Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
first published on Diagonal Move as the second part of a two-part interview. You can find part one here. —WEM]
Dávid Turczi joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to explore the design and development of complex games.
DM: Hi, Dávid, thanks for joining us again. You are known for designing mechanically complex games with rich themes. Which of those two elements do you typically start with?
DT: For me everything has to fit into a system and that works wonderfully for 2-3 hour heavy Euro games. I am primarily a Eurogame designer, so while I don't really do "thematic" games, all my games are "thematically inspired".
Of course, this has improved over the years. I typically ask:
• Who are you?
• What do you do on your turn?
• How does that make sense?
• How does that generate conflict between players?
• How does that model the mechanism?
Sometimes, it is the other way around. I see how other games have approached a mechanism and notice that while some did "this" and others did "that", none of them have taken the unexpected third option. I'll look at the conflict that making that change models.
However, when I work with a publisher such as Mindclash Games, who have a strong theme focus and who build amazing worlds for their games, I barely try to theme the mechanism. It must make narrative sense, but I know that they will take the mechanisms and build an incredible world around them.
Then I redesign and refine the mechanisms with the world they have created in mind. In that situation, it's concept, setting, narrative, then the mechanisms. All parts of the process come back around on themselves.
Our forthcoming game Perseverance is a huge project that involved a team of designers. It's about surviving and exploring an island, eventually becoming the leader of a city while fending off dinosaur attacks, but it began as a game about Icelandic democracy.
I pitched it to Mindclash a few years ago when four Viking games were released at SPIEL, and they said that "the Vikings have to go" — so what other system did this democracy-themed worker placement model? We agreed that it had to be a closed community, big enough to be a mass of people voting, and we thought of this idea of building a city on a deserted island.
Then [co-designer] Richard Amann said: "Wouldn't it be cool if there were dinosaurs on the island?" That meant we had to take the "fill your boats with supplies" semi-cooperative scoring — which made no sense without the Viking theme — and spend a full year redesigning a system based around the theme of exploring the island and riding dinosaurs.
Perseverance began with the mechanism — dice voting for area control — but once the world had been created, the theme inspired many other mechanisms.
When done well, there is no "theme first, mechanism first". Both enhance each other.
DM: The Defence of Procyon III is an ambitious game in terms of its design: four asymmetric factions and team-based gameplay with solo, co-op and competitive modes. Can you tell us more about the design and development process you it underwent?
DT: The Defence of Procyon III is my dream project. I didn't do it because someone asked me or for the money or because there is a market for it. I did it simply because I wanted that game to exist.
I had been in discussion with a publisher regarding a game in the Cthulu IP. I had an idea in which players were using tanks to fight the cultists. The publisher had just released a miniatures game in the IP and discussion stopped. But I had fallen in love with the concept and thought "What about Starship Troopers as an alternative theme?"
This was around the time that I started working with PSC Games. I pitched the idea of a space battle in which one player controls the land army and another the spaceships, with lots of minis and...they signed it straight away. I hadn't even designed it!
For the next two years, Procyon was the stuff of nightmares. I built a game, then scrapped it one turn into the first playtest, then repeated that countless times. I got to a point where three of the four factions were fantastic, but the fourth was over-complicated and lacked motivation, so I allowed it some extra movement, a new way to attack, and...that wasn't balanced, this wasn't balanced. We needed to burn the whole game and start over.
Eventually, through the process of iteration, the redesigns became smaller each time, but even as late as August 2019 there was a hex map in there. I could not get the directional flying to work without taking five times longer than ground movement to resolve, so...scrap that version of the space map!
Procyon was totally redesigned, from the ground up, maybe four times in addition to the many small iterations. The game has a static set-up, and every card is drawn in every game which meant that there had to be diverse strategies or there would be no replay value. If there was only one job to do, once you had learned how to do that job, there would be no point playing again.
The round volume shrank from 20 rounds to 16 rounds to the current 10 round format. Game end is usually in the seventh round due to a sudden death condition. It's been three months since a playtest lasted to the eighth round.
Every single decision in the game had to be a fundamental choice. Players take eight actions in the game. A crunchy, heavy Euro has sixteen actions. In Procyon, players are constantly engaged because it's not eight "I gain two wood" actions; it's "I move seven of my units, deal 5 damage, and use two special abilities." It's finding the eight actions that will get you to victory, combined with the asymmetry, that engages the players.
DM: Excavation Earth looks like a fun sci-fi game; however, it has significant depth to it. Can you tell us more about the design?
DT: Excavation Earth had quite the journey. It began four years ago when I managed to pass the design bug on to my now ex-wife, Wai Yee. We were playing a lot of Glory to Rome at the time, so we wanted multi-use cards and so on.
She came up with the idea of trying to convince local noblemen to invest in your unicorn training facilities. It was not exciting enough for players, so she added unicorn-race betting — but we didn't want to create a racing game; we just wanted the feeling of excitement from racing, so Excavation became, to use the economist's term, a "future's" trading game. The aim was to buy betting slips, then sell them based on the chance of the horse/unicorn winning at the moment of sale. This combined with a multi-use card draft and an area control for special abilities mechanism.
It was very smart, but we found that pretty much nobody could play it. Why? Because when you think of a horse race, you think of a fast-moving, quick event in which you want a specific horse to win. In the game, the horses moved through the racetrack in slow motion, constantly changing their values based on their positions. Players would buy a betting slip, make the horse move forward a little, sell the slip — the movements were not natural.
When we showed it to publisher Mighty Boards, they said, "We think it's...smart, but no one gets it. The unicorn theme is funny, but it is also a horrible mismatch for people expecting a crunchy Euro from you".
What else could we model? What could be an easy-to-access, hard-to-sell commodity with a fluctuating future value? So, we came up with...digging up artefacts! You know the artefacts are there, and anyone can dig them up, but they are hard to sell at the time when they have the most value to you.
My biggest contribution to the design came at this point. We were using the slow unicorn race to represent values — which made no narrative sense — but once we changed theme to artefacts, it became the number of people queuing at the museum that determined the value. The greater the number of blue meeples in the queue, the greater the value of the blue artefact. Click! The valuation mechanism now worked.
Mighty Boards looked at it again and asked for something in addition to the "dig, advertise, sell" mechanisms.
Okay, let's add a black market so you can make profit from side deals.
"Could the game be made 'cooler'?"
Okay, instead of traveling around the planet normally, you use a hot air balloon.
"What does the hot air balloon do?"
Then our lead developer turned co-designer Gordon Calleja said, "What if we were aliens?"
Okay, let's introduce a Mothership...with special abilities!
The two big problems with the original game was that there was only one thing to do: buy and sell artefacts, and it made no thematic sense. As the theme was improved to make more thematic sense, we found more things to do. At the end of this journey from unicorn breeding to alien mothership via slow-motion racing and hot air balloons, we had a game that players said looked like a fun, fluffy sci-fi game but is actually a super crunchy, heavy Euro, market-manipulation game.
We found when talking to production partners that we couldn't compare it to any other game. It's not an auction game or a commodity trading game. There is price manipulation and multi-use cards, but neither of those describe what the game is about. It has that "never quite enough actions" feel, and I think of the "weight" of the gameplay as being in a similar league to games such as Brass — but saying it is "like Brass" also doesn't explain what the game does.
In the middle of the project, I was nearly hating it...and yet by the end, through hard work and co-operation, we found the unique and unexpected thing that I always look for in a game.
DM: Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun is a co-design with Daniele Tascini. How did you begin working with him?
DT: Tekhenu has a very different background to Procyon and Excavation Earth. Development began when I emailed Daniele Tascini after meeting him for the first time at SPIEL. The conversation went along the lines of:
—"Hey, shall we work together?"
—"Sure, what do you want to do?"
—"Something that goes around in a circle."
Two weeks later, I get an email from Daniele saying: "Not worker placement but dice-drafting and the shadow of an obelisk changes the value of the colored dice. There will be six sections representing the Egyptian Gods, each will have a different action, and each action feeds into the next one."
My response was: "Shall I come to you next week?"
This was over the Christmas holidays. On January 4th, I flew to Italy and the game was finished on January 7th.
In February we showed it to the publisher (Board&Dice) who asked if we could make the game 25% shorter.
We said, "No", then they said, "Yes, you can."
Daniele and I played a game with 16 dice instead of 24 and realized the publisher was correct. We also tweaked the card offer and turn order balance. Design complete!
In total, I think I spent ten days working on Tekhenu, including proofreading the rule book!
Trismegistus and Teotihuacan. Trismegistus is the obvious comparison due to the dice-drafting mechanisms, but whereas Trismegistus is an engine builder, Tekhenu applies a similar "roughly fixed number of actions, points squeezing" approach to that in Teotihuacan.
In Tekhenu players have a fixed 16 actions and need to use them as efficiently as possible. It's "do as much as you can with very little" powered by a dice draft mechanism.
It was an inspiring, back-and-forth collaboration. He is an inventor, and I am a system engineer. Daniele shows me two mechanisms, and I can see how they link. When I pose a problem to him, he creates a brilliant solution. We could work faster because he was solving the problems I posed. I hope we can recapture some of that fire again in the future.
DM: Worker placement is a recurring mechanism throughout your design portfolio. Your forthcoming game Tawantinsuyu: The Inca Empire appears to feature it more than most. Can you tell us more?
DT: Tawantinsuyu is an Incan-themed game, again published by Board&Dice, due out in October 2020. Essentially, it is what I learned from Anachrony with the feel of what I learned from Daniele. Yes, there is a temple track and yes, you must feed your workers, yes, there is a set collection element, but the mechanisms and the choice branching are closer to Anachrony.
It's not a soup of actions aimed at converting one thing into another. The cost, the place, the combo, the special effect, the restriction all matter every single time a worker is placed. I was able to take a system that I knew worked and deepen it. At a high level, it feels like an Italian Euro game with tracks and set collection and so on, but it's actually a deep dive into what I like.
On your turn, you either place a worker or take two of four secondary actions. One choice spawns multiple others that each spawn further choices, and so on. I had to have the game mapped on the wall to keep track of it. There were originally four more resources than it currently has. These were removed once I could no longer justify their existence as a separate entity: "Why do I need silver if gold does the same thing?"
Despite its complexity, it took only about a month to design. One of the benefits of being a full-time designer is that I can dedicate myself to a project — although I rarely have only one project because I tend to start scrolling through social media every time I am stuck. Having multiple projects allows me to change focus while I consider in the background the reason why I am stuck.
The answer usually occurs while I am in the shower or when I am falling asleep. I always have my phone and notebooks nearby so that I can quickly make notes. That is essential.
DM: Do you have any advice for new designers?
DT: I've got to where I am through luck, shamelessness, and sheer powering through.
When I started, I didn't have any "great ideas". I was assertive enough to stand my ground but humble enough to learn from others. A little luck and a degree of shamelessness helps. I punch above my weight because I can stay visible and don't mind expending the effort to stay visible. The rest is people skills.
Nobody cares about "great ideas". Anyone can have them. It's the ability to follow through, to improve an idea by working with others, that counts.
Even now, I have a "here is my opinion...but what if I'm wrong" moment. Board gaming is very social, and we all want an experience while playing a game. It doesn't matter what I think of the experience; I may have a vision, but when the developers and playtesters offer their opinion, I have to listen.
Being able to work with people is more than half the battle.
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- [+] Dice rolls
In the years since Love Letter was first published by designer Seiji Kanai in 2012, the game has gained massive popularity as the definitive "microgame". With only sixteen cards, Love Letter creates a clever, dynamic experience that I have played over and over with just about everyone I know. Needless to say, I was excited when our studio — Z-Man Games — acquired the publishing rights to the game in 2018.
When we released the new edition in 2019, there was a deliberate effort to avoid making significant adjustments. The new Love Letter would include a handful of new cards, which made the game playable for up to six players (instead of the original limit of four). These were small, careful changes intended to increase the player count but otherwise maintain the classic Love Letter experience — but with that project complete, the question became: "What next?"
Given the popularity of past Love Letter spinoffs and our newfound partnership with Marvel, the way forward was pretty clear, but it would be some time before the project started to resembleInfinity Gauntlet: A Love Letter Game as we know it today. Going into the project, we weren't interested in merely changing the names and art on the cards. A thoughtful reskin has its place, but the Marvel license brought a new kind of story to the table, and we wanted to make sure that the mechanisms of the game conveyed that theme. This project didn't need to be subtle and understated — quite the opposite. From the outset, we gave ourselves permission to adjust the rules of Love Letter if it would help evoke the right feeling.
As I considered various angles to approach a Marvel Love Letter game, I realized pretty quickly that the stories I gravitated toward didn't fit the competitive free-for-all format. I was more excited about heroes teaming up than fighting one another, so I started exploring alternatives. My first prototypes were variations on fully co-operative play, with a greater focus on deduction. While a co-op Love Letter might work, all of these versions felt too calculated and methodical. I wanted a game about superheroes to feel action-packed, and that wasn't coming through.
At the time, I was aware of the Infinity Gauntlet comic, but the central dynamic of that story is a bunch of heroes facing off against one main villain. This would naturally fit a one-vs.-many game, but I had been actively avoiding going down that road. One-vs.-many can be hard to balance, especially when accommodating different player counts. It can also be easy to accidentally relegate the "one" to facilitating the fun for the "many". I didn't want one player to have to pull punches to maintain balance, so I steered away from the concept entirely.
Lucky for me, this was all happening in April 2019. I saw Marvel Studios' Avengers: Endgame in theaters opening night, and watching the movie and fan reactions convinced me it would be worth the effort to get this right. The next day I had a new prototype, and we got to work.
Good vs. Evil
I knew I wanted one team playing heroes and the other side playing Thanos. The simplest solution would be to give each team their own deck filled with cards that fit thematically. Two decks would also let me differentiate the playing styles of the different sides. In the stories, Thanos has all the power, and it takes careful teamwork by the heroes to win out. To capture that dynamic, I needed to give Thanos some advantages.
First, I gave Thanos two cards in hand instead of one. Just one extra card made a significant difference in the control the Thanos player had over their plays. It also made the Baron effect from original Love Letter in which you compare cards with another player more exciting; even if Thanos does have a high card in hand, the hero might choose the other, possibly lower card to compare against and win. It created moments when the heroes knew the odds were against them, but it was worth the risk to keep fighting. With this change, the Baron effect would become a cornerstone of Infinity Gauntlet.
The other advantage I gave Thanos was the Infinity Stones. Thanos would need powerful cards to match up against a whole team of heroes, and I loved the idea of Thanos gathering the Stones and playing them for devastating effects. As a hero player on the receiving end, the Infinity Stones feel unfair, which seemed exactly right for the theme.
Of course, with the Infinity Stones came the "snap". The answer to "What happens when Thanos gets all of the Stones?" turned out to be as simple as "Thanos wins." This put the hero players on a clock; they must defeat Thanos quickly because if the Thanos player had time to draw through their deck, they were guaranteed to draw all six Infinity Stones. Thanos was, appropriately, inevitable. That turned the hero experience into a desperate race, with tension mounting each time Thanos drew a card. Since Thanos could always come back from the brink of defeat, they could take minor losses in stride. However, since Thanos could play only one card per turn and only ever have three cards in hand, there was a buffer in the early turns when Thanos couldn't yet snap. Once Thanos had a few Stones in play, however, players could see when they were in danger of losing.
Down But Not Out
There were two other fundamental departures from Love Letter early on. The first was the removal of player elimination. I knew I needed rounds to go longer if the snap were going to be relevant, and that wouldn't happen if players were getting knocked out. (It was also just more fun for all players to keep playing.) Instead, I gave each team a life track; whereas original Love Letter rules would knock you out of a round, now your team lost 1 life, you drew a new card, and the game went on. This made each individual defeat less painful, but also left you with a visual reminder of how close you were to losing.
The second major change was the removal of game rounds, and that was more of a realization than a decision. After playtesting for just one round, we all agreed it felt like a complete experience. If we wanted to play again, it was easy to do so, but the arc of the story had played out in full and requiring players to reset and keep playing felt unthematic. I dropped the rounds (and tracking tokens) and never looked back.
With that solid framework in place, the rest of the game would come down to the individual card effects. From the beginning, there was a challenge: By including two decks, I had almost doubled the number of cards and tripled the effects from the original design. I was comfortable with a little more complexity, but this threatened to be way too much. One of Love Letter's great strengths is how approachable it is to a wide variety of players, so at every stage of design I had to ask, "Does this complexity justify itself?" and "How can I get the same outcome more simply?"
In the case of card effects, I addressed the complexity by drawing parallels between cards, decks, and even between Love Letter versions. Wherever possible, cards of the same number in the hero and Thanos decks have the same effect or serve similar functions. The Infinity Stones are more powerful versions of the non-stones of the same number. Any time an effect from original Love Letter appears, it is at the same number as in the original game, so a "1" in the hero deck has the same effect as a "1" in the Thanos deck, the "1" Stone is a better version of that effect, and they all trace back to the "1" effect (the Guard) from Love Letter. This approach allowed for a cohesive core that would give you an idea of what to expect from a card and build on your expectations if you were coming from the original game. Of course, this couldn't be true of every card, but that familiarity made the other differences easier to handle.
The initial prototype pulled a lot of effects directly from Love Letter, but playtesting quickly showed that some would need to change. The most impactful change was the Handmaid effect ("4"). In original Love Letter, the Handmaid protects you from effects until your next turn. For the heroes in Infinity Gauntlet, this didn't do much as Thanos could target a different player and have the same impact against your team. For Thanos, being invincible for a full turn cycle was incredibly powerful and could essentially waste up to five hero turns.
As is often the case, the solution came during a playtest. At that point in development, 3s and 6s allowed players to use the Baron effect from Love Letter. You compared your hand to one of Thanos's cards, and the lower number was defeated. Players asked for a way to improve their chances, and that led to the creation of power tokens (and prompted us to name the Baron effect "fighting"). If you could improve your odds in a fight, you could be more aggressive, and an opponent fighting you became riskier. This element of protection felt natural for a "4" effect. At this point, the round tokens were already gone, so a different type of token felt right at home. Power tokens would go unchanged through the rest of development.
On the Thanos side, the card with the strangest trajectory was the Time Stone ("6"). Unlike the other Infinity Stones, the Time Stone was going to be the only card of its number in the deck, so it needed a unique effect. I approached it more thematically, and the idea of copying a previous card felt like a natural way to represent time manipulation. In testing, though, it proved to be too powerful. I explored other versions, including one in which the Thanos player regained a life they had lost (which turned out to be even more powerful and less fun). Frustrated, I eventually returned to the original version, and it turned out that enough other elements had changed in the meantime that it was no longer a problem.
In Love Letter, you are constantly trying to deduce everyone's hand because everyone is your opponent; in Infinity Gauntlet, the heroes have only one opponent, so that could mean that they have only one hand to deduce. If someone else deduces it for you, your turn is purely mechanical. You lose out on the surrounding mind games, and one of the most interesting aspects of Love Letter disappears.
Instead, I wanted players to be deducing the Thanos player's hand and each other's. This way, you always want to pay attention to everyone's decisions. If you can infer what your teammate has, you can set them up for a powerful play, and it's satisfying when it works out. Marvel's heroes are mighty, but not always known for their communication skills, so the thematic side didn't worry me too much.
As All Things Should Be
By far, the most involved part of Infinity Gauntlet development was getting the balance right. Love Letter has a lot of built-in variance, with 1-in-7 guesses that can turn the tide of a game. One-vs.-many games have their own challenges with player scaling and coordination. Unsurprisingly, there was no one trick that made everything fall into place; the answer was playtesting and time. Between external and internal testing, we played hundreds of games across all player counts, then used the aggregate data to get a sense of where the balance was. Nudge an effect, grind more games, repeat.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was tweaking the balance without introducing additional complexity. In a heavier game, it can be easier to vary set-up steps or add new pieces to solve scaling issues. At one point, I tried a version that scaled the number of Outrider cards in the Thanos deck to the number of heroes. This did a decent job of maintaining balance, but wasn't as "plug and play" as the game needed to be. I wanted you to be able to shuffle the deck, draw starting hands, and play. With that goal in mind, I dug back into playtesting, making minor tweaks back and forth and generally driving my testers crazy. Eventually a combination of scaling Thanos's life and adding one more Outrider to the Thanos deck (at all player counts) got us to the right balance.
With Great Power...
There are more little stories and decisions than I have space to talk about, but every choice we made was aimed at making the best game possible. Seiji Kanai and Love Letter set a gold standard for a light, quick card game, and Marvel is beloved the world over. I was a huge fan of both, and I wanted to do them justice, so there was a lot to live up to with this project. In the end, I'm really proud of what we made. I can't wait for players to get their hands on Infinity Gauntlet soon, and I hope it expands everyone's idea of what a Love Letter game can be. Thanks for playing!
Infinity Gauntlet: A Love Letter Game will be available at your FLGS on August 14, 2020, and everywhere else on September 4, 2020.
- [+] Dice rolls
Plaid Hat Games regained its independence as a publisher by splitting from Asmodee, which had purchased Plaid Hat's owner in 2016.
Some Plaid Hat titles stayed behind with various Asmodee studios, while other titles remained under PHG's control. One title not mentioned in my Feb. 2020 article about the split was brought up in the first comment on that post: "Maybe more Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn in the future now!? Please p!ease please!?"
The same day that Plaid Hat split from Asmodee, Ashes designer Isaac Vega announced that he was leaving PHG on good terms to go off on his own, so more Ashes seemed unlikely — but in fact the game will be returning, but not as players might have initially expected. Thanks to a partnership between PHG and Team Covenant, which runs a retail game store in Tulsa, Oklahoma and maintains a subscription service for CCGs and other games that feature regular releases, new Ashes expansions will be released every quarter.
The first release from this Ashes Reborn subscription service is the Ashes Reborn 1.5 Upgrade Kit, which consists of more than 350 "rebalanced, redesigned, and reprinted Ashes 1.0" cards, which is approximately 30% of the entire Ashes card pool. As PHG explains:Quote:Why 1.5? We've gone through every single card that has been released for the game and have assessed and reevaluated each one. It's the same game you've always loved, but many cards have been reworded, improved, or rebalanced, and all will appear in the Upgrade Kit. Future printings of the core Rise of the Phoenixborn set, as well as all the expansions, will be updated to include 1.5 revisions.The Ashes base set and current expansions (other than one deck mentioned in the next paragraph) will be reprinted with these 1.5 version cards, with Shults estimating that these updated expansion packs will be available before the end of 2020 via Plaid Hat's online store and participating retailers.
The next release in this subscription service will be the new deluxe expansion deck The Breaker of Fate. This deck features the Phoenixborn character Jericho Kill, whose original deck — The Path of Assassins — won the Ashes tournament in 2018, which means this deck will be retired from production and replaced with this new deck, The Breaker of Fate, in which Jericho Kill will now wield time magic with brand-new cards and new time dice.
Three Phoenixborn characters who have existed solely on promotional cards to date — Dimona Odinstar, Orrick Gilstream, and Lulu Firststone — will be published with their own decks at some point in the future, with the regular quarterly expansions from PHG and Team Covenant consisting of two Phoenixborn expansions for $30.
Shults notes that "Plaid Hat is still fully in charge of developing and revising the updated cards and future expansions", with these elements being produced at the same facilities as the original game and earlier expansions. Isaac Vega is still involved with the game's world-building and art direction, while the development team is now led by Nick Conley, who was the former lead playtester for Ashes.
Once Team Covenant ships the Ashes Reborn 1.5 Upgrade Kit to subscribers, that kit — along with the 1.5 versions of the Ashes line mentioned earlier — will be available for purchase directly from Plaid Hat Games. New Ashes expansions will be sold on the PHG website 1-3 months after being shipped to subscribers, with these products being available to players outside North America through the normal retail distribution chain (assuming those distributors and retailers purchase these items, of course).Also returning...
In North America, however, the Team Covenant subscription service and the PHG website might be the only places to find these items. "We supported the game for as long as we could using the usual method of selling to a distributor, who sells to a retailer, who sells to a customer," says Shults. "The game got to the point where that kind of release could no longer be made profitable, so we decided to try something different. That's why we asked gamers to let us know that they support this endeavor by subscribing to the future of Ashes. We worked with Team Covenant to make the numbers work so that if we had at least 1,000 subscribers, we knew we could sustainably continue to make Ashes expansions. None of us knew what to expect, but it turns out we got over 1,000 subscribers in under three days! And so, Ashes has been reborn."
For those expansions to keep appearing, however, that subscriber count needs to stay above one thousand, so if you're a fan of Ashes and want to see more of it, keep introducing it to new players to try to get them hooked, too. Well, you might already be doing that anyway with every game you love, so carry on...We're coming back, too!
- [+] Dice rolls
"New" Game Round-up: Run More Factories, Trade More Companies & Stocks, and Hire More Famous Renaissance Artists
13 Aug 2020
Stefan Risthaus' heavy economic 2014 hit Arkwright has been one of those games that I'm equally as curious to try as I am intimidated by, especially when I see all the components laid out and factor in the high BGG complexity rating of 4.56. It has been on my "I think I can, I think I can" list for quite some time, so I'm excited to have the opportunity to ease into it a bit with Game Brewer's upcoming release, Arkwright: The Card Game.
Kickstarter campaign for Arkwright: The Card Game, which is for 2-4 players and maintains the core essence of Arkwright while streamlining it, significantly reducing the estimated playtime (60-100 minutes vs. the original 120-240 minutes), and creating a much easier barrier for entry. Here's a high-level overview of the gameplay from the publisher:Quote:In the 18th century the Industrial Revolution starts. The first factories are founded by businessmen like Richard Arkwright, who runs the first factory for spinning wool with machines like the Spinning Jenny and the water frame.All-Aboard Games will release Rolling Stock Stars, a new version of Bjorn Rabenstein's transportation-themed, stock- and company-trading card game Rolling Stock for 2-6 players with a playing time of 120-240 minutes.
In Arkwright: The Card Game, you run a business and will employ workers in your factories to produce and sell goods. The more workers that have a job, the more goods that can be sold — but be prepared for crises and competitors.
The game is played over three decades (1770/1780/1790) with four rounds per decade. On your turn, you play new cards to open factories and upgrade existing ones, select improvements, improve factory quality, build machines, and employ new workers. You can also pay money to improve your stock holdings, and take out loans if you require more money for production costs. After the card playing phase, you can improve abilities by marking improvements on your score sheet.
Now each factory for each type of good produces those goods. The market fluctuates with demand, so the demand may be lower than the value you produce, decreasing your profit. Workers in these factories must be paid, and machines operating in your play area need regular maintenance, so you can possibly lose money instead of turning a profit. Selling enough of one good improves your share holdings, and there are bonuses for having the highest appeal. Lastly, if you can’t sell in England, you can ship goods overseas or store them for future rounds.
After the final round of decade 1790, the game ends. Players then sell all storehouse goods, reduce the number of shares they hold by the number of loans, and reduce further based on their personal shipping track. Then each player multiplies the number of their shares by the value of those shares to determine score. The player with the highest score wins.
For context, let's look at an overview of the original game:Quote:Rolling Stock is a card game about stock and company trading. Players are investors buying private companies in auctions, which they may later use for an IPO (to turn them into corporations) or sell to already existing corporations (to turn them into subsidiaries of that corporation). The majority share holder of a corporation controls its actions: issuing new shares, paying dividends, and buying more subsidiaries from other corporations, players, or an ominous foreign investor.I stumbled upon Rolling Stock Stars while geeking out on All-Aboard's website after recently playing my first 18xx game. As a newbie 18xx fan, I've grown to realize how much I enjoy stock-trading games, so when I discovered this release I was immediately intrigued.
The companies are transportation themed, starting with the early Prussian railroad. As more companies are bought, the scope of the game expands to Germany, later Europe, and ultimately even space. With expanding scope, older companies become less and less profitable until they have to be written off eventually, severely hitting the book value of their owner.
As a pure card game, Rolling Stock has no game board to simulate actual transportation. Instead, networking effects are modeled by synergies between geographically adjacent companies that are subsidiaries of the same corporation. This simplistic model merely sets the stage for the trading of stocks and companies, which is the heart and soul of the game.
Rolling Stock is vaguely inspired by the 18xx series of games, but it is clearly not a part of it. Obviously, track building is missing entirely, but even the stock market with all its superficial similarities turns out to be fundamentally different.
Compared to the 18xx series, Rolling Stock has extremely simple rules. Strategically, however, it is comparably deep and complex.
For a comparison, here's an overview of how Rolling Stock Stars differs from the original game:
---• Shorter game (no purple companies)
---• Companies have variable powers / # of shares
---• Green and blue companies are less powerful
---• Players can sell corporations into receivership
---• Corporation valuation is abstracted away with stars
After listening to an interview that Ambie from Board Game Blitz had with Rabenstein (the designer), it seems this game really starts to shine after multiple plays when everyone understands how it works and might not be something you'll fully grasp after a single play. Regardless, they had me at "stock and company trading", so I'm looking forward to checking out Rolling Stock Stars.
Placentia Games will release Stefano Groppi and P.S. Martensen's Florenza: X Anniversary Edition, a tenth anniversary edition of Groppi's Renaissance-period, complex worker placement and resource management classic Florenza, for 1-5 players.
Here's the gist of Florenza if you're not already familiar with the game:Quote:In Florenza, the players are the heads of the most powerful families in Florenza during the Renaissance period. The goal of the game is to become the most famous patron of the arts by hiring the most famous artists of the period and financing their works.
Each player can commission artworks in his own district, the Cathedral, or in the civic buildings of the city. Each artwork requires money and resources to complete. To earn the money and resources the artists need, the players send their workers to labor in various workshops, possibly even in their opponents’ districts. Additional workers can be earned by offering charity to the church. During the game, players will earn prestige points, primarily by completing artworks. Prestige points can be spent during the game, but at the end of the game they will be the player’s primary source of victory points.
Florenza was originally released in 2010 and has since been reimplemented as a card game (Florenza: The Card Game) in 2013, and a roll-and-write game (Florenza Dice Game) in 2019 — the latter being my first little taste of Florenza and one of the meatiest roll-and-write games I've played to date.
Here's what you can expect in the upcoming Florenza: X Anniversary Edition, which will be co-published with Post Scriptum:Quote:NEW RULESSounds like some awesome additions to an already well-regarded game, so when Florenza: X Anniversary Edition hits the streets, I think it'll be the perfect time for me to finally delve into the real-deal Florenza.
---• New Workshops for an increased strategic diversity
---• Addition of Captains of Fortune for an increased tactical diversity
---• Smoother and more elegant management of different aspects of the game
---• Reduced duration compared to the original game, with no loss in game depth
---• Option to play against one or more virtual opponents
---• Four difﬁculty levels: Easy, Normal, Hard, Masterpiece
NEW GRAPHICS AND MATERIALS
---• Modern and captivating style
---• Improved visibility of key elements on the table
---• Upgraded game materials
---• More than 500 game elements
- [+] Dice rolls
12 Aug 2020
Ravensburger is continuing its streak of licensed titles in the U.S., following titles already released in 2020 such as Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons, Back to the Future: Dice Through Time, Marvel Villainous: Infinite Power, and Disney Hocus Pocus: The Game with the announcement of The Princess Bride Adventure Book Game.
This 1-4 player co-operative game from Ryan Miller includes paintable miniatures for all the main characters (Westley, Princess Buttercup, Prince Humperdinck, Count Rugen, Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik), bears a 15-90 minute playing time, and has a U.S. street date of October 4, 2020. Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:Quote:Inconceivable! Climb the Cliffs of Insanity, brave the Fire Swamp, and help Buttercup, Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya survive the dastardly machinations of Prince Humperdinck, Count Rugen, and Vizzini. Follow the incredible story of The Princess Bride through six chapters and work together to keep the plot on course despite Shrieking Eels, kissing, and constant interruptions! Will the forces of evil — or true "wove" — prevail?Art in the game is credited to Medusa Dollmaker and Lucas Torquato, and given Dollmaker's work on High Society, I have to think she's responsible for the smashing portraits on the game's cover.
In The Princess Bride Adventure Book Game, players work together to advance the plot and tell all six chapters despite interruptions from a sick grandson. Each chapter is represented by a new board within a "book" of game boards. Instead of each player controlling a single character, players cooperate to complete challenges by moving characters and discarding story cards from their hand.
Each chapter has a series of challenges that require characters to be in specific locations and specific story cards to be discarded from a player's hand. All challenges must be completed before players can advance to the next chapter. A chapter can be interrupted by different story-based conditions or by the grandson. Players have one more chance to complete the story after an interruption, or they lose the game. Special story cards earned as a reward for completing challenges as well as miracle tokens give players more options and help them along the way.
- [+] Dice rolls
Glasgow, which is now out (at least in Europe) as part of the Lookout Games two-player line.
In 2017, I was traveling with a friend as we often do on buses and trains to coastal towns or around Europe. We were on the Eurostar from UK to France, and as we sometimes do, we played the small game Province. It was enjoyable, but they had no desire to play again.
I travel light, which means any game has tough competition to earn a space in my backpack. I love the idea of having a portable, short-playtime game that gives me the satisfaction of a proper Eurostyle city-building game — but if it is going to take up that space and be one of only two or three gaming options, it needs to have a good amount of replay value.
We discussed it, and she said, "Why don't you make one then? Something we can play on our train journeys." She had a good point. Why don't I make it? So now I had a mission and a clearly defined design brief. It had to be portable, highly replayable, and good with two players with a satisfying sense of progression.Passing the time queueing for the Palace of Versailles with a bit of in-head game design
At the peak of summer, the queue for the Palace of Versailles can be long. Really long. However, that time can pass a bit more smoothly if you now have a game to design in your head. Shuffling along the line in the baking heat, I started to piece it together. An early thought was to include tiles. I appreciate the tactile nature of tiles, which don't blow away in the wind and can replace the need for a board, and I think they provide more of a "big game" feel than cards.
I knew I wanted players to build a city and decided they should be building it together. This would be an opportunity for more interaction, felt more thematic, and provided further replayability as you wouldn't be able to control all placements or exactly how the city would form. I think a great thing about tile placement is that it can create interesting decisions, but because we are familiar with spatial reasoning to some extent in our daily lives, it does so with fairly little additional complexity. I'm particularly interested in these emergent properties in games where subtle differences in your actions have consequences for your strategy and that of your opponent.
The city built together would be the central focus, replacing a board. I would make some buildings factories that would also function as worker-placement spots letting you do special things. They would have guaranteed access for the owner, but the other player could visit only if the spot were vacant. This would give a sense of progression as the city and options increased throughout the game. I imagined the square tiles filing up a bigger square and creating a nice clear, tense endpoint to the game as you completed that grid.
I was reminded of my hometown, Glasgow, which was the third city in Europe to adopt the grid structure for its city center. It has been claimed that this was the model on which New York was based, but I'm not certain of the evidence for that. Either way, it has a notably clean grid layout to it, and if I were to create a game, why not somewhere special to me? The game could be a love letter to my friend and my city.
Patchwork and how I enjoy the difficult choice of taking tiles while managing your time and what you think your opponent will take. A feature of this system is that it naturally accommodates different types of players; if I want to be highly competitive, I can think about denying my opponent, but if am playing casually I can just focus on getting what I need.
I modified this system to a single line representing the river Clyde, where goods would arrive into Glasgow. You moved your piece along this river and picked up the tile for use anytime in the round. There were a couple of additional touches to keep some tension: you had to use the action tiles collected that round or lose them, and you could store only a few resources and never gold.First ever playtest
Returning from France after that long weekend, I had the outline of a game. I made a simple prototype shortly after and was pleased to find it all worked. It wasn't the most exciting experience, but it worked. Of course, many things would change as the game developed; scoring for set-related bonuses increased to encourage strategic planning, contracts were "unbalanced" to make decisions over when to jump more difficult, the chaining of builds was introduced to make players pull off bigger plays, and whisky was introduced because I really like the wee barrel component*.
However, it turned out the game needed two major changes to become a smoother and more engaging experience. The first was the workers. The workers did little early game, but as the city expanded, you had more options. A familiar pattern would arise: New players did not use the workers/forgot about them/were unclear when to play them, but the couple of experienced players really liked the workers. I tried having a "family" version without workers and "advanced" with workers, but the family version wasn't engaging enough, and I couldn't trust players would play again until they learned how to use workers.
I noticed the buildings that people enjoyed most were those in which their position in the city was important and realized I could create a more elegant solution by having the factory buildings automatically trigger when buildings were placed next to them — allowing me to get rid of the whole worker system while keeping the engine building in the game intact. If I could remove that, it would drop the play structure down from three actions (move, take tile, optionally place a worker) to simply move and take tile. This streamlining would make it much more approachable.Early version of the game with worker placement
I had a friend who said their favorite bit was the workers and they wouldn't play without them. This made them the ideal test because if they could enjoy the game as much without the workers, I would know that was the way forward. I managed to convince them to try the new system, and while they complained at first, afterwards they said, "It is basically the same" and I was pleased the job was done.
It was around this time I found out about Playtest UK and decided I would try to make their next monthly meeting. It was an exciting prospect, especially when at the session I found myself sitting with experienced designers Asger Harding Granerud, David J. Mortimer, and Rob Harris to playtest my game.**Asger makes a move at my first Playtest UK meet-up
I didn't know how much more work would be needed before I showed the game to publishers, and this seemed the right crowd to ask***. Asger enthusiastically said I should be doing so already. With the 2018 UK Games Expo on the horizon, I contacted some publishers that would be in attendance. There was some general interest, but nothing came of it — other than one encounter that would prove very important.
The first publisher I reached out to was Aporta Games. This was because I really like their titles and I'm an idiot. I hadn't realized that Aporta doesn't publish games from other designers, but Kristian Amundsen Østby was very friendly and made time to meet me. Kristian has an incredible design insight, and although he had not played the game, he said an immediate thought was whether there was a need for rounds. Had I tried continuous play?Showing Glasgow to Kristian; I later discovered a pal, Ben Broomfield, was taking photos for UKGE and happened to catch this moment
After workers, this was the second big "problem" the game needed to overcome. The game played in rounds, which led to a confusing rule for turn order and some set-up time between each round. I think games are largely judged by their time input to entertainment output. I enjoy Catan as a 45-60 minute game, but that time my group tried six players and called it after four hours, I was less of a fan. The upkeep between rounds had seemed trivial, but ultimately all these things creep into our experience of a game.Quote:I was back to the drawing board to try all kinds of different systems to get rid of rounds. They were all too complex or too fiddly with players having to constantly replace tiles when taking. I sat alone at the table one evening to try to figure it out. I laid the pieces out and just stared at them when suddenly it occurred to me — it was so easy: "What if you didn't pick up the tiles?""I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town
But something's the matter with Glasgow
For it's going round and round"
This had been the core of the game — move your piece, pick up the tile — but if you didn't pick up the tiles, it would remove all the faff of refilling/resetting the river. All abilities would become instant; you would move on them and they would activate. Now that would mean making a big circle, with no need to refresh tiles or have rounds. Sure, this change meant some abilities and features had to be totally modified, but it also meant cutting out two pages of the rulebook and getting rid of the most confusing rule. This cut the playtime down significantly, and as a bonus it increased the strategy as people could plan more effectively by seeing what was ahead.
I was concerned this change may reduce variability and replay from not having the randomized river each round but was surprised that it had the opposite effect. It increased the variation between games because now you had to approach each new game with a strategy based on what was there, knowing certain tiles wouldn't show that game.
I now had my game. I had a game that worked smoothly and fit all the criteria I'd initially set out to achieve. My friend and I enjoyed playing it, so mission accomplished. I put it on the shelf and got on with my life.Enjoying a wee pre-lunch game on our travels
In April 2019, I had become a bit obsessed with my work. I really enjoy my job but with no set hours to it, I was getting a bit carried away and decided I again needed the creative outlet of designing. If I wanted to pursue it, I should get a bit more serious. I started attending the Playtest UK sessions and would put time aside to make prototypes.
One week I wanted to attend the session but didn't have anything new to bring and thought, "Why not dust off that Glasgow game and see what some fresh eyes make of it?" I was buoyed by how well it was received; players looked totally engaged and afterwards all said they would buy a copy as it is, one even going so far as to rate it in their all-time top ten. I booked a playtest slot at UK Games Expo that year and showed it to some people there and again had very positive responses, including people asking whether I could bring my copy so their friends could play in the evening. I was incredibly elated seeing people enjoy something I'd created — some cubes and bits of cut-up card coming to life after I explain what to do with them.
On the final day of the event, I swung by to see Hanno alone and playing with his phone, so swooped in. I started explaining a bit as seemed normal in a pitch when he interrupted to clear space on the table and suggest we play. I had never had a publisher suggest playing on the spot. I was a bit concerned during set-up as no gold contracts were in play and wondered whether it would stifle the experience, but there are ways to work every set-up. Hanno got a good combo early, particularly exploiting the whisky factory for easy builds which allowed him to overcome the gold shortage. He joked about how it was over as he chained builds.
I'd played a bunch of times that weekend and lost almost all, sometimes quite badly. In playing my own games, I spend most of the time looking at other players' reactions and engagement, assessing their choices, considering balance, etc.
Now, I've heard people say to let the publisher win when pitching, but I don't believe that and I wanted to make sure he knew he hadn't "broken" the game with this combo. I became determined to win. It was the first time in a long time I felt I really played the game — just played it without trying to analyze it. The sound of the crowds disappeared, and I forgot I was pitching a game. It was close in the end, but I managed to get the victory. Afterwards Hanno told me he could see it being a Lookout title.
I was very fortunate to have interest from other great publishers, and I hope to work with them in the future but have no regrets in going with Lookout. Lookout was happy to keep the theme, and the only mechanical change was a nice little rule introduced by developer Grzegorz Kobiela that increased the gold cost for each bonus build to stop a player going completely crazy in chaining buildings.Snapshots of the prototype progression for some tiles that were present from the start;note parks and tenement art swapped in final for thematic reasons
However, there was one big change from my prototype to the finished product. During the design process, I had expanded the game to play with up to four players. Lookout decided it wanted the game to go back to two players only. While I was reluctant, this would allow it to be a nice neat package with tight play for the prestigious two-player line. (Dear reader, between you and me, you can still merge copies with a few very minor changes to go up to four players — or maybe one day they'll let me do an expansion if the demand is there.)
Klemens Franz brought the beautiful architecture of Glasgow to life and let me include my favorite buildings. Once I saw there were to be people on the contracts, I was keen to make sure the game felt inclusive to the people of the city. With some research, we were able to identify what some of the people at the docks may have looked like at the time and include them in the game. (You can read more about the character diversity here.) I am really proud of what we have created.
I now have a game to play with my friend on our travels. I've had a wonderful time creating it, and I hope you too have a great time playing it.
*Also, because it's Scotland and I don't know whether we're allowed to make games about Scotland without whisky. In the game, whisky is a wild resource to reflect its status as the most important and widely accepted currency.
**Incidentally I shared that 90-minute slot with David Mortimer's The Ming Voyages, which is also being released now and with art from Klemens Franz.
***It was also at this session I met Brett J. Gilbert, who encouraged me to change the name from "Merchant City: Glasgow" to simply "Glasgow". Merchant City is the area where the grid restructure started, but I did concur that "Merchant City" is a very generic Eurogame-sounding prefix.
- [+] Dice rolls
10 Aug 2020
Pandasaurus Games has hired Danni Loe as marketing manager, making her "responsible for promoting new releases and the current Pandasaurus catalog, growing relationships with customers and media, and creating engaging event experiences".
Loe has previously worked with GAMA, Renegade Game Studios, and IELLO USA, and she's done a fantastic job in all of these situations, especially with GAMA where she oversaw the rebranding of both GAMA and the Origins Game Fair; she managed social media for both GAMA and Origins — neither of which have tweeted since she's left — and she oversaw a new GAMA newsletter sent to members. Honestly, every game organization would benefit from having their own Danni Loe.
As for joining Pandasaurus, to quote Loe from the press release announcing this hire: "I can't express how happy I am to join this team! I've been impressed by their growing presence and enjoyed many of their games over the years. My first days have already inspired me. I can't wait to see what we accomplish together!"
• Loe is already on the job for Pandasaurus, uploading images on BGG for the titles the publisher is releasing in the latter half of 2020, such as the three titles depicted above that originated from German publisher NSV. The Game: Quick & Easy, which I covered in January 2020 and Robots, which was nominated for the 2020 Kinderspiel des Jahres, are both due out from Pandasaurus on October 14, 2020, while Ohanami, for which I should still record an overview, is due out on October 28, 2020.
• Sandwiched in between those releases on October 21, 2020 is Gods Love Dinosaurs, a 2-5 player game from Kasper Lapp (Magic Maze) that acknowledges the specialness of dinosaurs compared to all other critters:Quote:How do you make an ecosystem flourish with just enough of every life form in the chain to supply you with dinosaurs to dominate the lands? Resources are scarce, animals can go extinct in an area, and everyone must eat to survive — so moves must be cunning. Life hangs in the balance...• Pandasaurus also gave a first overview of upcoming games Dinosaur Island: Roar & Write and Dinosaur World during its Gen Con presentation, with info on these titles starting at about the 30:00 mark and more info on Gods Love Dinosaurs following:
In Gods Love Dinosaurs, a cheeky, wild, and timeless take on the scientific tale as old as life itself, you are a god who has been tasked with designing an ecosystem with a sustainable food chain of predator and prey animals. But you just love dinosaurs, so all you really want to do is to make as many of them as possible!
Each turn, you'll add one tile to your ecosystem, which will add new animals and give them room to grow. Every so often, your dinosaurs will tromp around your ecosystem eating all the animals. The more they eat, the more eggs they lay — and the more points you score! Just be careful not to overeat, or there won't be enough food to keep your dinosaurs alive the next time.
• In other Pandasaurus news, as of July 28, 2020 titles from the publisher will be available within the hobby market solely through ACD Distribution and Alliance Games Distributors. The first title released under this new distribution arrangement is a new edition of Doug Eckhart's Tammany Hall, which carries a September 16, 2020 release date.
- [+] Dice rolls
Gil Hova details what didn't work in these virtual cons and what he hopes to see in the future. An excerpt:Quote:This gets to my biggest issue with virtual conventions, as they're implemented right now: they are too decentralized. A convention is, at its lexical and literal heart, a place where people convene. It's a place where we serendipitously bump into people we haven't seen in years. It's a place where we meet old friends and make new friends, where we go out to dinner at local restaurants to catch up and talk about stuff.Another:
None of that stuff is possible at a virtual convention right now.Quote:The big thing is that the whole convention must be in the same Discord server. This is vital for the convention to work — it's what makes the convention feel like "convening," instead of just a place to organize games.I didn't participate in VGC, and I'm still not sure what to think about Gen Con Online. I was as tired afterwards as I am following an in-person Gen Con and I played no games (which is typical), but I did appreciate the short travel distance I had to navigate to reach my broadcast space...
I think this is where the Gen Con experience didn't work great for me. Gen Con forbade gaming on their Discord server (with one exception, which I'll get to). Instead, everyone who ran an event was responsible for running it on their own platform — Discord, Skype, Tabletop Simulator built-in chat, etc.
This meant that as you moved from text channel to another in Gen Con's Discord, you saw...no gaming. People talking about games, maybe planning games, asking for help with games, but no gaming.
This is so far removed from the in-person Gen Con experience, it's almost breathtaking. Gen Con is predicated on gaming. Gen Con Online kept gaming very far out of sight, almost as if it was a shameful, unsavory thing.
highlighted a 144% sales increase of Catan in the first five months of 2020, crediting folks looking for things to do indoors courtesy of the coronavirus.
• Along those same lines in late July 2020, People magazine spotlighted "12 Board Games to Keep You Occupied and Entertained at Home", including Azul (best new board game), Splendor (best strategy board game), and Codenames (best for adults). Lots of old-school mainstream titles on that list, too.
Andy Looney posted his original design notes for what become Fluxx, with those notes being twenty-four years old. Short description: "I have an idea for a completely wacky and unpredictable card game that would be the ultimate in easy to learn."
• On July 27, 2020, Hasbro reported Q2 2020 revenue of $860.3 million, "down 29% on a pro forma basis" from Q2 2019 when revenue was $1.2 billion. This announcement led to Hasbro's share price falling 8% that day.
That said, Hasbro Gaming revenues for Q2 2020 were up 11% compared to the previous year. Two excerpts from its Q2 2020 financial report:Quote:• Hasbro's Gaming revenues grew 11% and gaming point of sale was up globally over 50% (Note: Point of sale does not include Wizards of the Coast brands). JENGA, CONNECT 4, BATTLESHIP, MOUSETRAP and TWISTER were among the top revenue increases in the quarter. Supply chain disruption led to in stock levels below normal thresholds and limited shipments in the quarter.
• MAGIC: THE GATHERING revenues declined as expected in the quarter, reflecting a difficult comparison with a major release in the second quarter of 2019 and the previously disclosed accelerated shipments into Q1 2020 to minimize disruption from COVID-19. Digital revenues for MAGIC: THE GATHERING, including Arena, increased slightly in the quarter. Strong analog and digital releases are expected to support the brand in the second half of 2020.
- [+] Dice rolls
Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
Richard Breese, designer of Keydom, one of the first games to use "worker placement", and Keyflower joins Neil from Diagonal Move to look at how the "Key" series developed.
DM: Over the course of your career, you have become well known for the "Key" series of games — but that wasn't how your career began. Can you tell about the early days of your career?
RB: Thanks for having me, Neil. Since my childhood, I have always enjoyed creating games. My first published game, Chamelequin, was initially inspired by games of Dungeons & Dragons. I attributed different movement abilities to the different character classes and eventually reduced this down to an abstract game which I thought was interesting enough to be published.
I promoted the game at the London Toy Fair where I met Brian Walker, editor of a UK boardgames magazine Boardgames International, and Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop, who suggested I should go to SPIEL in Essen. I hired a stand there the following year in 1991 and discovered the world of "German" games, or Eurogames as they are now referred to. The gaming world was a lot smaller thirty years ago, with only twenty or so new gamers' games launched at each year's SPIEL.
Having discovered Eurogames, I was motivated to try to produce games in a similar style myself. The first was Keywood, which I entered into a games magazine's design competition, which pleasingly it won. I then took Keywood to SPIEL in 1995 and have returned every year since.
DM: Your game Keydom is often cited as being one of the first (if not the first) worker-placement games. Where did the concept of using "workers" to take actions originate for you?
RB: Yes, you are correct in that Keydom is widely recognized as the first worker-placement game. The game was subsequently re-issued as Morgenland in Germany and Aladdin's Dragons in the U.S.
The mechanism idea evolved from my plays of Settlers of Catan. In that game, resources are obtained from you building adjacent to the terrain hexes containing different resources, but the resources are generated only when a matching dice number is rolled. I wanted to create a mechanism where resources were obtained through player choice — the worker placement — and not through the luck of a dice roll.
DM: How did that initial concept of worker placement develop during the following years within the Key series leading eventually to Keyflower, Keyper and Key Flow?
RB: I have used the worker-placement mechanism in several of the later Key games, but when I publish a new game, I want there to be something new and different in the game. To take three examples:
• In Keythedral, the workers (or "keyples" as I have called them in later Key series games) are placed in accordance with a player-selected numerical order, emerging from cottages or houses that the player has placed strategically at the start of the game.
• In Keyflower, which was a co-design with Sebastian Bleasdale, each player has an initial mix of three different colors of keyples. The keyples can be placed freely, but only on tiles which are unused or which have previously been used by keyples of that same color. This creates a nice tension of which colors to use, when and where.
• In Keyper, when one player places a keyple on a country board, another player can join them with a matching-colored keyple on that first player's turn to the benefit of both players. In this way, some players are likely to have played all their keyples before others, with all keyples having the potential to work twice. The tension is to play your keyples as quickly as possible, but also to use them to gather the resources which are most useful to you.
• Key Flow is a card-driven game based on many of the ideas contained in Keyflower, but it does not use keyples and is really only a worker placement game by association with Keyflower. The game was co-designed by Sebastian and Ian Vincent and flows quickly over four game rounds, allowing players to develop their own unique village.
DM: Each game in the Key series shares similarities thematically. Does creating installments within a thematic series offer freedom to experiment mechanically?
RB: It is the mechanisms that drive the game development for me. If these lead naturally to the medieval theme with the scale of workers and a landscape, then I will use it to expand the Key universe. Often the mechanisms don't allow this or more naturally fit a different theme, such as in my games Fowl Play, Inhabit the Earth and Reef Encounter, which all have animal themes.
The Key series was not pre-planned, but came about incrementally following the success of the previous Key titles. The Key branding certainly helps the game get more visibility on what is now a much more crowded market than it was when the series began in 1995.
DM: Worker placement is a significant feature in many of your games, often in combination with resource management. Since the release of Keydom, these mechanisms have become board game staples. How do you keep the concepts fresh?
RB: I enjoy playing worker-placement games and do spend a lot of time thinking about games and mechanisms. It helps to play a lot of other games to learn what mechanisms work well, although I would not use an idea without adding some new twist to the mechanism. Inspiration can also come from designing with others, for example with Sebastian Bleasdale with Keyflower, or from a new gaming piece, such as the folding boards in Keyper.
DM: Keyflower is probably your most well-known game. Eight years after release, it is number 53 in the BGG rankings. What effect do you think this recognition has had on your career?
RB: Keyflower has undoubtedly introduced more people to R&D Games, so it is likely to have helped the visibility of the later games and also the demand for some of the earlier games, which are now out of print. It is nice to have had the relative success of Keyflower, however it was probably the positive response to the earlier titles Keythedral and Reef Encounter that gave me the confidence that I could design a polished game.
Regarding publishing, because I publish using my own R&D Games label, I have not needed to find publishers. It is nice to win awards, but I think the high rating in BGG probably has more impact. When new gamers discover the hobby, it is likely they will soon discover BGG and then, if they are looking for new games to buy, are likely to look at the rankings list to see which games are most highly rated by other gamers.
DM: Several games in the Key series, including Keyflower, have been co-designed, most notably with Sebastian Bleasdale. How did this partnership with him develop?
RB: Sebastian, David Brain, and Ian Vincent were all part of a playtesting group run by Alan and Charlie Paull of Surprised Stare Games. With regard to Keyflower, Sebastian had a small bidding game called "Turf Wars" which I playtested and saw the potential for a larger game and asked Sebastian whether he would be interested in working together to develop the game further.
Similarly, David had a game called "Book of Hours". This was more fully formed than "Turf Wars", and when I suggested publishing the game as "Key Market", I said to David I would be happy just to be listed as the developer. Ian is a seasoned card player, and he approached Sebastian and I with the idea of a card version of Keyflower, which then became Key Flow.
DM: Board games are always the product of a team effort — the developers, playtesters, graphic designers and others that contribute to a game in addition to the person credited for the design? How does the process differ for a co-designed game?
RB: Being part of a team is one of the pleasures of board game designing. You get time to play games with your playtesters whose opinions you value and whose company you enjoy, and in addition you are creating something.
I don't notice a huge difference in co-designing. That is largely because I am in the unusual position of being the publisher as well as a co-designer, so I can if required insist on a particular approach if necessary. Although I think in every occasion I have reached a consensus on how to proceed with a design. However, that said, it is undoubtedly a benefit in having more than one person independently playtesting and exploring different ideas on how to develop a game.
DM: What is next for yourself and R&D Games?
RB: This year I hope to publish Keyper at Sea, which is an expansion for Keyper and also includes a Keyper solo game from Dávid Turczi. After that I will probably publish Keydom's Dragons, which is effectively a re-issue of Aladdin's Dragons (a.k.a., Morgenland) set in the Key universe and with illustrations again by Vicki Dalton. Then there is likely to be Keyside, a brand-new Key game which is a co-design with Dávid Turczi.
DM: Do you have any advice that you would like to share with aspiring game designers?
RB: Yes, firstly play as many different games as you can so that you can become familiar with what a published game feels like and what works for you.
Get as many people involved in the playtesting as possible, especially seasoned gamers. Make a point of understanding what they like and don't like about your game. Do take notice of any criticisms. Try to address these or alternatively be comfortable that your game idea is solid notwithstanding the criticism. Stay true to your vision. Continue playtesting until you play a couple of games where you can think of no more tweaks or changes that you want to make to the game.
When you contact publishers, try to select those who publish the sort of game you have designed. That should give you a better chance of reaching a publishing deal. If you decide to publish, don't commit more funds than you can afford to lose. There is a saying that the way to make a small fortune in boardgaming is to start with a large fortune. However with crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, it is now much easier to get your gaming idea published.
- [+] Dice rolls
Wolfgang Warsch and Schmidt Spiele Bring Alchemists to Quedlinburg and Challenge You to Be Three Times as Clever
07 Aug 2020
Schmidt Spiele has released info on its late 2020 titles, and designer Wolfgang Warsch has two titles on the list, both follow-ups to earlier hit titles from Schmidt.
Clever hoch drei features the same gameplay as Ganz schön clever and Doppelt so clever, but with new categories in which to score — sometimes with several dice at the same time.
Your goal, in case you're not familiar with the series: Choose dice, then place the numbers into the matching colored area, put together tricky chain-scoring opportunities, and rack up the points. The dice you don't use are as important as what you do because every die that's smaller than the chosen one can be used by the other players, keeping everyone in the game at all times.
I have no details yet as to how the categories shown below might be scored, but that has not stopped people from trying to guess. Join in if you think you have better ideas!
Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg: Die Alchemisten, the second expansion for The Quacks of Quedlinburg. This expansion introduces nightmares, obsession, and hysteria to the base game, with players working in new laboratories to distill essences that can free the citizens of Quedlinburg from these afflictions.
Die Alchemisten can be played with only the base game or combined with The Herb Witches expansion.
Ligretto: Das Brettspiel, a Rudi Biber design in which all players race to place their tiles on the board first in the style of the Ligretto card game, and two Break In titles — Break In: Alcatraz and Break In: Area 51 — that go one step beyond escape room games. These latter titles originated from U.S. publisher PlayMonster, which is also releasing Break In: Chichén Itzá.
For an overview of how these games differ from escape room titles, here's a description of Area 51:Quote:To escape, you must first...break in!
Each title in the Break In game line presents a collaborative experience that begins the moment you lift the lid off the game box. Inside, you will see a 3D shape with graphics representing the area you are trying to break into. Your paperwork tells you to STOP and make sure you are all ready before you begin — get your cards laid out, settle in with all the players, read your instructions, then begin looking for clues to solve puzzles!
Soon, you will be told to open the game board and unfold the first of three layers, expanding your board and revealing the next layer you have to explore to uncover clues that will lead you further inside! It's a one-of-a-kind unboxing experience! Along the way, you'll see wonderful things, meet interesting characters, and complete amazing challenges using clever hints and a unique solution system. The final puzzle leads you to your goal — and then you must escape!
In Break In: Area 51, you are an alien trying to rescue your ship that was stolen by humans and is being dismantled deep inside the facility.
- [+] Dice rolls