surprising no one who is familiar with Scott and Sara. The process was very collaborative, and they were receptive to letting me explore new ideas. The first of which was the addition of special assistants.
A peek at early notes and sketches of the special assistants!
To add further replayability to the game, each player would now have one worker with a unique ability attached to the meeple itself. Thematically, I wanted to tie those abilities to intriguing settings for the libraries. The Fire Imp comes from a volcanic library, for instance. The Gelatinous Cube hails from a dungeon library, of course. I feel like these variable player powers really put the game over the top. Each one adds a nice wrinkle and gives you the opportunity to explore different play styles from game to game. Luckily, Scott and Sara agreed, and special assistants became officially official during a meeting at Gen Con 2016.
You can really see the excitement on Scott Gaeta's face!
During the meeting, Sara pointed out a funny book title I had scribbled on one of the cards.
I responded, "Yeah, it'd be cool if every book had a unique title."
"Do you think you'd be able to come up with a title for every book?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think I probably could." I replied, not really thinking it all the way through.
A Battery of Book Titles
There are 152 book cards in Ex Libris. Across those 152 cards, there are 510 individual books. I got to work throwing all the wordplay and cleverness at the problem I could muster, but I quickly realized that it would be far more difficult than brainstorming a list of funny titles. Those titles had to correspond to the game's six categories, which needed to be equally represented in the deck. And since alphabetical order is important when you're shelving cards, the arrangement of this list of 510 book titles could potentially throw the balance between the categories off, even if they were all equally represented. If the majority of the "Monster Manual" titles clumped together alphabetically, they'd be less likely to be drawn than a category that was dispersed evenly across the entire list.
I'd inadvertently given myself a gigantic logic problem to solve. Luckily I love myself a challenging puzzle! Using a combination of multiple spreadsheets, spare cubes and discs, hundreds of squiggly lines, and the kind of free time you have when your significant other is in Vancouver for fourteen days on business, I somehow cracked it.
The incredible spreadsheet conundrum!
I'm extremely proud of the result. My hope is that players will discover new books every time they play, and that you'll have plenty to read and laugh at when your AP-prone friend's turn is taking way too long.
Enter the Artwork
When the time came to begin production, Scott ran a list of potential illustrators by me, and I jumped at the chance to work with Jacqui Davis. Before long, the oddball world I had imagined for this game was being brought to life by her amazing talent. She populated the locations with a diverse cast of charming townsfolk and captured the perfect mood.
And then there were the books. Jacqui's artwork came together so perfectly with the iconography I created and the typography I used for the book titles that I couldn't be happier.
Seriously, look at these sexy books!
The View From Here
I'm writing this the week before Ex Libris debuts at Gen Con 50 in Indianapolis. This has been such an incredible journey that it's a little overwhelming to approach the end — even moreso considering that if it weren't for my wife and friends, it may never have left the closet. I'm hoping it will connect with an audience that will love it and share it with their friends and family. There's a fair amount of buzz building behind the game, and I'm beyond excited that it is so highly anticipated.
Creating is hard. Brains are weird. Encourage creators.
Marry your best friend. Listen to trusted friends. Work with great people.
Design your dream game and share it with everyone.
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