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Designer Diary: Head of Mousehold, or Winning in Third

Adam Wyse
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Sometimes a game just comes together. Sometimes from the very first germ of an idea, it's all there, just waiting for you to make it. That's how it was with Head of Mousehold.

This is a game that changed very little over the course of its development compared to some of my other designs. I feel that hearing how mechanisms changed over time is really only interesting to people who have played it — which at this time is very very few of you out there. I hope that will change soon, but for now that's the case. The story of this game, though, and how it came to be made is an interesting and a personal one for me.

Starting Out — January 2014

My name is Adam Wyse, and I'm a board game designer from Calgary, Canada. I started designing games in January 2014. My first game was not any good, but it was the spark that ignited the fire. I started work on Masque of the Red Death in mid-2014 (coming soon from IDW Games!) and a game about stand-up comedy that autumn, so Head of Mousehold was my fourth design.

An Idea! — December 2014

I can't fully explain this design process without going into a few personal details. That winter I was preparing some big plans. I had been dating my girlfriend Chelsea for about two years, and I already knew that she was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was planning on surprising her with a proposal at Christmas. Chelsea and I live in Calgary, but she grew up in Cranbrook where her parents still live, about a four-hour drive away. She goes home every Christmas to spend a week and a half relaxing and enjoying some much needed family time. I decided that I would fly to Cranbrook on Christmas morning and propose unexpectedly on her parents' doorstep when she answered the door.

All that said, it went perfectly and she said yes! And as a result, now I had a relaxing week to look forward to of great food, movies, hot tubs, and beautiful mountain scenery. But my relaxing didn't last long — I was struck by an idea the next day, and I had to get it out of my head, like… now!

As I mentioned at the start, the idea came together quickly. I wanted to design a game all about coming in second place. It's one thing to want to win a trick by having the best card, but isn't it interesting to try to come in second? When everyone is trying to do the same, this should get quite tough.

The theme came naturally: "The second mouse gets the cheese", right? So there are five colors of mice, and each round the colors are ordered randomly from fastest to slowest. I figured that each family should have two mice of each color in their deck.

Players would send out mice to mousetraps to bring home cheese; the fastest one would get snapped by the mousetrap and the second fastest could grab the cheese. But I wanted something to change up this formula in certain situations, so I thought up the "squeaker" mouse, and each family of ten mice has five of them. When a squeaker gets snapped by the mousetrap he squeaks, the cat hears him, and comes in and eats the second fastest mouse! Thus, when a squeaker dies, the third mouse gets the cheese.

The mousetraps should each have different amounts of cheese — and you shouldn't have your whole family of mice from which to pick so that the decision space isn't too overwhelming. What if each round you sent out only three mice, but this was done simultaneously along with everyone else once you saw how "fast" each color of mouse was.

Oh, and then what if everyone got to see which colors of mice you'd chosen to send out? They'd know what you had to send, but not where you'd send them and in which order — that would be good. During the round, you take turns playing cards to mousetraps one by one. I knew there had to be information trickling out as the round went on to make the deduction and second-guessing element more interesting — how about every second card at a mousetrap must be played face up?

Whew. All these ideas were there from the start in concept, but now I really needed to make this thing and see whether it worked.

Since I had flown out to Cranbrook I didn't have a car, I didn't have any prototyping supplies, and most stores were closed for the holidays. I immediately put in an Amazon order for blank playing cards — rush shipping to my future in-laws' house! And I begged for a ride into town to the dollar store to try to gather what I needed: a sharpie, stickers in five colors, some kind of colored pawns, and little beads I could use for cheese bits.

The day the blank cards arrived I spent eight straight hours with stickers and sharpies at the kitchen table making my mouse cards. I can imagine a fast-forward time lapse like on TV with family milling around me, having breakfast, then lunch, chatting, cleaning, reading magazines, listening to music — all while I sat there sticking stickers onto the corners of cards and drawing mousetraps like a crazed kindergartener in art class. But after eight hours, I was done!

I immediately wrangled my two future sister-in-laws into a game and just like I had hoped, the game worked! There was only one serious change from the core game: My original thought was that each round one player would secretly distribute a certain amount of cheese to each mousetrap. I thought it would be interesting if one player knew which trap had the most and other players had to try to follow that player's lead to figure out which mousetrap was more desirable. It quickly became clear that the interesting deduction was not in cheese placement, but in the play of your mouse cards. There was enough solid game there that eventually cheese tokens were drawn from a pile and actually placed face up on each mousetrap.

Playtesting Playtesting Playtesting and GAC – January 2015

I didn't want to overdo it pushing family to test a brand new game, so that playtest was the only one I did until I got back from holidays, though of course I kept thinking about the game and revising in my head. By the time I got home and brought the game out to my local design group for its second playtest, I had made up a set of "Day Event" cards that would slightly change up the rules each round.

I have to stop for a second and mention how great my design group is. I'm a member of the Calgary chapter of the Game Artisans of Canada. The GAC is an amazing and supportive group, full of many designers whose games I'm sure you've played; the games and names are far too many to list. The group communicates online, does inter-chapter playtesting, is a valuable resource for contract advice and publisher information, and is full of experience in the industry. The weekly testing and iteration that happens in each chapter of GAC is what polishes all the games coming out of this group.

I'm proud to have brilliant local designers like Paul Saxberg, Gavan Brown, Orin Bishop, Joe McDaid, Tom Sarsons, Matt Tolman, John Gibson, Glen Dresser, and Gord Hamilton to meet with regularly and playtest.

Head of Mousehold went through a barrage of playtests week after week. Event cards changed and cheese values/counts changed as things went along, but the core was strong and remained intact.

Making It Prettier — April 2015

Early on I knew the look of the game needed to improve if I were to get a better read on how the deduction elements were working. An ugly prototype is all well and good at first, but eventually a lack of good iconography and colors can become a hindrance to how well a player can take in the information they need to make proper decisions. Luckily I had three wonderful and talented artist friends (Chelsea, Jason, and Joanne) that answered my call on Facebook for five simple line drawings of mice that matched some kind of theme.

I wanted each family to have a cool theme and matching apparel and look. I got back some amazing space mice, ninja mice, cowboy mice, and farm mice!

And because I had more time than sense apparently, I decided to upgrade the pawns I was using for mouse tokens into little clay-molded oven-baked ones. And since I was ordering a little silicone mouse mold, I might as well order a cheese one at the same time and make my cheese tokens out of yellow clay! They looked great but after a few weeks of use and being carted around, they were breaking far more often than I would like.

I couldn't find any mouse meeples of the right colors online, so I decided to get a bunch of black ones and paint them myself!

Since I was happy with the gameplay and the look of the cards, and the quality of the components was improving, I decided to enter some contests with Head of Mousehold.

Contests — May 2015

The game was shortlisted in the Ciutat de Granollers (a contest in Spain) in early 2015, but due to some baffling issues with Spanish customs the prototype didn't make it into the country. Customs required a payment of over $200 of the contest organizers in order to release the package, so they rightly declined and had the package returned to me. Weird.

Next, in May, I entered the Plateau d'Or in Quebec City and was chosen as a finalist! Having never been to Quebec, I decided to take a trip out there to see the sights and present my game. But first, remember how I was talking about how amazing the Game Artisans of Canada are? Even though I took French from grades 7 through 12, I was not confident enough to translate my own cards or rulebook. I asked for help from French-speaking GAC members, and Yves Tourigny graciously translated my game for me. It wasn't a requirement of the contest, but I wanted to be able to play with and teach convention-goers even if they didn't speak English! I am incredibly grateful because my conversational French is even worse than my written French, but I did manage to teach and play the game with people who I couldn't really communicate with otherwise. Even though I did not win the award, it was a fantastic trip and an awesome experience!

Pitching and Publishers — June 2015

In June 2015, friend and fellow GAC member Paul Saxberg was taking a trip down to Florida for Dice Tower Con, and he graciously offered to show Head of Mousehold to publishers while he was there. I was thrilled! He put the game through the designer/publisher speed dating event and got significant interest from two publishers, one of which he sent the prototype home with. This first publisher was extremely confident they would publish the game, but after a few months they ultimately just barely ended up passing on it.

In their comments they wondered whether the game could go to five players, so I took that suggestion and added a fifth family to the game. With five players, I started finding that the amount of information players needed to consider was becoming too much. An analysis-paralysis prone player tended to take a long time on their turn because there was so much available information out there with five players: five mousetraps and fifteen mouse meeples on the table.

I decided to try a new idea to help fix the problem. Instead of having the mousetraps in the middle of the table, each player would have a mousetrap in front of them. You could play mice only to your own mousetrap, the one on your left, and the one on your right. This cut down on the number of factors a player had to consider and got the game length feeling right again in a five-player game.

So I got my prototype back from the first publisher and decided to contact the other one that had been interested. They still wanted to try out the game, so I sent a copy off to publisher #2. After a month or two, I heard word back that while they found the game very interesting, they were looking for something heavier for their line.

At this point it was late 2015 and Head of Mousehold had been rejected twice — but I wasn't deterred. I believed in the game, and I knew it would find the right home as long as I kept looking. I kept playtesting, playing at conventions, and even making a digital version of the game that could be played on Tabletopia.

SaltCon — March 2016

So that's where things were at for a few months, but 2016 was a big year for me in game design.

When I was first starting out, I went with the idea that game design contests would get me noticed. The judges are often publishers, and for a new designer with few contacts, having a portal directly to people who matter in the industry seemed like a great opportunity. I continued with that line of thinking and entered one of my other games, "Cypher", into the Ion Award put on by SaltCon in Utah. After being chosen as a finalist, I decided to go to Utah and attend the convention. "Cypher" won the 2016 Ion Award for best light game, and Mayday Games ended up signing it (and another of my games, "Poetry Slam") shortly after the convention! The Ion Award publicity was what got me noticed by FoxMind.

Right around when I was finalizing the "Cypher" contract with Mayday, I got an email from JC at FoxMind, who I had never met before. He had seen the award win and watched my five-minute video for "Cypher" and was very interested in the game. I had to tell him that the game was already spoken for, but I had another game that I felt perfectly fit with FoxMind's line: Head of Mousehold! I sent him my pitch video and sell sheet for the game, and he requested that I send a prototype to their office in Montreal. I was thrilled, but also warned him that I would be going to my first big U.S. convention in June (Origins), and that while normally I'd not show the game around while he was evaluating it, I would have to in this case. It's a long and costly trip from Calgary, and I couldn't not show the game when I have so few opportunities to meet publishers in person.

Origins — June 2016

So I was off to Columbus for the Origins Game Fair in June 2016! It was an incredibly fun and successful trip. I met lots of new designers and publishers and did a lot of pitching of my various games. My first pitch of the convention was on the Wednesday when the place opened, and it went great. That publisher was especially interested in Head of Mousehold and "LepreContractors", and wanted to take a copy of each back for evaluation. Nice! Just a few hours later, I get a rushed-sounding email from JC at FoxMind basically saying "We played Head of Mousehold and really enjoyed it! We need another play or two to make some big decisions for the coming year… please don't give it away to someone else just yet!"

That was a tough one for me. I'm a fairly new designer to the scene, and I have a very big company who I just pitched to who is interested — but at the same time FoxMind seems very impressed with the game and I know it would turn out beautiful in their care… but what if I stop showing the game and then FoxMind ends up passing on it like two other companies had before??

I decided to stop showing the game immediately and hold it for FoxMind — and I was so glad I did! This has been the first game FoxMind has signed without actually meeting the designer in person, so I'm extremely grateful that JC and David took a chance signing a new designer like me. It has been a pleasure working with JC on development and seeing the beautiful art as it comes out. Small aspects of gameplay have been improved here and there, and the rulebook has been streamlined into something I'm very proud of.

I'll be attending Gen Con 2017 to be there for the release of the game. It will be my first game to be released, and I am so excited to start seeing people enjoying it!

Thanks for taking the time to read these ramblings. I hope you have fun with Head of Mousehold!

Adam Wyse

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Sun Aug 6, 2017 4:05 am
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New Game Round-up: Students Make Calls in Zendo and Bricks Make Walls in Amun-Re While Night Falls in Dominion: Nocturne

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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• U.S. publisher Looney Labs has been working on a new version of Kory Heath's well-loved and long out of print Zendo, and now the company has finally spilled the beans on the new edition. What's more, it's already going into production, with a mold for the pieces having been approved and the finished item expected to appear on retail shelves in late 2017 or early 2018.

Wait, a mold? Doesn't Zendo use the familiar pyramid pieces that you can now find in abundance in Pyramid Arcade and other Looney releases? Yes and no — the pyramids are one of three shapes of pieces to be included in Zendo, with the other two being a rectangular prism and a triangular prism.

What is Zendo anyway? A tool for teaching the scientific method, according to designer Nick Bentley, in addition to being a game in its own right. One player, the Master, creates a rule, then presents all of the Students with one arrangement of pieces that follows this rule and another arrangement that doesn't. The Students must create arrangements of their own, which the Master then labels as following the rule or not. If a Student attempts to guess the rule, the Master can build a counterexample that demonstrates why that guessed rule is not correct or congratulate the Student on winning.

I believe that Looney Labs will be demoing this new version of Zendo at Gen Con 50 in late August 2017. The publisher is also asking interested parties to complete a survey about this new version of Zendo should you care to share your opinion.

Donald X. Vaccarino and Rio Grande Games have sprung another addition to the Dominion empire on gamers: Dominion: Nocturne, which RGG expects to release in October 2017. As usual, Donald X. kills it on the exposition:

You've always been a night person; lately you've even considered becoming a vampire. There are a lot of advantages: you don't age; you don't have to see yourself in mirrors anymore; if someone asks you to do something, you can just turn into a bat, and then say, sorry, I'm a bat. There are probably some downsides though. You always think of the statue in the town square that came to life and now works as the tavern barmaid. The pedestal came to life, too, so she has to hop around. The village blacksmith turns into a wolf whenever there's a full moon; when there's a crescent moon, he turns into a chihuahua. That's how this stuff goes sometimes. Still, when you breathe in the night air, you feel ready for anything.

Dominion: Nocturne, the 11th expansion to Dominion, has 500 cards, with 33 new Kingdom cards. There are Night cards, which are played after the Buy phase; Heirlooms that replace starting Coppers; Fate and Doom cards that give out Boons and Hexes; and a variety of extra cards that other cards can provide.

• At SPIEL '17 in October, French publisher Super Meeple — which released a new version of Reiner Knizia's Amun-Re in 2016 — will debut Amun-Re: The Card Game, about which I know nothing more than these facts for now. Look, a picture!

• Other pictures of forthcoming releases include these shots of Pioneers, an Emanuele Ornella title coming from Queen Games at SPIEL '17 about which I also know nothing:

• And there's this beauty shot of another Queen Games title for SPIEL '17: Merlin, designed by Stefan Feld and Michael Rieneck:

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Fri Aug 4, 2017 3:45 pm
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For Late 2017, AMIGO Spiel Prepares Greed, Druids, Beans, Fish, and More Fish

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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German publisher AMIGO Spiel has unveiled its line-up for the second half of 2017, and as you might expect if you are familiar with the company, many of the new titles are pocket-sized card games, such as Gier from Alexander Pfister, a 2-5 player game in which you must steal cards from others in order to win. An overview:

In Gier ("Greed"), players steal cards from one another to build their own collection, and once you start clawing at others' goods, it's hard to stop — but whoever wants too much will go home empty-handed.

At the start of player, each player takes one crook card and seven number cards, with the number cards being dealt face down from the deck. Players will build up a personal collection turn by turn, with these collected cards being face up.

On a player's turn, they play a card from their hand into their collection, then they're allowed to go on a card raid. They choose an opponent, then draw a card from their hand and place it face up on the table. They can stop and keep that card, or they can draw again from the same player; if two stolen cards have the same number, then the player's turn ends, and the cards return to the victim's hands. If the active player has drawn a crook (and stopped voluntarily), they can take a card of their choice from the opponent's collection.

Some cards have a special action on them that takes effect as soon as they're drawn from someone's hand, such as looking at an opponent's hand or placing cards from the deck into a collection.

Whoever first collects six cards of the same value wins!

• The trick-taking card game Druids comes from the design team of Günter Burkhardt and Wolfgang A. Lehmann, previously responsible for the delightful trick-taking game Potato Man. AMIGO bills Druids as the fifth title in its Wizard-series of games, a series that seems connected mostly by art from Franz Vohwinkel in addition to their shared use of trick-taking. As in Potato Man, players in Druids need to keep an eye on which colored cards have been played during a round:

Knowledge is power, but with power must come control. In Druids, the novices of the Stonehenge Academy must collect experience points in various knowledge domains, but you don't want knowledge from just any domain because if you enter a domain not intended for you, then you lose all knowledge previously gained that round.

In more detail, each player is dealt a hand of cards, with the deck containing cards in five colors, numbered 1-12 in each color. Players then play a trick-taking game, and whoever wins a trick must place the cards sorted by domain (color) in front of themselves; if they receive multiple cards of a color in the same trick, the lowest-valued card must be placed on top. The tricks continue until either all cards have been played or one player collects cards in all five colors. In this latter case, that player receives negative points for what they've collected while everyone else scores positively for their topmost card in each color. (If all the cards have been played, then all players score.) Whoever has the most points after five complete rounds wins!

In addition to the regular cards, Druids contains special cards that allow a player to avoid an unwanted trick or remove cards of one color from a player's holdings.

• The components and game board in Haim Shafir's Memo Dice give off a Liar's Dice vibe, but the two games actually have nothing in common once you get past the exterior. Here's how this game works:

Memo Dice demands the full attention of players right from the start because they must remember which die faces have been hidden underneath the colorful cups.

The game includes nine six-sided dice that show 54 images across their faces with the sides being colored black, blue, or red. The starting player for the round rolls a die, gives everyone a chance to memorize the topmost face, then covers it with a die cup that matches the color of the face. The next player then rolls a die, and so on. As soon as no die cup remains that matches the face of the current die, the current player covers this die with the gold die cup, ending the round.

This player then has the first chance to guess the first die in the line. If correct, the player scores 1 point, then guesses the next die; if wrong, the next player gets to guess. Whoever guesses the die under the gold die cup scores 2 points. Players play multiple rounds until someone reaches a total of 20 points, winning the game.

Reiner Knizia's Schollen Rollen is a press-your-luck dice game for 2-6 players that is possibly already in the database under another name as Dr. K has designed many such games in the past, but I looked various titles over and didn't spot anything that matches exactly, so here goes:

In Schollen Rollen ("Stolen Rolls"), players take turns rolling dice to capture different colored fish from a central pool in their net, with yellow fish being worth 1 point and red fish 5.

On a turn, the player rolls the dice, then may collect a fish for each die rolled. Special effects on the die faces may augment what happens, with the player possibly doubling (or quadrupling or even octupling!) how many fish they collect, perhaps stealing fish from an opponent's net, or locking the dice from being re-rolled. After each roll, the player may choose to end their turn and keep their catch, or re-roll the available dice in an attempt to catch more. However, if you roll and don't catch anything, all the fish escape your net and your turn ends.

Once all the fish have been caught, the game ends and whoever has the most points wins!

• Other titles coming from AMIGO Spiel in the latter half of 2017 include German editions (or new German editions) of previously released games:

Paaranoia: This new German edition of Pairs from James Ernest and Paul Peterson includes the original game as well as four other games that can be played with the same deck, a deck that contains one 1, two 2s, etc. up to ten 10s.

Sam Bukas Bande: This is a German edition of Tomohiro Enoki's Dungeon Busters, a game in which 3-5 players attempt to take down monsters by pooling their strength. Unfortunately those who play the same number get removed from play, possibly foiling the attack and punishing the person who played a low number and therefore didn't help much toward victory.

Schöne Sch#!?e: Thorsten Gimmler's No Thanks! receives a new German title to replace the Geschenkt of old.

Ladybohn: Manche mögen's heiss! ("Some like it hot!"): On its ten-year anniversary, this standalone edition of Ladybohn from Uwe Rosenberg gets a new cover and no other apparent changes.

• The final title in this round-up is another reprint, but of an obscure Alex Randolph game that was released in 1993. Here's an overview of Tief im Riff, which is for 2-6 players, ages five and up:

In Tief im Riff ("Deep in the Reef"), players work cooperatively as fish swimming through a coral reef to turn over 28 sea animal tiles placed around the game board. The fish start in one location, then travel through a series of paths — following the arrows as they move — to reach openings in the reef.

On a player's turn, they roll a die, then choose one of the four fish and move it along paths a number of spaces equal to the number rolled. After they finish moving, if they're on a space all by themselves, they can reveal a tile that has only one bubble on it. If they share a space with other fish, they can reveal a tile with as many bubbles as the number of fish on that space. Thus, players need to keep their school from wandering too far apart as they travel through the reef.

If the players manage to reveal all 28 tiles before all four fish have swum out of the reef, then they win!

The interesting thing about this new edition is that the original game from Herder Spiele was titled Der Rattenfänger von Hameln — literally "The Ratcatcher from Hamelin", although the English title on the box is The Pied Piper of Hamlin. This game differs from the new one in two ways. First, in Tief im Riff you can reveal certain tiles only if you gather enough fish in a clearing, whereas in Der Rattenfänger von Hameln you placed fifty tokens on the side of the board and you removed a number of tokens from the pile equal to the number of player pieces in the space where you stopped moving.

Second, the tokens in Der Rattenfänger von Hameln represented kidnapped children, so if you failed to win the game, some number of children would never go free. How's that for a burden on young players?

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Thu Aug 3, 2017 5:04 am
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Designer Diary: Sidereal Confluence, or A Trade Empires By Any Other Name

TauCeti Deichmann
United States
New York
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Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant is an oddly-named trading and negotiation game. Chris Cieslik wrote an extremely flattering description of how it plays for its BGG page. More on him later. My friend Doug Hoover describes it as "a competitive game where the player who cooperates the best wins", "the single best trading game", and other unabashed compliments that make me uncomfortable to hear. More on Doug shortly.

In a nutshell, it's a trading game that allows extremely open and flexible deal making. It is also quite asymmetric what with all of the weird aliens; I like aliens. This is the story behind that game.


Like many stories, this one starts with a game of Advanced Civilization.

I was a sophomore in college and ACiv had been out for a decade, which gives a sense of its staying power. For those unfamiliar with it, ACiv is an eight-hour, 3-8 player trading game with a disaster management game wrapped around it and a huge heaping of history wrapped around that.

Having played it, I was a little disappointed that I hadn't designed it and soon set to rectify this lack. I wanted my own eight-hour, 3-8 player trading game, this time wrapped with aliens. I created "Trade Empires" and, well, it crashed and burned in the way that first prototypes almost always do — but between the slow start and the ending that locked up, the middle was actually quite fun, so I made a second version.

Some players play ACiv like a careful negotiation game. They seek to make the majority of the profits from each trade and avoid trading for disasters. We've found that the best strategy is to maximize the number of trades. This gives everyone much greater profits — so much so that we've had to implement house rules to prevent the game from crashing when the leaders purchase every civilization card one turn before the end of the game.

That's what I wanted to capture, not what most players saw in ACiv — a game of civilizations and risky deals — but what Doug and I saw: A game of free and open trade, unimaginable wealth, and unbounded potential.

The original Trade Empires, resplendent with plastic beads and garish graphics

When I first set out to design "Trade Empires" (which would someday become Sidereal Confluence), it was a game created for Doug and me. We both liked huge, long games, so it was designed to be eight hours long and support nine players. Doug hates randomness, so where ACiv (and most trading games) used card draws to generate resources, I had converters that produced the same things every turn. This meant that there was no good way to hide one's resources — but that didn't matter since this was going to be a game about open trading, not haggling from a position of ignorance.

A Decade

The original "Trade Empires" looks nothing like the modern version of Sidereal Confluence. We had a huge, sprawling board. There were combat ships; gunboat diplomacy warped trade in many games. Colonization was more about opening access to trade with other players than improving one's economy. Most technologies had strange rules effects: Cloaking hid ships while Unbreakable Code hid resources, Time Travel and Massive System-Wide Assault Strategy opened up alternate victory conditions, Hyperspace Jump Facilities and Hyperspace Bubble Sharing altered movement rules.

I had all nine species, and they each played very differently. The Faderan started in the center of the map. The Kjasjavikalimm had their military. The Kt'Zr'Kt'Rtl used nullspace drives to fly strange paths around the board, colonizing and striking from impossible angles. The Eni Et provided additional hand limit — a bank to store resources between turns. The Zeth ran a protection racket. The Unity could choose which resources they produced each turn. The Im'dril nomads flew their huge fleets about, trading with whoever they were near.

The original board; orange lines are nullspace routes

For ten years, "Trade Empires" was played every few months at RPI's Games Club. Generations of students came and went. With each play, I would tweak one thing or another, refining the balance. My goal was always to make the game more fun for my friends and me; I never thought that it could be made into something publishable someday. After all, it was eight hours long.

During one of these plays, Doug did something I had never seen before in any game. He was playing the Eni Et. They were known to be weak. The fair market price to buy access to their bank was somewhere between the value of a small and a large resource, but with no way to make change, they either lost business by overcharging or lost profits by undercharging. Doug solved this problem by bringing in a bag of plastic coins and floating a currency so that he could make change. He used a whiteboard to track the value of each resource from turn to turn. Since he always honored his currency, Doug managed to get all but one of the players to accept it. In the end, Doug didn't win, but he did get the highest score for the Eni Et to date.

That left me thinking: This was a game that could support something as outlandish as a player floating a currency during play. I wanted to share this not just with my friends, but with everyone. But how could I deal with the insane length of the game?


If there were two ways to do something, I tried all three.

Two hours. If I could bring the game down to two hours, it would be marketable.

To shrink the game, I'd need to tear things out. I started with the board.

Trade Empires 2.0: Looks nicer, but circular icons for square pieces were a terrible idea

The board did a number of things that I didn't want to lose. It created topology for combat and colonization, and it was necessary for several of the species-specific rules. Kt'Zr'Kt'Rtl nullspace movement was important, but so was the idea that the Faderan were centrally located and the Nomads could move around the board trading with different people at different times.

Inspired by 7 Wonders, I decided to use seating position as a placeholder for map position. Military and Nomad fleets moved around the board from one seat to the next. Colonies pointed some number of seats right or left to open a trade link. The Kt'Zr'Kt'Rtl had an easier time trading with people who were farther from them, and their fleets moved 2-3 seats at a time, but not one. I tore out the old multi-step combat system and introduced a single-step combat system that was more flavorful and involved custom dice.

The game took four hours to play, far too long to show publishers. Still, when I got an invite to Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends, I brought a copy along to show anyone who was curious.

The Gathering

I'm an introvert. Introducing myself to new people makes me extremely uncomfortable. Convincing people I don't know that they should look at a game I've designed makes me want to crawl into a corner and hide. The Gathering is a very large crowd, and at the time I knew almost no one there.

About halfway through the Gathering, I worked up enough courage to set up my game on a table and wait until someone wandered by and expressed interest. Kristin Matherly was that someone. She saw potential in my game, and in turn introduced it to her friend Jacob Davenport. By the time Jacob could play, Kristin was busy, so Doug, Jacob, and I sat down for a three-player game. Jacob played the banking Eni Et and Doug played the militant Kjasjavikalimm. Around turn three, the following exchange happened:

Doug: "Jacob, I'm going to capture one of your colonies."
Jacob: "No, you aren't."
Doug: "I have this huge navy, of course I can."
Jacob: "No, if you do that, I'll never let you have access to my bank."
Doug: "Ah, I think I've misspoken. I'm going to rent one of your colonies. I'll conquer it so that we are close enough to trade with each other, and I'll give you its resource output for the rest of the game in return."

Trade Empires 2.2: Streamlined system for combat, and clearer iconography

That was the moment when Jacob realized that this was no ordinary trading game, but something that would support arbitrarily intricate deals. He happily charged a small fee to accept Doug's offer, and soon created increasingly clever trades that danced with the rules. Suffice it to say, Jacob won that game and nearly every game since then.

Kristin and Jacob are part of a gaming and playtesting group in Maryland. Much of that group was at the Gathering, and they spent most of the rest of the week playing "Trade Empires" with Doug and me. In the end, I gave them my prototype copy so that they could continue playing.


A few months after the Gathering, I had an invite to Spielbany, a local Albany, NY game design and playtesting group. I introduced them to "Trade Empires" to get their opinions. We didn't make it all the way through the first game. The combat system was too complex, there were graphic design and balance problems, and the game was still nearly four hours long.

So, back to the drawing board. I replaced the combat system with the simplest one I could think of: a single closed-fisted bid between the two belligerents (similar to how Dune does it). I removed the last vestiges of position; players now used "attack factories" to initiate combat instead of moving fleets, and everyone could trade with each other the moment the game started. Since the Faderan couldn't be centrally located, I gave them a deck of random Relic Worlds so they'd still have interesting flavor, focusing more on their history as an ancient race than their position on a map.

Since having your colony be conquered wasn't fun, I added rules to allow colonies to produce one last time as they are conquered. The quick influx of resources would reduce the sting of losing a world.

Every few months, I'd show up at Spielbany with a new version. Their feedback remained invaluable throughout the process of developing what became Sidereal Confluence.

Two different solutions to City Worlds before I introduced card flipping


"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Life is messy, so it took a few months for Jacob to pick up the game again. When he did, it triggered an immediate flurry of emails, talking about the game's design philosophy and bouncing ideas back and forth.

Jacob's recommendations involved grander changes than I had experimented with before. Remove combat entirely; it's just not fun for the loser. Expand the bid system to include research teams; new players were being overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible technologies to invent: a short bid track would help their focus. Put every converter on a card and have them flip over when certain technologies were invented; this would reduce the table-space the game needed since some technologies would flip cards instead of playing them. That last idea had vast potential, but I should explain City Worlds first:

City Worlds represented the species industrializing their colonies. They allowed each species to develop their economy in a unique direction and were worth victory points. Previously, they had been represented by putting a small card over the colony or with their own card that cost the colony to put into play.

With the idea of card flipping to represent upgrading an economic sector, I now had a much better solution. To represent a City World, I could have one of the player's starting cards flip by spending resources and consuming a colony, producing a victory point as a byproduct. Something which had previously required a half-page of rules and its own step in the turn order became a minor variant of a more general rule without losing any of its impact.

This is the magnitude of refinements that Jacob's advice inspired.

But these changes were also scary. They meant losing combat and the last remnants of position. It felt like I was losing too many of the hooks that supported interesting trades. The exchange between Jacob and Doug where the Kjasjavikalimm rented a world could take place only in a game in which colonies were traded through combat and players could make deals with each other only if their colonies made contact. Would these changes be worth the loss of intricacy?

Pegasid planet — A "hot jupiter"; a gas giant
close to its star and inflated from the heat.

Cthonian planet — The solid core of a gas giant
after its atmosphere has been stripped off
due to being too close to its star.
I didn't know, and my friends were skeptical, so I forked the project. The old combat and position version was named "Pegasid", and the new stripped down version became "Cthonian".

Cthonian's changes were so drastic that some of the species had to change focus. The Kjasjavikalimm's core strength couldn't be military in a game without war, so they became empire builders with an insatiable need for colonies. I tore out the concept of hand limit (which restricted the number of resources a player could hold between turns), so the Eni Et banks had to become entirely about the interest they offered. To make that work without having the Eni Et focus inward, I needed to keep them from using their powerful interest converters themselves, trading them only to others. Previously, the Zeth needed protection from other players attacking their colonies in retribution to theft. In several different versions of the game they had a "cross-colonizing" ability that allowed them to hide behind someone else's planets. Now, without combat, the Zeth could colonize normally (saving rules complexity). Their "cross-colonization" morphed into "Envoys", a means to spread around vulnerability while offering enough resources to the victim that it'd be worth it for the other players to bid for the opportunity to be more vulnerable to the Zeth.

Trade Empires 3.1: Cthonian — species tiles have been replaced with a set of cards

In the middle of Cthonian, I accidentally designed an RPG in the
"Trade Empires"/Sidereal Confluence setting. I used it to flesh out
the culture of each of the species, which was good for naming
and illustrating the cards. On the other hand, it meant that I am
now overly-attached to the game's setting — never a good thing.
Ultimately, there were some failed experiments. I tried converters that could run multiple times in a turn, which was too complex and made the balance equations dangerously finicky. At the behest of Spielbany, I tried several different ways to turn leftover resources at the end of the game into victory points. The first were technologies that added additional end-game scoring once invented, then a card that could be filled with resources at the end of the game to grant just a few points. Much later, I would settle on the simplest option: Leftover resources became points at a poor rate.

Cthonian streamlined play, simplified away numerous special-case rules, and in the end managed to shorten the game to 2.5 hours. In the end, "Cthonian" was so successful that I didn't bother updating the "Pegasid" branch at all. "Cthonian" was "Trade Empires".

Seven Resources

A year had passed since the previous Gathering of Friends, so it was time for me to bring the newest version to show Jacob's crowd. He brought his own version, with his own experiments. We played a few games, and Jacob told me something that I really didn't want to hear: The game had too many types of resources. Reduce it from ten to seven, and it would become much tighter. Unfortunately, re-balancing the game after such a huge overhaul would take over a week of full-time work. Every single converter would need to be changed, and I'd need to re-do the balance equations almost from scratch. Worse, there was no way to be sure that reducing the number of resources was a good idea until I could test a fully-balanced version of the seven resource game. Either leave the game as it was, or spend those weeks in the hope that I wasn't wasting my time with a design dead-end.

I listen when my playtesters tell me that I need to change something, especially those playtesters that have repeatedly demonstrated a deep understanding of the game.

The game has always been balanced for three players. The box says
4-9 because the three-player game is extremely cutthroat.
Two of the nine species (Unity and Yengii) consume all resources equally; that leaves seven species that don't. The combination of seven resources and seven species that need them has some interesting properties. There's an arrangement in which each species consumes three of seven resources, each resource is consumed by three of seven species, and any pair of species overlaps consumption at exactly one resource. This fixes a problem with the three-player game: extreme resource imbalance between the species. If, in a three-player game, one species had no competition for any of their resources, they'd win; a species in which every resource was competed over would lose. But with this new dynamic, I could ensure that each species had exactly the same amount of competition as the others, especially in low-player count games where this was the biggest problem. Some resources would be over-produced, others over-consumed, but everyone in the game would feel the impact equally, keeping the game balanced.

The seven species and the resources they consume; I printed this 7x7 arrangement in the background of the
Unity copy of Clinical Immortality since it also has the property of having a Hamming distance of four

The new spreadsheet accounted for things that I hadn't bothered to model before, such as how frequently a player was expected to be able to run a converter. Better equations allowed me to balance the technology costs over time much more precisely, giving me better control over the game's arc of development and its steadily escalating emotional impact.

When balancing asymmetric games, there's something often overlooked: the effect of two factions on each other's balance. The Kjasjavikalimm have an insatiable demand for colonies; the Kt'Zr'Kt'Rtl can supply cheap nullspace colonies. This is a synergy that makes the two species stronger when they're in the same game, and weaker otherwise. When I switched to seven resources, I also changed the costs of everything. Now, both the Kt' and the Kjas would use yellow (power) resources for their expansion; they can cooperate by trading colonies but must compete for the resources needed to play and use them. This resolves the synergy.

While I was making the seven core resources, I also introduced Unity wild resources. Previously they produced whatever they wanted, but now their resources stayed wild even after trading other players. Wild resources became much more valuable, allowing me to further focus their economy toward ludicrous flexibility and away from actual productivity.

Trade Empires 4.1: Seven resource types


By this point, I had been working on the game full time for months.
I took a week long break to create a two-player wargame in the
"what-if" scenario where the Faderan don't start the Confluence and
the Kt'Zr'Kt'Rtl and Kjasjavikalimm fight over dominance of the
galaxy. This is where the fleet art for the Im'dril came from.

Finally, I shortened the game by removing the first four-and-a-half turns! Every player now starts with a pile of resources, representing what they could have produced over that time. This avoids new players making a mistake on their first or second turn and costing themselves the game before they have a chance to understand what they are doing. It also — finally — brought the game down to a little over two hours.

After a flurry of refinement and tweaking, the game was finally ready for publication.

The Extra Year

For those unfamiliar with tabletop game publishing, it's a slow process. Publishers are inundated with far too many games, so it takes forever to review all of them. From their perspective, I'm an unproven first-time game designer, so there's no reason to fast-track my game. Suffice it to say that the first round of talking to publishers didn't result in any interest in the game, so a year later I tried again with WizKids and Asmadi Games. In the meantime, I found myself with an extra year of development on a game that I considered to be complete.

This extra time lead to a number of major refinements, the biggest of which was the phase order. Previously, the phase order was Trade-Bid-Research-Economy-(Zeth Steal). Players would trade for resources to run their economy, but also to invent technologies, and they'd trade for ships to bid with. Then, they'd bid for the research team of the technology they wanted to invent, pay for it, and get the benefits during the economy phase. This had some unfortunate consequences. Players could collect all the resources to invent something, then fail the bid for the research team, wasting that turn's efforts — or a player could prepare to run a converter someone else was about to invent, only to have them decide not to invent it at the last moment.

Chris Cieslik from Asmadi Games very much enjoyed "Trade Empires". He wasn't part of my first round of publishers, but he got a prototype copy and sent me useful feedback anyway. His big recommendation was to change the phase order to Bid-Trade-Economy-(Zeth Steal) and combine technology Research into the Trade phase. This let me streamline numerous timing rules. More importantly, players didn't need to plan for anything that wasn't physically in front of them. If a player didn't win a bid for a research team, they could always get a different one and trade for the resources to invent that. No longer would a player's turn be wasted by a bad bid.

Spielbany discovered a problem with this order when it comes to teaching the game. New players would need to start the game in the Bid Phase. In order to bid well, they'd need to understand the full consequences of everything they were bidding on (colonies and research teams), and that meant understanding every rule of the game and their full implications before starting the first turn. Most players couldn't hold that all in their head without having seen the game be played, so new player's initial bids could be bad enough to put them in an untenable position for the rest of the game.

I fixed that by simulating the first turn's bid. Instead of starting with a Bid Phase, players would start with random colonies and research teams and with fewer ships, as if they had just finished a Bid Phase. Certainly, that randomness meant that some players might have a research team or colony they didn't particularly like, but they could always trade it with someone else. Since the first Bid Phase was simulated, I rotated the turn boundary up one phase, making the phase order Trade-Economy-Bid-(Zeth Steal). Now, the game would start immediately in the Trade Phase, and all the players needed to understand was how their economies worked and that they'd need ships to bid later. By the time the players reached the first real Bid Phase, they had a good sense of the entire game loop and could safely judge the value of the things on which they were bidding. It did mean that the last turn of the game was abbreviated; there's no reason to bid at the end of the game, so that's skipped. But a shorter last turn means a shorter game, so that's not really a bad thing.

Trade Empires 4.3.6: The final version before publication

This extra year included a slew of minor refinements: balance tweaks to the Unity and Eni Et, plus lots of graphical improvements. To streamline thinking about the game, I added text under each converter telling the player how valuable it is to run, and the lower-right corner of each card now showed the benefits gained from flipping that card. A "donation good" box was added to the player aid to make it more obvious which resources needed to be traded or given away.

Finally, I finished the "doodles", the line art hidden in the background of each card illustrating the technology, culture, or economic sector that card represented.


The second attempt to get a publisher was much more successful. Chris Cieslik was interested, but wanted to see how well the game did in practice. He gave me a table in his room at Gen Con 2016, and I ran demonstrations constantly for three days.

The responses far exceeded either of our expectations. They included quotes like "this is the best thing at Gen Con this year", with people coming back to play multiple times and bringing their friends.

After that, both Chris and Zev Shlasinger from WizKids wanted to publish the game. I ended up going with WizKids as they have a larger distribution, but I truly wish that I could have accepted both offers.

The actual publication process didn't involve much in the way of game design; the game was a year beyond finished and had achieved a level of polish that I simply couldn't improve. The only major change was the name. Zev correctly pointed out that "Trade Empires" was uninteresting (aside from several existing games having the same name). I heartily agreed; I'd been trying to come up with a better name for years with no luck. We sat down and brainstormed something that (a) sounded interesting, (b) got the science-fiction and cooperative competition feels across, and (c) felt like something the Faderan would actually name the setting. Sidereal Confluence is certainly a weird name, but it makes internet searches easy.

The actual process of developing a game for printing is involved, but most of the work was done by people other than me. Unfortunately I used CorelDRAW to do all of my design work, which is incompatible with the Adobe industry standards, so the graphic designer had to create everything from scratch. Added to that, there's no standard form factor in any of the cards, so most of the techniques to reduce the graphic designer's workload simply don't apply to Sidereal Confluence. That is something I'm going to have to fix before I get another game published...

We expected the illustrations to have more problems. I had an overly-fleshed out setting (from the RPG I had put together two years earlier) with perhaps too much thought into what the aliens looked and behaved like. For each species, I ended up giving the artist three to four pages of sample art and descriptions, and I found examples of texture and color. To my amazement, Nakarin Sukontakorn managed to capture them perfectly in his first try.

From there, things have moved beyond me. The game was manufactured in China (I helped with color proofs during the Gathering in 2017), demonstrated at the 2017 Origins Game Fair (I very much enjoyed showing it off), and should be on the market within a week of this writing.

I don't know what the next chapter of this story will be. Maybe I'll finish that two-player wargame in the dark version of the Sidereal setting. All I need to do is refine the design so that it's not eight hours long...

TauCeti Deichmann

Sidereal Confluence in all its glory
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Wed Aug 2, 2017 7:25 pm
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Designer Diary: Yogi, or The Game Formerly Unknown as In A Bind

Behrooz Shahriari
United Kingdom
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Yogi is a game due to be published by Gigamic, and their page for the game suggests it'll be launched on September 1, 2017. I hear there will be early copies at Gen Con, though.

As you may have inferred already, given that this is a "Designer Diary", I had a part to play in its creation.

I think it's super-hyper-mega-awesome! But I'm biased.

For most people, this is a new game. I saw photos of early demos at Dice Tower Con. I wish I could have been there as it looked as if folks were enjoying it!

However, the game is almost identical to In A Bind, originally released on August 1, 2015.

If this were a designer diary for In A Bind, I would be celebrating its reincarnation. I could call this the end as I'm no longer selling it.

But everyone who bought a copy will hopefully enjoy it for many years to come.

Maybe there is no end to the story.

The game was essentially finished by Forrest Bower of "Bower's Gaming Corner". He was the one reviewer who had a fast enough turnaround for me to get it reviewed before my original Kickstarter finished.

The game was all about simple instructions, one on each card:

—"Left hand above left elbow."
—"Two hands touching."
—"Hand on a knee."
—"Finger touching mouth."

You needed to obey all your instructions simultaneously, not even stopping when you have to draw a card.

This game involves the hardest draw step you will ever encounter.

People often end up drawing cards using their mouths, elbows, or even feet.

My original rules focused on the "sadistic mode", that is, handing out cards to challenge your opponents. Bower encouraged me to embrace the simplicity even further: Just draw a card and do what it says.

He was right. The game is all about the physical challenge, testing your flexibility, stamina, and determination. Though the "slow and sadistic" rules added something by allowing the decision of who to pick on, the default rules are now simply:

• Draw a card (whenever it's your turn)
• Read it aloud (so everyone can hear)
• Do what it says (and if you ever stop, you lose)

This is how I always introduce people to the game now, and even the "Final Ultimate Last Ever In A Bind World Championship" was played using these rules.

I wasn't very organised with my first Kickstarter. I honestly half-expected the silly video I'd made to go viral and was almost scared of the potential logistics. Suffice to say it didn't.

I started the KS before it was ready and used a 58-day campaign as a deadline for getting it all organized. Of course I'd investigated the printing and shipping costs, but there was no marketing to speak of — just a budget of about £8 to cover the postage and single prototype that I sent to Forrest. On day 56 I was about 2/3 of the way to my target. I was sure it was going to fail.

Thankfully, a few folk convinced me to just keep trying.

I love performance.

I love to sing a song and get the crowd singing along.

I love to dance and enthrall and have folks look at me for a moment.

Maybe it's some sort of need for validation. Maybe it's some sort of egotism to think that others should WANT to look at me, at my performances, my creations.

Maybe all creative people are fragile egotistical creatures in search of validation.

Or maybe that's true of other humans as well.

Is there more than a semantic difference between a "sense of purpose" and "validation"? Is it purely that the latter must come from outwith?

Maybe the strong minds continue to create for the innate joy, like Bill Watterson, who retired from Calvin & Hobbes fame and is now painting things that most of the world will never see.

The strong might create a game that 1% of people will love, knowing that they've brought joy to a few individuals.

The weaker minds seek to go mass-market, reveling in the constant attention and occasional adoration.

Are many who strive for a mass-market title simply in need of more validation from outside?

When the game was first played in 2013, it was very different. (This predates all the pictures above.)

There was exactly one card that had anything to do with your physical position and it "merely" asked you to stand up. Each card was a tangle of points to accrue, card-stealing, and an instruction complicated enough to confuse any non-gamer.

I'll call it a mess. A hot steaming mess.

Of course, there were some ideas worth pursuing.

The second prototype was all about the physical nature of what could be done around the table. Cards challenged players to hop around the table, spin around, do sit-ups, make a noise for as long as possible...

I'll call this the first major change, the pure focus on silliness.

The overly complicated nature remained, however. Challenges would maybe award the winner some cards, award points, or steal cards from losers. Cards in your hand meant survival. More cards in your discard pile meant more chance of winning.

The second major change happened, focusing purely on physicality and synergy.

I had always thought of the cards as either "Sorceries" or "Enchantments", to use MtG terminology. (I believe that a large portion of games, including the final In A Bind/Yogi could be played using the rules of Magic and some unprintable cards.)

As the "enchantments" ("binds") combined to become exponentially harder, it was clear that this was a richer vein of design than the standalone cards, which were — by contrast — fairly similar each time they were played.

You could play cards on yourself, or you could play cards on others. If anyone failed, the game would simply end. Playing cards on yourself was a push-your-luck element; if you weren't the one who failed, you wanted to have the most difficult cards on yourself; you wanted to push yourself to your limits.

I had been working on the game for only a few months, but by Dragonmeet (a UK-based convention in December) the rules were almost exactly that of "sadistic mode".

I wasn't working so had plenty of time to iterate, iterate, iterate. First, every card became equal (1 pt. each) and then points were removed and it became a game of player elimination and survival once I realized that folks were happy to sit back and enjoy the silly positions of other folks.

Constant lesson: Not everyone is like me. Not everyone wants to be the center of attention.

When my 2014 Kickstarter was half-done, Gary invited me to run an event in the new pub he was managing events for. There were twelve folks at the start of the afternoon, with more joining in as the evening went on. Musical performance followed games followed music followed games.

By the end, around twenty people had been laughing and smiling and were brought together thanks to the silliness of the game.

Running events like this isn't the most efficient marketing method, but it is, frankly, the whole reason I make games. I see people having fun. Fun because of me. Both my ego and desire for validation are briefly satisfied.

I like to think that everyone at the event had a great time. They all wanted a copy for themselves.

It wasn't enough of a crowd to satisfy the scale of an online campaign.

On the final weekend of the Kickstarter, I offered everyone an expansion in addition to the basic deck. It made little difference.

In retrospect, lack of awareness was my problem, not a perceived lack of value. When I then told Liz and Miquette that I might throw in the towel, they were aghast.

After some strong encouragement, I spent half a day messaging FB friend after FB friend. If they liked the game, please buy a copy. If they didn't, please share it.

It was because of those friends agreeing to back me, agreeing to share it to thousands of others, that fifty new folks helped me reach my funding goal.

Lesson: Don't be afraid to tell people online about what you're doing.

If I wanted to properly thank everyone, I'd need another few thousand words. The key instigators, though, are:

Ben Neumann, who encouraged me to make a game as silly as I wanted to.
Rob Harris, who set up Playtest UK.
Danish Frank, who created a game that inspired my initial effort.
Gokce Balkan, who helped me with all my videos and helped me keep the faith.
Elizabeth Chu, who first invited a bunch of folk to my Edinburgh event and then encouraged me to keep going.
Miquette Brietenbach for similar emotional support.
Dave Cousins, who showed the game to several people during SPIEL 2015.

I won't individually name everyone who playtested, which allowed me to iterate and make it a worthwhile game; everyone who formed part of my support network; everyone who played it, enjoyed it, and encouraged me to pursue my dream; everyone who helped show me what tabletop games are capable of; everyone who allowed me to film them playing it; everyone who shared the link on the last day of the Kickstarter, maybe because they just thought, "Hey, Bez is working hard and we want to support her"...

Lesson: We are all products of the people we interact with and the environments we occupy.

In early 2014, I was still taking time to explore the game. I briefly tried a spoken version, all about triggers that forced you to say words.

It became too much about the memory and mental workout. Trying to contort — and watching others do so — is somehow funnier than hearing others make silly noises, and remembering to do so yourself.

With the number of threads complaining about trackable hidden information, I know I'm not the only one who isn't particularly keen on memory as a test.

It's important to have moments of minor achievement and revelations in a game.

In a strategic game, finally working out a path of options that will lead to an extra 20 points is a real "Aha!" moment.

In Rhino Hero, being able to place the walls and ceiling when it already looks unsteady is a sense of achievement.

Similarly, Yogi/In A Bind makes you feel like you've achieved something when you manage to draw card despite your entanglement.

By contrast, the verbal version that was simply about remembering an increasing number of tasks to do each turn didn't have any of those minor victories — only a sad sense of disappointment at yourself.

And that's not fun. Probably needless to say.

Most people say to do 90%+ of your art before launching a KS. Across three campaigns for games, I've had 0%, 6%, and then 0% of the final artwork done.

As you might be realizing, I struggle with motivation. Without external pressure, I'd get very little done.

It simply didn't seem worthwhile to spend hundreds of hours on artwork that might never be used. I could (truthfully) state that the campaign allowed me to improve the artwork. The more extreme exaggeration was a result of backer feedback.

I would draw and draw different versions, knowing none of them would be final. I was safe.

But then I had to muscle on and do the final art, knowing it would never be perfect.

"Perfection is the enemy of great, let alone good or done."

I did buckle under pressure and spent a month doing essentially nothing. If I hadn't already taken money from hundreds of people (and felt an obligation to fulfill), I would have probably never finished the game.

So I guess the Kickstarter worked as a source of external motivation.

In the end, I delivered two months late, at the end of May/start of June in 2015. Of course, I wanted to try to sell to shops but out of respect for backers, I decided on a launch date of August 1.

And so it was that — many phone calls later — I had sent it to shops and spent August 1 demoing to folks at Leisure Games.

The next month or so was a lovely time of going around the country from shop to shop, usually managing to earn back my travel money and a little extra.

There's a certain degree of anxiety about people backing. One close friend, who helped me escape a criminal record after being found guilty of possession of scissors (I was doing a charity haircut), still hadn't played the game when I saw her a few months ago. I want to make something that will actually get played and bring people fun, not something that they buy out of any sense of obligation only to have it sit on a shelf.

Maybe that's unrealistic given today's acquisition-led society. I have far too many games I've still not played and I don't consider myself a collector. We buy objects because of what they represent. Most were bought in the hope of facilitating an experience that I might never find time for.

Time is the real resource that can never be replenished — unless you consider health improvements a form of "earning time".

And yet I hope that folks will spend time with my games, prioritizing them above other shared experiences that might be available in the world. In a world where you might prioritize learning a language, maybe some other knowledge, exploration, musical improvisation, fitness improvement, or a million forms of entertainment, it is gratifying to have folks spend time with something I made, and then describe it as...

qwertymartin wrote:
KAndrw wrote:
using your brain while laughing til a little bit of wee comes out.

I hope {Bez} uses this as a publicity quote

When I think back to the development of the rules over the initial three months, I think how inefficient my iteration was compared to my process now.

Things I have learned:

Test the extremes. Maybe it will work and you will be surprised. If not, you know better how far to go.

Don't hold onto complexity. In fact, don't needlessly hold onto anything.

Marketing is more important to the initial success of a game than its quality.

Some games market themselves well. I'm very lucky that Yogi/In A Bind is one of these.

A strategic game will exercise your mind and test your ability to plan ahead, calculate probabilities, and negotiate the web of other players' desires so that you can block them.

Dexterity games and party games could be considered tests of physical/social prowess, but some games are far more focused on providing entertainment than testing any ability.

I used to be quite competitive when playing Twister. Unless you play with blocking, full contact, or some slippery fluids, it does become all about endurance and can be a bit dull with two skilled players.

If I really wanted to test everyone's physical ability, having one player draw the cards and everyone else do everything would be a better way to do it. No luck. Equal challenge. The winner is clearly the best.

But the variance does make it more engaging, exciting, and entertaining.

Simply testing an ability is not intrinsically fun.

When the game's framework was set, I set to work on working out all the possible "binds". Ideally, they should all be possible simultaneously — a fact that I eventually checked by laying out the cards, trying to do them all and tweaking them until I could actually do all at once.

For the upper body, there are very few additional positional restrictions that could be made. In a sense, it is difficult to add new cards to the core deck.

There are plenty of cards that merely need to be touching part of your body, and there are a few more locations these could go.

The game never stops evolving. After printing, and a few hundred games (mainly at conventions and various shops), I realized that one card always took people a little longer to process, mentally: "Right hand right of right elbow".

There's probably no simpler way to phrase that instruction, yet it's just quite incongruous.

When Gigamic was about to reprint the game and needed a replacement, it actually got as far as the art before I realized I had overlooked a very simple instruction I could also add: "Right hand above left hand".

And that's the story of how Yogi is slightly better than In A Bind, in terms of its mechanisms.

The expansion deck, a promised gift to Kickstarter backers, had to have the wild cards. I loved the wild cards. They were born when I was cycling back from work.

After a day of professionally preparing food, I showed a prototype to a few co-workers in the pub. Two said that I should make a sexualized version so that they could play with their boyfriends.

Cycling home, I knew that I wasn't interested in making something that was so explicit. Frankly, most games intended for initiating sexual contact/conversation tend to be very heteronormative and unimaginative.

However, the wild cards were born from this thought process — the ideas given in the pub had literally been "one finger touching... uh" and "this card in... oh!". Why not literally let players fill in those blanks themselves? In the right environment, such a card could become X-rated.

However, I've seen so many wonderful uses of the wild cards that I'd never have expected. People start involving the table, the floor, shoes, paintings, food...

Once, someone tasked an opponent with putting "this card in... that person's shoe". We were in a game cafe, so everyone was somewhat friendly. However, the player had to call over the non-player, explain the situation, and ask them to please put the card in their shoe — which they did, after making it clear that they'd call in a favor during a future game.

I also remember one player calling out "this card in... between me and you". They then proceeded to move around the other player, forcing them to use the card as a shield.

The wild cards were chosen by making cards that could:

• Be used to recreate an existing card (in case the caller had no imagination)
• Inspire a few different ideas for most people

Some wild cards were originally more freeform, but restrictions (and a longer phrase before the "blank") helped provide a framework, helping avoid the dreaded delay when someone has no idea what to say.

In a Bind with all the wild cards mixed in, slow and sadistic, is my favorite way to play. It's innocent, creative fun.

Unless you want it to not be, of course. That's entirely your prerogative.

The other expansion ideas — the actions, spoken phrases, and communal actions — were chosen for their entertainment value and simplicity of interpretation.

I expected people to just add a few of whatever they liked. I expected people to play with the communal actions only if playing with more than a certain number.

Instead, people tend to slowly mix everything in.

It's important to learn not just how people will play the game once it's on the table, but also how people decide what subset of the game to put onto the table.

I think that players are far more likely to just deal out everything with a casual/party game than with, say, Viticulture or even Carcassonne.

I think that if Yogi wanted an expansion, I'd like to spend a few months re-examining it and ensuring it could just be all shuffled in without too much rules complication.

Back in December 2013, I'd decided to publish the game myself, using Kickstarter. It was only a card game, so the goal would be low. Logistics should be easy. I wanted to learn.

Frankly, I had no interest in approaching publishers and investing energy in persuading them to accept my idea. That sounded (and still sounds) a lot more tiring.

When approached during the Kickstarter by several companies, I said no. These were companies that I respected that could have sold many thousands more than I did! Yet the reward of learning how to do it myself, perhaps even gaining connections to eventually sell it in larger stores myself, seemed far more appealing than a bit of money.

I also had just lost my job, so time was available to me.

In the end, it was an expensive meal bought for me that persuaded me to sell the game if the price was right. I was told that the rewards of the game could be far more than I had ever earned from any of my menial jobs. As such, it'd allow me to make enough money to do whatever I wanted (which would probably be working on other games without worrying about money quite as much).

I believe that with the right marketing this might sell orders of magnitude more, and that's why I eventually signed with Gigamic.

Hey, I told you I was egotistical.

The game was taken to SPIEL 2015 and sold by North and South Games. Dave was kind enough to show the game to a few companies even whilst I was running the Kickstarter for In A Bind Jr.

Having two major companies (the smaller of which was, of course, Gigamic) offer me written contracts, with good advance payments on royalties, and being in a position to have to turn down an even larger company, was beyond anything I dared dream of.

In a Bind Jr was a simple adaptation based on a perceived need, a mash-up of the original game and some expansions, with references to left, right or individual fingers removed. A few cards were repeated, and the game was mainly tested with my young nieces to make sure it was all playable.

Lettershapes were designed to be more similar to the way they're first taught and I paid a little extra so that I could have color illustrations.

Having already gone through the process, it was slightly easier to illustrate another 55 cards. However, I had another spell (not as long thankfully) around the turn of the year when I simply couldn't do much.

Lesson: I think I need to take a lot more time off in the winter.

In A Bind Jr was delivered to backers in June 2016 and — again wanting to give them some period of exclusivity — I realized that August 1 was a practical release date.

BezDay was born.

In 2016, I sent out small PnP rewards to previous KS backers, ran a KS for cheap original art, uploaded a PnP game for everyone to play, fulfilled art requests, and organized a small gathering.

In 2017, if you want something drawn, tweet the words "#BezDay #artrequest @stuffbybez" and then use the remaining characters to tell me what you'd like me to draw.

If you live in London, you could come to Loading Bar on Tuesday, August 1 or Leisure Games on Wednesday, August 2. There will be special games and prizes.

If you sign up to my mailing list, you'll get a free PnP version of my next game.

If you have a copy of Wibbell++, you'll find many more games to play with by the end of the week.

But that's a separate story.

In the end, I'm glad I printed it myself initially. If nothing else, it gave me a platform and a learning experience so that I could work on future things.

It helped me understand what's involved in publishing on a small scale. It allowed me to go to conventions and watch people having fun with my things.

Honestly, the conventions are the highlight.

I was volunteering at UK Games Expo 2017. I had volunteered there for several years before I became a trader, and I wanted to volunteer one last time whilst I had nothing to sell.

I have changed. The convention has changed. My relationship with other people has changed.

Whilst the convention's growth has almost nothing to do with me, and many relationships are purely down to visiting one event every year, much of the change is because of In A Bind.

I feel it has opened doors for me. As I was walking around, being an ambassador and checking that everyone was having a good time, I was greeted by a few distributors and publishers. I was able to run an event to celebrate the reincarnation of the game and — though it was only announced the evening beforehand — I still had twelve people laughing and having fun.

I was congratulated by "Shut Up and Sit Down". The whole industry is fairly small; I'm sure I could have said hello to these people regardless. But being able to consider them my peers, thinking that I somehow managed to stumble into being someone who made a game that is quite fun if you like that sort of thing...

I don't feel like I've "made it", but I'm infinitely closer than I was four years ago.

It's been a lot of fun so far (and a lot of stress, anxiety, neuroses...). I'm now just keeping my fingers crossed for Yogi, working on future things but even Yogi itself will have no end.

If it does well, there will be a second edition. There will be expansions. There should be events.

I love the events.

After all, if a thousand people buy it but never play it, is it a good game? If ten people play it and love it, is it a good game?

Again, it's all about the sense of purpose, managing to bring some joy into the world, getting some validation as a result.

I heard about Curses! after the game was on Kickstarter. I think that Yogi is different by virtue of the physical synergy of the "curses".

I have heard a few folk being surprised that this game didn't yet exist. It wasn't a flash of inspiration. It was a slow process of stripping out the unnecessary parts of an overcomplicated prototype until I found the most engaging parts.

Gigamic took their time with the title. It was meant to be out at SPIEL 2016, but instead all they had to show were some pieces of artwork that they had rejected. They were still on the lookout for an artist.

Whilst I'm biased towards my initial drawings, Simon Caruso has done wonderful work. I was especially impressed with the diversity. Without any input/request from me, they included my likeness and — though I was initially worried about representation given the first few pieces of art Simon did — my request for diverse representation was certainly listened to.

I don't know of other games that feature a transgender woman shaving her neck, and I think that's something we should see more of.

Having spoken with Simon on Facebook after the fact, it seems that I needn't have been worried about this aspect at all.

The card quality is fantastic, and since getting the PVC cards, I've had the opportunity to play in a hot tub and a swimming pool.

The game is definitely different. I'm not sure if it's better or worse, but the fact that there is the opportunity is fantastic.

Richard Garfield speaks highly of IELLO's treatment of King of Tokyo, saying that they added so much he didn't imagine and improved it massively.

With Gigamic providing the budget for PVC cards and plastic card holders, I feel the same about this game.

I can only hope that everyone else will agree with my biased opinion on its quality.

The game continues to grow and evolve.

Immediately after SPIEL 2016, I spent two days developing and illustrating a giant (A4 sized) deck for an event at Airecon. A team-based version, it featured such cards as "foot on a wall", "two knees above deck" and "three hands touching".

The amount of fun that the giant deck has brought has more than vindicated the time and money spent on it.

I have some tarot-sized cards purely for further exploration of expansion ideas.

The second English-language printing might have a couple of extra words added, "right hand above elbow" becoming "right hand above right elbow".

Nothing is ever perfect, but we can edge ever closer to our ideals.

As long as a game is continuing to be printed, we can't say that the act of creation has finished: noting people's desires and requests, discounting those (like the idea of removing/swapping binds) that are at odds with the rest of the game, and drawing some conclusions as to how to make it even better, whether by means of an expansion, new edition, or an entirely standalone remaking.

It all started with Danish Frank. He made a prototype, named "Unfair", which prompted me to make my own silly non-strategic game.

Or maybe it started with Fluxx, which had probably inspired him. "Unfair" was similar, but had one single card that would instantly end the game, as well as a rule that the game would end if the deck ran out. Most points in your personal discard pile wins.

Playtest UK was the thing that facilitated our meeting; it allowed me to get a prototype on the table once a month and even if the game was terrible, that was perfectly okay. We were all designers, learning together.

Ian Smith's group — primordial games — was my introduction into modern board games. That led me to seek more groups out, letting me find Playtest UK when I moved south to London.

Originally, I thought I'd be making videogames. Only after several years of making Flash games did and BoardGameGeek help me find a group to play more sociable games with, rekindling the joy that I had years ago, playing Saturn Bomberman around a single TV screen, after games of football.

My first memory is of a Spectrum loading screen.

Maybe there is no "start" to the story.
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Tue Aug 1, 2017 1:05 pm
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New Game Round-up: Queendomino to Reign at SPIEL '17, and Is Friese Finished?

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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• I've already written about three forthcoming titles from Friedemann Friese due out from his 2F-Spiele at SPIEL '17 in October — FLEE, FEAR, and FORTRESS — but believe it or not, he still has more in the works for release in 2017!

Finished! is a solitaire game in which you're trying to finish your work so that you can go home. Be sure to bring the game to the office and play endlessly so that you're fired and really can go home. Victory! (Sort of.) Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:

It is a typical day at work. Your working schedule is chaotic as always and it‘s time to focus on the task at hand. Start sorting files and do not fall asleep. If you require a jolt of caffeine or rush of sugar, there is a limited supply of coffee and a small stash of sweets to help complete your tasks and get finished!

You start Finished! with a shuffled deck of 48 cards and try to sort these cards by cycling through the draw stack during eight rounds. You may sort cards only in your "present" area, but helpful actions will let you manipulate your cards in many different ways. If you sort all cards starting from card 00:01 up to card 00:48, you win the game! If this is too easy for you, the game offers four difficulty levels.

I played Finished! once in prototype form and can provide a bit more detail, while noting that the design might have changed in the meantime. You're kind of reliving the same day over and over again, Groundhog Day-style, but to make it stop you must sort all the cards in the deck into their proper order. You're presented with a few cards at a time in your "'present' area", while other cards lie in the "past" and still others might lie in the "future". Some of the card actions allow you to manipulate time (as it were) to move cards into different zones, and you can rearrange the order of cards only in the present, if I remember correctly. You can draw additional cards and hide things, spending candy all the while and possibly getting more to keep you working on a sugar high and therefore able to do more things than you might otherwise.

• The other two titles coming from 2F-Spiele (and its publishing partners such as Stronghold Games) are expansions. Fabled Fruit: The Lime Expansion adds twenty new locations to the game, along with gambling tokens and "the mysterious camouflage coat". How did this game not have limes in it already? And how I did I miss that omission in 2016?!

Power Grid: Fabled Expansion spreads Friese's Fable Game system to Power Grid and Power Grid deluxe, with players getting two presorted Fable Decks that allow them to play campaigns of three consecutive games on any of the base game maps. In each game, players reveal Fable Cards as their conditions are met, and these cards add new rules to the gameplay.

• Two other SPIEL '17 releases that have been recently revealed come from the European branch of Blue Orange, with one of them coming from the Danish design team of Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, with Panic Mansion seemingly pitting 2-4 players against a three-dimensional mansion stand-in. To explain:

The mansion up the hill has always had a reputation…of being cursed. After dark, villagers keep seeing strange things moving behind the windows as the house seems to be "tilting" and "rocking". It is said that the only way to break the mansion's curse would be to gather in one specific room some of the ghoulish ghosts, wandering eyes, slithering snakes, crawling spiders, and other objects that have been inhabiting its dusty walls. Will you be the first to break the curse…and flee the mansion?

To win Panic Mansion, you must be the first to complete five challenges by gently tilting and shaking the box to place the correct objects into one room, following the information on the cards.

• The other Blue Orange title has been mentioned a few times in passing. Having won the 2017 Spiel des Jahres award with Kingdomino, for October 2017 designer Bruno Cathala will release Queendomino, which serves as both a standalone game and an expansion. Some details:

Build up the most prestigious kingdom by claiming wheat fields, forests, lakes, grazing grounds, marshes, and mountains. Your knights will bring you riches in the form of coins — and if you make sure to expand the towns on your lands, you will make new buildings appear, giving you opportunities for new strategies. You may win the Queen's favors ... but always be aware of the dragon!

Queendomino is a game completely independent from Kingdomino, while offering a choice of more complex challenges. Two to four players can play Queendomino independently, but also in connection with Kingdomino, allowing for games with 7x7 grids for four players, or for up to six players if you stick to 5x5 grids.

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Mon Jul 31, 2017 5:39 am
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Preview of BoardGameGeek's New Convention Preview Tool — Now Live!

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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When I joined BoardGameGeek in 2011, one of my responsibilities was to continue assembling convention previews for SPIEL, something I'd done on since 2007. In that first year, I also created a preview for Spielwarenmesse, with Gen Con being added to the roster in 2012 and the Origins Game Fair and Tokyo Game Market in 2015. For all of these previews, the idea is to highlight new games that will be shown or sold at these conventions, both to alert those who plan to attend and to let those at home know what they might see in their local stores (or not see given the size of many publishers).

The convention preview format on BGG was a unique creation usable solely for me to do what I needed to do — but having been assembled on the back of the GeekList infrastructure, the preview had some restrictions for both me and users because people wanted to do things with it that GeekLists were not designed to do.

Thanks to several intense weeks following the 2017 Origins Game Fair by Scott, Jordan and Dan, that situation is about to change, and the image below highlights much of what's new about our new convention preview tool:

To start, while the games in the convention preview are sorted alphabetically by publisher by default, you can also sort the games by title, by thumbs, by price, by playing time, by rating, by which were most recently added to the preview, and by priority.

Priority is a new status created for this preview format. You can click one of the four buttons by each game to tag it for yourself as "must have", "interested", "undecided", or "not interested". When you sort the list by priority, all the titles will be sorted in that order, with the games appearing alphabetically by title within each group. (When you sort by anything other than publisher, look for the publisher's name underneath the cover image.)

Priority also comes into play through the use of filters. Click on the "Filters" button, and you'll see this:

So many filters! You can apply one or more filters, and the results will be spit back at you with around 25 titles visible and the rest hidden under a "Show More/Show All" link. (This is how the games are shown without filters as well. We don't automatically show all the titles so as not to kill our servers. Similarly, we're keeping the name, game description, etc. under a "more details" link.) If you highlight "much have", "interested", "undecided", then everything you've tagged as "not interested" will now be invisible for you; if you highlight only "not prioritized", then you'll see only those games you haven't yet classified.

Expansion status is noted on game listings, so you can use filters to show only standalone games should you not care to see expansions in the list. Alternatively you look at nothing but expansions should you want to prioritize all of them relatively quickly. The availability status of a game is also noted within the listing, and you can use the filter to show only those games for sale at the con or those available solely for demo.

This might have been the most common request for convention previews over the years, so I'll highlight this fact: You can use a filter to hide from view games available at a convention solely for demo. Please clap.

You can segment out trick-taking games that include animals or nautical. You can look for games from favored publishers that support five players. You can exclude games from the preview that you already own or have preordered. What's more, by clicking on "Add To", you can interact directly with your existing game collection on BGG. Add something to your wishlist! Take it off the wishlist! Leave a comment for yourself! Change the title! (I'm not sure how changing the title interacts with things that sort by title. I'm guessing that the system will "see" the actual title instead of your placeholder, but I don't know for sure. We're still discovering things as we go along...)

If you click on the arrow underneath a game's thumb count, you'll see different sharing tools, including a grey permalink that when visited shows only that sole title, along with a link that allows a user to see all titles on the convention preview.

Click on the arrow to the right of a publisher listing (when the preview is sorted by publisher), and you'll have a link that shows only games from that publisher. In the current (i.e., soon-to-be-old) convention preview format, each publisher had a listing, but it had no link to share and it was a pain in the butt to edit. So happy to have this option!

Once you start prioritizing titles, you'll have a line at the top of the preview that reads "You have prioritized TK titles in this GeekPreview", along with a "View My Picks" link. Click on that link, and you'll see a list solely of those titles you've prioritized, complete with your name up top:

In essence, "View My Picks" creates autofilters that leave out all "not interested" titles, presenting all the games in a thumbnail format with the "must have" titles coming first. Your username is included in the headline, along with sharing tools should you want to tell your friends what you're thinking about getting at the next con. A link at top of the header lets folks go to the full convention preview should they want to see what you're not getting and make choices of their own.

Did I mention thumbnail format? I did — click the buttons underneath the search box in the preview, and you can alternate between the full list and a thumbnail summary of games showing only cover images, thumbs, and your priority status. (Some people might also use this format to search for games lacking images or saddled with 3D images instead of the more aesthetically pleasing 2D images that tile like a dream and allow me to create thumbnail images for videos. Some...)

Other general notes about this preview tool:

• This tool will not replace the existing Gen Con 2017 Preview. This new convention preview tool will go live on Wednesday, July 26 (if no issues arise in the next few hours), and I'll update both lists over the next three weeks. It's extra work for me, but many of you are already doing stuff on the existing preview, so I'm not going to abandon that.

Instead this window gives us a chance to stress test this new tool before the SPIEL 2017 Preview goes live on Monday, August 21, the day after Gen Con 2017 ends — and at that time, I'll be using only the new tool, not the old. (I'll need to move everything from my WIP SPIEL 2017 Preview, but using this new tool is quicker than what exists now, so that's a plus in the long run.)

• Currently comments cannot be placed on the game listings in the new preview tool. I believe the comments system is being worked on right now, so rather than try to mix old systems with new, we opted to launch this without comments right now. Again, it's a test to ensure the framework is in place, and we'll get a comment system in place later, possibly along with other things, with the biggest item on the wishlist being a preorder system integrated with the BGG marketplace.

• If a game's cover image has a triangle on it, click that triangle and a video will pop up within the preview. BGG attends a lot of conventions and shoots hundreds of game overview videos each year at these shows, with many of these videos giving an early look at games that will be released in the future. This format gives us another way to highlight the material that we've created, including the preview videos that I record at home. (After the video opens, click on the square on the cover image to hide the video and make it stop.)

• In the next couple of weeks, Scott plans to add the ability to print out portions of this preview, thereby allowing you to bring a list customized to your choices to the show in question.

• Filter choices are not persistent. If you create filters, leave the page, then come back, your filters are not remembered. You can bookmark a link to the URL that saves all of your filters. We did this so that people are not surprised to revisit the preview and discover a truncated list or something other than the full boat of what's there.

• You can subscribe to this tool, and you should receive notices when new items are added to the list. We're not sure whether you receive a notice when I update something. Subscribe and find out!

I'll update this post with a link to the new Gen Con 2017 Preview when this tool goes live (and I'll tweet it and post it on Facebook). Please use the feedback link in the bottom right corner of the tool to submit bugs, and please comment on this post with suggestions or feedback. I am super excited about this tool, and I hardly ever get excited about anything, so you can intuit that I think this is a big deal. Scott's already thinking up other ways this tool can be used, some of which he talks about in the demo video below.

Many thanks to Scott, Jordan, and Dan for making this happen!

Update, July 26, 2017: The new Gen Con 2017 Preview is now live! Looking forward to your comments and feedback so that we can fix anything that needs to be fixed in the next three weeks.
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Wed Jul 26, 2017 4:03 pm
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Designer Diary: From Medieval Traders to Indian Zamindars to Old Western Trains, or The Long Winding Journey of Whistle Stop

Scott Caputo
United States
Santa Clara
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How did a game originally about medieval merchants bringing tributes to various kings become a game about Old Western trains traversing the USA, supplying goods to boom towns? It's been quite the wild ride for sure.

It all began with a crazy idea: Could I make a tile-laying pick-up-and-deliver game? I was just coming off of the publication of my tile-laying game Kachina in 2009, so I was eager to make another tile-laying game but of a totally different type.

Tile-laying and pick-up-and-deliver? Those mechanisms seemed a bit at odds with each other. Sure, Steam has tiles in it, but you buy the tiles you want and place them where you want. I wanted a game in which you drew random tiles and built the board as you went, playing as medieval merchants who pick up goods and pay tribute to kings as they appeared on the board. My first game name was "Tribute".

But what if no kings appeared on the played tiles? Early on I realized I wanted to have some known goals at one end of the board that all players could work toward. These were kings who wanted a lot of goods, so players needed to plan carefully to gather all of the right items. There would still be a number of lesser kings mixed in with the normal draw stack that would come out randomly, and these kings generally wanted fewer goods. You scored points with each successful tribute.

What if you needed a good that wasn't on the board yet? I realized there needed to be a trading post where players could trade one good for another — yet scarcity was a good thing. I didn't want it to be too easy to get the goods you needed, so I decided there should be two classes of goods: common and rare with rare resources half as likely to appear on the tiles. A player would have to trade two common resources to get a rare resource.

I knew I wanted "crazy" tiles, tiles with lots of twisting paths much as in games like Tsuro and Metro. I love mazes, and I liked the idea that even building the routes you needed with these "crazy" tiles would be a challenge. The early tiles had arrows going all different directions. Every turn, each player would draw one tile and place it on the board where they wanted. Players had to follow the arrows. Arrows went either forward or up and down; players were not allowed to move backward.

I also knew I wanted players to control not one, but multiple traders, each of which could traverse different parts of the board. Each turn after playing a tile, players could move one trader. Players would need to decide which trader to move and players' traders would block each other. I didn't want players to have to remember which resources were collected by which traders, so I decided that all collected resources are available to all of your traders. This eliminated the need for elaborate bookkeeping.

I liked the idea that players could gain extra moves and store up extra moves for future turns. I called these food tokens. Players would be limited to how much food they could spend on their turn, but they could ration out the food as they saw fit. There would be an inn where players could gain these food tokens.

So what happened when players paid tribute to a king on the far end of the board? The player's trader would come off the board and be placed on a special bonus track where the player could receive free resources and food. It was strong incentive for players to reach the end of the board and when one player got all of their traders off the board, the game would end.

Players would start the game by placing their traders along one of twenty starting spots on the far right of the board. I quickly realized that players needed more reasons to place their traders, so I added another starting column, this one in the middle of the board which players could reach in a few turns. This column would start with an inn, a trading post, a couple of kings, and a few other tiles. In this way, players had both mid-term and long term goals to consider when placing their traders.

Somewhere around this time as I was playtesting, I got feedback that the theme didn't really make any sense. If the board was a map of Europe, how were there so many kings so close to each other? My dad did some research and proposed a startling idea: What if the game were set in India and the kings were zamindars, that is, Indian aristocrats? The unusual exotic theme appealed to me, so I decided to retheme the game.

I arrived at SPIEL 2012 to promote the release of my game Völuspá, and I brought four games to pitch to publishers, including "Zamindar", my newly rethemed "Tribute" prototype. Based on good advice from another game designer, I asked my publisher, White Goblin Games, for help in getting contacts at companies I wanted to meet. I ended up pitching "Zamindar" to KOSMOS, Ravensburger, Lookout Games, Argentum Verlag, and White Goblin Games. Several of them wanted to play a full game, and I remember fondly playing "Zamindar" in the SPIEL cafeteria while drinking a cup of tea, people walking by with plates of food, peering at the game we were playing. Both Lookout and White Goblin Games expressed interest, and I went home pleased that I had placed both copies of "Zamindar" with publishers.

After SPIEL, I got the most feedback from Lookout as they were definitely playing the game and seemed to enjoy it. They told me they were bringing the prototype to Nürnburg, where they would play all of the best prototypes to decide which games to publish. I was excited my game was in such serious consideration, but soon enough Lookout let me know they were passing on my game. From their perspective, there wasn't enough going on in the game, and the dominant strategy was to always go for the end goals as quickly as possible. White Goblin Games went dormant for a while, so both publication leads ended.

This led to the first round of soul-searching for the game. How good was this game? Could I really overcome Lookout's feedback? I got to work. First, I decided that there should be more incentive for players to make tributes to the zamindars in the middle of the board. Each of the eight "lesser" zamindars would have a unique crest. When you made a tribute to one of these zamindars, you received their crest. The player who collected the most crests would earn a large number of points, and players in second and third place would receive points as well.

Then I brainstormed a ton of new ideas for other types of tiles that could be in the game. Originally, I thought these extra tiles might be an expansion idea, but I realized the base game needed these new tiles. I came up with the stables tile that could give players a horse token, which was like a food token, except players could skip over other players or go backwards. I came up with the elephant tile that could give players an elephant token, a way to earn extra points for making tributes. There was also the Royal Court, where players could turn in their crests for points. Needless to say, the gameplay transformed with all of these new mechanisms.

I attended Protospiel San Jose in April 2014, showing off my newly revised "Zamindar" along with other games. I caught the eye of Victory Point Games, to whom I showed the design, but they had some concerns about the game length. The game ended once one player got all of their traders off the board. This variable ending condition could lead to longer games — sometimes over ninety minutes — and it certainly could lead to a feeling of drag toward the end.

At Protospiel, I also ran into Ted Alspach of Bézier Games, whom I knew from attending a local game convention year after year. I approached Ted and asked him whether he wanted to see my game. About a month later, I showed the game to Ted and Toni at Kublacon. I remember the session well. We played on the top floor of the hotel, a room with lots of windows filling the room with mid-day sun. Toward the end, Seth Jaffee walked by. He quickly picked up how the game worked and started making suggestions to Ted and Toni about "you can do this and this and then go there…" Within a few weeks, I heard from Ted that he wanted to sign the game, and I felt like it might be finally be done.

I quickly realized how wrong I was. First came an intense period of changes. Ted assumed the role of developer for the game. As Ted likes to say, I had a created a train game; I just didn't know it yet. I was open to the new theme of Old Western trains, so I set about thinking of new names and metaphors for all of the game components: Player would control trains, not traders. They'd use coal to move, not food. They'd deliver to towns, not zamindars. They collected stock, not crests. They gained whistles, not horses. They found gold instead of elephants. They brought their stock to the stock market, not their crests to the royal court. It all fit together pretty well.

Next came development on the tiles. The arrows had to go. I had a feeling the arrows were too busy. First, Ted tried long rectangular tiles, but that still seemed overwhelming to players, so he suggested hex tiles.

This reduced the number of paths per tile from 8 to 6. I was worried this might limit mobility and the maze-like feeling I wanted, but this change ended up working fine. I still got to have some pretty crazy twisty paths even on the hex tiles. Also, Ted added blank tiles (i.e., tiles with no stops on them) which turned out to be really useful in letting players move their trains further down the board.

In the prototype, players got a free move, then could spend coal to make two extra moves, but Ted didn't like the two types of movement in the game. Instead, he proposed that players receive two coal on every turn to do their normal moves as well. Players also got to start with three whistles, so they could avoid getting blocked by other players.

In order to address the game length issue, I first suggested that once the board was completely filled with tiles, there would be a maximum of five more turns. This involved giving the start player a special marker that they would need to flip over, after which they would keep track of the final five turns. This was an improvement over the old ending condition, but it involved too much bookkeeping for the start player and felt less streamlined.

Ted suggested the game should take a set number of turns, and he thought the supply of coal could work as the timer. A trail of piles of coal tokens signaled which turn the game was on. On each turn, players took all of the coal off one pile. The working title was "Western Steam", and it seemed to really be coming together.

I had to go to London for a business trip in January 2015, so I brought "Western Steam" to a Meetup event by the London On Board group and they seemed to really enjoy it. Drinking a pint of beer and eating a hearty plate of fish and chips while playing the game in the quaint upstairs of a pub, I felt like the game development might finally be done.

Ted decided to do a blind playtest of "Western Steam" with a group of gamers at Yahoo in March 2015. I posed as another playtester, but I was in charge of explaining the rules. I was hopeful, but my hopes were quickly dashed as the other playtesters at the table completely trashed my game. Nobody enjoyed it. One said there was literally no game in the box. They struggled to say anything good about my game. Afterward, Ted said he had never experienced such a harsh playtest. Ted was still committed to the game, but he said it was up to me to make changes so that it could pass the same test again. Gulp.

Thus came the second round of soul-searching about the game — even deeper this time. Maybe I couldn't make this game work. Maybe I would fail. Though the criticism from the blind playtest hurt, I had to listen to the underlying complaints and try to address them. They seemed to boil down to 1) not enough player interaction and 2) not enough meaningful decisions.

I had some ideas of how to address the first point. Many parts of the game were too nice. If players tied for the most stocks, they shared the points. Effectively, most people could gain some points from the stocks without working too hard. Also, players started with three whistles, so they were never really blocked. Both of these parts needed to change. I changed the stock scoring so that there was a separate score for each stock type and only the top player received the points — no ties! To accomplish this, I numbered the stocks 1 through 6, and if two players tied, the player with the lower stock number would win. In this way, players needed to pay attention to which stocks other players were collecting. Also, I reduced the number of starting whistles to one to make players sweat a little more and have trouble getting around opponents.

I belong to the League of Gamemakers, and one benefit of the League is being able to rely on the collective knowledge and expertise of its members. I met up with Teale Fristoe, a fellow Leaguer and designer of Corporate America, in the summer of 2016, and he proposed the most important change yet. From the beginning of the design, players were forced to play a tile every turn, and that was part of what the playtesters at Yahoo didn't like. Being forced to play a tile every turn may not help you. and it slowed the game down, too. Teale suggested that players should play a tile only when they need to, as in only when their train would go down a path with no endpoint. I loved this idea. This changed everything. Players moved their trains every turn, but they played tiles only when they really wanted to go somewhere off the edge of the board. I allowed players to play multiple tiles at once so that they could potentially move a train a long distance on one turn, something that was never possible before in the game.

I went back to Ted saying I had fixed the game, but Ted wasn't so sure. He still wanted more. He wanted more ways to use resources. What if players could trade in resources to do various actions like trading? I admit I initially hated the idea. It seemed overly complex, but then it inspired a variation of his idea. What if players could hire workers who gave them a special action or ability? Once hired, these workers would stay with the player, who could use their benefit turn after turn until they were hired away by another player. That seemed fun. In my initial prototype of this idea, I had characters like the Coal Loader, who let players turn in a coal for more coal, and the Store Owner, who let them gain any token they wanted. Soon, I had twelve characters, each with interesting powers and some of them highly interactive. The Outlaw, for example, forced other players to pay the Outlaw's player to leave a town.

The addition of these workers seemed to kick the game into an even higher level of fun and strategy. Every game would have a random set of workers available. They added variety and another way for players to build their own path to victory. Ted opted to turn the workers into upgrades, and all of the powers were themed around different railroad cars, objects, or buildings.

When Ted played the new version with the new tile-laying rules and the upgrades, I could tell by the smile on his face that the game might finally be done. We did another blind playtest, this time at his house with another group of gamers. Again, I sat in and this time at the end of the playtest, everyone at the table seemed to really like the game, giving an average rating of 8. That felt good.

To give a little more praise for Ted, the first pass of the art was more realistic, featuring gritty landscapes like traditional train games, and he rightly decided it wasn't the right look for the game. Eventually, he decided on a more whimsical direction, with brighter colors and cheerful tokens. (Those whistle-shaped whistle tokens are very cute.) He also came up with the final game name: Whistle Stop.

I'm grateful for all the help I received along the way in Whistle Stop's six-year development. I'm glad the version I submitted to Lookout Games did not get picked up and the version I blind playtested at Yahoo did not get made. As fellow Leaguer and game designer Luke Laurie likes to say, "Good games take time." I feel like that has been true with Whistle Stop, and I'm very proud of the final version.

Scott Caputo

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Tue Jul 25, 2017 6:40 pm
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Game Preview: Sonar, or Battleship for a Brand New Era

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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In 2016, as part of an effort to introduce exclusive new games for its customers, the U.S. retail chain Target partnered with Days of Wonder and its owner Asmodee to produce Ticket to Ride: First Journey, which aimed to give players as young as six something akin to a Ticket to Ride experience. While the games share the same core — collect cards to place trains on tracks between cities — they play out quite differently, with First Journey being a race game that ends in 10-15 minutes while Ticket to Ride is a (relatively) more involved points game in which players have more time to deduce what others are doing and block them or can shoot for the moon by drawing tons of tickets and hoping to luck into completed routes.

For 2017, Target has another such simplification heading to its shelves, but the tricky thing is that while the rules for this new game are simplified, the gameplay itself is not. Sonar from Roberto Fraga, Yohan Lemonnier, and Matagot is a new take on their Captain Sonar, which debuted in 2016. Both games function as a more advanced version of ye olde Battleship, a game already known by millions. In Captain Sonar, which can be played with teams of up to four players, you attempt to be the first to cause four points of damage to the opposing submarine; in Sonar, which is for 2-4 players and therefore limited to teams of two, you need to damage the opposing sub only twice. Here's a rundown of Sonar in detail:

Time for an underwater game of cat-and-mouse, with each of the two teams in '''''Sonar''''' competing to be the first to deal two points of damage to the other. Do that, and you win the game instantly.

In detail, ''Sonar'' includes four pairs of maps, and each team takes the same maps in their color. A team can be one or two players, and with two players on a team, each player takes a different role: Captain or Radio Operator. (A one--person team handles both roles.) A divider separates the teams, and each Captain marks their starting location on the map.

On a turn, the Captain calls out an action, typically moving their sub one space north, south, east, or west. When they do this, they call out a direction, mark their new location, and add one energy to their ship's register. The Radio Operator on the other team notes the movement of this sub on a plastic sheet, and through deduction and trial-and-error tries to determine exactly where the opposing sub might be on the map.

Instead of a moving, a Captain can also:

• Use sonar: Erase two energy from your register; the opposing team must reveal their row or column.
• Go silent: Erase three energy from your register; move your sub, but don't gain energy and don't tell the opponents which direction you're moving.
• Fire a torpedo: Erase four energy from your register; call out coordinates in your quadrant (e.g., F6); if the opponents are on that space, they take a point of damage.
• Surface: Announce your location to the opposing team, then erase your previous path on your map; you can't cross your own path during the game, so sometimes you need to surface in order not to box yourself in.

You can have at most four energy in reserve, so you need to manage movement and the other actions carefully so that you'll be able to fire at the opponents once you know where they are — ideally without being torpedoed in response!

If you've played Captain Sonar, you can recognize this game immediately; it's the same, yet not. The two boring roles — First Mate and Engineer — have been removed, which is a good idea as I'd never recommend someone learn Captain Sonar in those roles anyway. Being Engineer is like being the dad in a group of kids who's always telling them "No": "No, you can't go play in the river." "No, you can't throw rocks at that propane tank." You're just a bummer, bringing everyone else down with what they can't do and only occasionally allowing them to do stuff that feels natural. "Okay, fine, now you can launch a torpedo at the bad guys. Are you satisfied?!"

With Sonar, the game is focused solely on moving and hunting. You've lost a few of the special abilities in the original game, but you've gained a trickier timing conundrum. After all, once you use sonar to gain information about the opposing team (or clarify what you already suspect), you're down at least two energy and must move at least twice to get back to full torpedo strength. Will those extra turns help you nail down exactly where the enemy is located, or will it allow them to sneak into an adjacent quadrant, thereby putting them out of range.

Sonar has lots of little changes that make the game easier to learn (and teach!), but that doesn't mean the gameplay itself is easier. Torpedoes now require a direct hit to deal damage instead of doing two points of damage on a direct hit and one point when landing on an adjacent space. The sonar ability gives you one piece of information (out of two) instead of two (out of three); yes, one of those intel bits was a lie in Captain Sonar, but sometimes that detail still helped you.

In the end, you have two games — Captain Sonar and Sonar — that seem like mirror images of one another. It's not Bizarroworld weird, mind you, but more like Earth A and Earth B versions of the same game design that was developed down different paths. I appreciate the efforts created to simplify Captain Sonar for a more casual audience and look forward to more such experiments in the future!

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Mon Jul 24, 2017 4:00 pm
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Game Preview: The Chameleon, or Hiding in Plain Sight, Sometimes Terribly So

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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In recent years, a number of hobby titles have made their way into mainstream markets, whether directly through distribution deals as with Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic or indirectly through a licensing deal or some kind of exclusivity arrangement. In 2016, for example, the U.S. retail chain Target released Codenames: Deep Undercover (based on Codenames) and Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City (based on Machi Koro), with both of the original games appearing on Target shelves as well. In mid-July 2017, I wrote about the Hasbro Family Gaming Crate, the first example of which will contain versions of games that originated in Germany (Leo Goes to the Barber), Romania (Three Wishes), and Japan (Mask of Anubis).

One of the titles that has won the mainstream lottery in 2017 is The Chameleon, with this new version of Rikki Tahta's self-published game Gooseberry from UK publisher Big Potato being destined to appear exclusively in Target (and at conventions) for the time being.

This party game falls into the "clueless player" genre, something that includes A Fake Artist Goes to New York and Spyfall. All players but one know what they're trying to do, and Clueless Joe needs to tag along and fake it 'til he makes it. (God, it's like being back in high school again.) In The Chameleon, everyone but the chameleon knows the secret word or phrase from among the sixteen listed on the topic card, and everyone — including the chameleon — needs to think of a single word to say related to this word or phrase. After everyone is ready, you blurt out the words one after another, then vote on who the chameleon might be.

If you fail to guess the chameleon, this player wins the game; if you guess the chameleon, but this player identifies the correct word or phrase on the topic card, they still win! Thus, you need to be sneaky when choosing your word, selecting something that those in the know will recognize as being legit while leaving the chameleon dumbfounded.

Doing this is sometimes trickier than you might think! How do you reveal that you know the secret word "economics" from among a list of school subjects without blurting out something obvious like "money" or "budgeting"? I've had two play sessions on a review copy in which we just played over and over again — not keeping score, which is optional in the game — and all too often the chameleon knew what we were talking about. You have to do your part not to get called out as the chameleon (because then the team loses), but you also can't be open. Tricky!

One other issue with the game is that sometimes players look at the wrong word or phrase on the topic card, so they make up a non-sensical code word. When the topic was "board games", one player thought the secret word was "chess" when it was actually "Clue", so his clue word of "touching" threw everyone for a loop. (He was the first person to speak for the round, and he looked horrified as the rest of us gave our code words, so he then tried to give another word, which then made it obvious he wasn't the chameleon. You just have to own your mistakes in this game! No backsies!)

Another time one of the players read the number on the d8 as 1 instead of 7, despite me reading out the numbers. Oops. She ended up saying "grass" for the word "beef", but it wasn't totally off as the woman right after her said "milk" for the actual hidden word "chocolate" — and you need grass to make milk, right? It all fit together, but only by chance and some still called her out as the chameleon.

I give more examples of gameplay and this "omega player" problem in the video below:

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Sun Jul 23, 2017 8:43 pm
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