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Board games that tell stories

You can follow me on Twitter at @trzewik I update this blog every Wednesday. This is BGG copy of my blog BoardgamesThatTellStories.com

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One fan at the time

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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It's Sunday morning. I am at Pax Unplugged, it's the last day of the con, I will be leaving convention center and heading to the airport in two or three hours. At some point, a guy comes, shakes my hand and says he was at my seminar on Friday evening and liked it a lot. He then decided to come to my Game Designer seminar, on Saturday and he liked it a lot too, although he knows no shit about game design and has no plans whatsoever to design a game. After the seminar, he came to our booth and bought Alien Artifacts.

It's Sunday morning. The guy stands in front of me and says that this weekend he discovered Portal Games, and he immediately became a fan of the company. He liked seminars, he liked Alien Artifacts, he did some research in the hotel and watch my vlog and found my blog, and now, Sunday morning he just came to shake my hand and says 'Good job, mate'

I smile. I fly back home now.

***


I hate travels. I am afraid of flying and on top of that, I don't do well with jet lag. When I have to travel, I am a terrible person and all my employees and family members try to have zero interaction with me a day or two before I leave. I am the worst version of myself. I should be put in a cage for these two days. I really hate traveling.

And yet, this year I visited Cannes Game Fair, then Gama Trade Show, then Gathering of Friends in Niagara, then Gathering of Friends in Etouvry. I flew to Atlanta, visited three different states in 5 days and then drove to Dice Tower con. I flew back home to Poland and then, two weeks later I flew back to US for Gen con. I flew back to Poland and almost immediately flew to Denmark. Then went to Essen and then flew back to US again for Pax Unplugged.

Now I am back in Poland. For a few days. Next week I fly to UK.

***


There is no ROI for meeting people. There is no way you can calculate if it's worth flying all over the world and meeting with fans and running demos of your prototype. No way I can measure if seminar for 40 people was less valuable than seminar for 100 people. No way to measure if flying to Italy makes sense and flying to Vegas was far too expensive and had low ROI. No way I can check if the chance to run demos 4 days long at Dice Tower was worth 2k USD for flight tickets. You never know.

Yesterday I got information that the first orders for Alien Artifacts are pretty awesome and again we have a very strong opening for our new game.

It's not because I ran thousands of ads on FB or BGG.
It's not because I had Star Wars IP.
It's not because it's a new game from Eric Lang or Bruno Cathalha.

It's because I ran demos of the game all year long, I shook many hands, I did a ton of test games, I ran weekly vlog, I ran many seminars, I tried to give something interesting and valuable all year long. Now, it paid off.

I say it, because you can do it too. You can work hard and have a success without Star Wars IP, without Mr. Lang's name on the box, without all those magical keys to success that big companies have.

There is one key that always works - it's one fan at the time.

It's that simple.
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Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:07 pm
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The problem with tutorials.

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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We - as an industry - struggle. To grow, we must expand. To expand we must find new customers, new gamers who will join our hobby. Finding them is the easier part, actually.

The hardest? Help them play the game.

***


You buy TV, you plug it in, and you are ready to watch NBA.
You buy iron, you plug it in, and you can iron your shirts.
You buy car, you start the engine, and you can drive.
You buy the board game, you must read the rulebook. If you are lucky, an hour later you are ready to play.

See the difference?
Yep. Everybody sees the difference.

Board games are not "Open and use"


***


Everybody in our industry understands the importance of the problem. We know that average human being on this planet is not used to having to read manual to use something. Especially, if we talk about entertainment. You buy stuff and you want to be entertained, not to read books and manuals, as in school.

Some publishers, including myself, decided to go video games industry route and tried the tutorial solution. Friedmann Friese just released Fast Forward series, my closest friend Michał Oracz did This War of Mine, Jamey Stegmaier did Charterstone. We all try to get as close as possible to "Open and use" format.

I'd like to discuss with you this route because it is pretty bumpy road to say at least.

***


I remember first opinions on Seafall, last year. I was searching the Internet like crazy for opinions because I was eager to see what people say and there was a ton of tweets and FB posts that were saying the same thing over and over: "The game starts slow. The tutorial is boooring."

'Aren't tutorials in general boring? Why so surprised?' I wondered seeing that feedback.

I also remember first opinions on First Martians, this summer. Try a guess, I was searching the Internet like crazy for opinions and there was a ton of people saying: 'The first mission is boring. All game long you build stuff.'

'This is the tutorial mission! It teaches you how to build stuff! That's why you build over and over!' I was screaming at the screen, but well, some players made their opinion and never tried the full game.

I write about these two examples of failures in delivering a tutorial experience in board games because this Monday I played Charterstone for the first time. Charterstone is built as a tutorial game. It is a legacy game and when you play there are more and more rules added every game. The whole game is created as a tutorial.

We played 4 players variant.

I liked the first game.
Marek liked the first game as well.
The third player said he was very disappointed and he expected Charterstone to be much better game. He said he might give it another try but is very skeptical.
The fourth player said the game was boring as hell and he will never play it again.

I was looking at them and I literally wanted to strangle them.

'You f... morons!' I started 'This was a tutorial game. You just learned the game. We have two workers, we have buildings, we have special characters we can gain, this is a damn tutorial.' I shouted at them - subconsciously blaming them also for all complaints on First Martians and Seafall tutorials.

'The game is boring' I heard back. 'Not gonna play again.'

I couldn't believe it. This was ridiculous.

***


If you asked me a year ago, I would be a strong advocate on tutorials idea in board games and the strong believer that this is the future of our hobby. Today, seeing how impatient the gamer is, knowing they have a dozen of games on the shelf and they must be entertained immediately or will reach out for the next game, I began to have a doubts.

I myself don't play video games tutorials and always move to the full game from the beginning. Why would I expect others to play my tutorials?

***


I think either, we as designers and publishers will educate gamers about the tutorials, either we'll explain them well what are they and why are they in the game, either we learn and educate ourselves how to make amazing, freaking amazing tutorials, or we will have to abandon the path.

This very Monday amazing Charterstone got two disappointed geeks in Poland only because Jamey wanted to help them play the game in the smoothest way possible.

This is the ridiculous effect of our industry great efforts.
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Wed Nov 8, 2017 4:50 pm
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11th anniversary or how to step up the game nevertheless

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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If I knew my shit and did the math right, we'd celebrate 10th Essen last year. Our first Essen was 2007 (the release of Neuroshima Hex) and last year I had this awesome plan, that we will celebrate 10th anniversary in 2017.

Then somebody explained me the math. You would not believe but 2007-2017 doesn't make 10. I am serious.

1. 2007
2. 2008
3. 2009
4. 2010
5. 2011
6. 2012
7. 2013
8. 2014
9. 2015
10. 2016
11. 2017

Magic, huh?

***


Having 10th or 11th anniversary, we wanted to present Portal Games at our best nevertheless. Instead of having just a booth with a demo of new games, we decided to focus on additional events and provide our fans unique experience and memories.

We have three main tracks, three ideas to offer you something more, than just a demo.

***


We will run seminars in a special conference room. We booked Mainland conference room in Hall 3 for whole Thursday and prepared 3 unique events for media and our fans.

We start at 10:00 am with the official release of Alien Artifacts. We invited Viola Kijowska and Marcin Ropka as our special guests. They will talk about designing the game, some anecdotes from the work, how the game evolved and all kind of different great stories. They will teach the game, they will give interviews for all media and press people interested. This is a perfect way to start the fair - instead of rushing into crowded halls, start the show in a comfortable conference room with a cup of coffee and great designers.

3 hours later, 1 pm we'll have Portal Games Keynotes. I will talk about some of our new releases for 2018. We will for the very first time officially announce few new products and we hope to have few awesome surprises for our fans and for press and media people. It's a perfect way to get the info right from the source, from Portal Games and be the first person to see what's coming from Portal in 2018!

2 hours later, 2:30 pm we will hold the first European tournament for Neuroshima Hex. For years all hardcore fans of Neuroshima Hex asked us to run an event and let them compete - and here we are. With a special guest, Michał Oracz onboard and with suuuuuuuper unique prizes for winners we have a chance to make Neuroshima Hex addicts happy and smiled. It's a perfect way to celebrate 11th anniversary For us, everything began exactly 11 years ago, with the release of Neuroshima Hex. Back then, I would not believe, that in 2017 we will run official European tournament of the game.


***


Meanwhile, for all 4 days, we'll use some of our booth space for a special Guest corner. Each day you will have a chance to visit Portal Games booth and meet our guest, chat with them, take a selfie, or autograph. We are honored to have onboard:

Rodney Smith from Watch It Played, who promised us to help you with Star Wars Rebellion rules...
Michał Oracz, designer of Neuroshima Hex and This War of Mine. Please, bring boxes, he will sign them!
Tomasz Jędruszek, illustrator for Imperial Settlers, Stronghold, Game of Thrones, Magic the Gathering... Bring boxes...
Mariusz Gandzel, illustrator of 51st State, Stronghold first edition, Star Wars LCG, X-Wing miniatures game... Bring boxes...
Grzegorz Bobrowski, illustrator of Imperial Settlers, 51st State, Star Wars LCG...
and of course, Viola Kijowska and Marcin Ropka, designers of Alien Artifacts!

We hope that Guest corner will be crowded by happy fans, and you will meet people whose work you appreciate and love!

***


The last event, the last but definitely not least is The Cookies Delivery Center. It will be run by Ignacy Trzewiczek himself. Every day, 10:00 am till 6:00 pm you can bring cookies to our booth and Ignacy will smile and take a photo with you.


***


I cannot express how excited I am about upcoming Essen. How proud I am of these 11 years. How happy I am that we grew, that each year we did our best to surprise you and to offer you more. How amazing it is to look behind and see the history of my company, with important steps being made each Essen.

We are stepping up the game again. I know that young Ignacy back then in 2007 would be mind blown seeing Portal Games in Essen 2017.

I am happy for him.



Link to the detailed schedule of all events and floor plans to booth and conference room is here.
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Wed Oct 18, 2017 4:21 pm
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Alien Artifacts GDJ - I've been here.

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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Back then in 2011, I wrote an article about the struggle with direct interaction and combat mechanism in 51st State. For long months I had no clue how to approach the problem - every single rule I designed was ruining the game. Engine building games, in general, are very delicate - one player builds an engine, the other player sends a nuke, destroys few cogs and the whole engine stops working.

The feeling of achievement, a pride that you built something cool is gone. That's not fun.

Alien Artifacts is an engine building game. An engine building game with cool space ships flying around and shooting nukes. When I sat to the prototype, I felt like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. I've been here, I thought. I've been here...

***


The prototype we got from Trefl had very simple combat rules - player buys warships for $. Each warship you buy adds to your Attack Strenght. Then, if you drew Attack Opportunity card you may attack a player with lower Strenght, and steal 1 of his VP tokens. If he or she has no VP tokens, nothing happens.

The lamest combat ever.

The work began.

1st change:
If he or she has no VP tokens, get 1 VP from the reserve. Still lame but at least you always score if you attack.

2nd change:
You can attack at any time you want. There was no need to draw Attack Opportunity card. Less lame. Very powerful though. Combat strategy brings a lot of VP now.

3rd change:
Ships no longer add to the Attack Strenght. You buy ships for $ and then you arm ships with torpedos (red resource). Each ship has a different number of slots for torpedos. Torpedos add to Attack Strenght. Very thematic. Very powerful. Everybody wants to attack and gains a lot of VP for that.

4th change:
Torpedos are one use only. When you attack, you discard them. Very thematic. Less powerful. When one player shoots his torpedos, he is defenseless and others attack him. People no longer want to attack.

20th change:
When you successfully attack, instead of VP, you block one of the opponents cards. Attacks are no longer lame. They are a real threat. The frustration of defender begins.

33rd change:
You can attack Aliens to get Victory Points and Alien Artifact cards. Players have a chance to gain alien powers - they are happy.

37th change:
There is no longer Torpedos. You no longer buy ships. You build them from the red resource. Rules are much simpler. Good.

49th change:
You can send a ship to attack Aliens or players. If you attack a player you put blockade tokens on their card. Less frustration for defenders. More options for the attacker. It looks like we are home...

***


The interaction between players is always a mess. It's merging fire and water. It is looking for a ruleset that will make attacking others fulfilling and rewarding and at the same time ruleset that will not make defender just flip the table after the attack.

Especially in engine building games, it is a challenge. Attacking strategy must be strong enough to be valid and interesting. And yet, must be subtle enough to not ruin the fun of building engines. Seeing your cool engine destroyed over and over by a jerk on the other side of the table is not fun.

We struggled with Alien Artifacts rules for combat for long months. This was the most often changed part of the game.

What's the final ruling?

You can go after Aliens. You will get VP and Alien Artifacts cards. This is a valid strategy to gain Victory Points. We encourage combat oriented players to kick aliens.

You can go after other players. You will put blockade tokens on their cards. This will slow them down, slow their combo, they will have to pay $ each time they want to use the combo. It's not the end of the world for them, but the precise attack can be very effective. We encourage players to hit once or twice with precisely planned attacks.

Want VP? Attack aliens.
Have a runaway leader at the table? Throw some sand into cogs.
Did we merge fire and water?
I hope.

***

What's your point of view? What are in your opinion good examples of games that are engine building and yet managed to create good combat rules?
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Wed Oct 11, 2017 10:14 am
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Tell me about the house you built, not tools you used

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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Essen is close. Publishers get a few submissions every day. The show is the perfect opportunity for young designers – they come for 4 days and have a chance to pitch prototype to tens of different publishers. Chances that you'll find a publisher for your game are as high as they ever could be. This is your time. This is the opportunity window.

There are two main problems though.

First of all - there is an army of other designers. I am serious. There is an army of young designers pitching games at Essen. Your game must be outstanding.

And the other one problem. Your sales pitch sucks.


***


It's a worker placement area control game about the mafia. It uses the basic mechanism of set collection – players must complete different sets of resource cards in order to complete jobs and earn VP. The game has a unique twist in the scoring system. At the end of each round players loose all Victory Points, unless they used special ability to save them.

That's an average pitch I receive. I am serious. That's how you pitch games to me. You say Worker placement. Area control. Set collection. A unique twist. Over and over again the same. Keywords that seem to open every door.

In a fact they shut the door for you.


***


I have this analogy I always present at my Game Designer Workshops – designing a game is like building a house. Game is a house. Game mechanisms are tools. You use worker placement or deckbuilding like you'd use a hammer and saw. You take a bit of set collection like you'd take wood and nails. You have player special powers like you'd have special paint that can be easily washed in the kids' room.

When you finish your house, you will invite your friends and you will present the amazing outcome. Here is our kitchen, bright and warm with this huge windows. Here we have fireplace – in the winter we'll play board games next to it. And here are stairs to our attic bedroom...

You'd never say something like – here is our kitchen, I used white paint on the walls and we used this awesome hammer set to put windows in the wall. We also used an automatic screwdriver and glue gun to put firehouse in that wall and those stairs – we build them using 8 inches long nails. Can you imagine?!

I am serious.
Don't pitch me tools.
Pitch me the house.


***


Robinson Crusoe is not a deck building cooperative game. Robinson Crusoe is a survival game, where players are thrown in the deadly environment and struggle to fulfill goals in 6 unique scenarios.

Imperial Settlers is not a worker placement card game. Imperial Settlers is a card game in which you command one of four unique factions and build your Empire by planting woods and fields, mining stone and gold and building tens of different buildings.

Please, understand - the mechanisms, are just a tools. They are not the game. You use them to build the game.

You haven't designed worker placement game.
You have designed [super-freaking-awesome] game and you used worker placement mechanism.


***


To sum up. Instead of that way:
It's a worker placement area control game about the mafia. It uses the basic mechanism of set collection – players must complete different sets of resource cards in order to complete jobs and earn VP. The game has a unique twist in the scoring system. At the end of each round players loose all Victory Points, unless they used special ability to save them.

Talk to me that way:
In this game, you are a head of the family and you work for the don. You'll send your people to different districts to try to control all businesses in the area. You have more people in the district than other players? It's your district then! Get free stuff each time any player pays a visit to one of the businesses in this area.

In this game, players will send their people to particular businesses - like stores or laundry to get goods. Players can do Shake business action to get money. To get guns. To get booze. Whatever the business has. Shake them, get stuff.

In this game, you need stuff in order to get jobs done. There is a lot of things to do. Kill other people. Buy other people. Get their stuff. Each time you get the job done, you get money. The money goes to don unless you are smart enough and hide it.

Take control over districts. Get stuff. Get jobs done. Get money. Hide money. Win.
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Wed Oct 4, 2017 11:29 am
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I like the songs I already know...

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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I could talk about expansions for hours. I have a quite a few under my belt and I learned a lot each time I designed one. Each time I sat at my desk with new ideas for expansion I did some mistakes. Most often it was giving too much. Most often trying too hard. Most often it was overdoing it. My personal record? I think it was Undead expansion for Stronghold. It basically doubled the amount of content in the base game and added new rules for every new piece. Instead of orcs, there were vampires, instead of heroes, there was a priest, instead of Victory Points, there was Time Victory Condition, instead of wood, there was mana… I literally took every single rule of the base game and changed it. It was an insane experiment. Those players who adjust to all the new rules and managed to actually play it praised the expansion. Everybody else called me a madman.

It’s 2017. I just finished working on another expansion. It is called Aftermath and it expands one of the major hits of 2016 – Cry Havoc. What mistakes I did this time? Well, you tell me in a few months. Now, let me tell you how I approached the design.

***

There is this old saying that goes like: ‘I like the songs I already know’. It’s human thing. We do like the things we already know. People don’t like change. This is a pretty darn important to have it in mind when you sit to design the expansion. Why?

A player who is going to buy the expansion to the game loves the base game. He loves the base game, he plays it a lot and he looks for replayability. He wants to play more.

Don’t change the game he already likes. Why would you do that?

***

The base game of Cry Havoc includes 4 different factions and by saying different I mean each faction has 3 unique structures to build and 5 unique skills. All together each faction has 8 abilities that nobody other has.

In Aftermath, we doubled that number. We added 5 new skills for each faction and 3 new structures to each faction. We didn’t change rules. We didn’t change the game. It’s the same old good Cry Havoc players love. We just gave them twice as much cool abilities.

Every single game now the player will choose 3 structures to play out of 6 available. He or she will choose 3 skills out of 10 available. The number of possible combinations, level of replayability goes above the roof.

But the most important lesson, lesson learned for years of designing expansion is the one – we didn’t change the base game. Fans of the game will stay fans of the expansion. They get what they love. They just got more.


***

Well, I might lie to you a bit. Just a bit. A little bit. We do change one rule. Expansion offers one small change.

What can I say? Players asked for it.

The base game of Cry havoc has this unique feature – length of the game is not fixed. It changes depending on how players play. It is a pretty unique solution, it is a great tool to build tension and motivate players to fight from the very first round, but on the other hand, it might be really frustrating for some players when the game ends earlier than they expected.

Aftermath introduces a new rule – instead of shortening the game, we add new scoring events, new ways to gain points, a new way to engage players with the game.

Yes, we changed base rules. Yes, we make a game they loved a little bit different. Yes, I hope, players will love it!


***

Aftermath is a few months of hard work. It is a struggle of all my playtesters and design team. It is adding more than 30 brand new abilities to the game, it is giving players more replayability they could ever dream of.

But what’s most important, it is an effect of all lessons I learned for years. Aftermath is like a song you already know. It’s your good old Cry Havoc. With twice as many powers. What’s not to like?
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Wed Sep 27, 2017 5:14 pm
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Alien Artifacts GDJ - The day in which I wore the suit

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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I remember it as if it is yesterday. It was a game event in a city near by. The event was small, and pretty much nobody came. I was bored to death.

We were sitting at the table chatting. Suddenly, without any warning, he asked me to play his prototype. 'It is published by Trefl later this year' he said. He was still play-testing and looking for feedback.

My whole body screamed 'No!'

I smiled and said: 'Sure.'

We played. It's not that long game as I was afraid. We were done in a half an hour.

'How long we know each other?', I asked him.

He looked at me surprised. He said nothing.

'We met for the first time in Cracow, in Szeherezada store, late 1999 when I was presenting Portal magazine. We know each other for 16 years now.', I said.

He nodded.

'So why the fuck you went with this prototype to my competitor?' I asked.

He looked at me with a pure shock painted on his face.

He's asked for a feedback. I bet, he didn't see feedback coming in that way.

I was pissed off.

'You have this reputation...', he started.

'What reputation?!' I asked.

'You trash every prototype you get. Everybody says that.'

OMG. Now I was really pissed off.


***



I loved that prototype. I asked him if I can get it to play with Merry. He gave me a copy he had with him. I played more at home. I enjoyed every minute of it.

So I took my phone and I called him.

'I am going to publish this game' I said.

'I told you Ignacy, I already signed with Trefl. They are releasing it this Essen'

'I am going to publish this game.' I said.

Then I called Trefl and set a meeting.


***



Sometimes I wear a suit. That was that day.
Sometimes I have a leather briefcase and papers with a lot of numbers in it. That was that day.
Sometimes I look like a real CEO. That was that day.

I got to my car and drove to Trefl HQ with a super simple mission - ask them to cancel their Essen release and give me rights to the game. Quite the mission.

That is why I thought I'd better wear a suit.


***


It was a long meeting. It was me telling them how much I believe in the game. That was me explaining to them that the game needs 'geeky' publisher - the guy who can develop it, who can produce it, who can market it for the geeks. Explaining to them that I am the man who knows all about that shit, that if Portal gets the game, it will be - hopefully - one of the hottest games of the year.

And then I opened my briefcase and papers landed on the table. Numbers were discussed. Data dedicated to Imperial Settlers - another great engine building game released by Portal was presented. Math was involved. A lot of math. A lot of options and variants. Print runs, different language editions, all that stuff.

And then it was time for the last stage - I put away numbers. I put away leather briefcase. I put away my CEO hat. For a moment I became grumpy Ignacy who trashes prototypes. Ans I started listing all issues that were still present in the game. The combat system sucks. There are no factions. End scoring is super fiddly. Technologies are too similar to each other. Planets are way unbalanced...

'Can you fix it?' I asked. 'Because I can.'

A few days later I had a call from Trefl and a few weeks later I had a contract on my desk. I get the game.


***



I tell this story - which covers a lot of behind the scenes and sort of confidential stuff - for two reasons. First of all, I want to give a lot of credit to Trefl, the original publisher of the game. The company could publish the game for Essen 2015. That would be a solid release.

They didn't go for a solid release though.

They decided to do what's absolutely the best (in their, in designers and in my opinion) for the game. They proved highest standards, letting me - publisher more experienced with geek games - release the game, hoping for a great success of the game. I can not express how much I respect Trefl for making this hard decision and going to support the game and letting other publisher do it. Respect to all people who were responsible for making a call.


The second reason I tell this story is super simple. I wanted to show you black and white, in the most honest and transparent way how much I love the game and how much I believe in it.

I went to the HQ of my competitor and convince them to give me the freaking rights.

You got the picture, right?
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Wed Sep 6, 2017 12:51 pm
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First Martians GDJ - Three types of stories

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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First Martians GDJ - Three types of stories


Working on Robinson Crusoe scenarios was easy. I just looked at my book shelf, picked one of the many great XIX century stories and the scenario was ready. Once it was cannibals, other times crazy cultists, or volcano. That was a crazy ride of picking all great themes from the literature.

With First Martians, it was far more different experience. From the very beginning, I wanted the game to be science fiction, but with the accent on science, not fiction. I wanted the game to be more or less accurate simulator of actual settling on Red Planet, with actual tasks, missions, objectives.

Instead of looking at my book shelf and picking all the crazy sf novels about Martians, Russians, Jesus on Mars (yes!), I headed to hard sf novels, and soon after to the actual science books about the colonization of Mars. Never in my life, I thought I will learn and self-educate myself with physics, chemistry, and all that boring stuff. But well, I did.

Believe me or not, there is a ton of scenarios these smart people at NASA and other organizations painted and considered already to prepare astronauts for all bad things possible. There is apparently a ton of people whose job description is 'What could go wrong?'

The dude sits 8 hours a day in the office and comes up with all terrible things that may happen in space. Then he goes back home, his wife greets him as usual:

'Hi, honey. How's your work today?'
'Awesome. I came up with this new cool suffocation scenario. The oxygenator line got hoar frosted because of a minor malfunction in the heating system. This frost cumulates for weeks and at some point the line is no longer flexible enough and burst...'

Well, I am getting side tracked. Back to the topic...

***


We decided to divide missions into three groups. When you start the game, you'll see in the menu three options to choose - Building, Explore and Research. These are - in my opinion - three main reasons you would like to play the game.

Building
These missions speak to the players who imagine Mars as a building zone. They imagine themselves as first settlers who will build solar panels, farms, new crew quarters and all other cool things. It's all about adding new rooms to the board, it is about seing our HUB grows with new things we built.

In the tutorial mission (which is building type) players have to build back up solar panels, back up oxygenators and back up farm. This one is super simple, it is a tutorial mission after all, but all these simple tasks show players how the game works and let them add new facilities to the board - they see that HUB grows with new rooms and spaces and they see that building stuff is not easy, because facilities have malfunctions that must be fixed asap.

The other mission - Landing - is the opposite. It is the hardest, almost impossible scenario. Players just landed and they have to build everything from the scratch. Like literally, everything. This one is a Bob the Builder dream come true. You must plan which facilities build first and executed the plan well. You need Med Lab first or you need Probe Bay? You bring Oxygenerators as fast as possible or you go for food supplies first? How much you can stretch health of the astronauts and how much they can handle before Crew Quarters, Med Lab or Farm start to work? This is the hardest mission, but if players like to build - there is a ton of stuff to put on the map.

For Early Launch of First Martians in the app there will be one more building mission available. No spoilers, but you just got from Earth containers with parts to build new Crew Quarters. You gonna have new beds! How cool is that, huh?

Explore

The reason to come to Mars might be a drive to explore it. To find all the valleys and mountains and all amazing things. For all players who love playing on the map, to plan routes and discover new parts of the land we added explore type of missions. Once again - in the base box you will find two of this type.

The guessing game is a mission about the plan that went really wrong. The supplies from Earth were sent as planned, but then something happened. Long story short, the supply of food, spare parts, and scientific tools landed very far away from the HUB. Your systems show where three parts of destroyed container landed, but you have no idea which part have food, which spare parts... And you must act quickly because the signal from containers is getting weaker and weaker.

The Probe on the loose is a funny one. The probe got some software malfunction and stopped to listen to the HUB. It goes on its own. You better find it before it got lost in the storm. Players have to analyze last signals from the probe and nail down where the hell this stupid thing is right now. It's a working on the map all mission long. We even added a PDF handout for players, so they can print it and literally mark where this stupid probe is at any point of the mission. It's fun mission. Not too serious, but fun.

Research
And the third one - science. Real serious science. You play the game because you want to feel like you are the scientist in the laboratory and you must do important discoveries. You will use a calculator, you will be adding some numbers, you will be doing math and calculations. Serious stuff.

Malnourished Plants is a most stressful mission in the game. The plants in the farm are dying. There are not enough minerals in the soil and the whole plantation is dying. You will have no food in a few weeks. You better get to work and find minerals here on Mars. Players start the game with the precise info how much they lack Mg, K, Si and other minerals (we are talkin' here chemistry, dude!) and then the mission starts. Once again we have a handy printout to download and print so you can feel like a real scientist filling some tables and doing calculations. Find minerals and enrich the soil to stop wilting of your food. And do it fast.

The other one - Local minerals - once again ask you to play chemistry class. You must create concrete. Once again find minerals, find water, bring the stuff to the HUB, mix different ingredients together, get some new ingredients out of this and mix with other shit... Yes, we have a print out for this as well. And yes, there are calculations needed again. You wanted to be a scientist in the first place, did you?

This year we will publish the third scenario in this category, but this one will be less about numbers, and more about finding a cure. The mission is called Epidemic. I say no more.

***


First Martians is - as all my designs - solid euro game with a ton of story behind. The one thing that changes, the one thing that differs it from Stronghold, Robinson Crusoe or Imperial Settlers is the fact that this time the story is science. And designing that game was a hell of a task!
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Thu Aug 10, 2017 6:57 pm
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First Martians GDJ - You are on your own

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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First Martians Game Designer Journal
You are on your own


I guarantee you
That at some point
Everything is gonna south on you
You gonna say: This is it
This is how I end.
Now, you can either accept that
Or you get to work


As for today, The Martian trailer has 14 535 572 views. I alone might be responsible for 5K. Maybe few more. I watched this trailer over and over again. I also had this ugly piece of paper on my deck with YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN written on it. For long months I was building rules and mechanisms to create this experience.

Everything falls apart, everything fails you, the situation seems hopeless. But you are a human being and you gonna survive. You are trapped on Mars, you have not enough supply, you have no help whatsoever, but you have you. So you better get to work.

***


In most missions in First Martians, you start with almost fully functional HUB. Most of the systems are working, the supply is good, the malfunctions are a minor problem. Slowly, with each SOL (round) stuff starts to break, systems start to fail, the hell begins. And players must make choices - which of these fires they have to put out and which they must ignore and focus on a mission goal. This is the basic choice in the game. The goal of the mission, fulfilling objective versus surviving, versus having HUB operational, having our facilities and room available for future actions.

And on top of this super basic choice, we have many layers of small decisions.

Upgrades
You start the game with Upgrade cards. They are powerful items you can build to make your facilities in the HUB work so much better. Very tempting and very wise move to build them. On the other hand, I gave players a super simple choice - at any point of the game they can, instead of building the card, just rip it off for spare parts. It's a free stuff. Just discard the card and get spare parts.

And the arguments start. Should we build it or keep for emergency purposes. The ability from the Upgrade is super awesome, but having back up plan and keeping the card as a spare parts option might save the day. A number of games I saw when in the last round players had no idea how to win and were ready to give up and suddenly somebody looks at the forgotten upgrade card and shouts: "Upgrade! Parts! Rip off upgrade! We can make it!"


Switching
If you have no spare parts to fix crucial facility in the HUB or fulfill mission objective, you can... get this part from other facilities. You can literally choose any room in the game and rip it off. Destroy Crew Quarters to fix Med Lab? My playtesters have been there. Take Garage Hall down and rip it off completely to fix other rooms? Yes, we've been there too. It's always a hard decision and there is always a lot of debate which room they will sacrifice and destroy salvaging for microchips and hardware. But the feeling is awesome, removing microchips from Crew Quarters and plugging them in into Med Lab... Funny enough, I saw games when the situation changed dramatically and players had to fix the rooms they salvaged previously. Yep, you better get to work on Mars and prepare for unexpected.

Skills
Each player has 4 unique skills. These are powerful tools. They are all build to make impossible happen. The Engineer will fix facilities without new spare parts. The geologist will find shorter routes and ignore features of the terrain, the Medic... Well, you know why you took Medic with you, right? The skills are here to let players feel they save the day. The pure satisfaction when you spend your Morale Tokens and do magic. Whatever it is "Draw 2 Research cards and choose 1" or "Add 1 Sample to Cargo Bay", it is always a big turn in the mission and creates new opportunities. It's always as in The Martian movie - figuring out the solution. Or science the shit out of this, as Mark Watney said in the movie.


***


Each mission in the First Martians is a sophisticated puzzle with many moving parts. Objectives in each mission are very different and you must find the best way to approach the problem. It always looks difficult, but possible at the beginning. Then the game throws at you few unexpected surprises and things start being more and more difficult. The time is short, the objective looks more and more impossible to reach.

And then players start to really think. Start to check all possible options. Start to talk, like real talk, really brainstorming all options. They finally get to work.

And at some point, with a combination of using skills, upgrades, ripping stuff, and anything they needed, they may finish the mission.

And that's quite the moment.
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Wed Aug 2, 2017 9:43 am
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The one about waves of play-testers

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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I have this provocative statement that designer should never listen to playtesters and that playtesters have no idea what they are talkin' about. Every designer panel I run, I always say: 'Ignore them. Just don't listen. They have no clue.'

It's provocation statement of course, but there is a seed of truth in it. Today I'd like to show you the real life example when I totally ignored my playtesters.

***


Last months I spent developing Alien Artifacts. The rules were changing every day. It was quite a ride. Those of you who watch Portal Games vlog saw it every week - a new version of the game, new series of test, changes over and over again. That was real work, real search for better mechanisms, for better flow, and smoother experience.

At some point we had it. The game worked nice. Playtesters liked it a lot. I remember Asia (one of our playtesters) asking me for a p'n'p files because she wanted to play it at home. That was a good sign. That was a sign I was waiting for for months. It looked like we finally had a winner. We had a version we could start balancing.

And then, few weeks later once again I changed the game.

OMG. You should hear my play-testers. I killed the game. I broke it. I made it a disaster. I made a mistake. This new version is a bullshit. They were whining like babies.

I didn't listen. I asked them to play. They were complaining. Trying to prove me their point. I didn't listen. I just watched. The game was smooth. The game was fluent. It was just a noise of disappointed play-testers that made the whole experience less fun that I'd wish for. But I knew what I wanted. We kept balancing the game. Ignoring the noise of complaining playtesters was my daily routine.

'We are balancing the game. Shut up and play.'

'But the new version is much worse. These changes are a huge mistake, Ignacy.' they said.

'We are balancing the game. Shut up and play."

***


I ignored the feedback. After a long weeks of that ridiculous playtesting sessions, I packed the game and went to The Dice Tower con. I run about 20 games of Alien Artifacts per day, five days in a row. New players. New feedback. And guess what.

No single person complained, no single person even mentioned these two rules. Almost everybody praised the game, people loved it, people were coming back with their friends to play it again. The game was smooth and fluent.

I was right. My playtesters were wrong.

So what exactly happened?

***


We like the things we know. We get used to things. We hate changes. We can listen to Smoke on the water thousands of times in our life and we are happy. We can watch Die Hard over and over again and we are happy. We do really feel home sweet home even though we spent a week in the best resort ever.

We like the things we know.

It is crucial for us, designers to have different teams of play-testers. I'd call them waves. At some point, when one of the groups loose fresh perspective, when they got too familiar and too attached to the version, you must thank them for their work and move on to the new group. The old group already likes the game as it is. They will resist every change. They will send you the wrong message. They are - I am sorry to say that - no longer value for you.

You must move to the other group.

With Alien Artifacts I lacked enough groups. I got stuck with not enough playtesters. I got stuck with a group that was resisting changes.

Luckily I knew when to stop to listen to them.
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Wed Jul 26, 2017 9:56 am
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