Rob HeinsooUnited States
The first time I encountered a playable game from another world, it was the game of Jetan, the Barsoomian version of chess at the center of The Chessmen of Mars, the fifth book in Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series. In Burroughs' novel, originally published in 1922, Jetan was mostly a vehicle for showing just how broken combat-chess becomes when you throw a hero like John Carter into the role of a supposedly easily-captured pawn! The story was great, but even better, in my mind, was that the appendix of my paperback copy had rules for the game of Jetan and advice for creating its 10x10 orange and black board.
In fifth grade, a couple months after I had started playing D&D, I made a Jetan board out of craft paper, with disks cut from milk cartons and labeled with magic marker as the pieces. For a couple of years, my friends and I alternated between four games: Monopoly, Jetan, Napoleonic miniatures games using a book my dad had bought me called The War Game, and graph-paper crawls using our home-brew interpretation of the original brown box of Dungeons & Dragons.
I've been thinking about games played in fictional worlds almost as long as I've been thinking about D&D. It probably wasn't a question of whether I was going to make up a game played by D&D characters; it was a question of which game and when.
The answer turned out to be Three-Dragon Ante (3DA) in 2004.
I came up with Three-Dragon Ante while snorkeling around a green rock in Hawaii. At the time, 2004, I worked at Wizards of the Coast as the lead designer of the D&D Miniatures game. On vacation, completely relaxed and happy, I found myself thinking about what I was going to be doing in the days immediately after returning home.
The first thing that occurred to me was that I was going to run a Wednesday-night session of D&D. These were the days of D&D 3.5, and I was running a wild campaign influenced by Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire. Before I left on vacation, the player characters had learned that the information they needed on the threatened resurrection of a many-armed Chaos god might be available through the semi-estranged family of the adventuring party's very own half-orc fighter. The fighter had been an interstellar marine ("I fought orcs...in space"), but his family appeared to be simple tavern-keepers. The player characters (PCs) were headed to the first tavern adventure of the campaign, and I realized I wanted to keep them entertained with a tavern subplot. Neither brawling or carousing seemed right for this group of PCs as they were more about taking control than losing control. What about a card game, something to put their shiny gold to use? What card game would they play?
Poker was my first thought, but the idea of pushing our world's gambling card game into a D&D world struck me as both wrong and depressing. In fact, I'd seen it done! There had been a card game sold as part of the Arduin game line that turned out to be poker with a few dragon cards. (The fact that I haven't been able to remember the game's name while working on this article, well, that's a sign of how much it irritated me.)
The 52-card deck that eventually gave birth to poker, in our world, has its own peculiar history, born in tarot and fortune-telling. Even if a fantasy world had the same tarot-and-divination origins for its card sets, the results would be different. Surely a magical world of dragons and wizards would have created its own card games!
Kicking around the green rock, I realized that poker is a great game, but it was the wrong type of game for me to build my D&D campaign's tavern adventure around. When you're running a role-playing game, you want to keep as many players engaged as possible. If the PCs in an RPG session are playing a card game in character, you don't want players folding out of hands; you want them engaged even in losing hands.
Okay, I needed to do something other than poker. Maybe the Arduin game had started with a good idea, and I needed to do something involving dragons? D&D had great dragons that could easily be the suits, and to keep players involved, I'd make high cards the cards you play when you're competing for the main stakes, but low cards would help you by triggering powers as long as you played lower (or at least not higher) than your opponent had just played. After the ten most fruitful minutes of game design in my life, I swam away from the rock, back to shore, having figured out 3DA's core mechanism and already thinking up powers for D&D's five metallic and five chromatic dragons.
Being handed ten iconic dragons as the suits for a card game was almost too good to be true!
In D&D, the five chromatic dragons are evil. Red, Blue, Green, Black, and White — these are the dragons you have to watch out for because they'll eat you, take your treasure, and maybe track down and eat the last few people you talked with in case they have treasure, too.
In Three-Dragon Ante, the evil dragons have to feel evil. When their powers trigger, they steal gold either from the stakes or from opponents, and sometimes they even steal cards. They don't share, and they never help an opponent. They also don't draw lots of cards. If you play only evil dragons, you're not going to be able to maintain your hand size. On the plus side, if Tiamat the evil Dragon God is in the game, she counts as every color of evil dragon, making it more likely that you'll be able to create a color flight of three evil dragons of the same color.
D&D's five traditional metallic dragons are good. Gold, Silver, Bronze, Brass, and Copper — these are the dragons you have to think twice about fighting because a) they're probably more or less on your side, and b) they're often even tougher than evil dragons!
In 3DA, we had to reflect that the good dragons are more likely to help you rather than actively hurting your opponents. Several of the good dragons let you draw cards. Playing many good dragons, and occasionally triggering their powers, makes it more likely you won't have to buy more cards in the middle of a gambit. The drawback, if you choose to see it that way, is that some of the good dragons, like the Silver Dragon and the Gold Monarch, can also help your opponents. The good Dragon God, Bahamut, is the exception. Unlike Tiamat, Bahamut won't help you create a color flight; instead he punishes opponents who have mixed good and evil.
It's Not Dragon Poker
Some people call 3DA "dragon poker". I understand the comparison, but as mentioned above 3DA is in many ways the deliberate opposite of poker.
Poker is a game about knowing when to fold. When you'd rather not fold, it's about knowing how to bet in ways that confuse opponents into folding when they should stay in the hand. If you play poker well, you fold out of most hands.
My goal with 3DA was to keep everyone involved. Ergo, no folding. The trick is to offer potential rewards to players who don't appear capable of winning the full stakes. The game's core mechanism offers both macro-rewards and micro-rewards: playing high cards helps you compete directly against the other players to win the stakes; playing low cards helps you trigger card powers that can set you up for later success.
Play a Gold Dragon that's equal strength or lower strength than the card that the opponent to your right just played, and you can draw a card for each good dragon you've played in this flight. Play a Red Dragon that's equal or lower strength than the card played by the opponent to your right, and you can steal 1 gold and a random card from the hand of the opponent who has played the highest strength cards this gambit. Unlike poker, you hold onto your cards, so you're not just playing the current gambit; you can use your cards in the next gambit or even the one after that.
What It Was, and What It Is Now
The original Three-Dragon Ante, published in 2005, contains seventy cards. Sixty of the cards are from ten suits based on the iconic dragons of D&D. Each suit has a single triggered power that appears on cards of different strengths. Unlike identically ranked clubs and diamonds in our world's 52-card decks, the strengths of the 3DA suits differ to match the toughness of D&D's dragons. In the original set, the other ten cards — seven mortals, two dragon gods, and a Dracolich — are each unique.
The one hundred cards in the new Three Dragon Ante: Legendary Edition, which debuts from WizKids in the U.S. on Sept. 18, 2019, include all seventy cards from the original set, with some of these cards having slightly improved mechanisms. The thirty new cards come from three new categories:
1. Ten new standard dragons, one for each color. Each game now starts with seventy standard dragons, with seven per color instead of six.
2. Ten new legendary dragons, one per suit. These color-specific legendary dragons aren't the strongest dragons in their suit, but they have powers that are greatly improved versions of their color's standard power.
3. The Chromatic Wyrmling and Metallic Wyrmling as new legendary dragons that enable you to play and trigger the power of a stronger evil or good dragon whose power you would have otherwise have missed out on. These bring the total number of legendary dragons to 15.
4. Six new mortals, including the Dragonrider, Prophet, and Illusionist, along with three mortals reprinted (with one slight change) from the Emperor's Gambit expansion set. The Queen, The Sorcerer, and Wyrmpriest bring the total number of mortals to 15. As you could probably tell by the card art above, all the new images are by the original 3DA artist, Craig Phillips!
Customizing Each Game
Instead of playing with all one hundred cards, the new edition is meant to be played with eighty cards. Use the seventy standard dragons each game, then choose ten cards from the mix of mortals and legendary dragons. You can choose cards at random or build your favorite mix. The rules include a page of advice and slang about how people set up games in D&D worlds.
One small advantage of the new card mix is that adding ten extra standard dragons helps reduce the number of times you have to shuffle, especially when playing games with five or six players.
Of course, the bigger advantage of the new card mix is that playing with different combinations of mortals and legendary dragons should help keep the game fresh. I'm curious whether there will be decks that people enjoy playing most or whether people will set games up at random.
Many of the new mortals and legendary dragons have powers I'm excited about having added to the game, but I'm waiting to write more about the mortals' new powers when people have had a chance to play with them! Spoilers from the rulebook are one thing, but I don't feel right telling you what I think the new mortals accomplish. Better for people to enjoy finding out in their own games.
Strengthening the Evil
On the other hand, I feel fine talking about weak pieces of the game that have improved in the new edition!
The main issue is that evil was weak. Since the good dragons tended to be slightly stronger than evil dragons and helped you draw more cards, the evil dragon cards were more likely to be chosen as cards to be thrown into the ante. I even played off this in the Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor's Gambit set with several dragon powers that relied on having evil dragons in the ante.
This time around I confronted the problem directly. Of the original five colors of evil dragons, Green Dragons and Red Dragons had reliable powers that didn't need changing, while the other three colors have improved!
The White Dragon originally allowed you to steal two gold from the stakes only if a mortal was in play. Perhaps I was attempting to design a somewhat weak ability? Unfortunately, teaming up with a mortal turned out to have very little effect on strategy. Since White Dragons are the weakest dragon, their power frequently triggered, but more often than not it had no effect. It was rarely optimal play to lead with a mortal in order to enable your White Dragons, so White Dragon powers triggered so randomly that players sometimes forgot about them.
The new White Dragon power skips the requirement to team up with a mortal; now the White Dragon forces your weakest opponent to pay you two gold. This works better in D&D terms since there isn't anything about White Dragons that makes them more likely to team up with humanoids. If White Dragons are going to be capable of bullying anyone, it's going to be someone weak!
In terms of game dynamics, a card that picks on the weakest opponent is a good counterpoint to the Red Dragon that targets the strongest opponent. The Red Dragon's power is still definitely better, but players now think twice before throwing the White Dragon into the ante.
The new Legendary Dragon: The White Hunter bullies all the weaklings in the gambit. It's a 7-strength white dragon that reads "Each weaker opponent pays you 3 gold." If your opponents aren't taking the gambit seriously, the White Hunter can wake them up, particularly if you play it as the clincher in a white color flight.
It used to steal two gold from the stakes; now it steals three. The improvement seems to be enough to make players seriously consider playing the Black Dragon instead of automatically tossing it towards the ante.
The new Legendary Dragon: The Black Raider is an 8-strength black dragon that reads "Steal 1 gold from the stakes, then take 2 gold from the opponent to your left, 3 gold from the opponent to their left, and so on until you have taken gold from everyone." The idea with the Black Raider is to push gold theft as far as it can go with a mechanism that stings different opponents to different degrees. The raid gets richer for every player in the game. A Black Raider in a three-player game ends up stealing six gold; in a six-player game it steals 21!
I see this as a feature. Unlike some card games, 3DA glories in playing differently with different numbers of players. For example, the value of scoring a color flight changes dramatically based on the number of players. Similarly, in a 3-player game, triggering your Black Raider's power is no big deal, while in a 5 or 6-player game it could be your main priority.
That's the new version of the power at left. The card in original 3DA counted only evil dragons in your flight, making it less advantageous to choose the version of the power that forced each opponent to add to the stakes. People usually chose the safe "give me a gold piece" option since it was hard to arrange to play all-evil. If you're going to choose the dramatically interesting option and push the stakes higher, it's correct to reward your daring, so the Blue Dragon now works on how many cards you've played this flight, not the number of evil dragons you've played.
The new Legendary Dragon: The Blue Overlord isn't subtle. It's a 10-strength blue dragon built on the premise that if the Blue Dragon's power is interesting, doubling the power is more interesting. Yes, the Blue Overlord reads like the Blue Dragon and replaces "1 gold" with "2 gold". Play it as the third card in your flight and trigger its power to force each opponent to add six gold to the stakes, which will be either awesome when you win the gambit...or hilarious when someone else snatches the stakes away from you!
Playing in Character
This is the third time I've made rules for playing Three-Dragon Ante as your D&D character. The third time is the charm! I believe these new rules for using a couple of your character's abilities while playing 3DA are an improvement over how I handled D&D abilities in 3e and 4e.
The problem with the earlier versions was that they supplied many abilities that were "always on". The earlier versions supplied advantages you had to think about the entire game, which feels intrusive to me now. Three-Dragon Ante doesn't need to be tweaked with power-ups that can affect multiple actions every gambit. Therefore, the Legendary Edition pivots around character abilities that don't get used often but which may have a big impact when they do come up.
During play, you'll keep your ability disk on its "Ready" side and wait for events to trigger one of your abilities. When you notice a trigger and use one of your 3DA abilities, you flip your ability disk to its grey side. You can't use any of your abilities again until you earn the right to flip your ability disk to its "Ready" side by scoring a special flight, whether a color flight or a strength flight.
Once you've used an ability, you can just play the game and role-play normally, without having to think about your 3DA abilities again until after you score a special flight. Maybe you'll try extra hard to score a special flight, maybe you won't, but either way it's a natural enough decision. I like the way that opponents react when you score a special flight and can ready your 3DA ability. There's a feeling of "Oh no, here they come again", and I think that captures how the game might feel when being played against dangerous characters in wild places!
To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, please contact BGG News editor W. Eric Martin via email – wericmartin AT gmail.com.
Archive for Designer Diaries
- [+] Dice rolls
14 Sep 2019
I blame this whole long, somewhat dreary tale on Power Grid, one of my gaming group's favorite games, but a design with one of the worst coin/money sets of any game. We complained about it regularly. Then one of my game group, Kurt, found a small plastic coin set online to try for Power Grid, so we used it. Then we used it again. And then we started using it for other games.Power Grid plastic coins vs Game On! Travel Coins
This impressed the rest of us enough to want our own sets. However, they simply weren't available. Being a persistent sort — you can insert "thickheaded" or "obsessive compulsive" here, too — I spent way too much money and effort trying other options. They were all too big, too heavy, or too limited. None of them were suitable. I kept saying, "Why doesn't someone make a nice portable, quality set that works for most games and that also looks good and feels right in my hand? Why doesn't someone make...?" Then that little voice in the back of my head that whispers "Why not you? Why not you?" got very insistent. I ended up making my own.
Unfortunately, you can't make one set; you make lots of sets.
So I am now in the game accessory business, selling Game ON! Travel Coin sets. The story of how this all came about is detailed below. And I also found out why no one else made a coin set like this. If you just want the answer to that question, skip to the last paragraph.
I have read many posts and reviews in which people write almost reverentially about the quality of game components. This is generally true for boards, rules, and meeples. I love them, too. I agree that quality components enhance the enjoyment of playing a game.
Having seen or played many of these highly praised games, I am always surprised about how people will accept without comment any cardboard chunk or annoying paper offered as a marker or money. After using this simple plastic coin set, I realized that it enhanced my gaming enjoyment as much as the finely crafted, artistic bits that people love. I was radicalized.
Decisions, Decisions, and Compromises
Anything is possible if you set your mind to it, right? Look at Edison and the lightbulb. Taking a firm "Can DO" attitude, I set out to make my coin set.
I started by asking "What is my ideal coin set?" First and foremost, I wanted the coins to be smaller and lighter than poker chips to make the set easy to carry. Why? One of my first attempts to find my ideal set was a beautiful set of poker chips. It currently sits in my basement game room gathering dust. Even hauling out the poker chip set was annoying. It was like lugging around a jumbo bowling ball. Plus the poker chips were too big. Poker chip sets were useful for only a few games and, as we jokingly say, for a doorstop.
Then my wife tried to pick up the poker chip case by the handle, which promptly snapped. The case fell, almost breaking her toe, the latches popped, and we had poker chips flying everywhere. Okay, so there were two criteria out of that incident: lighter chips and no latches.
What about metal coins? I love nickel way more than plastic or ceramic poker chips. Nickel coins feel "weighty" and solid when I hold them. I like the clink they make when the coins tap each other. There are some nice nickel coin sets available right now. However, nickel is an expensive material, and nickel coins don't really save any weight over poker chips in equal numbers and denominations.
This stymied me for quite a while. I looked at making an injection-molded plastic set. I actually bought a closeout set from a token vendor. When I asked why these were closeouts, they said that the quality was poor and indeed it was. Those coins were small and light, but they looked and felt cheap. They were mostly white with color stripes. The color bleeding caused irregular borders, and the coins had no case.
I also tried a set of playing card money. The cards were light, but too big and too inconvenient aside from just not feeling right. The playing cards and closeout tokens are gathering dust in the basement near the poker chips. At this point my "Can DO" attitude fizzled, shipping me back to the "Can't DO" doldrums.
Then I happened to run across Mardi Gras coins. These are large, brightly colored aluminum coins that revelers throw from the Mardi Gras floats to the bystanders.Mardi Gras coins compared to the Game On! coins
I learned that these coins are made by stamping aluminum using a mold, then anodizing them to add the color. Anodizing is an electrochemical process that causes the color to uniformly adhere to an oxide on the surface of aluminum. This solved another big worry. Nickel coins are enameled to add color. This works great if the coin is used solely for display, such as a souvenir medal. In regular use as coins, though, the enamel would likely chip. That is why you rarely see any colors on nickel coins unless they are minted in brass or shiny shade.
Nickel coins need to be different sizes to make them distinguishable, whereas the anodized aluminum coins were light and uniformly colorful, while having a tough surface that still felt like metal when I held them. Ah, I thought, could this actually work? The "Can DO" attitude was back.Unanodized Game ON! aluminum coins
One Set to Rule Them All...
Now I faced the key question — What should the ideal coin be? — which invoked many other questions: What size coin? What thickness? What colors? What art? How many in a set? and so on. Before checking with mints, I needed more details on what exactly to ask for. My Mardi Gras sample coin was about 1.5" in diameter, slightly smaller than a poker chip, but still too big. The original plastic set I wanted to buy had 7/8" coins, which were too small. How do you experiment with coin sizes?
Well, U.S. coins have no rational basis for size — the nickel is bigger than the penny, which is bigger than the dime — but they're great for experimenting with coin size. I started walking around with a pocket full of U.S. coins to get opinions on size. The U.S. quarter was the size everyone liked the most. It is ~1" (25mm) and fits nicely in hand. The interesting feedback, though, was that the quarter is too thin. The requests I kept hearing were that the coins needed to be thicker so that they're easy to pick up. Two quarters stacked on top of one another seemed to be the right width. Plus they feel "weightier" and more solid than the thinner Mardi Gras coin. In the end, I settled on a target coin that was 5mm (3/32") thick with a 25mm (~1") diameter.Size comparison
A harder design decision involved what kind of art to use. Since this coin set was meant to be usable for any game, I wanted the art to be simple. Each coin would be one bright color to make it easily recognizable. I also wanted the coins to be two-sided. I decided to use simple art: a diamond pattern and the denomination on one side of the the coin, with only the denomination on the reverse side.
Deciding how many coins and of which denominations to put in a set was another tough decision. I am an 18xx/Acquire player, so I wanted the higher denominations: 500, 1000, and 5000 coins. On the other hand, most Eurogames need at most a 25 or 50 denomination coin.
The even harder issue was how many 1 denomination coins to include in the set. With thirty 1 coins, the set would support up to a six-player game with each person having five 1 coins before trading them in for a 5 coin. I hate when a coin set is so inadequate that players have to trade in coins to fill out the a shortage in the bank. This was a real head scratcher for a while until someone suggested the obvious: add a 2 coin. This eliminates the issue of adding enough 1 coins and made making change at the lower denominations infinitely easier. I finally settled on an "Elite" set of 240 coins: 30 1 coins, 30 2 coins, 30 5 coins, 25 10 coins, 25 25 coins, 20 50 coins, 20 100 coins, 20 500 coins, 20 1000 coins and 20 5000 coins.The Elite 240 coin set with storage options at right;
extra foam cutouts are shown as an illustration
I wanted this "Elite" set for myself and brazenly assumed every other gamer in the world would want the same set. One set to rule them all...
A Digression: Never Discuss Politics, Religion, or Metal Coins with a Gamer
Making the ten types of coins in ten colors but the same size with simple art so that they could be used for any game seemed like a good compromise. For feedback on this idea, I read many blogs and articles in which gamers commented on metal coins. I posted my ideas on some of them and got torched immediately. Some respondents were passionate about having different coin sizes. Some demanded elaborate designs as with the Scythe coin set. One person looked at the prototypes and pronounced the set "so 1970s". Others commented that they wouldn't consider anything other than nickel, and they wanted a unique set for each game — at a $1 coin, no less!
One pair of game company execs to whom I showed the prototypes treated me to a thirty-minute tag team full volume, non-stop lecture about why these coins sets were worthless. They pulled out their own multi-sized nickel coins with the fancy artwork to show me what the coins should look like, even though they mentioned having lots of coins available because they weren't selling. One even pulled out their iPhone and showed me eight websites with similar coins and said that this is what I needed to do. I felt like the Russians in June 1941; the Germans had attacked, and it was an overrun.
And all the time I was thinking: "If everyone is making the same type of coins, which are barely selling, why not try something different?" (heavy sigh)
Like every other aspiring designer in the game world, I wasn't going to give in to a bunch of negativity. I ultimately went back to the inspiration for this project. Kurt's original coin set came in a nice, easy-to-carry injection-molded plastic case with all the coins the same size.
Having coins of different sizes would create havoc with the case design as it would have to be tall enough and wide enough to accommodate the largest coins, but the smaller coins would constantly spill out every time the case was moved. Plus, I now had ten different coin denominations; my head ached thinking about designing a case for ten different coin sizes. The case size would be huge, killing the portability principle.
So I went with the 25mm diameter for all the coins. I kept the simple artwork so that it could be used with almost any card, board, or mini game. The denominations on the coins were easy to read without the fancy artwork. With ten different colors, you could easily tell the coins apart by glancing at them. For color-blind people, each coin had a denomination on both sides.
Decisions, Decisions, and Compromises (Continued)
The final decision/compromise was picking the coin colors. I had no real basis for choosing colors other than to appeal to as many gamers as possible. In my simplistic reasoning, I asked "What very large gamer group would care about coin colors?" Why, Magic players, of course!
I had already decided to make the coins two-sided (tapped/untapped in Magic speak), so why not make the first five coin denominations the five Magic colors? The 1 coins would be white, the 2 coins blue, the 5 coins green, the 10 coins red, and the 25 coins black. What other group might be interested in colors? Well, role-players like silver and gold, so I made the 50 coins silver and the 100 coins gold. As for the 500, 1000 and 5000 coins, I just decided to see which other colors were available. I didn't hear the disheartening words "standard poker chip colors" and "In D&D the golds are 100 but the silvers are 10" until much later after the sets had already been produced.A side view to show the final colors
I was blissfully happy, and all I needed now was a name. After some discussion, I settled on the name: Game ON! Travel Coin set. I christened myself and the company as "Der Coinmeister". It sounded cool, and after arm-wrestling the German language for many years, I figured this was a small payoff for all that study.
The design decisions finally were done. Now all I had to do was contact mints to get the coins made, and I would be on the way to coin mastery.
An Arabian Nights Hero Rescues Me
I wanted to make the coins in the U.S., so I contacted mints that made Mardi Gras coins to ask them for a quote for making the coins. They were all glad to take my order, but two issues arose:
• They would make them in only two sizes — 1.5 or 1.25 inches in diameter and 1.25 mm thick, and/or
• They were so outrageously priced that I would be offering coins at the same price as more expensive nickel coins
My plans abruptly crashed and burned. To get my set, I needed to make lots of sets and sell the extras to like-minded gamers. The set I wanted to make was either unmintable, unsellable, or both. All my talk/testing/planning was now just smoke — another out-of-the-box idea that amounted to nothing but a long, fruitless exercise.
The coin project lay moldering, dead but unburied, for seven months. Then I was laid up at home for almost a month without enough to do, which is always a dangerous situation for me. I began to sniff around the corpse of the coin project again. I've written reviews of Origins and Gen Con for Counter magazine for over ten years. During that time, I had the opportunity to talk with lots of game designers, big and small. They often talked about how hard it was to produce a game in the U.S., so they worked with printers in China. I kept reading about this Alibaba website and wondered whether this would work for minting coins. Well, what can I lose, I thought?
I went to the Alibaba website, typed in "aluminum coins", and got 135 hits. What's more, all of these sites would make any size that I wanted, and the prices were reasonable. I sent out a bunch of requests and got lots of replies. I eventually narrowed my choices down to three manufacturers who would make test coins if I paid the very reasonable cost of making a mold. I also realized that I had seen Mardi Gras coins in only five colors, so I had to struggle with the mints to get them to anodize in five additional colors.
Two of the three mints sent me sample coins. I even made some test sets from the cheaper of the two. I showed these to people at Origins in 2017 to get feedback, which was mostly along the lines of "Okay but sort of cheap-looking".The final coin set
Then the set arrived from the third mint, the most expensive one. It was so superior in color and quality that there was no question which way to go. These had bright, true colors, such as white, blue, gold and yellow, not the shiny pastels of the Mardi Gras coins. They had a tough finish coat that wouldn't scratch or chip. They looked and felt good! The price point would be painful, but everyone who saw this set loved the coins. I loved them. These were coins I would be proud to own and proud to sell. Alibaba saved me.
A Case Study...
With the coin minting on track, I wanted to get some kind of box to hold them. Kurt's set came in a nice little injection-molded plastic case. In a rapid series of flashbacks, I started with U.S. manufacturers who made injection-molded cases. Again, the cases were too expensive, and the manufacturers weren't willing to customize a case.
This time I queried Alibaba promptly to discover a stunning profusion of case makers. As I was looking, one particular case caught my eye. It was injection-molded but had a tough fabric cover, zippers (I learned my lesson about latches with the poker chip box incident noted above), a handle, and foam inserts that were cut so that there were five or six removable inserts per row. I loved the case.The case's outer appearance; note the zippers and handle
I contacted the manufacturer, who graciously worked with me over multiple samples to get both the case size and the row width correct so that the coins would be held firmly in place at a depth from which they could easily be pulled up. On top of that, the case had a nice zipper compartment in the top for more storage. It turned out way better than expected, and it was affordable. The final case had an 11"x9" external diameter, a handle, two zippers, and seven rows of five foam cutouts inside that could be removed or adjusted depending on which coins or other accessories (dice, figures etc) the gamer chose to put in the case. The case could hold up to 400 coins, although I was expecting to use space for only 240, with the rest of the volume being available for storage.
With 240 coins inside, the whole set weighed 2.5 lbs. The rub: the minimum order quantity was five hundred cases. That was many more than I needed for the coins that I had ordered, but I thought there might be a second minting. It was better to have a few (!!) extra cases. This was not a project for the fearful, so full speed ahead with five hundred cases on order.
"Patience You Must Have, My Young Padawan"
Okay, I thought, you can actually make these coins in time for the big Kahuna: Gen Con. I pushed the manufacturers to get the coins and cases done so that I could show the 240 coin sets there. The manufacturers grumblingly complied with my short time frame. I made up business cards that promised a Kickstarter in October because...well, that's what a seller does, right? Run a Kickstarter? A completely naïve decision on my part. More on that below.
Soon I received 18 boxes containing 70,000 coins and had an irritated spouse. Then, to my horror, I opened the first box to find...each coin was individually packaged in a cellophane bag that had to be cut open. We spent months cutting them out of the cellophane.Imagine having 17 more cases like this, each with 2500+ individually wrapped coins
I got enough open to make up some sets using the sample cases I had on hand. The actual cases were in Chinese customs weeks before Gen Con. They cleared customs agonizingly slowly, but were finally on the way to the U.S. They arrived at LAX four days before Gen Con at the same time as a massive shipment of cherries that had to be transported immediately. The cases were waiting for me when I arrived home from Gen Con.
All was not lost at Gen Con, other than some valuable gaming time. I did get a chance to talk to game journalists in the press room and show them the coins. That is something I should have paid more attention to. Talking to game journalists is obvious, but where to meet them was the key lesson that went over my head.
Kicked by Kickstarter
Kickstarter has been a real boost for game designers and for gaming in general. It seemed like the natural place to debut the coin sets. As a Kickstarter newbie, I asked people how to go about running a Kickstarter campaign. There is also a lot of good posted information about this on Kickstarter itself and blogs such a Jamey Stegmaier's on the Stonemaier Games website.
My Kickstarter did a massive bellyflop, mostly because despite all of the great information available, I failed to comprehend a few critical fundamental concepts:
1. Kickstarter is not an advertising platform. As many places advise, build up the interest BEFORE the Kickstarter campaign (duh).
2. Kickstarter is not very flexible. I wanted to sell customizable sets and individual sets of coins, but that is not possible, so I created an overcomplicated group of sets for sale.
3. Everyone loves to jump on the bandwagon of a funded campaign. I put down a goal of selling 250 sets, which is what I had available to sell. That was dumb. Since the sets were already made, I could have chosen five sets as the goal, or even one set to have a successful Kickstarter, then push out one of those "Funded in 24 hours" boasts.
4. Timing is everything. A Kickstarter in October is bad timing. There is lots of advertising for SPIEL releases around that time. I advertised on BGG but never asked the key question: How often would my ad show up? It turned out it was about 1 in 100, which essentially was not seen. My ads were swallowed up in all the other SPIEL advertising.
5. Several game company people mentioned using Facebook to advertise, so I did. What they didn't spell out or I was too thick to understand was that you also needed to create a following on Facebook ahead of the Kickstarter. I paid to boost my Facebook post, supposedly reaching several hundred thousand people without one hit on my page. I don't advise trusting Facebook's numbers.
6. I did wind up selling twenty sets to people who were quite happy to get them.
"There's a Big Difference Between Mostly Dead and All Dead. Now, Mostly Dead Is Slightly Alive."
That was all a totally frustrating experience. After some painful self-review, I decided to start again, this time exhibiting at tabletop conventions. I began at a small one in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, then went on to a larger one, Geekway to the West, in St. Louis, then finally went to Origins 2019. Along the way, I got much more information about what gamers want, how to show the coins, how gamers like to purchase coin sets, and what they are looking for. The gaming press turns out for the larger events and are always interested in writing about something new.
One total surprise coming out of all this was that the case was a hit. As I was demonstrating the coin sets, people kept asking about buying the case separately. It seems that it is the perfect size (with the adjustable inserts) for RPG gamers to transport figures and dice with space for pens/pencils/character sheets/etc. in the zipper storage. What started out as an afterthought turned out to be a "product line".RPGers like this storage concept to transport figs and dice
"Good Judgement Comes from Experience, and Experience Comes from Bad Judgement" (Rita Mae Brown)
I did accomplish several goals. I now have a good high quality, universal, portable set of metal coins for myself and my gaming group. I learned a lot about the mechanisms of marketing. I have a website and Facebook page, take credit cards, and have a tax ID and a seller's permit in three states. I have gotten Game ON! Travel Coin sets into the hands of a lot of like-minded gamers who were are looking for an alternative to poker chips and had the same issues I did with cardboard for markers or coins. They were quite excited to see these sets. I stumbled into a business that means that I can write off trips to conventions where I exhibit as a business expense.Better organized booth at Origins with specific sets and individual coins to sell
I learned that exhibiting at conventions is work and not fun. At Origins and Geekway, there were thousands of gamers enjoying gaming nearby, and I was stuck in a booth. (All game company owners and employees are now laughing snarkily and evilly after reading that last sentence.)
I also found out why no one would make another set like this. The profit margin is too slim for a company to sell profitably. In coin sets there are two options: cheap/low quality/profitable, or high quality/high cost/slim margin. Since the Game ON! Travel Coin set is a personal project, I could afford to create it as I have no overhead and and am not relying on this to support my family or my retirement. When I was writing the Gen Con and Origin reviews for Counter, I talked to an endless stream of hopeful game designers, but met very few who could ever make enough money to even consider giving up their day job. The gaming business is a harsh one. It is a real tribute to the great large and small companies that bring out the profusion of fine games to which we have become accustomed and stay in business.
But in the final analysis:
• I own my ideal coin set.
• I won't ever need to buy another chip/card/plastic set.
• I am not alone; there are other gamers who are looking for this type of set.
• I carry my set with me whenever and wherever I game.
• I leave the cardboard chunks of markers and irritating paper in the box.
• My set enhances my enjoyment of every game in which I use them.
I learned a lot, but one important overall lesson is that I love gaming as a hobby, not as a business.
And finally: Game ON!
John Butitta, a.k.a., Der CoinmeisterNext stop for Der Coinmeister: SPIEL '19
- [+] Dice rolls
Leonardo Da Vinci, the four of us who make up the design group Acchittocca — Flaminia Brasini, Virginio Gigli, Stefano Luperto, and Antonio Tinto — started thinking about a card game version of that design.
The main idea was a worker placement game with the added twist of being able to place workers in stronger spaces that would become available on a later turn, thereby giving a player the choice of placing a worker on a weaker space that will resolve at the end of the current round or placing it on a stronger action that won't be resolved until the end of a future round.
In this first version, as in Leonardo da Vinci, every round players placed all of their workers first, then all currently active spaces were resolved in a fixed order.The first version of the game; note the same resources as in Leonardo on the resource tiles
We soon realized that the new game was too complex to be produced as a card game, so we abandoned the idea of linking it to Leonardo da Vinci, changing the theme so that players are now chiefs of gnome clans (game title: "Gnomeland") who are sending their villagers to gather resources to erect the most beautiful buildings.Virginio and Flaminia during a playtest with Piero Cioni
"Gnomeland" had five kinds of territories and buildings that provided only victory points, and these buildings were later been changed to artefacts with all sorts of functions.
We thought the base mechanism — placing in stronger areas that would be resolved in the future — was interesting and feedback from playtesting was positive. However, people playing the game were confused by the resolution timing and found that trying to time their actions across several turns was too complicated, and since the base mechanism was so challenging, we couldn't build a richer and more complicated game around it. Thus, the game was difficult to play, but at the same time not deep and variable enough. The game remained in our prototype drawer for many years, for that reason and because the Acchittocca invention team was dissolved.The five types of buildings in "Gnomeland"
In 2017, we started working on it again by introducing one key change: Worker placements are resolved immediately, not at the end of the current or future rounds — but the retrieval of workers placed on action spaces in future rounds (which are thus stronger) would be delayed. At the end of each round, players therefore retrieve all workers placed in areas active in the current round, while workers placed in future stronger areas will be retrieved only at the end of the round when those areas become active.
This change greatly simplified a player's thoughts process and made the placement in future areas more interesting because one would receive the benefits of a current action immediately, making it easier to compare the action now vs. the action later. Having simplified the basic mechanism, finally we were able to enrich the game with other elements that would fit in a new theme we decided to use:
• The first new element we added was caravan travel to give players an alternative to resource gathering. To make it more interesting and original, we then linked it to the end-of-game scoring and allowed travel to unlock special areas where one could place workers.
• We then developed the culture track (the river), which grants the strategic advantage of picking artefacts before the other players and some immediate tactical advantages, the most important being an additional explorer.
• We finally added military strength to allow more freedom when placing an explorer, with a rebalancing mechanism when players use it. We also introduced the raid mechanism that allowed us to remove the static warehouse of resources, which originally existed in "Gnomeland".Our final prototype of Terramara; beautiful, isn't it?
Terramara — the final name of the design — has reached its definitive form after working with the Quined Games development team. We're very happy working together with them and their choice for game illustrator: Michael Menzel; we're big fans of his, and we've been hoping for a long time to have one of our games illustrated by him.
After working for such a long time on this game, we cannot wait to have the final box in our hands and play it in its final version, which we think will be absolutely gorgeous! We are proud of the end result and hope players will like the game as much as we love it.Close to the same game board layout other than variation tiles, but now with final art — much more beautiful...
- [+] Dice rolls
Ferran Renalias Zueras
I first met Gerard Ascensi several years ago studying for a mathematics degree. Years later, we met again around a table, playing board games in Barcelona and traveling to game events such as Cordoba International Festival or SPIEL.
In June 2017, I visited London and met Gerard, who had moved there. He always liked creating new things and playing games, so it made sense that he would try to design a game, but he did not know where to start. We talked about a number of his ideas for new games, the most interesting of which was this: a game with limited cubes that are used both as resources and as ownership markers of new cards that will provide resources in the next rounds.
Some weeks after this meeting, Gerard sent me an e-mail explaining how the game should work, and we created a rough, totally abstract prototype — using resources like A, B, C, DD, EE, FF, GGG, HHH, III — with the cards that you could buy activating resource production and giving you a bonus each time another player wanted to use it.
We playtested the game a couple of times and felt that the idea was interesting enough to continue working on it.Front and back of the cards from that first idea
On the Origin of a Theme
We focused on finding and integrating a theme in the game, trying to help our initial ideas be as natural and intuitive as possible. Our first attempt was "The Exorcist", for which we:
• Reduced the nine abstract resources to six: crosses, holy water, and candles, with two power levels for each.
• Added cards representing five house levels to create a 4x5 creepy town.
• Introduced meeplexorcists that moved across the streets between the card houses, sometimes blocking other players' movement and taking resources from unhaunted cards.
• Added an auxiliary board with bonus tracks where players obtained additional resources and cubes while they de-haunted the town.Cards of The Exorcist
We playtested "The Exorcist" in a meeting organized by LUDO (the Spanish Boardgame Designers Association), and we noticed that the game did not work properly:
• Players didn't enjoy it due to a lack of interesting decisions and the "messiness" of the design.
• Another important feedback was that the theme did not match the sensation of growth during the game. We received theme suggestions such as the construction of a Gothic cathedral, army creation, genetics, dinosaur time, and also species evolution...
Learning: Listen carefully to all feedback and ideas from playtests. Some of them may end up being the solution of the theme of your game.
On the Origin of a New Game
Following this feedback, we noticed that it was mandatory to change the theme, and we loved the idea of genetics and the evolution of species. At this point, we decided to move the game backwards instead of introducing several patches to what already existed in order to fit the theme:
• Players would be forces of nature creating new species by mixing genes.
• We replaced the meeples moving around a town with a map to place the new species, following some adjacency rules.
• We borrowed the Power Grid market mechanism to manage the availability of new species. This improved the gameplay, minimizing the maintenance steps and becoming the main engine of the game. This mechanism remains in the final version of the game.
• We simplified the six exorcist resources to three kinds of genes, which represent the gene characteristics of the new species and the capability to adapt at water, air and earth.
• We looked for species that fit gene costs. In this step, player excitement appeared when discovering new species, creating an interesting "Wow" effect. We were on the right path.A first version of the tiles — can you find the blowfish, flying squirrel, or flying fish?First version of the board, with the market mechanism implemented
Learning: If you are stuck in the design process, force yourself to move backward, starting again with a blank sheet. Reuse the core rules and concepts, and discard the unnecessary ones.
On the Origin of a Published Game
We decided to test the game as much as possible with the general public, using several game conventions near Barcelona. We focused on the game length, the rhythm of play, and player engagement. We also visited several playtesting groups at Barcelona and London, obtaining valuable feedback that lead to some rules adjustments.
Mont Tàber was looking for games and that On the Origin of Species could work for them. We met with José Maria and Xavi to play the game, and they agreed that it could match their catalogue line. After several meetings and the implementation of some proposed changes, we signed the contract. The game was going to be released!
The publisher liked the game, but there were two significant points that should be improved. For the rest of the development we focused on (1) increasing the number of interesting decisions while preserving simplicity and (2) ensuring the theme was consistent with the mechanisms:
• We settled on the final theme of the game: Darwin's trip to the Galapagos.
• We replaced three bonus tracks with three decks of cards: the final scoring books, characters from the beagle crew, and objects that could have been used by Darwin. We tried to balance the actions so that it was not trivial to choose one instead of another.
• We worked on different grid shapes of the board, going for an hexagonal grid of squares that simplified the adjacency rules. We also introduced the Beagle route and calendar, linking it to the real history.
• We changed all the species in the tiles, including only Galapagos species and adjusting their costs to their characteristics.The first board with the hexagonal distribution of tiles
On the Origin of the Final Art
Mont Tàber started working on the production of the game — number of cards, tiles, etc. — while also finding the perfect artist to illustrate it: Amelia Sales. We were excited as soon as we saw the final art. The game was shining, and Amelia's Victorian style was fantastic.Game box: First prototype vs. final designCharacter and object cards: Final prototype vs. final designBoard: Final prototype vs. final designTiles: Early prototype vs. final design
- [+] Dice rolls
Smoothies, an idea that came to us two years ago and is now becoming a published game.
The story starts with us brainstorming about an action-selection mechanism that could be original and random enough to make decisions interesting. One day, we took the box of our copy of Empire Engine, pushed the lid and box bottom together, then threw that game's cubes at those items, with the cubes splitting up to fall into the two "trays". That was something that we loved!
Amerigo and we didn't like that — we loved only "the throw". When you're designing and come up with a cool idea but no application for it, that idea passes directly into the backlog to await its turn. That was what happened here, with "the throw" remaining in our backlog for a year.
When we played other games with cubes, sometimes we remembered the idea and threw them into the boxes, but nothing more resulted from that. We think that the idea was screaming for attention, saying "Please work with me!"
In a design session for a big Eurogame, we recovered the idea of "the throw" — with dice used in place of the cubes — to see whether it would fit in the development. Since we love dice management/selection as in the games La Granja and Marco Polo, this could have been a great idea — but instead it was a failure, and we dismissed "the throw" from that game.
Ganz Schön Clever, and suddenly everything made sense! Two trays: One for the active player, and the other for passive players! Roll and write! Combinations! Colors! We finally had the spark we needed to start the design of a new game seriously.
The number 14 is very special for us as a lot of good things happened to us on the 14th of May (and in many more months) since we've been together, so we thought we'd use that number as a reference while designing this game. The prototype then was unthemed beyond the name "Special 14", which bothered us a little bit, but since all the roll-and-write games we liked (Qwixx, Qwinto, Ganz schön clever...) were also unthemed, we proceed to design the first sheets.
Our first approach was so messy that we played only once and dismissed it immediately. We don't even remember how the scoring functioned, but the gameplay worked like this: Instead of crossing out squares, we wrote the value of the dice used to create one number. For example, if you made a 10 by combining a white 2, green 4, yellow 1, and red 3, you would write "2" in the tenth column in the white row, a "4" in the tenth column in the green row, etc. It was a nightmare, but we so liked the flow of the game that after that playtest, we always made crosses in the sheets.
Despite having Ganz schön clever as a role model of sorts, one thing we don't like is a game that has a number of rounds based on the number of players, so instead we included a "timeline of dice" as a way to track the progress of the game. If you choose a lid with four dice in it, you cross out four squares. In the long run, you're going to take more-or-less the same number of dice as everyone else, but the number of rounds will vary.
Those tracks have been modified along all the tests adapting the length of the game to make a good balance of up to the player but not-too-long game.
When we had a version of "Special 14" that we were comfortable with, we traveled to a prototype con (CreaJocs in Valencia) and got in a lot of playtests that went very well! In fact, the game got enough buzz that publisher Ludonova got interested. After the con, we sent Ludonova the manual and the prototype, and we signed the contract a couple of weeks later after which things got serious: The development of the game was truly about to begin.
Ludonova asked us to increase the interaction between players, so we jumped to do that, adding a couple of majority scores as well as special actions on large cards the same size of the lids that could be used to modify every game.
After a few playtest runs, they asked us to remove the effect of the number 14, which doubled the number of crosses in that line. They found in their playtests that the game was just "grab as many x2 modifiers as you could", so we decided to go with the idea of a smaller bonus, with the player who performs a "14" crossing out two more squares (after which we immediately set the bonus for the "7" with only one cross). We also changed how the stars are presented on the sheet. Initially, one star = 1 VP, but we realized that players would have a nice feeling by being able to cross out multiple stars in a single move — an idea for which we can thank Ganz schön clever because you experience more satisfaction in that game when you cross out lots of squares with just one die.
So SPIEL time arrived, and a dream came true: We played the game at SPIEL with two representative figures of the roll-and-write world — Suzanne Sheldon and Mandi Hutchinson, who kindly accepted our invitation to play. We had a delightful game in which they gave us highly valuable feedback: The game was a bit long, and the final scoring was too mathy (specifically too much counting as you had crosses in every line and the final scoring required you to count all of those crosses again), but overall they liked it.
With that feedback, we came back to work, trying to resolve the two things that they didn't like. The length part was easy as removing only one square from the tracks worked perfectly and didn't affect the feeling of the game — but how are you going to avoid summing a lot of numbers in a game that at its core has you summing numbers? That was how we developed the idea of having "limits" for every line. While we couldn't avoid having players sum numbers, we could minimize those operations.
Initially, we thought of having a scoring chart, such as "for 1 to 4 crosses in this row, score 1 VP" and so on, but when we tried it, you were constantly checking that table and counting and recounting the crosses, so it was even worse! We then thought that perhaps you should have a minimum number of crosses in order for all of them to score. We worked hard on that idea, packed the version, sent it to Ludonova, and waited for their feedback.
After a while, Ludonova sent us the files of a sheet that was close to the final one. They had removed our "special action" insert boards, instead taking the best ideas of those boards and blending them into the sheet. They adjusted the minimum values for the player count based on their testing sessions. It was an amazing development job for which we are very grateful. We tested the final version, and it felt complete. That's an amazing feeling for any designer!
But wait, what's happened with the theme? That tricky thing. Ludonova asked us for ideas, and after a lot of thinking, we settled on two themes: one more commercial and cute from Shei, and the other nerdier from Isra. Taking into account the elements of the game, here's what we presented to the publisher:
Victory Points: Flavor points.
Two trays/two tracks with negative points: Different blenders, with the negative points coming from you spilling juice because you overfilled the blenders.
"The throw": Throwing fruits into the blenders.
The boards with special actions: Different recipes.
Victory Points: The age of the object. Older, better.
Dice: Atoms to bomb the object.
Two trays/two tracks with negative points: Two objects to date, with negative points coming from too much radiation in the object since the isotopes are radioactive.
"The Throw": The action of dating something by throwing atoms at the objects.
The boards with special actions: Different objects to date.
Bonus: It has the number 14 in the title...
But there's no need to say which theme won, is there?
After that point, Michel Verdu and David Prieto did amazing work with all the art and graphics. We never would have imagined that our little roll-and-write game without theme would end up looking like this. This "cherry on the top" went beyond our imagination!
Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy Smoothies!
Shei & Isra
- [+] Dice rolls
In early 2012, I went directly from knowing and playing games like Settlers of Catan to sitting down with my girlfriend to learn and play Arkham Horror. It was way too big a leap for us at the time. We were exhausted after five hours, and we didn't feel like we "got" the game even after that.
Coincidentally, I had just discovered BoardGameGeek, where Arkham Horror was listed and ranked among the top 100 best board games at the time. I (very naively) thought to myself: "If this is supposed to be one of the best board games out there, I think I can do better."
As it would soon turn out, I was wrong — well, on relative short term at least.
Designing a board game is not as easy as it seems at first glance. It's not until you make your first prototype that you realize how difficult it actually is. It's somewhat easy to make a game system that's playable, but designing a game that is fun and something you want to play again and again is not.
After a couple of tries, I did manage to design a decent mid-weight euro, and I went to SPIEL in 2013 with two meetings booked: one with Z-Man Games and another with Czech Games Edition (CGE).Overview of "Dig for Victory", the prototype I pitched in 2013
With puddles of sweat under my arms, I somehow made a convincing pitch to the Z-Man himself. He took a copy.
When I met with CGE, the owner called for a guy to come sit with us. At the time, I could tell you the names of only a handful of designers, and of those, I would recognize only a couple in real life — but here was Vlaada Chvátil sitting down with us, and my focus went from pitching my game to focusing on breathing. I dropped pieces left and right trying to explain the game, while they alternated between asking me questions and conversing with one another in Czech, me sitting there like a deer in headlights trying to read their facial expressions.
It was a no (go figure).
Z-Man also responded with a rejection about six months later.
Highs & Lows
The high I had been riding until then had passed, and now I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. It made me quit — for a while at least...
Some time passed and another joy — the biggest of my life — would soon occupy my time as my girlfriend and I got pregnant. Our son is now almost four years old and a board gamer to be for sure!One of my favorite pictures of our son
In the meantime, I would still engage with the local design community, but my excitement for making games was not in full gear. It would only slowly begin to rise as I was asked to run a board game design competition at the biggest role-playing and board game convention we have in Denmark. Over the years, I've had designers like Jason Matthews, Asger Harding Granerud, Jeppe Norsker and Tina Christensen co-judge the competition with me. I even helped Asger with prototype "artwork" for his first released game, Flamme Rouge, back in the day, and the small online designer community I started on Facebook is now the second biggest board game related group in Danish.
My role, I felt, was in the encouragement of other rising designers, and not so much my own designs.
That changed in 2017 when I went to the SPIEL game fair in Essen on very short notice with exactly one of my recent designs in my luggage. I didn't have any meetings set up, but I wanted to give it a shot, so I did the cumbersome work of going booth to booth, asking whether anyone had time to take at look at my game. Needless to say, nothing came of it, even though I did get to sit down with a couple of publishers to pitch my game.
Going home, I was disappointed and I felt like it was a missed opportunity. I thought: "Next year, I will come back, and I will come back prepared!"
I already started designing in my head on the car ride back. I needed to come up with something original and exciting, thinking: "In the games that I like to play" (mostly mid-weight euro-style games) "what would be an original twist?"
One idea: "What if every space on a scoring track had a resource or special action on it?" I had Lords of Waterdeep in mind as an example. Then you would not only have to think about scoring many points, but also the pace at which you scored them as smaller scoring missions would be more attractive and larger scoring missions more risky.
I knew it would be way too much to create an entirely new mid-weight euro game just to put bonuses on the scoring track, so I tried to refine the game to be ONLY the scoring track. Of course, if you have a game with only a scoring track, you effectively have a racing game — but in this case a racing game in which you not only needed to get ahead quickly, but also land on the right spaces as you went along.
This was the birth of "Banana Jones", a game in which players took control of an adventurer, exploring and raiding a temple for gems of different value and rarity. The gems would be worth points only in sets of three, emphasizing the need to hit the right spaces as you went along.Overview of "Banana Jones"
I worked on that game for about six months. It gave me so much inspiration and energy to design again that I've done a multitude of prototypes since then, even a mid-weight euro game that I co-designed with Allan Kirkeby.
Then one day, an idea struck me like lightning, and within twenty minutes I had drawn and tested the entire layout for "Banana Jones: The Dice Game". It worked!Overview of "Banana Jones: The Dice Game"
"Banana Jones" and "Banana Jones: The Dice Game" did not have similar mechanisms, but the scoring was done with the same gems of different rarity and in sets of three. I knew from playtesting at the time that "Banana Jones: The Dice Game" was the home run of the two, but I wanted to push them both, so I kept them in the same theme, thinking a publisher might pick up both.
Fast forward to SPIEL '18, where Allan and I had booked 23 meetings to show off ten games: four from me and one we had co-designed, with the rest being Allan's. We had a very good show, handing over twenty prototypes in total, with further requests from publishers to mail them some of the prototypes that we'd run out of.
I'm getting a little ahead of myself here as I think this success had two major factors:
1) Going to meetings with Allan by my side really helped the otherwise introverted me be in a much more comfortable situation. (He's previously been CEO of a computer games company, and his first board game, Itchy Monkey, debuted at that show.) No puddles of sweat under my arms this time! Before the convention ended, I surprised Allan with a big box game as a present to say "thank you". Sometimes just being you can make a huge difference for someone else. Allan surely did for me in this case!
2) A couple of months before SPIEL '18, we sent out requests to publishers for meetings along with our sell sheets. A few of them responded with an immediate request to have one or two of our games sent out before SPIEL, so we did that. Thursday morning, before the convention openedWhite Goblin Games, I woke to a text from White Goblin Games saying they'd played the game on Wednesday evening and they wanted to publish it!
At that instant, I no longer felt like an imposter. I was now a full-fledged game designer, and I walked into each and every meeting over the following days with that confidence in mind. I made sure to thank White Goblin Games when we met on Friday to discuss the details going forward. I'm still very thankful for it. The timing could not have been better!
Now, what is the game about?
First, the theme was changed from Banana Jones (my self-imagined setting) to a story about the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. In Māori, "Ka Pai" means "Well done!", which is exactly the feeling the game inspired in players when I playtested it.
Doing some research on Māori culture, we decided first on the name, then on the thematic story told by the game:
As players, you host a social gathering of different Māori tribes, each represented by their own symbol. Placing the same tribes next to one another will increase their power (in sets of three to score points) and can potentially also spread the stories written on the totems in the corners and center of the player sheets. These totems were historically put up by the Māori to show their connection with the land and their ancestors, so the more of them you connect, the further the knowledge goes, and the more you will score.
As a little twist, one of the tribes — the one represented by the symbol / — does not have a base score when completing sets of them, but each time a set of them is formed, they allow a player to increase the score of sets of any tribe (symbol), including themselves.
The mechanism of how, where, and when players gets to write the different symbols is also fundamental to the gameplay experience. The game comes with two custom dice, each with a different distribution of symbols, and each round they are rolled (by any player). All players then use the result to write on their own player sheet.
If the dice show two different symbols, each player can choose to draw either one of the symbols, but not both. However, if the dice show two identical symbols, all players must write both symbols, and they must be placed next to one another. This, paired with a hierarchy in how rare the different symbols are and how many points they score for getting them in sets of three, presents the players with interesting choices each round.
Players can write their first symbol in any free space, but going forward, all new symbols must be placed next to an existing one. The interesting choices come from deciding which symbol to write, where to write it, and how much of a risk you are willing to take. Every so often, a double roll will challenge players with what I call an extra-frustratingly-fun challenge. Maybe you were already hoping for that exact double roll to come up? Or maybe you will seize the opportunity and rethink your strategy?A completed player sheet
As the game goes along, players will be more and more devoted to what they are already doing, building up the tension towards the end. This is when I realized during playtesting that Ka Pai was going to be a hit. I've never done a game before that made players spontaneously express themselves to such a degree. Comments like "Yes! Just what I needed!" or "Roll double squares, please!" or "Oh no! That's not what I needed. Where do I place these?" have been consistent throughout all games I've witnessed since the first playtest. These expressions grow as the game progresses.
Fifteen minutes later, the game is over and inevitably someone says, "Who wants to try again?"
This is something that I've always aspired to achieve, and it brings me great joy to experience it, each and every time I bring Ka Pai to the table. I know that it will bring fun and joyful moments to a lot of people in the future. That is worth the world to me, so I promise this will not be the last game you'll see from me.
Thank you for reading!
- [+] Dice rolls
"I want to watch Peter Rabbit!", my two-year-old son requests...for the hundredth time. Full of excitement, my son immerses himself in the woodland world yet again. At the edge of his seat, he wonders, "Will the fox capture the rabbit this time?" The obvious answer is no, of course he won't as was the case the 99 times before this because the dumb fox never learns. It's a story with a fixed outcome, and once you know what's going to happen, it's not exciting anymore — but board games are different.
Oh, I'm sorry, who am I again? My name is Hurby Donkers (yep, that's my name), and I'm a Dutch boardgame designer. I like all the good stuff in a board game: Challenge, depth, player interaction, and most of all, suspense.
The latter is something a woodland setting has plenty of. It must be thrilling to have to go out there in the woods looking for food, not knowing what dangers might lurk behind the trees, so I set out to translate this excitement into a board game, to have players feel what it's like to be that scared tiny animal. But make no mistake: In a board game with player-controlled animals, the fox does learn, so next time you set out to eat that nut, be sure that he'll be awaiting you. You'll be screaming "Oh, Fox!" before you know it.
A Tough Nut in a Soft Shell
My goal was to create a game that draws you in and keeps you immersed in the world it presents. In other words, I aimed to have all mechanisms be as elegant as possible so as not to subtract from the experience. To bring the concept of the hunter and the hunted to life, I wanted players to have to crawl into each other's minds in order to not merely guess but actually to predict their actions — a game that is soft on the outside and tough on the inside, if you will, or, you know, easy to learn but hard to master. With that in mind, the first draft was made about a year ago.
A fox in squirrel-clothing
There was always going to be one predator animal hunting down multiple prey animals. I didn't want players working together as holding hands would have made the prey animal players feel too safe, so they were all going to play for themselves, looking to save only their own skin. Each player would receive one face-down role card, of which one is the predator. The predator player then reveals themself by taking the predator token so that others know whom to watch out for. In older versions of the game, any player could be the predator, which is heaps of fun but turned out to be a bit too hardcore for most players. Don't worry, though, as this is still included in the game as an expert variant.
The progression of the animal cardEach animal could use its trigger ability a different number of times in the first version on the left, but this was quickly discarded. While the general concept of the animal card stayed the same, their abilities did not, and we tested tens of ability ideas before settling on the ones you can find in the final version of the game.
The forest for the trees
To have a sense of environment and adventure, I felt that the game needed a spatial element, so I created a board with different locations in a forest that players could move to. These locations would hold the different food types that the prey animals were after, to give the players a sense of direction as well as valuable information to deduce each other's identity with.The progression of the boardSince creating the first version on the left, I must have tried over fifty different configurations. Artwork aside, it is ironic that the board is almost exactly the same. Sometimes the first idea really is the best idea.
Prey animals would need to be able to hide themselves, so the movement over the board was going to be hidden. I guess the obvious first thing that would come to mind is hidden movement with pen and paper, with players secretly writing down their location. However, I wanted none of that. It's been done before, but more importantly, I think it's fiddly and not pretty to look at. Furthermore, the movement should not be completely hidden as there is no suspense if you don't have the faintest clue about where everyone is and you give up trying to find out. That would just be random.
Hang on, let me interrupt myself again by stating something important to me in game design: I generally don't like it when lots of random stuff happens to you. Event cards and dice rolls that determine an outcome are common perpetrators of this. I love to get outplayed by another player, but having aspects of a game determined by randomness keeps me from feeling invested in it.
Right, sorry, moving on. Because my goal was to have players be as scared as possible, they needed to feel the possibility that they were figured out, while also entertaining the thought that they were not. You know, suspense. For the predator to figure out anything, as much information as possible should be out in the open. I felt that simultaneous action selection was especially important for this game because the last thing I wanted was downtime between turns taking away from the immersion I so carefully tried to craft. Thus, players would have a hand of movement cards, from which they would simultaneously play one face-up card each round for all players to see. The cards were square and could be played in four directions. All cards that are played remain on the table for the remainder of the game so that players can always look back to see what others played in previous rounds.A full set-up of the gameYour identity is one of a composed set of five animals above the board, so immediately you can see the possible identities and abilities of other players. The action cards you play form a face-up row in front of you, which allows you to easily track the actions of each player.
So that's how it works — but how does it feel?
By analyzing a player's movement cards, you could deduce that player's identity:
"That player is visiting a lot of locations with nuts, so they must surely be the squirrel!"
However, you can also put your opponents on the wrong track:
"Even though I'm not the squirrel, I'm visiting a lot of locations with nuts, so they'll surely think that I am!"
And most importantly, it creates suspense:
"Do I have the nuts to eat that nut over there, or is the predator onto me?"
As sly as a squirrel
Still, the game needed more, and I haven't yet explained the most important part. To allow for true mind games, I gave each animal a special ability that could be triggered only by playing a trigger movement card. Others don't know your identity, so when playing such a card, they also don't know which special ability you just activated. On one hand, this made deduction a fair bit tougher because it wasn't as straightforward, but on the other, it made deduction deeper because it gave away more information.
Furthermore, by giving each animal a special ability, the animals each had their own feel, further increasing the sense of immersion. Also, I really really wanted to include special powers just because, so there's that.
Anyway, the addition of trigger cards meant that the player pawns would not move as that would immediately give away their positions on the board. When I explain the game, most players look at me funny when I say that the pawns don't move until the very end of the game. They don't move. They don't. Nope.The trigger card
That Dutch Nut with the French Name
Oh, Fox!, he thought it was the mutt's nuts. As a boardgame designer turned graphics designer with an ambition for marketing, he suggested we publish it together. Yeah, let's do it! Cinnamon Games became a reality, and I never looked back.
And with that, I knew that Oh, Fox! was going to make it. Oh, by the way: The game wasn't to be called Oh, Fox! back then. I had "Froschlest Faschlad" as the title — or "Forest Facade" when properly pronounced — but as you can see, we imagined it a tad difficult to pronounce well, especially for non-native Dutch speakers like ourselves. I leave it up to you to imagine what sparked the idea of "Oh, Fox!" as the title, okay?
Together, we proceeded to polish the game. We playtested as much as we could, visiting friends, boardgame clubs, and boardgame conventions. While Michel was busy illustrating the game and getting it out there into the world, I worked on processing feedback and nutting out mechanical problems.
In a nutshell: The core mechanisms felt very much carved in wood and held up to the end, but getting everything else just right appeared to be quite the tough nut to crack, as I imagine it often is with a lot of game designs. In the case of Oh, Fox!, for the majority of its development, it was too difficult — not so much to learn the rules, but to play the game successfully.
So the biggest challenge was to have the game be more accessible, without sacrificing any of the deeper gameplay that I love so much about it. We tested and tweaked and tweaked and tested and tested and tweaked the game, making sure to gather as much feedback from as many people as possible in the process. To any of you reading this: Thank you! Eventually, after having turned everything about the game upside down and inside out, it all magically fell into place. Looking back, I fully believe that we crafted the best version of Oh, Fox! that we possibly could, and I'm very proud of the result.
So, what's next? At the time of writing, Oh, Fox! is in press and will be available at SPIEL '19, ready to kick nuts. I very much hope to see you there. Thank you for reading!
- [+] Dice rolls
We Welcome You to Yukon Airways
The real-life Yukon Airways originally began as a small charter outfit in 1927 when Andrew Cruickshank bought the Queen of The Yukon. This plane was the sister plane to the more-famous Spirit of St. Louis, which was flown by Charles Lindbergh on the first non-stop, transatlantic flight from New York to Paris on May 20, 1927. Today the Queen of the Yukon is still on display in the Aviation Museum in Whitehorse. When I grew up in the Yukon, my father was the owner and operator of Yukon Airways, so I was pretty familiar with bush planes from a young age.
When I started working on this game, I knew several places that had to be included: two-thirds of the Yukon's population lives in Whitehorse, which is the territory's capital. It serves as the communication/transportation hub in the game, as it does in real-life. Plus, that's where I was born and raised, so my ego required its inclusion.
Dawson City is most famous as the setting for the Gold Rush. When gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, word quickly spread across the world, which brought an unprecedented number of gold-seekers to the Yukon. Over 100,000 prospectors stampeded to the Klondike region, which led to the establishment of Dawson City and, eventually, the Yukon Territory. Dawson City quickly became known as the "Paris of the North" and in 1898, it was the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg.
Old Crow is the most northerly community in the Yukon and the only one that is not accessible by road.
Taco Bar is known to local bush pilots and outfitters but you won't find it on any map. Despite the name, it's not a Mexican restaurant; rather, it's a small gravel island, the end point for canoe trips along the Snake River. The waters here are deep and straight enough to allow a float plane to land. It was named after a memorable dinner made there.
You'll find some personal touches in the objective cards, too. "Paid with Gold Nuggets", which was not an uncommon practice, reveals that yellow dice represent miners. "Better Safe than Sorry" rewards you for having fuel left at the end of your flight; it was also one of my father's favorite expressions. "Love is in the Air" is a nod to how my parents met. My mother was a doctor who used to work in small communities around the Yukon, and she was often flown around by my dad. These cards also hint that red dice are mounties, green are adventurers, pink are tourists, and blue are doctors.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Please Buckle Your Seatbelt
Yukon Airways. It was June 2016 when I was driving back from a Protospiel with Gerry Paquette talking about themes we'd like to design games around and mechanisms we'd like to use. I had been trying to make a game using dice drafting in which the board location from which the dice were drafted was important, but hadn't come up with a good theme that worked. Once I realized the dice could represent passengers at a terminal, I was off to the races.
I knew that managing fuel and passengers would be the crux of the game as fuel management is a bush pilot's most important skill and any error can be fatal. Because I didn't want to include player elimination in the game, there is an assumption that you always reserve the necessary fuel to return to Whitehorse. Now you only need to worry about having enough fuel to get all the way to Old Crow. As you can imagine, the further you want to travel, the more fuel you'll need to carry. That said, this is a game, not a simulation, so there are other ways to increase your range.
Passengers limit the distance you can fly. A plane can carry only a fixed weight, and when you're flying solo, you can use all that capacity for fuel and travel a longer distance. If you've got passengers on board, then you can't take as much fuel and consequently you can't fly as far. I wanted to invoke the importance of fuel management without unnecessarily burdening the players, and the trade-off between passengers and fuel seemed like an elegant way to do that.
My first ideas included helicopters and airplanes. It was overly complicated, and involved players having a small fleet of unique aircraft at their disposal.
It took only a few months of iteration for the game to start looking like its present form. The map board geography looked the way it does now, the dice-drafting system operated smoothly, and there were a deck of destination cards and colored cubes used in conjunction with locations. Of course, the details of these elements evolved over time, but none of them were changed much in outline.
We Will Be Experiencing a Little Turbulence
In September 2016, after three months of progress, I started working on the engine-building aspect. I like to add things that increase variability to a game only after the core design is stable; otherwise it's difficult to tell which elements are causing the game to crash, and whether changes implemented over time are genuine improvements or simply patches to a shaky design.
I started by giving players a bonus when flying different types of passengers. This was a bit dull as it just gave a scoring bonus and wasn't engine building at all. You could get better at scoring for certain colors of dice, but you didn't get better at actually doing things in the game.
I also tried giving players skill cards that gave them unique bonuses. Ultimately, this proved to be too fiddly and increased the cognitive load of new players. A simpler and ultimately more satisfying solution was to give all players access to the same objective cards. This fostered competition between the players since they both raced to complete the objectives and vied with each other to gather and use the elements required for their completion. It also increased the variability from game to game without accidentally giving any player an unfair advantage.
You can also see in this photo that the player aid was a part of the player board and that I recorded a player's fuel using discarded cards. I was pretty darn happy with my cleverly efficient use of the cards.
Things Look Different from the Air
I thought the game was on the right track — until I went to Europe for a vacation. I find that traveling helps with creativity as a change in surroundings can give you a new perspective on old problems. Being captive on an airplane (or in an air terminal) can sometimes do wonders if you choose to use the time creatively. Several new ideas started to rattle around in my head while I was away, and I was excited to get back to work.
The first thing I did when I got back was to totally rework the player board. The dashboard look fit the theme of the game perfectly, and the dials granted flexibility to the engine building. As an added bonus, it was very clear to read and easy to use. Later on I added "switches" that gave players a bonus once they were turned "ON".
Shortly afterward, I reworked the dice pool board to differentiate each terminal. At this point, I tied player order to the terminal number. The pairing of a special ability and turn order was inspired by Viticulture, but the choice has a bit more weight in Yukon Airways as it also dictates which dice are available for you to draft — a decision central to your turn.
By the start of 2017, I had fleshed out the map board, too. The cubes and cards worked quite differently than they do now, and they would go through a few iterations before the final version. At first, cubes of your color were placed on a location when you dropped a passenger off there. The cards told you which color of passenger you could drop off at the indicated location.
In addition to game design changes, I also made improvements to the game's look and feel over the next three months, including the addition of my old family photos to the plane cockpits.
On Your Right, You Can See Niagara Falls
In April 2017, I attended Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends convention in Niagara. It is attended by designers, publishers, and other game industry professionals, so it represents a staggering wealth of game knowledge. I talked with friendly, intelligent people about the game and made almost daily iterations (having brought my laptop and printer to the hotel).
The most notable change was changing the whole turn structure from drafting dice and delivering them on your turn to a two-phase system in which each player drafted dice in turn order, then all players delivered them in the new turn order dictated by the value (1-6) of the terminal from which they had drafted the dice. Another significant change was the addition of barrel, card, and improvement symbols to the destination cards, a set of which could be turned in for a bonus. This set collection added some interesting depth without much complexity. (Truth be told, it resulted in more complexity than I personally like, so I don't focus on them too much when I play, but when used well, they allow for epic turns.)
I gave the almost-final version a few playtests in the Yukon when I went home for a visit in the summer of 2017. Here we see my mother and sister playing a game:
We Will Be Landing Shortly
The game was signed by Spanish publisher Ludonova in November 2017 and will debut at SPIEL '19 in October. They've done a great job of the artwork while generally adhering to the look of my prototype. While I was happy with the graphic design of my prototype, they wisely chose to hire a professional artist and graphic designer, so their version is orders of magnitude better. Have a look at the new player boards; each one even has a recreation of one of my old family photos:
These are samples of the new ticket and plane cards:
This is the map board with the seaplane dock on the left:
Thank You for Flying Yukon Airways
While I'm very pleased with how Yukon Airways turned out, I'm saddened that my father — who passed away in 2014 — will never see it . His life provided the impetus for the original design, and I hope you will enjoy this little tribute to the man who taught me how to soar. I think he would have. Have a nice flight!
- [+] Dice rolls
Jonathan Pac Cantin(JonnyPac)United States
Jonny Pac here. I'm gonna share some of the story behind my game Sierra West. It's a mix between a deck-builder and action-programming/worker-placement game, but the two stand-out features are the multi-use cards that overlap into the player boards, and the modular content that makes the core game more of a "console" than a game in itself. Upon set-up, you choose which mode to play and add the special mode-specific cards and tokens required to fill it out. There are four different modules in the box — with lots of room for future expansions.
The game's mechanical roots probably stem back to a conversation I had with with designer Kevin Riley (Aeon's End) after a playtest of what would later become Coloma, by Final Frontier Games. In Coloma, you build a tableau of cards. Each card has a couple of different abilities that can get triggered when your pioneer meeple visits certain "sites" on the main board's wheel.
Over the following months, I kept thinking of how to make a game with moving workers that visited action spaces on your face-up cards. I had one idea that involved frogs jumping from toadstool to toadstool. I even imagined that the frogs would leave your play area and move to your neighbor's, going all the way around the table and back to you, but that idea never even made it into prototype form. More time passed.
One afternoon in my studio, I got out construction paper and markers and started making cards that layered over each other, covering some of the icons. I began by playing five cards at a time (assuming it might be a good twist on a deck-builder). Then I made a toothed player board that filled in the gaps between the cards. I marched a couple of meeples from icon to icon. How fun!
Gyromite. In Gyromite you had to coordinate with the other player — who was in charge of moving pipes with their controller — to get your little old dude around the level. If you did things in the wrong order, you'd get trapped and eaten by monsters or squished by your own pipes by mistake. This inspired me to make it so that you had to juggle moves between the two meeples to get the best results out of your turn.
Mind you, I'm not one for making board games that really want to be video games. I believe that each media has its strengths — and the content for that media should play to those strengths without obvious envy for the other. Plus, I'm a medium-weight Euro junkie. I'm all about the cardboard and wooden pieces. My favorite games usually fall somewhere between Carcassonne and Caylus in complexity. My goal as a designer is to make games that can sit on the shelf next to those — and add my own unique touch to the canon. Therefore, this idea of mine was probably going to end up as a dry, economic game involving resource management and building stuff — even if that is just a deck. Or will it? Dot, dot, dot
Player Board Evolution
Hangtown, Coloma, and Donner Summit
Hangtown, was tightly based on California's Gold Rush history and filled with actual historic photos. Coloma, Hangtown's new reimplimentation, is also based on similar historic events, though expressed more loosely with whimsical art by The Mico.
In a similar vein, Sierra West was originally called "Donner Summit", inspired by the infamous events that took place there in the late 1840s. (And yes, if you ran out of food you had to eat your meeples to survive!) The whole mountain of cards was bleak and snowy. Your pioneers had to gather resources and food while avoiding becoming popsicles. It had a spinner, too! This determined the weather conditions: avalanches would tumble down over the cards and so on. As dark of a theme as it was, I tried to keep it light feeling with everything being about meeples — instead of actual peoples. It was not looking to be a historic simulation or freaky parody — it was more of a tactical Euro-style game. (Spoiler alert: The snowy theme will find its way back into the game as an expansion in 2020!)
Three-Card Panorama Evolution
In early 2018, I went to the GAMA Trade Show in Reno with a bag full of unsigned games. I had cold-contacted several publishers that seemed like good fits for my work. One of them was Board&Dice, a company from Poland with a growing catalog of games that stood between the familiar and the radically different — in fact, their game, InBetween, with its intriguing box art and lack of front logo, was just coming out.
I met with Filip, one of the company's founders, who was wearing a two-piece suit covered in Pac-Man patterns. Fun dude! He looked over all of my games and sell sheets, sitting through brief demos of each. He liked one called "Meeples on Main", that was inspired by mancala. He said it had a "spark". (This game has since evolved into A Fistful of Meeples by Final Frontier.)
Then I ran out of polished games to show him (no pun intended!), and all I had left was this crazy deck-builder about cowboy meeples stuck in a terrible blizzard eating each other out of desperation. I warned them that it had a questionable theme and was far from done — I didn't even know how the game would end. Is the winner the one who ate the fewest meeples? Eff, I don't know. But I whipped it out anyways. I demonstrated the core system of sliding cards into a custom-shaped player board to make trails for your meeples. Instead of just worker-placement, it was worker-flow, I explained. His eyes widened. This game has two sparks! After a quick aside with his business partner, Ireneusz, he came back and asked whether they could take it home to Poland and send me a contract the following week. Sounds good, boss!
After the ink had dried, we began meeting online regularly, usually midnight in California and 9 a.m. in Poland — which eventually made me more-or-less nocturnal. Between my work with Board&Dice and Final Frontier (in Macedonia), I now stay up just about every night until 3-4 a.m. in my studio, hammering on games. Around noon, I wake to find caffeine, food, and innocent playtesters. It's the developer life, I tell ya! Anyhoo, back to Sierra West.
Re-Theme and Modules
As half-expected, Filip asked me to rethink the theme. He felt that as cool as the local history might be, the game might do better in Europe without the meeple-eating bit. He asked whether I could make four seasons instead. These would be modules that could be swapped out to create unique thematic experiences. I agreed, but was not sure exactly how to tie seasons to the Wild West tropes people might expect. What exactly did the pioneers do in the spring, summer, and fall? Don't know. Harvest season was literally the only low-hanging fruit I could think of since apples grow really well in the Sierras — in fact, so well that a nearby region is called Apple Hill. Perfect. This game has a hill. Add apples, and we're good to go! The unique mechanism in the Apple Hill mode is that you gather apples from a growing orchard. On your turn, you may use as many apples as you can, but here's the catch: Leftover apples are available for the next player to use...
Aside from "autumn" I was stumped. Nothing came to mind for spring or summer that didn't feel forced. Then I thought, seasons? Phooey. This game isn't about seasons. It's about life in the Western Frontier: Exploration! Outlaws! Shootouts! Gold mines! Yee-haw! After that it was much easier to think of appropriate content: Gold Rush, a mode all about mining gold; Outlaws & Outposts, chucking dice to shoot at bad guys; and Boats & Banjos — um, guys, did ya hear that ominous twang? Better paddle faster!
In the follow-up meeting, I pitched loose drafts of these new modules. Filip was impressed and willing to proceed with development on them. With just a few months to finish everything, I needed as much outside perspective as I could get, so over the summer I went to every local convention that had a Protospiel or designated room for designers to test their games. It was at RageCon (in Reno) that I met a new designer, Drake Villareal, who was immediately fascinated by the game's systems. We quickly became friends and began to workshop the heck out of it, even to the point where we reversed the way the cards were layered on the mountain. That's where things really started to gel. Drake and I have since become a developer buddy-system duo, working for Final Frontier on the upcoming game Merchants Cove and various other projects.
Is There a Solo Mode?
Enter Dávid Turczi. He was brought on to oversee the development of the solo mode, which I had already begun to design on my own. Liking most of what I had done, he decided to "teach a man to fish" instead of redoing it all himself. We spent several hours going over what makes a good solo mode. It was like getting a music lesson from a master, a literal game-changer for me. It even made me reevaluate multiplayer games. Where exactly are all of the interaction points? He also taught me to "name your solo mode's AI". For Sierra West, I chose "Hastings", named after the man who lead the Donner Party to a "shortcut" that wasn't so short after all...
GAMA, One Year Later
In early 2019, Coloma hit Kickstarter and was an immediate success, funded in just hours. This was the first time I actually saw real value in my work. Since I began making games in 2012 I never knew whether I was just fooling myself, Dunning-Kruger Effect style, but now there were thousands of people excited about Coloma, including some big-name reviewers. *major sigh of relief* Overlapping the tail of the Coloma campaign, Sierra West made its first sneak peek appearance at GAMA 2019 (one year after I had pitched it to Filip). It has since made appearances at UKGE and Origins Game Fair, and it was officially released in the U.S. at Gen Con 2019, where it sold out right away. It will debut in Europe at SPIEL '19 in October.
Here I'm going to dig more into the mechanical side of things — assuming enough people have seen or played the game now to know what the heck I'm even talking about.
As noted above, I had the idea of organizing the way a series of card actions could fire off by having a worker move from left to right across the card faces. At first I thought this might be a tableau-building game in which you add more and more cards face-up to your play area (maybe like Coloma). But instead, I began experimenting with the standard deck-builder model: play cards, buy stuff, clean up, draw a new hand.
By default, I had players play five cards per turn, layering them in a similar way as seen in the final version of Sierra West — but with two cards in the back and three in the front. As you might imagine, this took players quite a while to sort out. Once they finally placed their cards, it took a few more minutes for them to finish moving their pioneer meeples across the paths. The only thing saving the game from utter downtime despair was that the non-active players were constantly puzzling over the cards in their hands. After testing it for a period like this, I eventually slimmed it down to hands of three. This helped cut the analysis paralysis and gave the game a bit more momentum — something it really needed.
In most deck-builders, players wrap up their turns by buying stuff (usually more cards), then they discard, clean up, and draw new hands. There's nothing wrong with that process — in fact, it's great — but this design offered the possibility of tying the buy phase into the worker movement flow; players could move their pioneers from their lower paths to the upper spaces on their cards where they could buy stuff. These spaces are now called "summit actions" (since the background art forms a cute mountain panorama).
One extra feature that emerged from this flowing system was that I could tie the resources gained on the path-actions to the summit action costs. For example, a card that would allow you to gain wood would also allow you to spend wood. Would you? I sure would. Of course this would lead to turns in which things just self-fulfilled. You would get stuff, then almost immediately after spend that same stuff, so why bother throwing fiddly bits around? Therefore, there had to be more meaningful decisions to make; players needed more choices of what to spend resources on and to juggle timing into the mix. Aside from the costs of summit actions, there are other actions with costs, such as gaining new cards from the mountain, building cabin tiles, and paying for mode-specific path-actions (like harvesting apples, mining for gold, and so on). Many times the order in which you resolve your path-actions determines what you can afford to buy in the end.
Now let's turn our attention to the main "board". There is one long strip of cardboard that represents a wagon trail through the Sierras. Each player's wagon begins on the far left and slowly progresses to the right over the course of the game. Above the wagon trail is a mountain of cards — literally, a big mountain of cards. Players acquire cards from here to build their decks, and unlike the basic cards each player starts the game with, these allow players to interact more with the given module in play. For example, cards from the Gold Rush mode allow you to mine for gold, fill mine carts, and get mining tools.
One thing that really tied the whole design together for me was the idea that some cards from the mountain would get unlocked and automatically "fall" face-up into a row below the wagon trail. These cards would not only be the game's timer, but the centerpiece of the given mode. In Gold Rush they reveal the mines in which you seek gold; in Apple Hill they grow a bountiful orchard; and in Boats & Banjos they extend a river that players can paddle up to go fishing. Once the last card has fallen into place, the final round is triggered.
I feel this is where the development process was at its peak (pun intended). The systems all tied together; the interchangeable modes fit right in; and the flow of play was at an acceptable tempo — at least, to me and my playtesters. It was the solo-mode developer, Dávid Turczi, who felt otherwise. He wanted more direct player interaction, more reasons to care what other people are doing on their turns with no feeling of "multiplayer solitaire". He proposed the ideas that eventually lead to the "Trapper" and "Tracker" off-turn actions. In essence, the non-active players would be able to chime in and gain benefits from what the active player was doing. This was also implemented to break up long wait times, say, if the active player was in low-gear, optimizing everything in every possible way.
Now, as a designer, I believe that there are two main ways to speed up a game: one is to make it literally faster, and the other is to distract people with entertainment, giving them brain candy and letting them lose track of time. The off-turn actions were added as a form of the latter method. An alternative might have been to dumb down some of the game's tougher decisions and let the turns flow fast and loose. Of course, if you've played any of Dávid's heavier games, "fast and loose" might not be the first words that come to mind.
In the end, we added the animals, (controversial) traps, and other off-turn benefits. I personally think these little "interrupts" may divide the game's audience; some folks will love them, and others — well, not so much. But that's a risk you sometimes have to take when you develop a game that doesn't fit an exact mold. No matter how you cut it, Sierra West is an ambitious and unique game; we can at least give it that. But you can decide for yourself where you fall on the yea/nay spectrum. Hopefully you'll enjoy it. And if it's the downtime at higher player counts that bothers you, maybe try it two-player or solo — it flies by that way.
Board&Dice reached out to several well-known designers to make new expansion modules, which are scheduled for 2020. It is my understanding that these will come in packs that can be purchased individually. I will probably have only a small hand in their making, allowing for the designers to be as creative as they'd like, to explore the design space Sierra West offers them.
My own expansion pack will lead us full-circle, back to that terrible blizzard in 1847. Players will have to race their wagons to avoid getting caught in avalanches, share a very limited supply of food, and compete for survival. The meta-design idea for this module is to make a fast-playing version of the game that has lighter rules overhead and an exciting press-your-luck element. Stay tuned for more details as it finishes development. I'm hoping it will be released this winter.
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Rob DaviauUnited States
Machi Koro legacy game?"
The question came from Pandasaurus Games. It was a straightforward question and a variant of one I get from publishers from time to time. I had played Machi Koro. I knew it casually — but a dice-rolling game as a legacy game?
My response: "I don't know. I really don't. Let me think about it."
So I played Machi Koro again. Still not sure. Then I was talking to JR Honeycutt about it, and we started kicking some ideas around. We saw areas where new mechanisms could come in; we saw some story bits on the card illustrations.
So we thought we'd design it together.
What followed was the usual flow of game design, especially legacy game design. A legacy game tries to tell a story and add new mechanisms, with each informing the other. If you take away the narrative, then you are playing a core game and then a series of expansions for no real reason. If you take away the mechanical additions, then you are playing the same game again and again and again while being told a story.
You have to work on the twin engines of new mechanisms and emerging narrative, using each one to inform the other.
So here's the usual issue. Machi Koro Legacy is, as the name suggests, a legacy game. It's all about surprises you get while playing. This makes it hard to get into details without spoiling things, so let me write somewhat elliptically about the things we wanted to do and some vague sense of how we did them.
Engine 1: New Mechanisms
We wanted more options for players during the game. In a legacy game, we ask players to play the same core engine eight, ten, twelve, or eighteen times during the campaign, so this game had to go somewhere beyond just new cards. But yes, you get new cards as you play. We had to go beyond "more cards" while also keeping the game accessible for younger or more casual players.
At its core, Machi Koro is a bit like "My First Craps Game", which I genuinely say with affection because I don't know how to play craps. You are placing bets on probability. You can play it safe in the middle of the bell curve or go for the big payouts at the edges — or you can just stay with the even distribution of one die and try to cover all options in that smaller range. That led to us thinking of other casino games and wondering whether there could be "junior" versions of them.
We took a look at the red cards. These are the attack cards in the game. You know the ones. You've been on the business end on some of them a few times. There are people we've spoken with who have had some bad moments with those. (My wife was one of them.) So we looked at ways to give players the option of playing an "attack heavy" game or an "attack light" game. It took a bit of effort, but we finally landed on something that felt smooth, so your game might have little to no red cards while another group's Machi Koro Legacy game might end up with a lot of red cards.
This is a game about dice. What other ways can you use dice? What other dice can you use?
Over the course of a year, maybe longer, ideas came in and ideas went out. We played with having one game be suddenly co-operative. It was a fun idea and not a bad game, but it was too much to ask people to shift gears that much, learn a new play style, then abandon it. And having a bunch of co-operative games made the first games of competition feel like they hadn't meant anything, so we reluctantly cut that.
Engine 2: The World and Story
We also wanted to tell a story. But what kind of story? Looking at the cards in Machi Koro, we saw a lot of shops, some farmlands. Then we looked a little deeper. That's a very tall mountain in the background on the box cover. Is that...a rocket ship? Near a fairy tale castle?! What's going on in this place?
And then we realized that Machi Koro talks about a place that is already industrialized, a place that has a rocket ship near a castle. There are shops and factories and storage facilities. But what if we went back to when the world was just gearing up. A Machi Koro industrial revolution? It was a start, but if you've studied the industrial revolution in school, you probably didn't think, "This would make a good theme for a light, silly game", so we made our story a lot sillier. A lot. Really. A lot.
We had the outline of a story and the game, and JR ended up talking about the game and the story to Pandasaurus and Grounding, the Japanese company that owns Machi Koro. Discussion led from our loose, vague story to a Japanese fairy tale that had some similar features.
That was all we needed. A fairy tale can be light, can be breezy, can be silly and nonsensical as needed, but still have an underlying story. And most Western players won't know the source material, so it will be original — yet it should be a nice surprise to the Japanese audience to see some folklore put into a game.
After that it was design, development, writing, editing, testing, and repeating all of the above until we had what we wanted.
I personally think that this game will surprise many people in all the ways we hoped it would. Stop by the Pandasaurus Games booth (#1441) at Gen Con 2019 to see for yourself...
Rob DaviauMysteries await!
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