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BoardGameGeek News

To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, please contact BGG News editor W. Eric Martin via email – wericmartin AT

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Publishers Promote Plundering in Escape Plan, Raids, Ship of Treasures, and More

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Non-final cover by Ian O'Toole
• Designer Vital Lacerda has been wowing game fans since he arrived on the scene with Vinhos in 2010, and his next release with frequent publishing partner Eagle-Gryphon Games has been in the works since before that time. In Escape Plan, which will hit Kickstarter in 2018, 2-4 players have committed a heist together, but now it's every thief for themselves as the police start closing in. In more detail:

After a successful bank heist, the robbers retreat to a quiet city to lay low and enjoy the good life. Having largely hidden the cash, they have invested the rest in locations throughout the city. All is going according to plan until the police get a break in the case. Accusations are made, fingers are pointed, and everyone is a suspect.

Chaos ensues as the police call in the SWAT team and close the city’s exits. Life is no longer easy for the thieves. The only choice now is to escape the city as soon as possible, but the robbers need a plan — a good route that allows them to escape the city while recovering the money they have invested and, if possible, all the money they have hidden.

Time is short, and with the police and SWAT at their heels, it will be necessary to pull some strings to calm the situation. To accomplish this, time and money must be spent to hire the city’s gangs to create diversions. Bribing the cops isn't cheap, either. Disguises may help, but they will not fool everyone. Setting the cops on the trail of the others will allow you a better chance of escape, but the other thieves are thinking the same. Which player will make the best plan to escape with the most money and be the winner? Or will the cops foil the robber's plans and lockdown the city before the thieves escape?

In Escape Plan, players are the thieves, but they may influence the cops' moves every turn. The robbers move on a modular board trying to reach the best spots to recover their loot and escape from the city with more money than the other thieves. The cops are trying to thwart their escape plan — by force if necessary. The players play cards to aid their escape and slow the other players down. The players take actions that allow them to move and to engage gangs, mules, and snitches.

As a tactical game with no direct conflict, it contains asymmetric roles set by missions that players may achieve during the game while avoiding the police. The players' roles as thieves are individual with every player for themselves. In the end, only the player who escapes with the most cash wins.

• Another game along similar lines — a gang of thieves theoretically working together while worrying only about themselves in the end — is Robin Hood and the Merry Men, a game from Krstevski, Krstevska, Matovska, Poole, Toshevski, and Final Frontier Games that will also come to Kickstarter in 2018.

• Stealing is also required in Professor Treasure's Secret Sky Castle from Jason D. Kingsley and Level 99 Games, with this being a two-player competitive puzzle game in which you're trying to take back precious items stolen and hidden by Professor Treasure. Level 99 Games had originally announced this title in April 2016 along with two other two-player games, and it's now moving toward release in February 2018.

• More thieving takes place in Ship of Treasures, which was designed by fourth-graders Olivia Wasilewski and Brynna Siewers and which won the 2016 Chicago Toy & Game Fair's annual Young Inventor Challenge. As part of their prize, Pressman has now published the game, which is being sold exclusively in the Target U.S. retail chain. Here's an overview:

Grab a treasure map, hide your treasure chests, and start your search for hidden treasure in Ship of Treasures. Lift up trapdoors to reveal loot to plunder from the other pirates, but beware — you could end up with cannonballs instead of booty. You need a good strategy and some lucky rolls of the dice to be the first pirate to capture treasure chests from each of your fellow pirates and win the game!

Alessio Cavatore and River Horse Ltd., who released Jim Henson's Labyrinth: The Board Game in 2016, are back with a new title in a similar vein: Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal: Board Game. Description for this 2-4 player game due out in early 2018 is minimal: "Will Jen and Kira manage to find the Shard and heal the Dark Crystal?" To keep in line with the other games in this post, they will ideally pocket the Shard, then fence it for enough to retire in the Bahamas.

• To close out our special thieving edition of BGG News, in June 2018 IELLO will release Raids, a Viking-themed game from Brett J. Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan. I received an overview of the game at SPIEL '17 and offer this possibly accurate description, as well as pics of a mock-up copy that features final art, but not final graphic design:

In Raids, players sail from island to island to collect vikings and viking-related paraphernalia, using them fight one another for good spaces and fight monsters for points.

In more detail, the game lasts four rounds, and at the start of each round tiles are laid out at the various locations on the path that all players must follow. On a turn, a player moves to either an empty spot on the path to claim one of the tiles located there or to an occupied spot. In the latter case, the attacking player must sacrifice a viking, then the defending player must sacrifice two vikings or vacate the space; if they sac two vikings, then the attacker must remove three or leave. Eventually, someone must leave.

You can collect runes with an eye toward having lots of the same type or collect goods to sell at the end of the round. You might gather axes to give you better odds against monsters. You can collect more vikings for your crew.

At the end of each round, players score majority bonuses depending on the tiles that were revealed before the round started. After four rounds, whoever has the most points wins!

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Mon Nov 13, 2017 1:05 pm
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Crowdfunding Round-up: Battle Strike Slaughter for Afflicted Monster Demons

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Monster Slaughter from Henri Pym and Ankama might suffer from a bit of confusion given the title as the monsters are not being slaughtered but are the ones doing the slaughtering, with the victims being the teenagers that we've all seen in horror movies since the 1980s and with the players trying to off the teens in a certain order to score the most points. Gruesome stuff that's lightened somewhat by the 3D box bottom that functions like a child's dollhouse — except that all the slaughtering takes place within those walls, so the gruesomeness still abounds! (KS link)

For more details on the game, check out the game overview I recorded at the Cannes game festival in February 2017:

• I meant to check out Li Hsiao En's Dragon Canyon at SPIEL '17 as Sweet Lemon Publishing was working on a new version of this Chinese release from 2016, but as often happens at SPIEL, I didn't. Now it's being crowdfunded, so we can all learn about this skirmish game that requires temporary alliances on the path to long-term dominance of the kingdom. (KS link)

• Another battling game on KS right now is Shadow Strike: Melee from Benjamin, Buel, Muckell, and Pure Fun Games, with the game challenging you to knock out others while being able to see only the cards that they play and not your own. (KS link)

• Yet another battling game is Chris Faulkenberry's Battle for Biternia from Stone Circle Games, which marries the familiar 8-bit look of old video games with the battle arenas present in modern video games. (KS link)

Demons: The 9th Circle of Hell UNLEASHED from Aaron Antonich of Award Winning Games has not won any awards of which I am aware, and the description — a "card based, role playing, kingdom building, adventure game with dice" that has "Replay Value out the wazoo" — sounds overly optimistic, and the art isn't doing anything for me, but the game has cleared its low $5k bar, so I guess it will be coming to print in the future. How about that? (KS link)

• In the same spiritual realm as Demons, we have Sorcerer, a deck-building game that Peter Scholtz started designing in 2012 before eventually connecting with White Wizard Games, which is stepping out of its small box, Star Realms comfort zone to publish this larger game. The gist of the game is that you battle opponents to capture battlefields, but the hook is that before play you create your character RPG-style by combining three separate decks, which determine the spells you can cast, minions you can summon, and enchanted items you can use. (KS link)

We recorded an overview of Sorcerer at the 2017 GAMA Trade Show, but even before that we recorded a 16-minute overview with Scholtz and White Wizard's Rob Dougherty at SPIEL '16, a video that I have only just now found in our queue and published. (You wouldn't believe how much stuff I have in the hopper that's not published. Time is the enemy...)

• If you don't want to build decks, you can build dice with Kapow! from Bogucki, Hettrick, Van Ostrand, and L4 Studios, with this being a dice-building game along the lines of Rattlebones, except that you're a super-powered individual who wants to thrash another such person. (KS link)

• And if neither decks nor dice are your thing, you can build a bag instead in Chris Peach's Tabula Rasa from Kid Loves Tiger Games, an adventure game in which you customize your own bag of crystals to power actions or allow for specialized abilities as you attempt to reseal barriers to unstoppable evil. (KS link)

• Another adventure game is on its second KS go-round for a reprint, this being Folklore: The Affliction from Nick Blain, Will Donovan, and Greenbrier Games, which originally funded to the tune of $500k in 2015. (KS link)

• A game making a longer trip between printings is Medieval, a Richard H. Berg design from 2003 in which you attempt to control various parts of Europe that's been entirely retooled for its new edition from HGN Games. (KS link)

• At SPIEL '17 I received a quick rundown of Kai Herbertz's Albedo from his own Herbertz Entertainment UG, a sci-fi deck-builder that lets you flip cards around to use the side that works best for you in whatever situation you're currently confronting. (KS link)

• We'll close with something that isn't a game at all, but rather the raw materials of such: the Board Game Creative Kit from Polish publisher Games Factory. Should you feel like designing a game, yet don't want to get crafty or tear apart the games you own to scavenge them for parts, you can instead spring for this kit, then scavenge it. (KS link)

Editor's note: Please don't post links to other Kickstarter projects in the comments section. Write to me via the email address in the header, and I'll consider them for inclusion in a future crowdfunding round-up. Thanks! —WEM
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Sun Nov 12, 2017 1:05 pm
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Links: More Games of the Year, and Catan on Film?

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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• The Toy Association, a non-profit association that represents manufacturers and distributors of toy and "youth entertainment" products, has announced its nominees for their "toy of the year" awards, and the nominees for the TOTY game of the year include Happy Salmon, Beasts of Balance, and ThinkFun's Roller Coaster Challenge (which isn't a game, but which is as excellent as most other ThinkFun solitaire puzzles). Four other titles are nominated as well, including Hearing Things, which is yet another Hasbro title based on viral video activity, specifically "The Whisper Challenge" on Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show.

Two other games show up in the "innovative toy of the year" category: Hasbro's DropMix and Competo's KLASK, which is distributed in the U.S. by Buffalo Games. Until January 5, 2018, you can vote for a nominee in these categories or any of the other categories, with the winners being revealed on Friday, February 16, 2018, the day before NY Toy Fair opens.

One interesting aspect of these awards is that in previous years The Toy Association had categories for "boy toy of the year" and "girl toy of the year", something I called out back in 2016:

I'm pleased to see that these categories no longer exist. We don't need to place fences around who can play with which toys (just as we shouldn't place such fences around which games are appropriate for which segments of the gaming audience), and kudos to The Toy Association for recognizing this.

• In mid-October 2017, Richard Gottlieb of Global Toy News profiled Thames & Kosmos, which began as an independent company in 2001 and which now serves as the English-language publisher of games from German company KOSMOS. An excerpt from the interview with T&K president Ted McGuire:

Kosmos invested in and became the majority owner of TK in 2013. Along with this transaction, TK got access to most of Kosmos's board game and magic kit catalog. We have closely aligned our product portfolio and strategy with Kosmos (of course, with variations for difference in the markets). Kosmos has extraordinarily successful board game and magic lines, so it naturally makes sense to offer those in the North American market as well.

Beyond that, board games and magic kits are another way for us to teach kids important skills — in fact, entirely different sets of skills than what we can teach through science kits. So, with board games we can teach kids about strategic thinking, math, logic, and social skills, and with magic kits, we can teach kids presentation skills and eye-hand coordination skills, for example. Every product Thames & Kosmos puts out into the market has an educational aim behind it. At our core, we teach people how to learn and to be curious.

• In mid-October 2017, Variety reported that Sony Pictures was in negotiations to adapt Catan into a film, with Gail Katz — who acquired the film rights in 2015 — serving as producer. From the article: "We're excited to be working with Sony to bring the iconic world of Catan to life," Katz said. "As huge fans of the game, we're struck by the endless possibilities of stories that it could inspire. It's not every day that you have the opportunity to work in a world beloved by millions of people, and expand its story for the screen."
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Sat Nov 11, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Postview: Meeple Circus, or Piling Up the Points

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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[I wrote a decent number of game previews prior to SPIEL '17 — twelve in October 2017 and ten in September — but I played far more games than that, and further previews were thwarted only due to a lack of time. So many things to do ahead of SPIEL! Not content to throw that experience away, I'll run a series of postviews over the next couple of weeks. Sure, some people acquired these games at SPIEL '17, but they'll still be new to most people, so let's have a look! —WEM]

What do obsessive types like to do with their wooden bits when playing a game? Stack them, arrange them, make sculptures of them, create dioramas with them, catapult them into empty glasses — all sorts of activities that distract them from the serious business of playing a game, which perhaps is what inspired designer Cédric Millet to decide to make a game out of such activities.

The resulting publication — Meeple Circus from French publisher Matagot — gives you a juicy hot pile of wooden bits that certain parties will want to obsess over and press their eyeballs against.

As for the game in the box — for there is indeed a game inside — you draft these wooden bits over three rounds and use them to perform "circus acts" to gain applause, a.k.a. points, at the end of each round. Which acts, you might ask? The acts visible at the top of the four decks of act cards, with each deck focusing on a particular type of scoring action, such as one or more acrobats doing something with a ball, or an acrobat interacting with an animal performer (either an elephant or a horse).

At the start of a round, players take turns drafting twice: once from a set of round-specific cards and once from six face-up tiles; the game includes 18 such tiles, and with six available each round, you (and the designer) know that all of the featured items will be available at some point during the game. The round-specific tiles give you a set of objects in the first round, a guest star who scores in a very particular way in the second round, and a performative act in the third round.

You can draft either item first, but you then must draft the other type of item second. You keep all the bits as the game progresses, giving you more and more things to do in your circus ring once it becomes time to perform.

Draft set-up in round one for three players

After drafting your bits, you put on the circus music — yes, really — whether online or through the Meeple Circus app, then build whatever seems best to you in the two minutes that follows, racing against everyone else since the first two players to finish can grab bonus applause.

Once everyone has finished or time has run out, you score points for being quick, for completing the depicted acts, for using your guest star properly, for performing feats in the third round (more details on that below), and for using your acrobats properly. Blue acrobats are beginners, so they need to stand on the ground to score, while yellow regular acrobats must be off the ground and red daredevils score based on how high off the ground they are.

You score after each of the three rounds, then whoever has accumulated the most applause wins.

Performances at the end of round two

I've played [Meeple Circus twice with three players on a demo copy from Matagot, and one group raved, while the other couldn't wait for the show to pack up and leave town.

The challenge with this design is that it's taking what's essentially a solitaire activity and atempting to transform it into a shared experience — yet much of the action remains solitaire. Yes, you're drafting from a shared pool of resources, but in general you can always take something that's going to score in some manner. If you miss out on the horse, you can take a plank; if someone takes the plank, you can use a ball. You might have items that you want to get, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but not getting them doesn't keep you from scoring.

Guest stars available in round two; cards are double-sided with two ways to score

Much of the fun of a building/stacking game like Junk Art, Jenga, or Make 'n' Break comes from watching others do stuff. You want to watch them fail because it means you have a better chance of winning — and when they do pull off some feat that you thought couldn't be done, you have the joy of watching that amazing thing happen in front of you, with you sharing in their joy despite it lowering your odds for victory. They did something cool — neat!

In Meeple Circus, all of the stacking takes place simultaneously, so you start the timer, put your head down, then see what others have done only after you're finished. Sure, sometimes you hear curses, complaints, and crashes during the building round, but if you take your eyes off your own work, you risk disaster yourself.

This tendency toward solitaire building makes the performative feats in round three mostly pointless. These feats might require you to circle the ring with your animals prior to adding them to an act, or do a drumroll on the table with one hand while adding certain pieces to your ring with the other. As you're doing these things, you realize that no one is paying attention to you, so you feel foolish. Why am I bothering? I'll just take the highest-valued feat tile because the details don't matter.

Updated Nov. 10 to add: I'm a dope. As Dustin pointed out in the comments below, the third round is not played simultaneously, but one player at a time, starting with whoever has the fewest points. You do get to put on a show for everyone else. I had read the rulebook at least three times and hadn't noticed that detail, so the paragraph above is based on my incorrect playings of the game. I'll need to give the game another go with the correct ending performance to see how that compares to my previous experience. —end update—

Some of the feats available for drafting in round three

As for the act cards on display, they aren't as interesting as they could be because they're mostly the same throughout the game. Whoever has the fewest points at the end of rounds one and two removes one act of their choice, replacing it with the next one in that same deck — but the acts in each deck mostly use the same components in a slightly different arrangement, and since only one of the four is changed, if you made something and scored in round one, you can likely make it again in rounds two and three to score again. Having new acts each round would force you to figure out new ways to put your bits together, keeping the later rounds from feeling like repetitions of the first.

Four different scoring cards

I get why the game includes this rule for changing act cards. You want to give the player in a last place some ability to affect what scores in order to give them a chance to catch up, but you can replace an act that allows you to score with a plank only with a different act that scores with a plank, so I'm not sure what's gained. (At the same time, you want to keep all of these types of goals available so that people don't feel like they've wasted a draft pick taking something that turns out to be worthless later.)

In the end, the secret to success with Meeple Circus seems like the secret to success for a real circus: Know your audience, and make sure you're delivering what they want. Some folks are happy to build stuff and marvel at what they've built; some are not.

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Fri Nov 10, 2017 8:06 pm
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Lucca Comics & Games 2017 III: New and Nearly-New Games at the Show

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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When I first looked around the games pavilion at the 2017 Lucca Comics & Games festival, I had flashbacks of the just finished SPIEL '17 event, the massive convention in Essen, Germany that had ended only three days before Lucca opened. Many of the new games from that earlier show were on the demo tables once again, but this time in Italian, such the Cranio Creations' title A Tale of Pirates (which I had meant to preview ahead of SPIEL '17, but didn't as I ran out of time — still embarrassed about that...):

Cranio Creations also had the Italian edition of Gaia Project on hand, even though Lucca seems more oriented toward a family audience and casual play than SPIEL, which is itself very family-oriented, albeit with a rich vein of geeks running through that mainstream crowd.

As with designer Eric M. Lang, who I had highlighted in my first report from Lucca, Photosynthesis designer Hjalmar Hach had traveled from SPIEL '17 to Italy, with the main difference between the two being that Hach is from Italy, so he had a home-turf advantage when it came to signing copies and talking with game fans.

Dungeon Digger from Tin Hat Games was a title that I had added to the SPIEL '17 Preview, then forgotten. I had thought the game was brand new at Lucca until I started looking into it. Perhaps I have reached the limit of what my brain can hold.

HABA had its standard child-friendly set-up, with more Rhino Hero: Super Battle ready for action.

While Placentia Games had sold out of Danilo Sabia's Wendake for its debut at SPIEL '17, more copies were in reserve to ensure that the game could debut at Lucca as well. Plenty of publishers operate this way, and it's understandable why they do. You want to make a splash at each show, creating fresh buzz for a game in each territory it's available, with a limited number of copies getting into the hands of buyers now in order to (ideally) drive retail sales down the line.

Along that line of thinking, copies of Ares Games' Hunt for the Ring were in short supply, while...

...the new Hamilcar game hadn't quite made it to the finish line in time for Lucca after showing up at SPIEL in multiple non-Italian languages.

While not new at SPIEL '17, Balance Duels is a SPIEL regular, with designer/publisher Bum van Willigen (in the yellow shirt) having appeared at that show year after year since he debuted the game at SPIEL in 2005. Apparently he makes the rounds to other European game shows as well.

Not everything proved to be an echo of shows past as numerous publishers featured titles that were new on the Italian market, new to me, or both. When I didn't recognize games, I snapped pics, figuring that I could investigate them later. Cranio Creations had an Italian version of Piotr Siłka's deduction game Kryptos, for example, with this game having been first released by Trefl in 2014. Into my camera you go! And now you're in the BGG database, too.

Tolomeo is a new release from designer Diego Allegrini and relatively new Italian publisher Dal Tenda. Here's a description of the game from the publisher:

In Tolomeo, players demonstrate their knowledge of astronomy to observe the sky and anticipate the planets' movement. Be careful because the speed of each planet differs in line with the Ptolemaic model, and you should consider the sun and moon as well. If you want a shot at victory, you have to spot astral conjunctions, make the best use of the comet, and take advantage of the planets' influence on each other.

Did you know that Shanna Germain's No Thank You, Evil! from Monte Cook Games is available in Italian? No? Me neither! Someone please investigate and add a version listing for this item to the database, please.

We already have Prestige and Dwarfest from Il Barone Games S.r.l. in the database, but not Stupido Umano. Another cry for action!

I was previously familiar with neither Italian publisher playagame edizioni nor Russian publisher Simple Rules, which is the originating publisher for all the kids' games being sold by playagame at Lucca 2017. This might not matter for you, but I aspire to know as much as I can about who's doing what where, partly out of self-interest but also out of curiosity to see what's happening in the industry at large.

War Titans: Invaders Must Die! from Crawling Chaos Games has been on Kickstarter twice without funding, but this title from a half-dozen Italian designers was being previewed at Lucca 2017 all the same, perhaps to gear up for Kickstarter attempt #3.

Misantropia is a design from Francesco Stefanacci and CosplaYou in which you try not to hate your fellow humans too much. From the description on BGG:

In this game, you are a modern worker with an average job, particularly unlucky. Gradually it will happen the most different things during the day (round of play) and your patience will decrease. When you finish the patience your hatred for humanity (misanthropy) will increase and you will begin to develop psychosis and phobias of all kinds. To win you must be totally sane after a fixed number of turns. This is quite difficult, so the player with less "insanity points" will win.

Apparently Misantropia Express challenges you not to hate your fellow humans too much in a shorter amount of time. All the Italian text made this a non-starter in terms of investigating further, alas.

Other new titles from CosplaYou in 2017 include Tié, a party game in which you set rules for everyone to follow, and Sushi War: All You Can Hit!, in which you try to get the right sushi ingredients in the right places to complete orders, using only chopsticks to maneuver the dice.

CosplaYou had plenty of other titles on display as well, all of them published since 2015 when they started and all of them new to me.

I thought that one more post about Lucca would be enough to cover everything, but with so many pics to publish, I'm splitting my final wrap-up into its own post and leaving you for now with a few more random pics of games available for purchase at the show.

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Thu Nov 9, 2017 1:00 pm
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Brief Update, SPIEL '17 Videos, and What's Up with Mayfair?

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Three things:

1. I'm still on the road for another couple of days. Regular posts will return soon, starting with my final Lucca Comics & Games report.

2. I've started publishing the individual game overview videos from SPIEL '17 on our YouTube channel, and those videos will pop up on the individual BGG game pages as well. We're having a back-up issue, so the videos aren't being published in chronological order, but in the end we'll get them all out anyway and all will be fine.

3. Something is happening with Mayfair Games and Lookout Games, but it's not clear what. Alex Yeager, who had been serving as Mayfair's lead acquisitions person and main developer since Asmodee acquired the English-language rights to Catan in January 2016, posted publicly on Facebook that November 3, 2017 was his last day at Mayfair after twelve years with the company. Julie Yeager and Chuck Rice are also no longer with Mayfair. I've asked the current contact person at Mayfair for information on the company's status and received no response; a similar request to a contact at Lookout Games received a "no comments at this time" response.

A glance through the last twelve months of releases from Mayfair shows almost nothing original to the company, aside from Food Chain, Run Bunny Run (a licensed game), and a new edition of Iron Dragon. Everything else from Mayfair originated from Lookout Games. Ideally we'll learn more about this situation in the near future.

From a series I'm calling "Rueing the day in Rome"
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Wed Nov 8, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Spirit Island, or Inverting the Colonization Trope

R. Eric Reuss
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[Editor's note: Designer R. Eric Reuss submitted this designer diary prior to Gen Con 50, but given the shortness of supply at the time, I decided to hold off on publishing it until the game would be available again. Greater Than Games' Mara Johannes-Graham tells me that "Spirit Island is slated to be back in stock late November/early December", so for those still interested in learning more about the game, here you go! —WEM]

Spirit Island is a fully cooperative game in which you play spirits of nature who are driving off the invaders colonizing and ravaging your island home. You have some help from the Dahan — the first humans to arrive, many centuries ago, with whom you now get along passably well — but will nonetheless need to grow and adapt, wielding ever-increasing elemental powers in order to prevail. It's a complex, strategic co-op that takes about 90-120 minutes to play.

Turns are simultaneous: All spirits grow, extending their reach and abilities, then you play power cards that will (eventually) affect the island. Fast powers resolve, then the invaders act, then slow powers resolve. Players lose if the island is overrun with blight, if a spirit is completely destroyed, or after twelve turns. At first, winning requires obliterating every last invader — which is extremely hard — but the more you terrify them, the easier victory becomes.

Creating Spirit Island has been a long road — over five years! I'll tell the story of its conception first, with a quick sketch of the arc it went through, then drill down into some individual areas of design.

The Idea

One question that crops up a fair bit is, "How did you think of the theme?"

There was a moment during a colonization action (of which game I can no longer recall: Goa? Navegador? Endeavor?) where my focus on the game elements cracked and fell away, replaced by the thought, "I wonder how ticked off the locals are about this new colony of foreigners. Well, we'll never know because this game has entirely abstracted away the people who already lived there. That's rude." Maybe I shared the thought, maybe people laughed, and we got back to the game.

It stuck with me, though, because so many Eurogames have themes from that era: some explicitly colonial, others social or mercantile. It seemed like a game that portrayed the opposite point of view — that of being the subject of colonialism and trying to fight it off — could be interesting, and perhaps...highlight? lampoon?...the prevalence of Eurocentric, colonial-ish themes.

In retrospect, I could have taken an entirely different route: Find a specific colonial vs. anti-colonial struggle to try to model, going down a path that has led to, e.g., King of Siam and Volko Ruhnke's COIN series. Instead, my brain flew off down the path of a conflict that never was, but which could stand in for struggles against different colonial powers throughout history. Like many of my early ideas, this proved trickier than I first anticipated, but worthwhile in the long run.

By the time I'd fleshed out the initial idea, I had four primary goals branching off from the core goal of "is fun to play". I wanted to build a cooperative game that:

• ...was as thematically evocative as strong "experience" games like Arkham Horror,
• ...but with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay,
• ...and a playtime of roughly two hours,
• ...that wasn't susceptible to an alpha-player/quarterbacking.

I'll revisit these goals later on.

Initial non-modular board concept
Initial Design, a.k.a. Before Parenthood

I knew I wanted the spirits to feel extremely different from each other, but without needing a huge set of customized rules for each one, so my core mechanical underpinnings had to support a wide variety of thematic elements, strategies, and styles-of-play. Daunting! But the enthusiasm of Ted Vessenes, a friend and fellow game designer, got me rolling. (Ted has been an incredible help with development throughout.) I brainstormed pages worth of "how could a spirit of nature, myth or legend act against humans it didn't want hanging around?", and where I saw frequently-repeated commonalities, I grouped them as areas under which to build pillars of mechanical support. The most-repeated concept was some variation of "hit them in the face", thus damage came to be.

I blasted through early versions which nobody else ever saw and put together a prototype to bring to a local con. Its reception was much, much better than I'd expected, given how rough the game was, and that it omitted several bits that I didn't want to introduce until the core-systems bedrock they'd be built upoon had settled down. There weren't even individual spirits yet; starting uniqueness was simulated by giving each player two random cards from the minor power deck.

I iterated rapidly through June and brought my prototype to Origins 2012. Christopher Badell of Greater Than Games happened to wander through the UnPub area where I'd set up and was super-enthusiastic about Spirit Island's potential; he said he hoped I found a good publisher for it, whether that proved to be >G or some other company. I took that as a good sign and came home feeling great!

But at that point, Spirit Island had to wait as my wife and I had our first child.

The Slow Years

Being a parent is awesome, but takes a lot of time and energy, particularly at first. We're fortunate enough to have family nearby, which got us back to having occasional free time + energy more quickly than some of our friends with kids, but even so, my pace of development slowed way down. While this was occasionally frustrating, in hindsight I think the metaphorical slow-cooker was good for the game: It made time for gradual revelations about core structures that might not have developed if I'd been blitzing along at speed.

I brought Spirit Island to pitch at Origins 2013 and did indeed end up signing with Greater Than Games. We began weekly development calls the following January, and in October 2014 unleashed a horde of >G's playtesters on it...because my wife and I were expecting our second child in January 2015! Those three months were intense and produced many worthwhile changes, and I handed off a set of notionally-final files to >G shortly after the New Year. (It was unclear when they'd Kickstart the game, and whether I'd be able to be involved.)

Then I took another hiatus to welcome another tiny human into the world.

Version 3 of the game board
Final Push

By July 2015, I again had a bit of time and energy, and I slowly started to address the feedback that had built up over the prior six months. Greater Than Games ran a Kickstarter in September, which went well. Most stretch goals were already developed and simply needed economies of scale to include, but one — a third adversary for the core game — was genuinely new. October through December 2015 again turned into rapid-iteration testing, both designing the new adversary and handling a bunch of updates to spirits and power cards based on a more thorough understanding of the game.

I handed off actual-final files at the end of 2015, and aside from an insane frenzy of proofing in Aug.-Nov. 2016 and some eProofing look-overs in March 2017, that was it for me.

Those Design Goals...

How did they pan out? thematically evocative as strong "experience" games like Arkham Horror

Making a game involves constant tradeoffs. Any time you add, change, or drop something, you ask yourself: "Does this serve elegance?", "Does this serve balance?", "Does this serve excitement?", "Does this serve theme?", etc. When the answers differ, you prioritize, and what you're willing to trade for what-else influences the feel of the game you end up designing.

Historically, my natural tendency has been towards a Euro-ish aesthetic, but this theme cried out to be strongly served, and I wanted to stretch myself as a designer, so I made it an explicit goal to give thematic considerations a more prominent voice in my decision-making — and (once I got to the point of pitching) to make sure I felt that whoever published it was going to do justice to the game's theme in art and components.

How strongly theme comes through in any game is at least somewhat subjective, so whether I succeeded at this goal is something each player will have to judge for themselves. Personally, I'm very happy with where it ended up.

...with substantially deeper, more strategic gameplay

Because of the tensions discussed above, high priority on "thematic" can sometimes lead to games that aren't especially high on meaningful choice. Play may offer an awesome ride, or result in a very intricate series of thematic things happening, but I like thought in my games: I want my tactics to matter, my strategy to be useful (or, perhaps, flawed), and to have the control to enact meaningful tactical and strategic choices.

Also, there are a lot of lighter cooperative games out there. Many are great on meaningful choice, but are fundamentally scoped to be smaller, shorter, more casual games, and I found myself wanting more of a "gamer's-game" co-op.

On this count, I'm confident I succeeded. There are core tactics and strategies to master, as well as variations and divergences for individual spirits or against particular adversaries. There's a huge amount of depth and a high degree of player control, without sacrificing variety and exploration.

Mostly final game board
...a playtime of roughly two hours

My target was "long enough to feel really significant, but short enough to fit into a game evening / not need a whole afternoon blocked off".

The playing time of a game is something that's notoriously difficult to specify accurately. Length varies with player experience and often with player count, and some playgroups are just way faster/slower than others. The industry standard seems to be "assume the players know the game", i.e., first plays will tend to run longer than listed. During playtesting, I polled a bunch of groups, and found a (very!) rough clustering near an average:

• 1p: 45 minutes
• 2p: 75 minutes
• 3p: 105 minutes
• 4p: 135 minutes

I was pretty surprised that game length scaled up roughly linearly with player count since all players act simultaneously! But once I started paying attention, I realized the difference wasn't in the mechanical play — it was in the discussion. With more players, the "discuss plans" portion of the game became both more engaging (more people to talk with) and longer (more options). Any player is allowed to call a halt to the planning and start resolution, so discussion didn't tend to go uselessly long; even longer games had the feel of "it took a while, but we were engaged the whole time".

(A few convention games did end up with a split between very fast-paced and very slow-paced players, and the fast-paced players didn't feel okay invoking the "done deciding now" rule with strangers at the table, but those were, happily, the rare exception rather than the rule.)

Given those numbers, what to put on the box? Having "45-135 minutes" isn't an especially useful time-range for someone browsing games in a store; it implies a lot of chaos that isn't there. But 105 minutes — the average of 2/3/4-player games — is the mean of "90-120 minutes", and "90-120 minutes" also accurately signals the rough weight/complexity-level of the game, so that's what we went with.

I judge this one a reasonable success. On average, the game comes in slightly faster than I'd originally aimed at, but the game still has a great arc and feels awesome, so I'm satisfied.

...wasn't susceptible to an alpha-player/quarterbacking

A semi-common complaint about cooperative games is the alpha player, that is, the one player (who is more experienced, more vocal, or more pushy) who tells other people what they should be doing with their turn, effectively playing the game for them. While this could technically be called a difficulty with the player (or playgroup), a game's rules can absolutely make the tendency more or less prevalent, and more or less of a problem when it crops up.

The first iterations of Spirit Island had a rule which limited communication. The players were spirits of wildly diverse elements, after all, so they weren't allowed to discuss plans in any language shared at the start of play. They could use evocative noises and gestures/pantomime, and language was fine for things like rules questions, resolution of mechanisms, and "Hey, could you grab me a drink?" — just not what you were going to do on your turn.

This rule destroyed the alpha effect. Players could readily communicate simple concepts like "I'm going to hurt this land bad" or "I'm scared by this cluster of invaders over here", but the type of specific directive involved in alpha-ing just couldn't be gotten across. Perhaps 25% of playtesters loved the rule for how it felt thematic and encouraged roleplaying — but the other playtesters all hated it. For many people playing co-ops, much of the fun is puzzling through a problem together with friends, and excising the alpha-player problem had taken that out along with it.

I took a fallback position: Players could discuss whatever they liked, but couldn't show each other the power cards they were going to play, and they played these cards face down (until they were resolved). There's enough going on in the game that I thought this might discourage the emergence of alphas because you wouldn't have the information to be able to plan someone else's turn for them. This worked well, but playing power cards face down meant people had to constantly look at what they'd played, trying to remember details of their powers to ensure they hadn't made a mistake. It became clear that this was a bad idea, so I warily changed the rule to "you can show people your cards" and "play them face up"...

...and the sky didn't fall. It turns out that the combination of "simultaneous play" and "reasonably involved game" goes a long way toward discouraging alpha behavior, both because each player has enough to do with their own position that they don't meddle out of boredom, and because — especially in larger games — there's simply enough going on that keeping track of every detail of what every player is doing is too much for one human brain to easily hold. By mid-game, for example, each spirit might be playing three power cards (from a selection of 5-7) and perhaps triggering an innate power or two. Holding the choices in your head for your 3-4 powers isn't hard, but holding the choices in your head for the 8-16 powers being used by everyone at the table is really hard, and in practice discourages strong alpha behavior. (This also makes solo testing something of a bear. I can run two-spirit games by myself pretty comfortably, but I slow way down as soon as I start simulating three players.)

I've seen weak alpha-ing crop up from time to time, but rather than "Player A takes over Player B's turn", it comes only in the form of specific requests, e.g., an experienced player asks a less experienced player to please use a particular power this turn, or an experienced player suggests a different target for a power the less experienced player has chosen. It's barely over the border from "good, healthy cooperation".

So I didn't manage the complete immunity I was shooting for but did manage some resistance, albeit by a completely different means than I'd first planned!


Now to cover some individual areas of design, with these sections being taken or condensed from individual entries in my "Musings and Retrospectives" blog on BGG. You'll find many more such areas covered there.

Powers (original post)

A prototype minor power card
Powers are what the spirits use to act within the game. There are power cards (cards in your hand) and innate powers (printed on your spirit's panel). Power cards cost energy to play, and you're limited in how many you can use each turn. Innate powers don't have either of those restrictions, but they're triggered only on turns that you've played certain combinations of elements on your power cards (those things running down the left-hand side).

Each spirit starts with four unique power cards. More can be gained as the game goes on, from the minor power and major power decks. Major powers are very potent, but have high energy costs, and to gain one you have to "forget" ( that is, lose forever) a power you already know.

The core concept of power cards has existed from the beginning of the design. Innate powers — and the elements themselves — were conceived of alongside them, but absent from the initial prototypes to make sure the underlying systems of the game worked before layering other pieces atop them.

The major areas of mechanical evolution have been:

Power Speed

The first draft of the game (on paper) had something ridiculous like eight phases per turn. I immediately trimmed this down to six, which went something like:

1. Buffs to other spirits
2. Defense powers
3. First invader action
4. Do one sort of nasty thing to invaders
5. Do another sort of nasty thing to invaders
6. Second invader action

By the time I got the design in front of playtesters, I'd merged #4 and #5, and #6 was relevant only in the second half of the game. (The invader deck had two cards of each terrain. The first time through, the invaders acted once per turn at #3. After you reshuffled, they acted at #3 *and* #6.)

It didn't take many playtests to find the split between #1 and #2 terribly awkward, so I condensed powers down to "fast" (before invaders) and "slow" (after invaders). Phase #6 was eliminated, replaced by the two-terrain Stage III invader cards.

A year or so ago, I looked into dropping the fast/slow distinction entirely, making everything fast. On a mechanical level, this would have worked; it would even have streamlined the game some, and satisfied those testers who disliked having their plans messed with by events — but it would have been a huge hit on theme. The spirits are supposed to by-and-large be slower than the invaders, scrambling to anticipate and react in time. Making everything fast removed that. It also lowered power diversity, gutted one very popular spirit concept, and removed a particular type of planning that I (and many of the game's fans) especially liked about it.

(Making everything slow would have eliminated entire categories of defense cards, or required awkward carry-over-to-the-next-turn effects. It was a non-starter.)

So I decided that the slow/fast split ought to stay, but worked on developing "blitz": a simple scenario that lets players play with entirely-fast spirits, either to explore the difference in feel, or if they just prefer that mode of play.

(This possibility was another reason to go the way I did as making a scenario in the opposite direction would have been impossible.)

A prototype major power card

Power cards used to be able to have more than one of an element: two fire and one plant, for instance. This turned out to be a bad idea.

First, counting seems to be much easier on the brain than adding, even when the addition is "one plus one plus two plus one". Playtesters had a substantially harder time adding up their elements than counting them up.

And with no more than one of an element on each card, "number of card plays per turn" is a general ceiling on how many elements of any type a spirit can have. This allows for much easier calibration of innate powers: If an innate triggers off of four water, I know it can't be hit without playing four cards. (Modulo any elements on the spirit's presence track and a few co-op effects.)

What sorts of powers are there?

Early versions of the game included many effects that are no longer present. There were a whole mess of additional effect-tokens that could be put onto the board. There were divination effects, which let you peek at what the invaders were going to do next. There were multi-turn powers that ramped up for each turn you kept them in play.

All of these ended up being dropped or deferred for one reason or another, usually complexity, though a few just never ended up working well, and learning what the invaders will do ahead of time turns out to be too much information, making things un-fun.

Energy scaling

Energy values used to be about 3x what they currently are, with costs running up into the high 20s. There was a long energy track on the spirit mats to accommodate this, with "+50" and "+100" spots.

Someone at a local testing meet-up suggested lowering the granularity on all energy costs by as large a factor as I could manage. I was initially resistant as the fine granularity meant I could base a power's effects entirely off of its theme, then cost it very precisely, but the advantages were so huge that I eventually took the advice, and oi, I'm glad I did. Slashing costs by a factor of three (then lowering them all by one energy to make each play more intrinsically powerful and permit very-low-energy, lots-of-small-power strategies) dropped the range to 0-9, which is great for card layout, eases the need for addition (especially since most numbers are 0 or 1), and permits using "coins" for energy instead of a space-eating, too-easy-to-bump track.

Major Powers

The first versions of major powers didn't grant elements, and flatly required certain elements to play at all. Both these things proved un-fun and were replaced by "if you have certain elements, the power does more", which worked about a hundred times better.

The cost for gaining a major power shifted many times. At one point or another, you had to:

• Pay energy
• Destroy one of your sacred sites (back when sacred sites were a separate piece)
• Destroy your presence
• And other things I can no longer remember

The solution of forgetting cards you already had came from the other direction: I was actively looking for something that permanently removed power cards from circulation, partly because every once in a while, someone got a minor power draw in which all four options were genuinely sub-par (given the spirit + circumstances), and partly because sometimes players would end up with an unwieldy number of powers in the late game, especially if they didn't have many card-plays. Forgetting another power to get a major power addressed both issues, and also worked well thematically; gaining a major power is a big step up for most spirits, and it made sense they'd have to lose a little bit of who they were in order to become a being incorporating this new, massive thing.

(One of the side themes of the game is "How will you change in the face of adversity?")

A prototype spirit panel with innate power at lower right
Starting powers

For a long time, spirits had three unique powers and three standard starting powers. Two of the standard powers added presence (or, when they were a separate piece, a sacred site) in different ways, and one let you send dreams to the Dahan telling them to move.

At PAX East 2014, I played a number of nicely thematic-feeling games, and somewhere in there I looked at Spirit Island and said, "These standard powers are diluting the unique feel of each spirit." I'd previously considered giving each spirit unique presence-adding powers, but felt that was asking for trouble; not every spirit wants really distinctive ways of getting presence on the board, and designing the game such that I had to come up with two interesting and thematic presence-adding power cards for every spirit seemed like asking for trouble.

But after wracking my brain for a while, I came up with a different plan: Give each spirit a unique power for their relationship with the Dahan, and don't add presence with powers at all. Instead, roll that and the things covered by "seeking" (an old mechanism for reclaiming used power cards and gaining a new one) into a regathering/expanding of strength called "growth", i.e., the organic processes which didn't involve a spirit using special powers, just...growing, living, changing. Each spirit could have different growth choices, and while the atomic pieces of those options could be very simple ("Add a presence at range 1"), the way they were grouped could, I thought, let different spirits feel appropriately different and offer strategic choice in how they progress. (And indeed, it does.)

It took roughly six months for the major side-effects of this change to shake out, and over a year for me to get as good a handle on growth as I'd had on the previous system — but the benefits have been fantastic: spirits' starting powers are entirely unique. Spirits need fewer card plays (since they used to need an average of one/turn for presence placement), which makes early game decisions more manageable for new players, as does having fewer powers overall (which also benefits later-game hand size). It's removed certain presence-spamming openings, which makes it easier to predict/design around a spirit's rough power-level at any point in the game. It allows growth design to influence how a spirit spreads and feels while spreading. And...

How power cards are gained the old seeking model, spirits gained a new power card only when they reclaimed all of their spent power cards (which cost some energy at end-of-turn). The shift to growth decoupled "reclaim powers" from "gain a power card", which permitted a much greater diversity of tempo among spirits. Many still kept one growth option with the two of them together, and it's a good dynamic, especially for beginning players (since if you dig yourself into the hole of "I'm playing so many power cards that I have to reclaim every turn", it automatically self-corrects by giving you more power cards). But spirits could now have other options for gaining power cards, and some spirits separated doing so from reclaiming entirely.

Adversaries (original post)

An adversary is a specific invader nation to fight against. Each one changes the game in different ways, and offers multiple levels of difficulty, starting at "a step up from the learning game" and going to "masterful players with hundreds of games under their belt have maybe a 50-50 shot of winning". Making an adversary tends to involve the following:

1. Research on the country's historical colonization efforts and society-at-large, with a particular eye towards "How were they distinct from other colonizers/countries of that time period?" If it's a country that didn't have much colonial activity in real history, "why not?" and "how is the alternate history different?" are important to know, too. I may do this research myself (which is fun, but time-consuming) or get a precis/have a discussion with someone who has a deeper body of knowledge than my own.

2. Brainstorm possibilities for representing the distinctive items from #1 in game terms.

3. Find a core gameplay element (or pair of elements) to modify/subvert, changing up the game in interesting ways. Ideally, this is based off of the possibilities in #2 so that the core element reflects historical/alt-historical reality.

4. Experiment with different progressions to see which make for a good difficulty ramp. Make sure the core element from #3 appears early on in the progression. (Level 1 or Level 2.)

English everywhere (image: Erkki Lepre)
Example: England

Research taught me that Britain's later colonies (U.S., Australia) tended to have much greater immigration and population than most other nations' colonies, and some of the reasons behind/consequences of that fact. Also, that Britain gave its colonies greater (though still limited) autonomy in self-governance: Decisions could be made locally which in other countries' colonies might have required taking six months to consult the homeland.

Brainstorm: How to represent "more population"? How to represent the land grants given to indentured laborers? How to represent local self-governance? There were multiple possibilities for each; I listed a number out.

Core element: One idea looked particularly promising for shaking up play with a historically-inspired feel. Normally, invaders build only in lands which already have other invaders in them (at least an explorer). But "indentured laborers gaining land" could be represented by ignoring that restriction; lands bordering multiple towns/cities could build even if unexplored, representing local laborers earning their plots (without much choice about where those plots are). Repelling explorers to prevent building is a core tactic of the game; this rule foils that tactic in areas of invader strength.

I then chose several of England's other effects to help support this core element: representing "more immigration" with an extra build action means the indentured-laborers rule crops up more. Starting each board with two extra buildings makes the coastal regions vulnerable to it from the get-go. And so forth. Multiple adversary designs might subvert the rule "invaders build only in lands where they already are", but they'll do so in different ways, and part of that difference is what other effects support the core modification.

...and from there, it's been experimentation to figure out good orderings and testing to figure out if it all works.

But it doesn't always happen in that order.

Example: Brandenburg-Prussia

This adversary arose from a playtester request for an adversary that made the game harder, but changed the basic dynamics of play as little as possible. I was initially a bit resistant; the whole point of adversaries was to present a unique opponent requiring different strategies! After some conversation, though, it became clear that testers usually reached "desire for increased difficulty" before reaching "desire for increased variety in strategy-space", so they won me over.

In this case, I started with step #3 — find a core gameplay element — because I had a particular mechanical purpose in mind. The boost that least changes the core strategies of the game is speed, so the invaders would simply come faster, more accelerated. ("Start the board with more invaders" changes dynamics even less, but doesn't work well as a core element; I'll talk more about this below.) As the design evolved, simplicity also became a core consideration: Brandenburg has no additional rules to remember; all of its changes are performed during set-up. (It does have a Stage II escalation, but it's not anything you have to remember during play since there's a big flag icon on some invader cards that tells you, "Go do that thing.")

From the core gameplay element, I went back to #1 and looked for a nation of the era which had a reputation (either past or contemporary) for speed/ruthless efficiency/a certain driven focus. Prussia seemed to fit the bill, so I read up on it a bit and found that one King of Brandenburg (a partial predecessor) had had colonial ambitions, but had been blocked from pursuing them by a number of fundamental factors: lack of navy/coast access, low population due to war, etc. In some cases I came up with plausible alternate-history changes to mitigate these factors, while in others I handwaved. (This was before Paul created a unified alternate history of Europe.)

Ranges of Threat

One requirement of an adversary is that it make the game harder. On the face of it, this looks trivial. The game has many levers to pull, so just make some invader action/stat/behavior nastier, and you're done.

But it's not quite that simple. For starters, it's pretty easy to flat-out make the game too hard. As well, there are several important ranges to consider:

Range of player skill: Some things that add difficulty for beginning players won't make the game appreciably harder for more experienced players because the experienced players are already avoiding the circumstances you've made nastier. For instance, the single effect of "Cities have +3 health and do +3 damage" might be problematic for newer players, but more experienced players will simply never allow a new city to be built and will gain overall board control swiftly enough to dig for major powers and handle the starting cities before that rule has overmuch impact. You can get around this with synergies between adversary abilities; if some other effect were "whenever there are two explorers in a land, they turn into a city", then cities will threaten much more often! It's fine if an adversary's Level 1 effect doesn't impact really good players much, so long as later effects make it relevant when they're playing at an appropriate difficulty level.

Range of time over the game: Both invaders and spirits increase in effectiveness over the course of the game, the spirits a bit every turn, and the invaders in larger steps as they hit new stages in the invader deck. You can envision it as a pair of upwards-sloping curves, each competing to rise higher than each other. Different changes alter the invaders' power-curve at different points. For a simple example, consider "add more invader buildings during set-up". This makes the opening game much harder, but doesn't provide much ongoing bonus to threats: the invaders aren't adding any greater quantity of units over time, nor are their units more problematic to the spirits. By turn 5-8, those extra buildings will either have caused an early spirit loss or have mostly faded to the status of "juicy targets". On the other end of the spectrum, consider "When exploring, Stage III invader cards add a town in addition to the normal explorer." This is brutal in late-game, but has no impact whatsoever until the middle of Turn 7.

(Digression: Adversary tempo interacts interestingly with spirit development speed. Some spirits by nature are very fast out of the gate, others crest in midgame, still others are weak early yet phenomenal in endgame, but growth choices affect development speed: players choose whether (and how) to push long-term growth vs. short-term board control. It's obvious that different adversary abilities make certain powers more/less desirable, but subtler is that different adversary abilities make certain tempo choices more/less desirable.)

Range of spirits facing the adversary: Some spirits will be stronger and some weaker against a given adversary; there's no getting around that. But it's still important to keep in mind that a variety of different play-styles and power combinations will be going up against an adversary, and try to keep any of them from being flatly useless. For instance, England's indentured-laborers rule would have been simpler if it said "Invaders build even in lands without invaders" — none of this checking-adjacent-buildings stuff. But in addition to being less thematic, this would have been bad design since explorer-control powers would become irrelevant to the game. Instead, they're relegated from "central strategy" to "niche effect" — very useful if you manage to mostly-clear an area... but you have to work for it.

Types of colonization (or why you probably won't see Spain anytime soon)

Very roughly speaking, there were three broad categories of European colonies:

1. Colonization-and-immigration: Lots of people sent over to live in a new land — perhaps for its resources, perhaps for strategic reasons, perhaps as a societal pressure-valve. One iconic example is Britain colonizing North America.

2. Conquest-and-subjugation: Some immigration, but not nearly as much as #1. Instead, the colonials subjugated the local inhabitants to demand tribute / enslave them / require work from them. One iconic example is Spain's conquistadors, and the encomienda/repartimiento systems in Latin America.

3. Factory-and-trade: Relatively low immigration, usually to a single coastal city intended to act as point-of-presence for the nation's trade in the region. This required good relations with the local leader, perhaps through gifts or diplomacy, perhaps by backing one leader/tribe/faction (to the detriment of others) or by simply outright installing a local ruler. One iconic example is the Portuguese trade colonies chaining out to the East Indies.

The core mechanisms of Spirit Island represent #1: colonization-and-immigration-type colonies. But not all exploring countries performed that type of colonization, so there are some historical powers that you won't see, at least for now. (I'm confident the game could be extended to conquest adversaries. Trade adversaries are trickier, but I have some ideas.)

This limitation is actually one of the motivations for the alternate-history of Europe: to have more potential colonizing powers (especially type #1) than we actually saw historically. I'd originally planned on not going into too much detail, for fear of having just enough knowledge to metaphorically hang myself with, but Paul at Greater Than Games loves history and has come up with a great split off our own past that serves the game really well and makes for an interesting contemplation of how just a few things shaking out differently might have changed the course of Europe! (And he even made it compatible with the alternate Brandenburg-Prussia...)

The Dahan (original post)

The Dahan are the first human inhabitants of Spirit Island, who have resided there long enough to develop their own language and culture — particularly since travel to other islands was made more difficult by a particularly hungry ocean spirit a few centuries ago.

At the game's start, the Dahan are just recovering from the foreign diseases which swept across the island in the wake of the first major invader settlements. They will work with the spirits if requested and fight back against the invaders if attacked, but otherwise tend to their own affairs.

Creating Dahan culture: research and art

Most of the lore of Spirit Island has been put together in piecemeal bits here and there, but the Dahan are a notable exception. I wanted to make the Dahan culture a plausible one, reflecting the realities of living on an island with early tech and limited trade, while also wanting to ensure that it wasn't a caricature of "island primitives" or "noble savages". On the third hand, I wanted them to be their own people, avoiding appropriation of elements specific to other individual cultures.

I hit the library, the internet, and some JSTOR articles a historian friend was kind enough to pull up for me. No single book had the sort of overview-of-island-culture-similarities I was seeking, so I ended up drilling down on individual topics, e.g., a survey of tattooing practices across Oceania, and on particular cultures or types-of-cultures.

The end result of this research was a 25-30 page overview of Dahan culture (and a bit of history). I'm simultaneously proud of it and keenly aware of how limited it is since entire books are insufficient to describe real-world cultures. But while it's incomplete (some sections are blank, or placeholders), it's still enough, I think, to make the Dahan their own people, not a copy-paste-tweak of another culture.

Of course, the largest area of visibility most players have into the Dahan comes through the artwork. I distilled my page-long art guidelines for the Dahan to a list of more essential bullet-points with some image-links for reference, but I was two degrees removed from the art creation (and never in direct communication with the artists), and in the herculean juggling of nearly two hundred pieces of art, not everything came through consistently. However, the #1-most-important request was honored in nearly every case: The Dahan are people. They're lanky, chunky, graceful, clumsy, angry, laughing women and men, not fetishized super-athletes or freaky cannibals out of a dime-store novel.

(Some power cards depict them as affected by the spirits — veiled in darkness, or with wings — but hopefully, it's obvious that any supernatural elements are the effects of what the spirit is doing. The Dahan have no magic themselves, though they do occasionally assist spirits' rituals via dance, song, offerings, the making of patterns, etc.)

Where did the name "Dahan" come from?

For most of development, they were simply "the islanders", though I knew I wanted to name them eventually: the words "islander" and "invader" look too similar on a quick glance, and besides, to feel like a real people they needed a name!

After finishing my research on their culture, I set about brainstorming a name. How hard could it be? My only constraints were:

1. It shouldn't be too long or imposing to pronounce, or else people won't use it, and it'll take up too much space when referenced on cards. This was before I knew that card effects would use iconography for physical pieces.
2. It should use the sounds of their language. A linguist friend had been kind enough to help me develop a plausible list of phonemes that wouldn't localize to any single part of the world that I could use when specifying names used by the islanders.
3. It shouldn't be confusing when read out loud as part of game effects. For instance, the name "Atu" looks fine until you say "Push one Atu to a jungle", whereupon the sound-similarity to "two"/"to" makes it confusing.
4. It shouldn't sound so close to an English word that players would just start calling them by that English word instead.
5. It shouldn't be the name of an existing or recently-existing peoples/ethnic group. Ideally, it wouldn't be the name of a long-ago one either.
6. It shouldn't be the name of a prominent world location. Ideally, it wouldn't be the name of a prominent regional location.
7. It shouldn't be a curse/dirty word in some other language. Ideally, it wouldn't be a word with a strong negative connotation, either.

It turned out that #1 and #2 (concise; world-common phonemes) made the last three criteria much more difficult because short names made from phonemes used worldwide tend to have been used already! It took a lot of brainstorming, Googling, and use of websites which answer "What does [X] mean in other languages?" At one point I had a shortlist of about eight candidates — all of which turned out to not work!

Eventually I found a few names that worked, and "Dahan" met the criteria best. It does mean "slow" in Tagalog, but a friend's family from the Philippines said it wasn't in a negative-connotation way, more one of "deliberate/not-hasty", so Dahan it was!

Since Spirit Island came out, a few people have pointed out that "Dahan" rhymes with "Catan" (depending how you pronounce the latter) and asked whether this was intentional. I'm afraid it's entirely coincidence — or possibly a result of both Klaus Teuber and I following a similar set of constraints. (I don't know how he came up with the name "Catan".)

Since we're talking about it, how do you pronounce "Dahan", anyhow?

Both "a" sounds are an "ah" like in "father". (Or very close to that. Apparently English does this sound slightly differently than much of the world?) Light emphasis on the second syllable.

Why both spirits and Dahan?

On occasion, someone asks why there are both spirits and Dahan. Wouldn't it suffice to have just one of them resisting the invaders? It's true that just one or the other would have been simpler, but either such game had problems that I felt outweighed the simplicity.

"Just spirits, no Dahan"

• Thematically, it loses the human vs. human aspect of colonization, shifting the theme of the game away from "anti-colonial" towards "environmental". While I'm all for respecting the environment, it was the colonial nature of so many Eurogames I was looking to reverse.

• Socially, to the extent the game remains anti-colonial, the spirits then end up standing in for the (absent) indigenous peoples. This portrays the indigenous peoples as inhuman, magical, Other — which is not something I want to be doing.

• Mechanically, the Dahan are a strong part of the positional challenge of the game. Some spirit powers require assistance from from the Dahan: the Dahan fight (for good or ill) in ravaging terrains; fear effects may cause the invaders to flee from lands with Dahan; and more. Dropping them would result in a blander experience.

• Finally, the players of the game are human, and so empathize with the Dahan in a way they don't with the spirits. On an abstract mechanical level, a Dahan village being destroyed merely costs a resource useful in throwing back the invaders — but many players viscerally want to save the Dahan, independent of any mechanical value or utility. That's important.

"Just Dahan, no spirits"

• Thematically, this would be a completely different game, not Spirit Island!

• Socially, a game with just the Dahan shouldn't involve magic. They're a different culture, sure, but human just like us, and that's part of the point; shifting spirit-like powers onto them (as "tribal magics" or the like) makes them just as much of a magical-other as having the spirits stand in for them.

• Many of the mechanisms spirits use don't work thematically for a non-magical, purely-human resistance: presence, energy, elements, powers, growth, and more.

• Mechanisms for invader interaction with the Dahan would also need to change, e.g., historically, colonizers often played local tribes off against each other. In Spirit Island, there are shades of this — attacking one group of Dahan doesn't incite Dahan elsewhere to counterattack — but the existence of the spirits means these techniques don't work as well as they did historically (partly because "the will of the spirits is against the invaders" is clearer, partly because many centuries of "us vs. the spirits" gave rise to a measure of common cultural identity among the Dahan, despite clan differences). Likewise for cultural assimilation, which would likely have needed to take on a more prominent role.

• The above mechanical-thematic changes would have removed many of the things testers had said they particularly enjoyed about the game: the fantasy of the setting, the evocative nature of the spirits, the slow build-up from limited minor abilities to earth-shattering levels of power.

In short, "Dahan Island" would have been an entirely different game on nearly every level.

Despite all that, I did — twice — take a hard look at reworking the game as Dahan-only because in a co-op, only player-run positions have true agency, and I don't like that the Dahan lack that. I'm hoping that Spirit Island will prove successful enough to support expansions as I have some notions for making the Dahan a playable position, which I think would be awesome; playing them alongside the spirits gets around many of the difficulties above and could result in an interestingly different type of play.

Ancestry vs. culture

When two peoples meet and mingle, there will be some level of cultural transmission — and perhaps assimilation. Spirit Island has this in both directions: the Kingdom of Sweden can convert Dahan to their cause (via policies that favor and protect locals who voluntarily join their rule), and the power card "Call of the Dahan Ways" can call invaders to a way of life like the Dahan's.

I knew from the start that I needed to include some amount of assimilation (Spirit Island slightly downplays it vs. historically, as mentioned above), and the simple, straightforward way to represent it was simply to replace a Dahan piece with a town or vice versa. But for a while, I felt weird about that solution, and I continued with it only because I couldn't come up with a good replacement. I eventually realized I was subconsciously assuming that pieces represented both race and culture — and replacing one type of piece with another means rather different things in those two different contexts!

At that point, I formalized that whether a set of humans is represented by a Dahan or invader piece represents culture — or, a little more precisely, how that set of humans interacts with the land, the spirits, and each other.

This later helped me to figure out ways to handle more complex situations, e.g., plantation slaves who have successfully rebelled when playing vs. the French plantation colony. Assuming they avoid the invaders' mistakes and try to go live off the land, should that factor into the gameplay? How? My eventual answer: When Dahan assistance proves critical to a local uprising, it creates enough of a bridge of trust for the two to work together: the former slaves are helped by the Dahan to survive in the wilds — becoming more culturally Dahan in the process — and lend aid to the Dahan. Without that trust, the former slaves strike off on their own, and the hostile environment keeps them too small in number and preoccupied with survival to play a further part in the conflict.

How have the Dahan evolved mechanically?

The Dahan are mechanically very similar to their initial incarnation. There were originally more of them per board (8), but they did only one damage each when counterattacking. Making their health and damage symmetrical (2/2) was easier to remember, clearly placed them as analogues of the invaders' towns, and — once I'd fleshed out their culture — was more thematically appropriate.

Not precisely a Dahan mechanism but strongly related is how the invaders apply ravage damage, which shifted around many times. At first they damaged three things in sequence: one of (presence or Dahan), then the other of those, then the land. When presence stopped taking damage (instead being destroyed by blight), the Dahan would either take damage before or after the land, depending on the game's iteration (or player choice, in some iterations). For a little while, there was a notion of Dahan morale, where they were either bold (took damage before the land) or cautious (took damage afterwards), but that complexity brought little benefit and was quickly dropped.

It became clear that making ravage damage mostly deterministic (i.e., not letting players choose whether Dahan or the land were damaged first) was the way to go as it kept ravage streamlined and was a bit more thematic. But "land first" made Dahan counterattacks too easy, and "Dahan first" turned the Dahan into a blight buffer, which both made the board position seem more under control than was true and introduced a "constantly sacrificing the Dahan" dynamic that I really didn't like.

Eventually, I tried having the invaders damage both the Dahan and the land simultaneously and equally, and it worked much better than anything prior; it's a slightly more complex rule, but is deterministic (keeping ravage streamlined), and makes the invaders an equal-and-simultaneous threat to both spirits and Dahan, which fits the mood of the game best and is more thematically true: expansion of farmed territory went hand-in-hand with increased conflicts vs. the local populace.

The only other change to the Dahan I can think of comes from event cards in the Branch & Claw expansion. Each of those has a Dahan event; perhaps they ready defenses against the invaders, perhaps they seek better lands to live in, perhaps enough time has passed for a new generation to come of age. It's not full agency, but it gives them a sense of life and autonomy and helps them feel a little less like obedient minions and more like allies with lives of their own.
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Lucca Comics & Games 2017 II: Putting the Play Into Cosplay

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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As I mentioned in my first report from the 2017 Lucca Comics & Games festival, the event attracts tons of cosplayers, many of whom circle the pedestrian walkway around the center of town posing for shot after shot by other fairgoers. The level of effort and realism varies widely from model to model, but I'm impressed and appreciative of all of them as I'm unlikely to ever attempt such an effort myself.

Here's a sampling of the cosplayers I saw during the festival, with many more pics not making the cut (like the Ghost Rider who had a great flame collar but was too small in my pics) and still more people not photographed at all, such as the one hundred Harley Quinns and fifty Jokers pacing the walkway. I'll follow this fun post with one centered on games at the show to wrap up my coverage of Lucca 2017.


Fantastic work, but what do you do when you need to use the bathroom?!

Fancy steampunk couple with bonus Roger Smith(?) on right

Carl and Ellie Fredricksen with bonus Sandy Olsson on right

Melisandre and Robb Stark(?)

A trash can with dreams of being a Dalek

Not sure how mobile this set-up was

Saw several camo guys; probably missed seeing many more

She looked giddy to pose with this guy

"Hey, how you doin'?"

"Let's-a go!"

Professional(?) Star Wars cosplayers along with a few amateurs

The TV, skateboard, and more were all part of their props

A skeleton, two Deadpools, soldiers, and some actual EMTs

Someone from Dragon Ball Z, I assume

Cosplay for the older audience

Professors Sprout and Trelawney

The only person was stopped for photos more than Paul Stanley (who was shown in my first report)

No idea who these six might be

No clue on this trio either

Zabuza and Kakashi from Naruto, and Roronoa Zoro from One Piece

Taking a picture of someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture of two jedi

The last thing you'll see at the Lucca Comics & Games festival...
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Lucca Comics & Games 2017 I: Walking the Landscape

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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For years, I had heard about the annual Lucca Comics & Games festival in early November, mostly from Italian publishers and designers who planned to highlight new games at that show in the wake of the SPIEL game fair in Essen, Germany. While the fair sounded fascinating, I never had a reason to attend. Come 2017, however, when SPIEL took place at its latest date ever (October 26-29), when Lucca ran November 1-5, and when my in-laws wanted to take a trip to Rome in November, and I suddenly found a reason.

The easiest way to describe Lucca to U.S. residents is to ask you to picture a state fair — those annual events in which fried food galore is sold on sticks and miniature vendor booths hustle all manner of tchotchkes that you'd never consider buying any other time of the year — spread out across an entire city, and you'll need a city to accommodate all the people who show up. Attendance is huge, with an estimated 400,000 visitors over five days in 2016!

Lucca, a city of 87,000 residents located in central Italy a half-hour train ride northeast of Pisa, has hosted this annual fair since 1966. (More specifically, the Salone Internazionale del Comics ("International Congress of Comics") started elsewhere in 1965, moved to Lucca in 1966, and changed its name to "Lucca Comics & Games" in 1996.) Central Lucca is still surrounded by the brick and dirt walls from centuries past, and this defensive rampart now serves as a pedestrian walkway: the Passeggiata delle Mura Urbane, or "Walk of the Urban Walls". You'll find most of the food vendors on this raised walkway, which is accessible by a few places around town where the walkway dips down toward the town center, along with multiple walkways in the side of the hills, some paved and some little more than patches of stones.

One of the shallowest and widest walkways (on the right)

A view over the wall to the right...

...and to the left

Looking over the wall into the central city

Fried foods aren't the main offering at Lucca, but you'll find plenty of other treats to grab and eat, whether you decide to mosey around the four-mile circumference of the walkway or sit on the wall to watch all the cosplay. Gen Con has plenty of cosplayers on hand, but Lucca easily has that show beat in terms of number of participants, ranging from the simplest (dozens of people wearing fuzzy onesies featuring unicorns, Pikachu, Jake, Mike Wazowski, etc.) to incredibly elaborate creations that barely allow them to move, whether due to their legs being largely immobilized (as with a mermaid who had her legs wrapped in a tail and a couple of minotaurs that walked on raised metallic "hoofs") or due to them being so awesome that everyone wants to take pictures of them.

I shot pics of dozens of cosplayers while circling the town, none of whom turned down my fumbling, miming efforts to show that I wanted to take a picture of them. Everyone seemed pleased to pose for pictures, and why not? They were putting on a show for thousands of attendees, street actors in a performance that began and ended with how enthusiastically they embraced the role. (I also walked halfway around the town filming passersby, cosplayers, the fair booths, and the surrounding town, but you'll have to wait until I get better wifi coverage before you can experience my shaky cam directorial efforts.)

At a certain point, it became difficult to tell exactly who was cosplaying and who was merely dressing in a fancy manner. That person is definitely living the steampunk dream with their gear-laden golden armband, but what about that person's top hat? Do they just think they look good in it? Is that woman dressing in a Victorian manner or simply wearing European fashion unfamiliar to me? That person is clearly a jedi, but that person might authentically be a monk.

Bulbhead is clearly a costume, but of what?!

The lines of "cosplay or not?" have became blurred, highlighting the way that geek culture has become more mainstream over the past decade. We're not yet to the point that someone wearing a Pikachu onesie around town would be ignored, but we're getting there, and I can't help but celebrate. Everyone should feel comfortable enough and safe enough to do their own thing, and everyone else should be cool with folks doing their own thing as long as you can do the same, without anyone getting damaged in the process. (The same applies to your choice of games played, books read, movies watched, and so on. You don't owe anyone an explanation for what you enjoy, and if they don't like it, I encourage them to go find their own things to enjoy.)

I spent hours circling the walls of Lucca — 10.5 miles walked that day! — and when I wasn't walking, I was sitting to people-watch. So much effort spent on dressing up to have fun!

One of the most photographed cosplayers I saw;
he could barely move ten feet before someone else asked him to pose

Aside from being a watcher on the wall, I visited a few sections of town to check out the displays. Whereas Gen Con and SPIEL (and pretty much every other convention) take place in a hotel or convention center, the exhibitor halls and vendor booths at Lucca are spread throughout the town.

Keep this map handy while walking! (PDF and real-life version)

Want to see what's in Japantown? Start walking east! Curious to learn what Blizzard has on hand to play? Head north! All of these halls and booths are behind fenced-off areas in town, and you must show both your bracelet and ticket to enter them.

What do the residents of Lucca do during the fair, when hundreds of people fill the streets from 9:00 to 19:00 and you can't drive or shop where you normally would. Many of them rent their apartments or homes to out-of-town visitors, similar to what people do when the Olympics take place, and they head elsewhere. Along the same lines, non-geek shops and restaurants sometimes don the trappings of geekdom to attract fairgoers and participate in the spirit of the event.

The comic areas featured hundreds of titles that weren't familiar to me and which I couldn't read, so I didn't spend much time there, although I'll note that western comics still seem to be popular in Europe, something that I recall from managing a comic store in the late 1980s when Marvel Comics issued translated versions of Moebius' Lt. Blueberry. Japantown featured a dozen booths filled with the otherworldly , highly elaborate statues of animé characters that you'll find throughout the Akihabara region in Tokyo (minus all the neon), along with manga in Italian, plush manga characters galore, and plenty of other collectibles.

The Netflix show "Stranger Things" seems to have a strong following in Italy as two booths devoted to the show had huge lines throughout the day. (I've never seen it, and that lack combined with a similar absence of Italian language skills made it easy for me to head elsewhere.)

Naturally I devoted a decent chunk of time to walking the board game pavilion at Lucca, but despite being on par with "comics" in the name of the event, the game pavilion is small relative to the amount of space devoted to comics. (If you add in the video game booths elsewhere in the city, then the two topics might have the same amount of space devoted to them, but I don't do video games, so I saw those booths only in passing.)

The main takeaway for anyone thinking of visiting Lucca to check out the board games is that you need to be fluent in Italian. A couple of vendors had small sections devoted to games in English or multilingual titles that had been imported, but other than those, you had to search carefully to uncover games that even included English rules in addition to Italian.

One of those finds was Mucho Macho, a card game by Evin Ho that is sort of the official game of Lucca 2017. Each year since 1994, the Lucca fair has held a card game design contest — Gioco Inedito ("Unpublished Game") — and since 2004 when publisher dV Giochi became a contest partner, the winner has their design released at the subsequent Lucca (and at SPIEL in the weeks prior). Each year, the competition features a theme or setting, which helps give designers a focus around which to build their creation.

The 2017 finalists

An interesting aspect of Lucca is that the game publishers you think you know from Gen Con, SPIEL, or (in my case) Spielwarenmesse take on a very different look at Lucca. When I think of dV Giochi, I think of them as being responsible for BANG!, the new Deckscape escape room games, and a handful of other titles — but when you see dV Giochi at Lucca, their booth is enormous and they have a huge range of titles that you've never previously seen. This shouldn't be a surprise, given that you'd never expect them to promote the Italian versions of Amun-Re, Happy Salmon, or Above and Below at Gen Con or SPIEL, but I never knew previously how many games they had licensed for the Italian market, so indeed the surprise was there.

An all-kids Tikal table!

The same was true for publishers like Cranio Creations and Giochi Uniti, although for the latter publisher I had a greater awareness of their breadth, given that they're often the Italian partner for Fantasy Flight Games.

Giochi Uniti also had a separate clearance booth outside the main exhibition hall for both its own games and titles it distributed, and I was astonished by the huge range of titles inside for bargain prices, including the second edition of Fury of Dracula (which wouldn't bring big bucks on eBay since it's in Italian); big box games like Magestorm, Venetia, and The Mystery of the Templars that had been highly anticipated a few years earlier; dozens of expansion packs for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (again, only in Italian); and even a stack of twenty-year-old copies of Alex Randolph's Twixt from KOSMOS.

Even knights like to find bargains

Elsewhere in the main exhibition hall, I discovered who released Italian versions of titles from IELLO, what's been happening with Warangel designer Angelo Porazzi (who hasn't visited SPIEL in a few years), and what happens when you encounter Eric M. Lang in Italy. (He makes bunny ears on people, just as he does everywhere else.) As in Germany and other non-U.S. locations, Asmodee distributes CMON Limited titles in Italy, so Lang had made the trek from SPIEL to Lucca just as I had — on the same plane even! — to be a special guest at the show. One thing that Lucca had that SPIEL lacked as the presence of real-life Zombicide zombies. Maybe next year?

Bunnying others, and being bunnied in return

You'll have to imagine the shambling, which this performer did with gusto

I saw that while Italian publisher/distributor/retail has created straight translations of some games in its catalog, it's altered others to meet the tastes of its market. Machi Koro and Medieval Academy come packaged in tins similar to Sushi Go Party, for example, while Mysterium was given a more gothic, less cartoony look as Il Sesto Senso, Glory to Rome was blessed with a more professional cartoony look in Sit Gloria Romae, and Guildhall was transformed with a nautical theme as Seven Seas: il canto della sirene.

As is the case around the world, certain games are already in the mainstream, and they have an audience. Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! had multiple booths devoted to selling new and used cards, and Monopoly Tex (another western!) had a spot near the entrance to catch those just entering the pavilion.

The prime spot in the exhibition hall, however, was devoted to Bruno Cathala's Kingdomino, which had won Gioco dell'anno (game of the year), just as it had won Spiel des Jahres in Germany in July 2017 and been nominated for As d'Or in France in February 2017. Whatever our individual tastes in games, good distribution partners often allow for the same game to hit multiple markets around the world at roughly the same time, and some games hit the spot for more players than other games do.

I spent a couple of hours walking the hall, taking pics, noting what was new to me (both the games themselves and versions of existing games, although I'm unlikely to spend time adding game versions to the database when other projects are still in the docket), and surveying what folks were playing, then I walked through again with the video camera running. Again, I'll post that video later once I can.

While I'm taking home only a few games from Lucca, such as the Italian edition of Tichu from, I loved having the chance to see the fair firsthand and experience what I've heard about from afar so many times. I'm curious to think about what this fair would look like in a U.S. city, but none of the ones near me are centralized in the way that Lucca is. Any suggestions for cities that can be taken over in the future?

I'll post another round-up of pics from Lucca in the near future, both of games and cosplayers. For now, you can just imagine yourself being part of the crowd...

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Fri Nov 3, 2017 1:05 pm
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At SPIEL '17, Portal Games Teases Monolith Arena, Detective, Robinson Crusoe: The Lost City of Z, and More

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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At SPIEL '17, Ignacy Trzewiczek of Portal Games held a press conference to highlight the company's game and expansion releases scheduled for 2018. I tweeted pics from the conference during SPIEL, but now it's finally time to put everything in place.

We already knew about one of the titles — Detective: A Modern Crime Boardgame from Trzewiczek and Przemysław Rymer — as we recorded an overview of the game at the GAMA Trade Show in March 2017. Trzewiczek described Detective as a modern take on Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Here's our current game description, followed by the GAMA presentation:

In Detective: A Modern Crime Boardgame, 1-4 players take on the role of investigators working for the government agency ANTERES. Investigators are given login credentials to the ANTERES online database that contains data about suspects, witnesses, and documentation from arrests and trials related to their case. Players are free to use the investigation manual, ANTERES database, and any other online resources they may find to help them solve the case.

Detective: A Modern Crime Boardgame brings classic puzzle-solving gameplay into the 21st century with the introduction of online elements. This story-driven, cooperative game includes five scenarios that can be played independently, or worked through as a complete campaign. The game blends printed elements, with a complementary online component that allows players to investigate clues through their favorite internet-connected devices.

Start at 7:10 for the overview of Detective

Portal Games plans to release Detective: A Modern Crime Boardgame at SPIEL '18 in October, and you better believe that I have already started the SPIEL '18 Preview. Gotta stay on top of these things!

The other big box title coming from Portal Games, with this one due out at Gen Con 2018 in August, is Monolith Arena from Michał Oracz. This game was pitched as a kind of fantasy-based Neuroshima HEX!, with the base game coming with five factions, only 2-4 of which will be used in any single playing on the hexagonal game board. To quote from my own write-up:

Each player has a monolith that serves as their headquarters, and each player seeds their monolith with three tokens that provide special abilities. When an opponent damages your monolith, you remove the top layer to expose the first token, gaining its special ability, so being attacked can actually make you stronger — albeit while still moving you toward defeat...

• Speaking of Neuroshima HEX!, in 2018 Portal will release the Iron Gang Hexpuzzles Pack, which consists of logic puzzles you can solve based on specific game situations as well as a bonus army tile for the Iron Gang army pack.

Imperial Settlers: We Didn't Start The Fire continues the song-based names of the first two Empire Packs for Imperial Settlers. As for what's inside the box, WDSTF contains fifty new cards along with (if I understood correctly) borders that are placed between each pair of players. I'm not sure what the borders do, but I'm sure you can imagine effects that would matter for such things.

Alien Artifacts: Discovery adds fifty new cards to the Alien Artifacts base game as well as a new type of card featuring alien resources.

• Let's close by wrapping around to Trzewiczek once again, this time with Robinson Crusoe: The Lost City of Z, the second large expansion for Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. From the press release:

Like its predecessor, Voyage of the Beagle, this expansion follows another great explorer, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett. His expedition went deep into the Amazon rainforest in the search for a hidden civilization, the mythical Lost City of Z.

Robinson Crusoe: The Lost City of Z introduces new mechanisms of horror and sanity into the game! Discover new characters, beasts, and mystery deck cards! The expansion includes five missions that form a long and epic campaign!

Aside from this expansion, Portal Games plans to launch a Robinson Crusoe app that functions along the lines of its First Martians app in that it will introduce new events and adventures to the base game without requiring additional components.

No release dates were given for any of the expansions other than sometime in 2018. Trzewiczek promised more details at the 2018 GAMA Trade Show in March, and he stated that other items might be added to the release calendar as well, although they'd likely be promos and other small goodies.
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