The Grand Carnival has been in some form of design since 2016 and has finally been published. From a sketch in a notebook to a full-fledged board game, The Grand Carnival lurched from stage to stage in fits and spurts, sometimes even going into hibernation at various points. I did have a BGG thread early on about the game, but now I'll try to detail how this butterfly emerged from its gooey cocoon to become what it is today. It's messy.
It all started with a game design brainstorming exercise that involved taking settings I found interesting and pitting them against each other in a gut reaction battle royale. Haunted houses, music making, museum curation, and amusement parks all fascinate me in different ways, so I dedicated some journal pages to them and tried to spark a design for each. And I guess it's clear now, but the idea that won out was...museum curation.
Wait, what? I thought the game was called The Grand Carnival? I'll get there.
Sometimes I like to try to design the end state of a game visually before getting into any of the mechanisms that make the whole thing run. What is this thing going to look like on the table? What components am I working with? What would catch my eye if I saw this out in the wild? What makes sense visually when making a museum curation game?
What started growing was a central board with players placing tiles on their side of the table, each forming their own wing of the museum. The director was retiring, and the once prestigious museum had seen better days, so the player who could renovate their wing the best would get the director's job. That's how promotions work, right?
I love tile-laying games, and this is how I visually wanted to present the museum and all of the exhibits found inside. Mechanically, I wanted the tiles to have walkways and exhibit pieces on them, so players were creating areas of interest as well as building a path to wind through the museum for guests to move on. Since the tiles were divided into 2x2 spaces, it created an interesting puzzle where the overall picture was a higher resolution than the building blocks it was made out of.Polyominoes make their debut in the design
The first big tipping point came early on with the transition to polyominoes. Originally, the game was all tiles and some pawns, but the tiles were divided into walkway spaces and three exhibit "types". You would have to place the tiles on matching sides in order to build large exhibits. Space, natural history, and ancient history exhibits could be found in equal measure on tiles, which would need to be arranged when placed into giant blocks for patrons to visit.
But since these tiles were divided into smaller squares, these exhibits ended up looking like polyomino shapes anyways. If I removed the typing from the tiles themselves and had specific exhibits to choose from and place, that made more sense to me than piecing it together slowly, hoping the right type of exhibit showed up. Plus, polyominoes are great! It's so satisfying to plop down a giant exhibit on top of a bunch of construction sites, making your museum much more colorful and giving your patrons a unique destination to move towards.
The main goal of the game at this point was to move patrons as far as you could into the museum onto giant exhibits that you had built. The larger the exhibit and the farther back it was in the wing, the more points it would be worth. Each category of exhibit also had its own majority scoring attached, but that was way too boring to be a player's main focus. In fact, many tests ended with players not even bothering with that aspect, instead just building the biggest exhibits they could.The first playable prototype on our terrible table. Hey, it was free!
But the game was interesting enough that I knew I was headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, I had no real destination, so that led to some aimless wandering for a while.
I felt confident enough in the design after tweaking it a bit to submit it into the Korea Boardgames 2017 Design Contest. After all, my previous designs Turbo Drift, Pizza Pronto, and Skyscrappers were all initially designed as entries for contests, so why break the streak? "The Grand Museum" ended up placing second, along with a $500 cash prize. Not bad for a game that wouldn't end up getting published for another three years!Why build small exhibits when big ones score the most points? One of many early problems.
With that strong contest showing as well as a finalist placement in the Ion Awards at SaltCon in 2018, I was full of confidence and sent out pitches to publishers, hoping to take the game to the next level. Instead, I felt like I was falling down the stairs. Not that publishers didn't respond, but the game was still unpolished and nobody wants to deal with a diamond in the rough when there are shiny gemstones already cut out there. The problem was that I didn't know how to smooth it out. It seemed like any change I tried made it more jagged, more messy. I was a miner, not a jeweler, when it came to game design. I needed help refining the game.
The game was lumpy. Exhibits would pile up near the back of the wing, and small exhibits weren't an effective use of actions. The collections board where curators moved around to pick up tiles had very little meaningful planning, with only bursts of intrigue in between dull stretches of inaction.All set up at SaltCon 2018 for the Ion Awards
This game had no pulse a couple times throughout the design process. I tried to make so many changes to how players drafted tiles, the way turn order shifted each round, or scoring methods for each piece in the game that I actually dreaded playing the game again because I had made it so convoluted — so it sat in storage, collecting dust out of sight, out of mind.
At the beginning of 2019, I tweeted this:
2019 is the year I fine tune The Grand Museum and get it signed by a publisher. Either that or throw it in a dumpster and never think about it again.— Rob Cramer (@RobtheCramer) January 3, 2019
Such a drama king.
After some time away from the design, I decided to pick it up again. It was like finding a sheep in an abandoned barn, its overgrown wool suffocating the creature beneath. It desperately needed a trim.
After polyominoes, the second big revelation came way later into the design. The foundation tiles were the main mechanism for the entire game for a long time. You would draft them from a center board where you and other players were moving curators through the collections of the museum. On your turn, you would pick a tile next to your curator, no matter what. Then you could place this tile OR move a patron the number of walkway spaces on the tile you picked up. You could then build any available exhibit if you wanted.
It felt like a tree that was made up of only branches, without a solid trunk running through the design. Tiles with lots of walkways on them were most valuable for their movement, so they would get discarded at a much higher rate than other tiles. Their purpose was to be disposable, which made them basically pointless as tiles.I do miss these standees, but they were ultimately all sizzle, no steak
But once I figured out the action number system, it was the perfect foundation the game needed. It was so smooth and simple that I was slapping myself that I didn't implement it sooner. You simply cover a number 1-5, then lay a tile, move a guest, or build an exhibit. The higher the number, the bigger the action. Now the actions were unique branches feeding off the same system, fighting each other for the highest numbers. Let's move patrons really far! No, let's build giant exhibits! That new foundation tile that just came out is perfect, but so expensive! You can't reuse a number until the next round, so you have to time things out in order to make the most of your actions.
I shaved that sheep down until it could see again. With the new action number system, each section could be tinkered with individually without breaking the whole game. Patrons were simplified, exhibits were super simplified, and foundations became a solid base for the game to rest on. When playing the game at SaltCon that year, I was actually having fun instead of fixating on flaws. Dan Thurot of Space-Biff! played and even awarded it the coveted "Dan Thurot's Favorite Prototype Award" at SaltCon 2019. This led to him talking to Tim Fowers of Fowers Games, which ended with me scheduling a pitch with him and Jeff Beck and Jeff Krause of Uproarious Games.
Guess what! This was my first in-person pitch ever to a publisher. Turbo Drift and Skyscrappers were both sold on a video pitch where I could control what I said, how I said it, and what I showed down to the frame. Those games were also much simpler card games sold in envelopes and wallets, whereas "The Grand Museum" would come in a full-on box. Lots of pressure with this one.
But live pitches are so different. For example, if you show up to a pitch without any of the player boards, THAT'S BAD. Luckily, they had a printer and were very quick to get us up and playing. Quadruple check everything before your pitch. Not the strongest first impression to make, that's for sure.
Tim, Jeff, and Jeff played and had great insights into the design. Jeff Krause wanted to break the game as quickly as possible (he did), Jeff Beck sat back and observed, and Tim was open about his thoughts. The game had a solid foundation, so nothing really was begging to be cut — just some extra things to enhance what was already there. We decided to move forward with publishing under Jeff Beck and Uproarious Games, which is kinda-sorta a branch/imprint of Fowers Games. It's complicated.The best kind of research
But after signing with Uproarious Games, they felt like the setting could be changed to stand out from some other museum games that came out around that time, like Museum, ArtSee, and Curators.
Of course now in 2020 there's Meeple Land, Theme Parks, Dice Theme Park, and Wishland — all releasing around this time or slightly later — so that should tell you how tough it can be to stay ahead of the curve in the industry.
But what we did have was Ryan Goldsberry and the Cuphead-inspired illustrations of an old-timey carnival, so the game could stand apart from the crowd with its unique visual style. The attractions range from tiny food stands serving popcorn and funnel cake to gigantic rides like the towering Ferris wheel or an extravagant carousel. The animal mascots of the fairs give each player distinctive markers to use on their action numbers, from a rabbit in a top hat to a bear riding a unicycle. The dusty aesthetics bring these carnivals roaring to life, and the final publication looks so good on the table that I want to eat a caramel apple while playing just to complete the experience. Fair food is always so sticky, so I don't actually recommend doing that.A sketch of the House of Mirrors
With the setting update, there were some mechanisms added on during development to enhance the play experience and instill even more carnival flavor into the game. Instead of having four guests for the entire game, once you moved two inside your fairgrounds, you got two more and gained a carnival barker. These barkers do a whole lot of things. First, they're worth 3 points. Second, they let you move a guest an extra space for every barker you have. Third, they block pathways and are in limited supply. You could have a swarm of guests running through your fair, drawn in by enthusiastic barkers shouting out their ballyhoo to anyone within earshot.A super glossy production sample with unfinished attractions
Tickets were invented to let guests interact with the attractions they were passing by. No attraction scores without a ticket on it, so the last thing you want to do is build an attraction that is completely out of reach of eager attendees. This helped solve the lumpiness problem of attractions getting shoved clear in the back of a player's board. They also added another avenue for scoring if you get enough of them, which replaced the old Knizian system in which you scored only the guest that moved the fewest spaces forward. Your board is going to get swarmed with guests practically running through your fair, which just adds to the frantic feel that would be out of place in its museum origins.
Attraction scoring was revamped, too. Before the pitch, there was a simple triangle scoring system for sets of unique attractions. The problem was that it didn't really encourage players to build the giant attractions. That's where the scoring potentials for attractions of the same size came in. You get a giant bonus for building all five sizes of attractions, but you can sneak in some more bonus points if you build at least three of the same size attraction, which tempts you to pack your park while still diversifying a little bit. And since the attraction pool is now limited depending on player count, you have to rush to get the pieces that are right for you.My prototype that was my constant companion when working on the solo mode
"Tricks of the Trade" were the biggest twist on the formula and took the longest to nail down. These cards are added to every game and give players special powers if they fulfill their conditions. But once someone learns a trick, every other player has one turn to follow suit or that knowledge is lost to them forever. Getting players to actually check what other players were doing was the hardest problem to solve, but these tricks...did the trick.
You can move guests diagonally, rotate foundation tiles, build attractions from a secret reserve, or do a bunch of other things with fourteen different "Tricks of the Trade". They all combine together to make each game feel different. A good example was a game in which a player could move guests onto construction sites, so they moved a guest up through an unfinished park, then built attractions behind them. That poor soul was completely cut off from the entrance, and they're probably still stuck at the fair. Good times.I love these little bunnies
The end of the game used to rely on a set of different triggers, from attraction pools emptying to a player placing the last foundation tile in their park — but these scenarios added too much of a surprise ending, with players getting absolutely wrecked if scoring came too soon. The seven-round week evens the playing field, while still creating a time pressure for players to keep in mind.
Jeff Beck and team ended up being the jewelers I was seeking out all along and helped polish the game to shiny splendor. I'm super grateful for their playtesting and development skills with their work on The Grand Carnival.A beautiful rainbow of pieces
The Only Game in Town
Solo modes have become extremely popular over the last decade, and I'll admit that I originally hadn't seen the appeal. Why play a board game by yourself when you could just play a video game? But what a fool I was, eventually seeing the light that shines on the meditative experience of solo gaming.
So what does The Grand Carnival solo look like? With such a heavy spatial element, it was too unwieldy to try to devise an AI to compete with. I didn't want to have a bunch of if/then statements to run through just to move their guests or build an attraction for an opponent. I wanted players to play with the system, not maintain a complex set of additional rules.
Creating two entire sets of unique attractions is the main goal for a solo game, and there's a whole different scoring system that goes along with that, so it's not a complete copy of the multiplayer experience. The game structure stays the same, but the "Tricks of the Trade" can disappear after certain rounds and the market of foundation tiles refreshes every round, so there's still some time pressure in addition to the seven total rounds.A carnival at the end of a solo game
When working on this mode, I would bring a prototype to work and play after eating lunch — although after a certain point lunch would be the one waiting its turn. That's when I figured I was on to something, but Jeff Beck helped confirm that feeling. It's a satisfying puzzle that moves quickly, has low maintenance, and closely resembles playing with other people without being a basic copy.
That brings us to now! The games have been manufactured and shipped on their way to people around the world. It blows my mind that people in Australia have played my design. Board games make the world smaller in the best ways, from common interests with people all over the globe to intimate gaming experiences with family and friends.It's surreal to see my name on the box
Now that The Grand Carnival is out, I've been playing it a lot solo and with family members. It may be indulgent and obvious to say about a game I designed, but if the name were stripped from the game and I had stumbled across The Grand Carnival in the wild, I think I would love it just as much as I do now. I wanted to design a game that I wanted to play, and I achieved my goal. My wish is that other people fall in love with it, too. Enjoy the ride!
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Archive for Designer Diaries
- [+] Dice rolls
One of my goals was to take a classic game and add a twist that would give the game a completely different sensation while playing. I always played classic Spanish trick-taking games with my family, such as "la brisca" or "el tute", and I started to think of a new way to give the same importance to winning as to losing the trick...
What if the card you played, or lost, triggered an effect? What if this effect could be better than winning the trick? I started to think of the side effects that could fit with this idea. I took a Spanish deck of cards and drew icons on them, then brought the game to my fellow testers and played a couple of rounds.
The seed was sown, the idea was clear, and with a couple of retouches it would be playable.
At that point, I worked on the whole concept, selected a theme to give it some flavor (the Italian Renaissance), developed the triggering effects, and created another deck where each card had a value that you would want to win to score points at the end of each round. This deck had the locations of the most important cities in Italy. You had to play (trick) resources to control these locations in order to make your family the most influential in the city.
BOOM! The lore was written, and it merged perfectly with the mechanisms and the feeling of the game.
After many sessions of playtesting and making adjustments, I decided to present the game at the Jugar x Jugar Games Creation Contest in 2016. Influentia was named the winner out of more than eighty other games presented.
It was a great joy to win the contest. This showed me that the game had a strong core. People particularly enjoyed the constant difficulty of decision making, round by round, to decide whether they would rather win, take the location, and score points — or lose the trick and trigger an effect.
But something was still niggling at me. The contest tested only two-player games, and the game really shined with three players, so I decided to rebuild a couple of effects, rethink some scoring phases, and test, test, test...
Later, I had the opportunity to present the game to Ludonova, where the guys decided to keep the later core mechanisms and give the last twist — and a brilliant twist, I think — to the lore. They gave a darker look to the Italian Renaissance, placing it in a cyberpunk dystopia.
I'm really happy with the final changes of the game. I reached my goal with the twisted trick-taking and Ludonova nailed the lore — what more could I ask for?
- [+] Dice rolls
15 Sep 2020
Ugly Christmas Sweaters on Kickstarter (link) in November 2019. Being so personally tied to both the game and the campaign has spurred this "self-evaluation" of everything that's come to pass with the design process (which is coming up on the four-year mark).
With Kickstarter fulfillment winding down, I thought I'd bring anyone curious about the game up to speed and, well, writing all this out seems to be consequently cathartic.
I love trick-taking games. Always have. They sum up much of my childhood and a major bulk of lunchtime in my high-school cafeteria. For me it was Bridge, Hearts, Euchre, Oh Hell! — any of those games that could be played with a small footprint and a standard deck of cards.
"Write what you know", they say.
Well, this being my first game, I decided: "Design what you know."
I think that idea grabbed me, carried me along, and held me up while I had early game design struggles. It was a nice anchor to tug me in, remind me of what the game should feel like when I started to drift.
"Design what you know, design what you know, design what you know."
That simple mantra beating the back of my brain over-and-over was a big factor in what got us here, but the implications of that mantra (and letting it go in a sense) made Ugly Christmas Sweaters the game you see today.
Trick-taking games have such a wonderful set of mechanisms baked in:
• To start, you have a hand of cards — your cards, your lot in this microcosm. You peel this pile off the table and organize a sundry group of colors and numbers as the gears begin to spin in that pink head-flesh of yours. It's exciting to anticipate what you might do with the hand given to you.
• Then, there's the general play of a trick, each player laying a card down in predetermined order, with a dash of drama as there are inevitably unexpected winners and losers.
• A trick is a relatively quick game atom, with a good built-in pace that keeps players invested in what is happening at all times.
• Finally, someone scoops up the trick and this affects either their score, or other players', or both.
Maybe that is a quick and dirty generalization of this category of game, but the trick-taking system is so well established (conceived in the 15th century) that it felt like a solid foundation on which to begin a design. On top of that, if you look at the physical, tactile components for a trick-taking game, you'll mostly find a deck of cards. This was important to us two-fold: The game has a small footprint in terms of transportation and table presence, but it also keeps the complexity of manufacturing (in both cost and production) to a minimum.
In any case, nostalgia was the name of the game when it came to trick-taking, so when a theme finally tagged along, it was no surprise that it too had its root buried in that field.
I always attempt to pinpoint where my love of the holidays began, and inevitably I fail. To say, "It's just a feeling" is a cop-out of the highest degree, but that's all I end up with. Maybe it's that life gets a little simpler around the holidays, a week of the year where time doesn't stop...but slows. Kym and I have the opportunity to put family and friends before everything else for a few fleeting moments. In doing so, these wonderful experiences with people emerge. Moments away from your phone/computer/television provide an opportunity to simply exist.
That's the same way we both feel about board games. Sure, there's many other benefits to gaming — healthy stress, memory formation, cognitive skill increase, etc. — but at a base level you have these face-to-face, tangible social interactions in an ever-increasing closed-off digital world. So there it was, a theme called Christmas!
Without getting too rambly, I knew trick-taking wasn't the end game, but a mechanism that would dovetail into another, and then again. Tableau building and set collection were always going to be in the game, and to link those two mechanisms would come a third: drafting.
With this in mind, I had to make sense of what a holiday theme meant. What, connected to Christmas, could logically stroll alongside those mechanisms mentioned above, without seeming "pasted on"? I needed something that could be grouped together with multi-use cards and different colors (suits) and could get away with looking...well...mishmash. All of this, while somehow maintaining a strong sense of verisimilitude.
I suppose now you can see why Ugly Christmas Sweaters was born.
We had it! A three-pronged approach: trick-taking, nostalgia, and the desire to design a Christmas-themed game at a complexity level that more seasoned gamers would want to play. It had to be something fun and thematic, while carrying depth and not straying too far from that familiar trick-taking feel that holds a special place in my heart.
Everything was set, a solid grouping of mechanisms, a cute theme, vision for days — easy, right? Oh, no. No-no. Just the opposite.
I am a big proponent of doing my research, and in game design that generally means playing a LOT of other games. Kym and I hit the ground running, and since she actually hadn't played many trick-takers before meeting me, we revisited all the old standard 52-card deck trick-taking games that were beloved in my youth: Hearts, Euchre, Bridge, Oh Hell! Also, we began tapping into the "new-ish" wave of standalone trick-taking games: Diamonds, Skull King, Blend Coffee Lab, Tournament at Camelot, The Fox in the Forest, The Bottle Imp, Potato Man, Voodoo Prince, etc.
Doing so gave us a heck-ton of insight as to what a great trick-taking game should play and feel like; not only that, it helped us identify game elements or mechanisms that weren't yet present in a trick-taking game. Essentially, the more games you play, the better equipped you are to add pieces to make your own game unique.
With that said, this process began a few years ago and was our freshman effort — and when your game design instincts aren't honed, it can be a double-edged sword. When you play so many good games, you are bound to think, "Oh, I liked that little thing", or "Maybe this piece can work in my game". I'm not really sure what other designers call this, but when we finally became self-aware, we dubbed it "rule hedging".
Early in the development process, we found ourselves intensely focused on making Ugly Christmas Sweaters feel different round-by-round because while I enjoy many trick-taking games, they can begin to feel a bit rote after a while. You can see in the final iteration of Ugly Christmas Sweaters the gameplay cards like "Trendy Yarn", "Perfect Fit", and "Fads" shift at the start of each round. We feel this, paired with the "Secret Santa" objectives, provides that sense of change without adding too much complexity.
This wasn't always the case as earlier we had two other gameplay cards in the mix that changed the way a trick would play out.
The first gameplay card was labeled "Stars & Stumps", which effectively could shift card strength round by round, so in some rounds low cards (1,2,3) would be stronger and in other rounds high cards (12,11,10) would be stronger. (At this point the "Perfect Fit" cards were middling values 4-9.)
While this value shift might have its place in some games, it didn't here. The only thing it accomplished was throwing players for a loop when they entered a new round where the values had shifted. We quickly scrapped it and used a simplified approach that was tied into more traditional trick-takers: high cards best. We then shifted the "Perfect Fit" (super trump) cards to the 1-6 values so that a low card could have its day once in a while.
Lesson learned: Added complexity can be a great thing for a game, but you need to check yourself at every avenue because needless complexity can kill a game.
The second gameplay card I take all the blame for. I wanted a way to break away from that "follow the suit led" rule that is a staple of most trick-takers. Not in an effort to "be cute" or "add something different", but rather because we needed a way for the sweater draft pool to have diversity in color and icons; by doing so, "Fads" could be achieved at a higher rate, and players could more easily control what would end up in the draft pool for their own sweater builds.
Like the "Stars & Stumps" example, I hedged my bet on the rule and added cards to the trick that would shift between you following the color of the card led and you playing a different color than the card led. Again, this just ended up being confusing and admittedly not at all elegant.
In the final iteration of the game, you can follow either the color or the icon of the first sweater card led in a trick — which means you can have various outcomes. Some tricks could be all the same color, while another trick could be a rainbow, and most fall somewhere in between. Looking back on it now, it's almost humorous to think that "Aha!" moment didn't come sooner — especially considering the way the sweater cards are designed as the solution was slapping me over the head every time I sat down to playtest — but hey, we got there!
As a designer, you will inevitably struggle with the bad rules and mechanisms that find their way into your game prototype. Eventually cycling them out takes many playtests, a strong self-evaluation, and other points of view. I hope including these "facepalm" examples helps other first-time designers know that they can make mistakes, while also being critical of their own designs. I am nowhere near infallible when it comes to game design — none of us are.
I will say, through those early-to-mid stages of design, it was amazing to have Kym. She was always up for a round or two of Ugly Christmas Sweaters, someone to jabber my ideas at, and most importantly she was as much a cheerleader and developer as she was a plain-speaking, critical, gatekeeper with any ideas I had. When you're self-publishing, you really need someone like that in your corner.
All right, all right, so we've talked about what we removed from Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Now, I'll start diving into all the little micro-decisions and tweaks Kym and I had to make with mechanisms we ended up keeping!
Tricks → Drafting
I've heard a lot of folks say, "When you play a game with trick-taking in it, no matter what other mechanisms exist, trick-taking will overrun them." I think this is very true in most cases, but I don't think it has to be this way. That criticism living in the back of my mind at all times is a huge part of why Ugly Christmas Sweaters balances its three mechanisms evenly. To make it work, we needed to dial down the "10" that was trick-taking, and the solution we came up with was changing the way our tricks were resolved.
I would say a majority of trick-taking games play out as such: Each player plays a card, all cards are compared, one player wins, the winning player places all the cards from the trick in front of them (for better or worse). This way exists because it is simple, has low rules overhead, and is easy to track.
But what happens if that game is also a tableau-builder? If players aren't drafting similar numbers of cards in the same round, a score could quickly cascade for one player, especially with the randomness of a trick-taking hand. Of course there are many solutions to a problem, but for our game flow, we chose to mitigate it by playing tricks for draft order of cards, rather than having someone win the whole kit and kaboodle. (A fellow game designer said this part of the game feels like a blend of trick-taking and auction, which is wonderful to hear.)
There was another layer to this process, though: We liked the thought of a draft order, but we didn't want players to be drafting cards from the trick they were currently playing. To us, that wasn't really a gateway to strategy. It leaned further on the side of output randomness, and we are much bigger fans of input randomness. Players needed to be informed of what their spoils could be before they decided how to play for them, not just fumble or luckbox into a good draft.
So the loop became this:
• A current draft pile of cards would always be present.
• The trick you are playing now determines your draft order for the current draft pool.
• After drafting, the cards in the current trick become the new draft pile for next trick.
This not only allowed you to make a plan for the current trick/draft (playing strong if you were looking to draft a specific card and therefore wanted higher draft priority), but also gave you a "plan ahead" dynamic for building your sweaters on the back end. It became really fun to play with this decision within a decision: "Do I play a strong card so I can draft early this round? Do I really want any cards in the draft pool right now? Should I hold back and play a weaker card that will be useful for my sweater build if I can draft it next trick?"
I felt this also managed to solve the "strongest hand wins" problem that can be present in trick takers. With all players drafting equal numbers of cards, players who didn't have a hand that would win a majority of tricks could still keep an opponent's score at bay (or even come out on top) if they were observant and played their trick/draft/knit loop well. We always aspire to make a game that rewards those who are thinking on multiple levels, and I am happy to say we got there on this one.
Anyway, finding this nice loop that had a range of complexity was a big crux for the game. To me, it was something special and different that swayed a bit from the traditional trappings of a trick-taking game, but still kept that mechanism important.
Another built-in feature with many trick-taking games is a straightforward flow: Play a card from your hand, resolve the trick, rinse, repeat. Eventually you find yourself out of cards and that triggers the end of the round (or the game). This method works well for games with bidding or when the amount of tricks taken matters because as long as you haven't hit your goal, there is potential for tension right up to the last card.
In the early stages of Ugly Christmas Sweaters, we had the round playing out as listed above, and to be completely honest it felt flat and anticlimactic. Having changed the dynamic of the trick, we desperately needed to find another way to give players that same tense feeling. It became clear we would have to choose a specific game state that would trigger the end of the round, and for us that was adding a race mechanism:
Once any player completes three sweaters in their tableau, the round's end is triggered.
Three sweater builds means that the majority of a hand could still be played, yet players didn't have an exact idea of when a round would end — could be nine tricks, could be twelve. On the flip side, you and your opponents' sweater builds are all open information, so even though you don't know exactly when a round will end, an observant player who is continually assessing their opponents' board state will have a solid idea.
It was important the game give you freedom to build as many sweaters as you want, though. That way the round's end adds another question mark as players are never forced to complete a build (or trigger the end of the round) if they don't desire to. By doing that, other strategies emerged: If you felt someone was going big with their builds, you could choose to quickly (and sub-optimally) knit three sweaters to end the round, a lot of times leaving the more ambitious player with a sweater (or two!) unfinished.
On the other hand, if you don't want a round to end, then draft aggressively, taking a piece needed by your rival to ensure they can't complete three builds! I love how these little sub-strategies formed with our rules implementation. I think for designers it is a good thing to keep in mind when adding a mechanism because it can really affect how your game feels; you just want to make sure it is positive.
Who doesn't love a hidden objective card? Especially when the name of the card ties in with the theme!
Okay, okay, seriously though — aside from loving personal objective cards in games, there was one huge reason why I decided to introduce these cards into Ugly Christmas Sweaters: front-end opaqueness.
During playtests, I found new players having trouble with what cards to play/draft at the beginning of the round. On average, it was taking until their third draft before folks began to have a clear vision of how their tableau was shaping up, and therefore what to cycle through the trick/draft/build process. While your strategy and builds will constantly change in a round, I didn't like that "lost" feeling players were having initially.
My solution was to give players a little anchor, a small "build path" push right from the hop. Of course, there are the rounds' "Fads" to tempt you, but cards of that color or icon are not necessarily going to be present in that initial draft. Whether they chose to use it or not, I felt having a secret objective gave players a nice strategy bearing to begin a round...
...and hey, a fulfilled "Secret Santa" is worth the same VP amount as a fulfilled "Fad", so it allows players to make a little treasure from an otherwise underwhelming sweater.
With two kiddos to raise (and now this COVID mess), larger game nights can be hard to schedule. This means my partner Kym and I play the majority of our games at 2P, so when designing Ugly Christmas Sweaters, we couldn't make a trick-taking game that was accessible only to three- and four-player counts!
I will admit this was one of the hardest challenges to wrap my head around in development. There were a few musings about taking out an entire suit or taking out a certain number of the higher cards, but because the sweater cards were designed to be evenly balanced between the four colors, removing a suit was pretty much a non-starter. I also felt like it would be best if the game's set-up and draft pool count was the same through each player count (with some minor changes).
We eventually landed on each player putting two cards into the trick instead of just one — and we never looked back. This was nearly the identical set-up as the other player counts! You and your opponent playing cards back and forth twice added a nice little cat-and-mouse layer and allowed each player to have more control of what goes into a trick and what ends up in the draft pool. I wanted to highlight this player count because I think many trick-takers work well at the 3-5 player count, but there seem to be only a handful of trick-takers out there that play well at two.
I know Ugly Christmas Sweaters is on the heavier side of a "family game" (depending on how much your family plays trick-takers). Personally, I love the fact it plays much meatier than its theme might suggest, but I wanted players who aren't familiar with trick-taking to settle in and not be overwhelmed with rules overhead. On the flip side, I wanted those who love ramping up tension and wringing out every drop of strategy an opportunity to do so.
So I made a scaling chart in the rulebook as well as a few "hard mode" variants to really push you. I won't ramble into great detail about them here, but I did my best to ensure that the game had layers that could be peeled back, or added on, depending on your play group. I hope that it helps the game be more versatile and gives it some longevity without having to add a whole cavalcade of expansions.
Well, folks, that's essentially four years of work boiled down! We ran a successful Kickstarter and were overjoyed with the support and response for this esoteric little card game. I challenged myself in many ways on this project. We set out to make a trick-taking game that added a fresh feel to the genre.
Even though some cautioned against it, we made a Christmas-themed game, hopefully one that folks who love board games will want to play. On theme alone the game will likely be divisive, but hearing folks say things like "It feels innovative", "You've got something really special here", "A challenging puzzle", or even "There is crunchy, multi-layered trick-taking hiding inside this lovely game of sweater creation!" means the world to us. Our Kickstarter was a lot-lot-lot of work, but holy smokes, was it a blast to see all the support folks gave us "unknowns"!
I am excited to hear what those who have played, or who do play, think of Ugly Christmas Sweaters and thrilled to show you the other quirky-and-odd-games Kym and I have been working on for our "mom-and-pop-shop" Hen House Games.
Thanks for the read, and happy gaming!
Hunter R. Hennigar
- [+] Dice rolls
I've always wanted to create a board game about building Portuguese calçada. You see, it's a thing I've grown up with, all those nicely paved squares in Portugal with black-and-white patterns that almost no one pays attention to.
A game about calçada would naturally have a big abstract component since it would revolve around building tiles with abstract patterns. Plus, in reality, they are all black and white, so we had to find a way to make them more understandable on the board from a functional point of view, which is why each pattern has a color. It's an abstraction within the abstraction.
Mechanically it made sense for this design to be a tile-laying game since you are thematically building tiles in a square. Plus, the square needed to be an actual void where pieces could fit in, you know, like the real stuff. And also it had to be modular, increasing in length with higher player accounts. It made sense that the game would end when the square is completely built. All of those were givens, so we cruised past these initial premises.
Then came a long development. We wanted to make a family-friendly game with interesting decisions every turn, decisions similar to what happens when pulling the blanket towards your face uncovers your feet, and pushing the blanket down uncovers your chest. By now you might have realized that I've just awoken and I'm still in bed writing this text. Fear not, I have coffee by my side.
Rossio features two premises:
• Everybody is building in the same square.
• Everybody is trying to profit from what is built in the square.
On your turn, you recruit one of the stonemason cards in your hand. You can play the card face down (which is free) or face up (which costs money, and sometimes you won't have enough money). Then, you activate all the cards you have in front of you under your player board; you will never have more than three cards because the played card enters on the rightmost space of the player board, pushing all other cards to the left, with some eventually dropping out. Face-down cards give you 1 coin each, and face-up cards give you points for each time the depicted pattern appears on the square.
Then, you will build on the square. Bohnanza-style, you must build the leftmost tile of your board — and if you build it orthogonally adjacent to a similar tile, you can build the next, and so on. You want to build as much as you can because that will gain you more money, but you are probably helping opponents by building patterns that they will score.
You then draw one of the four cards available on the market — but the catch is that if you built only one tile, you have to take the first card; if you built two tiles, you can choose between the first and the second card; and if you built all four tiles on your board, you can choose any of the cards. That is crucial in the game since the "newest" card on the market can be grabbed only if you cleared your board. How much do you want to help others score their cards versus how much you want to get money and get better cards? That's the blanket analogy once again. I know it's not perfect, but please bear with me; I'm only on my first cup of coffee.
As you can imagine, the scoring grows exponentially as the square is built. More patterns appear on the board, and players have a clear idea of what's most valuable. You have a chance to shape the square according to the cards you plan to recruit face up in later turns, but timing is crucial. Recruit that card face down too late, and it will score only once or twice. Recruit it too soon, and it will score only a few points since the square has fewer patterns to score. (You know I'm gonna talk about the blanket effect again, right?)
This exponential growth of scoring — in which two-thirds of your score comes on the final two turns — proved to be quite effective for newer players or players with less experience with board games. On your first two turns when you're learning the game, even the biggest mistake won't have a big impact in the overall performance. You won't be splottered with an initial bad move. Heck, you can spend your first three turns just recruiting face-down cards and shaping the board, then drop the bombs later in the game.
Even the possibility of ending the game sooner or letting it go one more round can be difficult because you feel you are ahead, but you don't know which card your opponent has in hand. Yes, you have seen them recruiting cards, but they started with three cards in hand at the beginning of the game, and if they're hoarding since the beginning of the game a card that will score a lot of points? Do they have enough money for that? What are you going to do? End now? Build less and extend the game?
If that was the wrong call, you can play it again. You can play the game with four players in 45 minutes — except if you have just awoken, and in that case, join me on the second cup of coffee.
Rossio will be out from PYTHAGORAS before the end of September 2020. Thanks for reading!
- [+] Dice rolls
Brave Little Belgium by Hollandspiele, my co-designer, Dave Shaw, and I thought a lot about the sequel. Dave had several ideas, including the Romanian Campaign of 1916, the Italian invasion of France in 1940, and the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863. Initially, I worked on the Romanian Campaign, designing a map and developing an Order of Battle, but ran into difficulty due to the lack of research material. I thus set that aside and worked on other games hoping that maybe eventually something would strike me.
One of the possibilities that Dave and I discussed was the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. I really liked the idea, but Dave was a bit more hesitant, concerned that it would not make for a very interesting game. It seemed like a good match to Brave Little Belgium due to it also being a "David vs. Goliath" story and also involving the beginning of a war, this time World War II. The difficulty was with how to deal with the fact that there were now two encroaching armies, the Germans and the Soviets, surrounding Poland.
One solution, which has been employed in several games, was to focus only on the German invasion of Poland and to end the game prior to the Soviet invasion on September 17, 1939. The goal in this scenario would be for the Polish player to hold on to key cities while disrupting the German player's rapid invasion. While this may have been the easiest way to handle this problem, it felt like a bit of a cheat to me. I wanted the Polish player to have to deal with the invading Soviets and also wanted the German player to have to deal with the possibility of an Allied invasion, if only in an abstract way, on the Western Front.
There were some differences, however. The goal of the game was still for the German/Soviet player to do better than their historical counterparts, but victory was now determined by the control of six victory cities. Instead of six-sided dice for determining hits, I initially used ten-sided dice to help to differentiate between the strength of the units; additionally, special event counters had changed to now include events for the Luftwaffe, Blitzkrieg, and Armored Trains. Finally, I removed the atrocity track and included a new track to determine whether the Allies and/or Soviets would get involved in the game.
At this point, this track was very simple. If the German/Soviet player pulled one of the involvement counters, the track advanced towards Soviet involvement or away from Allied involvement. If the Polish player pulled the counter, the reverse would happen. If the Soviet involvement counter was in the red area by Sept. 13-15 or after, the Soviets would invade. If the Allied involvement counter was in the blue area by Sept. 7-9 or after, the Allies would attack the Germans on the Western Front, requiring the Germans to divert forces. In game terms, that translated to reductions to die rolls. "White Eagle Burning", as it was then called, was ready for its first test.
The initial playtests were promising, but it was clear that the game needed some work. First, I needed to add the line that would separate the German and Soviet portions of Poland as agreed to in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. If the Soviets entered the game, their forces would not be able to proceed beyond that line and the German forces would have to retreat to the west of that line. In addition, some of the event counters needed to be modified. The Luftwaffe event counter was modified either to be used to bomb rails and roads and thus decrease Polish movement, or to allow for attack back against the Polish forts. Also, a forced march event was added for the Soviet forces and a sabotage event was added for the Polish troops to decrease German movement by destroying bridges. It was time to test again.
White Eagle Defiant, which was perfect.
As for the game itself, many changes were needed. Historically, the Polish army retreated to Romania once the Soviets invaded. Some of the forces reformed in France and eventually in the United Kingdom. I thus added a retreat spot in Romania to which the Polish forces could retreat throughout the game. The more armies that made their way to Romania, the fewer victory points the German/Soviet player would receive. To offset this slightly and to allow for the Soviet forces to have more impact on the victory conditions, I added six additional victory cities.
In addition, I completely revised the Allied/Soviet involvement mechanism to make it much less random. Now, the track is adjusted based on the results of combat, particularly significant battles. If an army is destroyed, a victory city captured by the Germans or Soviets, or if the Polish player prevents the capture of a victory city, the involvement counters are moved closer to or further away from involvement. The thought behind this was simple. If the Allies see the Polish are doing well in the war, they would more likely get involved on the Western Front. Likewise, if the Soviets see that the Polish are easy to defeat, they also would be more likely to settle the conflicts on their borders and become involved in the campaign. Finally, since the game felt a bit too vanilla with just armies, I decided to add special Panzer Units with increased movement and slightly better attack capabilities. Playtesting continued.
While all of the playtesting done so far had been in person, Dave and I needed to speed it up. Time to create a Vassal module. While doing that, there were also some changes that need to be implemented into the Vassal module. First, I had to get rid of the ten-sided dice. While we initially thought that they were helpful to differentiate between the varying strength of the forces, they were starting to feel awkward and unnecessary. I thus spent time converting all the forces to six-sided dice, which worked much better. In addition, I added counters to represent the independent forces in Danzig, and the Polish Coast Defense group in Gdynia and Hel. Finally, to offset for the fact that we had removed the atrocity mechanism and it was not possible to end the turn without activating units, I allowed for the German/Soviet player to set aside one unit to be activated immediately at the start of the next turn.
Testing slowed down dramatically over the next six months. While we were still testing regularly with Vassal, we were not doing so as frequently as much of our testing at that time was done by sending moves through email. In addition, Brave Little Belgium had just been released and much of our focus at that time was on promoting that game.
Testing did begin to speed up once we started to run live Vassal playtests. By July of that year, that game had changed quite drastically. I shortened the game to ten turns by making each turn represent four days instead of three. I added more mobile units, including additional German armor and the famed Polish Cavalry. Each of these units had increased movement and special abilities. I enabled the player once per turn to flip a unit back to full strength. I revised the victory conditions and Soviet/Allied involvement tracks and tied them together. The concept of a significant battle was still there, but now they were employed to track victory and Soviet/Allied involvement. The German player received victory points for capturing a victory city while the Polish player received victory points for defending a victory city, liberating a victory city, or destroying a German fort. As the victory points increased for the Germans, the Soviets were more likely to invade and the allies were less likely to get involved. The reverse was true for the Polish player.
Finally, one of the major changes had to do with creation of the Blitzkrieg Breakdown track. In Brave Little Belgium, we resolved the issue of a turn ending without allowing the German player to activate all of their units by incorporating an Atrocity Track. The player could activate an unactivated unit at the end of the turn, but they risk causing atrocities. Five atrocities committed results in an instant loss for the German player. I certainly could have migrated this concept over to White Eagle Defiant, but frankly the atrocities committed in WWI were very different than the atrocities committed in WWII. We both felt uncomfortable incorporating this into the game. We brainstormed for other ways to handle the inherent problem and eventually came up with the Blitzkrieg Breakdown mechanism. As the concept of the Blitzkrieg was still mostly untried by the start of the Poland Campaign, what would happen if it didn't work? That's where the concept of the new track came from. Instead of an atrocity occurring if the troops are forced to activate at the end of the turn, in this case a breakdown in the Blitzkrieg concept can occur. The German player must roll a six-sided die for any unactivated unit. A roll of 4 or greater causes a Blitzkrieg Breakdown. The player can still activate the unit, but movement is reduced and there is a reduction in the combat roll. Five Blitzkrieg Breakdowns and the German player loses the game.
The Players' Aid and a demonstration for Tom Russell of Hollandspiele. Anybody else who stopped by and wanted to give the game a try would be a bonus.
All went very well at the WBC. Alex and Grant of The Players' Aid were both very impressed with the game, and Tom was there when we demoed the game for them. He was also very interested, but needed to get Mary's A-okay before agreeing to a deal. In the demonstration and playtesting we did at the WBC, we noticed some flaws in the victory track, the need to adjust the victory conditions, and the need to add supporting units in combat.
The penultimate version of the game involved many of those changes. I changed Warsaw to a 3 victory point city and adjusted the victory points to win to 9, with an automatic win at 12. To better simulate World War II combat, I allowed for the attacking player to overstack at a point through the use of supporting units. This allows for the attacker to bring more units to bear on one particular point. If the attacker wins the battle, their primary units may stay at the point, while the supporting unit retreats back to the spot from which it attacked. In addition, in order to simulate the start of the campaign, the German North Group activates automatically at the beginning of the first turn, thus beginning the invasion. Finally, I revised how victory points were determined, focusing simply on the capturing and liberating of victory cities and the destruction of German forts.
At this point, we wanted to send the game to Tom and Mary at Hollandspiele because we knew that they were very interested in the game, but unfortunately it still was not quite ready. It was close, but there still needed to be some final tweaks, so we pushed and pushed, testing frequently in hopes of getting to the final product. One thing that was not working well was the Polish troops fleeing to Romania. I wanted to keep this concept, but it was proving to be too gamey. The Polish player could move all of their forces to points surrounding Romania, wait until Warsaw fell, then move the forces into Romania, thus winning the game. The German player in turn could take every point but Warsaw, thus not allowing the Polish player to flee from Poland. As much as I wanted to keep it, it had to be removed for the game to work.
Tom and Mary loved the game and agreed to publish it as the follow-up to Brave Little Belgium. White Eagle Defiant is in final development now and will be available from Hollandspiele sometime in early September 2020.
- [+] Dice rolls
Diary by Stefano Gualeni
We'll be honest with you: Living on a small Mediterranean island has remarkable advantages, such as a relaxed lifestyle, mild weather, and a sea that's always near. Malta is unique in comparison to other such small islands as it is one of the most densely populated places of Europe. In the past years, construction has been on the top of the chart of Malta's sources of revenue. The island is, in other words, undergoing a construction boom.
Living on the island, we — the designers — are confronted with the aftermath of the metaphorical explosion of the real estate business on a daily basis: trucks blocking little alleys, dust filling every nook and cranny, pneumatic drills waking us up at dawn and continuing with their loud mating call until late in the evening, and cranes stretching their long necks from behind each and every building.
One day, just a few weeks after having launched the small philosophical game HERE, I was sitting by the sea in a Maltese bay. I do that almost every day as it is lovely to read books and think about the misery of academic writing in that setting. On that occasion in particular, I must have been quite annoyed at the ongoing construction work; being trained as an architect, I guess poorly designed buildings are more irritating to me than they are to other people. Sitting by that bay, I looked at the scene in front of me, and I started to see patterns, modules, complications, stratifications, stupidities. I decided to take a picture. Maybe there's a new game here, I thought to myself.
In the next days, I started prototyping a few ideas for a game about ruthless construction. I engaged some colleagues at the Institute of Digital Games in early playtests to help refine my original intuitions. Among those early helpers and collaborators that I want to mention are:
• Daniel Vella, who suggested the name Construction BOOM! and suggested the idea of having a limit of ground tiles to be in play at the same time to take into account Malta's scarce availability of land for construction, and
• Jasper Schellekens, who was first my most skilled adversary, then became a co-designer on the game who inspired the rules for ambiguous buildings.
At that early stage in development, this is what one of our prototypes looked like:
I originally intended the game as a paradoxical, humorous take on Malta's crowded, heterogeneous, and apparently unfettered constructions. It was supposed to be a playable satire of its real-estate business that seems unregulated and uniquely focused on revenue. With that purpose in mind, and starting from early prototypes, our game begun to generate puzzling game situations in which it was obvious that:
• the preservation of historical buildings, and
• the safety and sturdiness of the buildings
played a secondary role, if any.
The topic of collapsing buildings is particularly sensitive in Malta as a consequence of the frequent building collapses (and buildings collapsing on other buildings). In case readers are interested, we discussed the aspects of our game regarding building collapses in an academic paper (presented at FDG2020) in which many more aspects of playable satire are discussed in detail. The paper can be found here (PDF).
After an initial phase of game design meant to reinforce aspects of both gameplay (i.e., making play sessions short and strategically meaningful) and theme, the game started to become more stable and enjoyable for us. Matches were easier to predict, and the bidding aspects of the game were becoming more interesting and competitive: Is it better to let my opponents pick up an easy real-estate contract, or shall I outbid them with the almost complete certainty it would be an impossible building task to fulfill?
At that point, with a better game in our hands and a few advanced strategies already discovered, we started to engage players that were external to our research group. As expected, a larger player group trying their luck with Construction BOOM! also meant that we became aware of new problems with both the rules (which were often too long and tedious to read) and the game itself. This phase also marked the introduction of a new strategy in the game (roof crushing), as well as the beginning of the production of the first batch of art assets for the game. For those, we decided to hire a Maltese artist: the great Rebecca Portelli (personal site). I worked in close collaboration with Rebecca, and I honestly could not have been happier with the results.
Construction BOOM! was a side project of ours, and its development lasted about one-and-a-half years. The final months of work on the game were mostly concerned with playtesting and with solving balancing issues. The designers among you might guess that balancing must have been quite a laborious process; we needed to make each of the three suits (i.e., types of building technologies) viable against (and vulnerable to) any other suit. Each building technology has different numbers of tiles and roofs and is characterized by unique qualities and quirks. It is intuitive to see that those details complicated the process of evaluating the respective advantages and disadvantages of each suit.
Additional work done in the last phases of development also focused on the readability of the tiles' information: their material type, their weight, and their sturdiness. Upon advice from friends and colleagues, the rulebook was also further simplified and reduced in the same period.
Ground Rules: Keep It Simple
The game was fairly simple and intuitive for us developers, but it turned out we were implicitly playing under established behaviors and implicit agreements that made sense, both in terms of gameplay and theme — behaviors and agreements that also burdened the game unnecessarily. Emerging from this realization was probably the biggest change we made; where previously each tile could collapse (with these collapses following their own set of rules), we made it so that only ground tiles could collapse. Out of everything we did, this change had the least impact on the game design, but the most on understanding and simplicity.
Another consideration that emerged from playtesting extensively with people outside of the development group and our friends group was that since cards are open, there is little luck involved in playing the game aside from the hands dealt to players at the beginning of each round. This means that experienced or skilled players have a distinct advantage over new players.
In order to mitigate this common hurdle to enjoying multiplayer games, we experimented with leaving a certain number of cards hidden (as in Texas Hold 'em poker). While this did allow for less experienced players to compete off the bat with a bit of luck, it also added a layer of complexity and we felt that we liked that feeling of control. We valued that feeling of when a player realizes, a few turns in, that they should have placed a roof elsewhere because the opponent found an unexpectedly creative way to use their construction tiles.
Print and Play Launch
After a gestation period of about a year and a half, the game launched online in a print-and-play version available for free. It was released on May 28, 2020, and started to receive attention from local (i.e. Maltese) media outlets with regard to its political message. Ironically, the article just above that coverage of Construction BOOM! was about the extension of an old building with a modern addition in Valletta, which fit with the ridiculous and spontaneous aesthetic the game seeks to mock.
In the months preceding the game, there was unfortunately a string of collapses and construction-related incidents, highlighting the absurd disregard for safety we tried to highlight in the game.
We're currently working on completing the retail version of the game with the help of Greek illustrator Aristotelis Falegos, who has freshly re-illustrated our rulebook and produced a very pretty boardgame box design.
We'd love to make the game available in a way that players can readily play it without the hassle of print and play, so we're going to get a prototype out to explore costs and options. Our focus had been on designing a game that was challenging and fun and that stimulated the conversation around the reckless construction practices we witnessed.
Satire in Games
When designing the game, we were very conscious of the thematic consistency and the need to communicate a message of satire that lined up with our view of the industry and the aspects we were looking to shine a light on and criticize. If you want a detailed analysis, there is the academic paper mentioned before, but we thought it could be interesting to point out a few key issues.
The more the goals, the aesthetics, and the rules of a game fall into a consistent, harmonious whole — that is, a common context further enriched by narrative aspects — the more efficiently the game will communicate its message. That being said, we were also interested in making a game that people would play and therefore the design also needed to be engaging. How much do you, as a designer, sacrifice from "fun" or "entertainment" to communicate a consistent message? We tried not to make the sacrifice which raises another question. When a game is "fun" and players are entertained, how much of the message will they actually come away with?
We hope you enjoy the game, but we also hope you're engaged enough by the message to consider how the construction industry and more broadly corporate and private irresponsibility is impacting your community and our individual, daily lives.
—Stefano Gualeni, lead designer, and Jasper Schellekens, assistant designer
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'Ohana Proa, a route-building game in the South Pacific.
The former already planted the idea of making a game about the ancient seafarers who braved the unknown oceans to discover islands to settle. It was a great feat, considering they not only sailed into the unknown, but also navigated and established at least a few known routes — all without a compass. Instead they relied on the sun, stars, the color of the water, and even the animals of the sea.
Twilight Struggle came out, I was already working on Wir sind das Volk, so I decided not to read anything about Twilight Struggle until I'd finished my own game to avoid "contamination".)
At this point I had the following basic ideas:
1) Players should have a number of people that they have to send to the islands. The design should not be a majority game since while the players are competitors, the actual people — that is, the Polynesian seafarers — are not. So you should get a point for every island you have at least one person on, with bonus points for islands that are further apart.
2) The players establish routes between the islands and can move along those routes. Moving should be for free (costing only an action), but establishing the routes should cost a currency.
For idea number three, I used my mantra: "Make it as simple as possible." Instead of me creating an elaborate mechanism that details what spoils when, the round's starting player names one currency — fish or mussel — and all players then give up everything they have of that currency. This process elegantly makes any sort of hand limit unnecessary.
As a core mechanism, I used an engine from a discarded game that never quite worked: Each round runs through three phases, aptly named III, II, and I. The roman numeral indicates how many movement points you get if you decide to move in that phase, how many meeples you can place on the board if you choose to do so, and how much a connection costs if you want to built one. The order is reversed since it would be a no-brainer to build first (when it's cheap) and move later (when you move a lot); switching the order makes the decisions much harder: Do you build first? Then you may block players, but you've paid an awful lot for the connection. Or do you put more people on the board first?
The first tests...were not great. The problem was that players got stuck pretty soon. Clearly something was missing. Routes shouldn't block other people permanently, or else everyone becomes stuck in their respective corner of the map.My prototype map
The solution was twofold, but for both I used my previous guidelines: 1) There are two currencies! Use them! and 2) The Polynesians were friendly people!
If you establish a connection for the first time, you can use whichever currency you want, but you mark this currency on the route, and if someone wants to establish the same route later, they have to pay you for the knowledge in the currency that was used. That way you can use currencies that other players have less of in order to complicate their lives.
But the game still wasn't dynamic enough until I had a lightbulb moment: If you are on the same island as another player's pawn, you can pay that player to force them to bring you over their connection to another island! Both pawns will be moved, which can be helpful or hurtful for the owner of the ferryman (depending on their plans). That's a fun and thematic mechanism — and it was the missing piece in the overall design.
There were still minor issues: Despite spoilage, the game gave players too much fish and mussel, so I just reduced the islands where you get them as income (with "just" equalling a couple of months before I knew how to tackle that problem).
The endgame involved too much calculating, and the first half of the game lacked enough variety. The latter was solved by a Kingdom Builder-like scoring with three cards that change every game, which adds a lot of variety. For the former, I stepped away from the true history of the region in which the game is set and adopted a more "Inspired by true events" vibe, stating that players want to leave the starting islands because a volcano is about to erupt. The round in which the volcano erupts is random, although within a smaller interval, so there is an element of uncertainty, but it won't catch you off guard.The finished map, which is topologically identical to the one above
After all this designing, I wanted to stress test the game at the UK Games Expo in 2017 in the Playtest UK area. After the game a playtester said, "To be honest, this is the best game I've played on the fair so far. Every decision is meaningful, every decision is hard, there is a lot of interacting. I think you are already there!" I took this as a good sign...
I'm quite happy with the result of the Polynesia design, which reminds me of King of Siam in the sense that it's a very deep game with a small rule set and a sixty-minute playing time with a lot of interaction and nearly no random factors. They play completely different, mind you, but I daresay that if you like one, than you probably like the other as well.
- [+] Dice rolls
In the years since Love Letter was first published by designer Seiji Kanai in 2012, the game has gained massive popularity as the definitive "microgame". With only sixteen cards, Love Letter creates a clever, dynamic experience that I have played over and over with just about everyone I know. Needless to say, I was excited when our studio — Z-Man Games — acquired the publishing rights to the game in 2018.
When we released the new edition in 2019, there was a deliberate effort to avoid making significant adjustments. The new Love Letter would include a handful of new cards, which made the game playable for up to six players (instead of the original limit of four). These were small, careful changes intended to increase the player count but otherwise maintain the classic Love Letter experience — but with that project complete, the question became: "What next?"
Given the popularity of past Love Letter spinoffs and our newfound partnership with Marvel, the way forward was pretty clear, but it would be some time before the project started to resembleInfinity Gauntlet: A Love Letter Game as we know it today. Going into the project, we weren't interested in merely changing the names and art on the cards. A thoughtful reskin has its place, but the Marvel license brought a new kind of story to the table, and we wanted to make sure that the mechanisms of the game conveyed that theme. This project didn't need to be subtle and understated — quite the opposite. From the outset, we gave ourselves permission to adjust the rules of Love Letter if it would help evoke the right feeling.
As I considered various angles to approach a Marvel Love Letter game, I realized pretty quickly that the stories I gravitated toward didn't fit the competitive free-for-all format. I was more excited about heroes teaming up than fighting one another, so I started exploring alternatives. My first prototypes were variations on fully co-operative play, with a greater focus on deduction. While a co-op Love Letter might work, all of these versions felt too calculated and methodical. I wanted a game about superheroes to feel action-packed, and that wasn't coming through.
At the time, I was aware of the Infinity Gauntlet comic, but the central dynamic of that story is a bunch of heroes facing off against one main villain. This would naturally fit a one-vs.-many game, but I had been actively avoiding going down that road. One-vs.-many can be hard to balance, especially when accommodating different player counts. It can also be easy to accidentally relegate the "one" to facilitating the fun for the "many". I didn't want one player to have to pull punches to maintain balance, so I steered away from the concept entirely.
Lucky for me, this was all happening in April 2019. I saw Marvel Studios' Avengers: Endgame in theaters opening night, and watching the movie and fan reactions convinced me it would be worth the effort to get this right. The next day I had a new prototype, and we got to work.
Good vs. Evil
I knew I wanted one team playing heroes and the other side playing Thanos. The simplest solution would be to give each team their own deck filled with cards that fit thematically. Two decks would also let me differentiate the playing styles of the different sides. In the stories, Thanos has all the power, and it takes careful teamwork by the heroes to win out. To capture that dynamic, I needed to give Thanos some advantages.
First, I gave Thanos two cards in hand instead of one. Just one extra card made a significant difference in the control the Thanos player had over their plays. It also made the Baron effect from original Love Letter in which you compare cards with another player more exciting; even if Thanos does have a high card in hand, the hero might choose the other, possibly lower card to compare against and win. It created moments when the heroes knew the odds were against them, but it was worth the risk to keep fighting. With this change, the Baron effect would become a cornerstone of Infinity Gauntlet.
The other advantage I gave Thanos was the Infinity Stones. Thanos would need powerful cards to match up against a whole team of heroes, and I loved the idea of Thanos gathering the Stones and playing them for devastating effects. As a hero player on the receiving end, the Infinity Stones feel unfair, which seemed exactly right for the theme.
Of course, with the Infinity Stones came the "snap". The answer to "What happens when Thanos gets all of the Stones?" turned out to be as simple as "Thanos wins." This put the hero players on a clock; they must defeat Thanos quickly because if the Thanos player had time to draw through their deck, they were guaranteed to draw all six Infinity Stones. Thanos was, appropriately, inevitable. That turned the hero experience into a desperate race, with tension mounting each time Thanos drew a card. Since Thanos could always come back from the brink of defeat, they could take minor losses in stride. However, since Thanos could play only one card per turn and only ever have three cards in hand, there was a buffer in the early turns when Thanos couldn't yet snap. Once Thanos had a few Stones in play, however, players could see when they were in danger of losing.
Down But Not Out
There were two other fundamental departures from Love Letter early on. The first was the removal of player elimination. I knew I needed rounds to go longer if the snap were going to be relevant, and that wouldn't happen if players were getting knocked out. (It was also just more fun for all players to keep playing.) Instead, I gave each team a life track; whereas original Love Letter rules would knock you out of a round, now your team lost 1 life, you drew a new card, and the game went on. This made each individual defeat less painful, but also left you with a visual reminder of how close you were to losing.
The second major change was the removal of game rounds, and that was more of a realization than a decision. After playtesting for just one round, we all agreed it felt like a complete experience. If we wanted to play again, it was easy to do so, but the arc of the story had played out in full and requiring players to reset and keep playing felt unthematic. I dropped the rounds (and tracking tokens) and never looked back.
With that solid framework in place, the rest of the game would come down to the individual card effects. From the beginning, there was a challenge: By including two decks, I had almost doubled the number of cards and tripled the effects from the original design. I was comfortable with a little more complexity, but this threatened to be way too much. One of Love Letter's great strengths is how approachable it is to a wide variety of players, so at every stage of design I had to ask, "Does this complexity justify itself?" and "How can I get the same outcome more simply?"
In the case of card effects, I addressed the complexity by drawing parallels between cards, decks, and even between Love Letter versions. Wherever possible, cards of the same number in the hero and Thanos decks have the same effect or serve similar functions. The Infinity Stones are more powerful versions of the non-stones of the same number. Any time an effect from original Love Letter appears, it is at the same number as in the original game, so a "1" in the hero deck has the same effect as a "1" in the Thanos deck, the "1" Stone is a better version of that effect, and they all trace back to the "1" effect (the Guard) from Love Letter. This approach allowed for a cohesive core that would give you an idea of what to expect from a card and build on your expectations if you were coming from the original game. Of course, this couldn't be true of every card, but that familiarity made the other differences easier to handle.
The initial prototype pulled a lot of effects directly from Love Letter, but playtesting quickly showed that some would need to change. The most impactful change was the Handmaid effect ("4"). In original Love Letter, the Handmaid protects you from effects until your next turn. For the heroes in Infinity Gauntlet, this didn't do much as Thanos could target a different player and have the same impact against your team. For Thanos, being invincible for a full turn cycle was incredibly powerful and could essentially waste up to five hero turns.
As is often the case, the solution came during a playtest. At that point in development, 3s and 6s allowed players to use the Baron effect from Love Letter. You compared your hand to one of Thanos's cards, and the lower number was defeated. Players asked for a way to improve their chances, and that led to the creation of power tokens (and prompted us to name the Baron effect "fighting"). If you could improve your odds in a fight, you could be more aggressive, and an opponent fighting you became riskier. This element of protection felt natural for a "4" effect. At this point, the round tokens were already gone, so a different type of token felt right at home. Power tokens would go unchanged through the rest of development.
On the Thanos side, the card with the strangest trajectory was the Time Stone ("6"). Unlike the other Infinity Stones, the Time Stone was going to be the only card of its number in the deck, so it needed a unique effect. I approached it more thematically, and the idea of copying a previous card felt like a natural way to represent time manipulation. In testing, though, it proved to be too powerful. I explored other versions, including one in which the Thanos player regained a life they had lost (which turned out to be even more powerful and less fun). Frustrated, I eventually returned to the original version, and it turned out that enough other elements had changed in the meantime that it was no longer a problem.
In Love Letter, you are constantly trying to deduce everyone's hand because everyone is your opponent; in Infinity Gauntlet, the heroes have only one opponent, so that could mean that they have only one hand to deduce. If someone else deduces it for you, your turn is purely mechanical. You lose out on the surrounding mind games, and one of the most interesting aspects of Love Letter disappears.
Instead, I wanted players to be deducing the Thanos player's hand and each other's. This way, you always want to pay attention to everyone's decisions. If you can infer what your teammate has, you can set them up for a powerful play, and it's satisfying when it works out. Marvel's heroes are mighty, but not always known for their communication skills, so the thematic side didn't worry me too much.
As All Things Should Be
By far, the most involved part of Infinity Gauntlet development was getting the balance right. Love Letter has a lot of built-in variance, with 1-in-7 guesses that can turn the tide of a game. One-vs.-many games have their own challenges with player scaling and coordination. Unsurprisingly, there was no one trick that made everything fall into place; the answer was playtesting and time. Between external and internal testing, we played hundreds of games across all player counts, then used the aggregate data to get a sense of where the balance was. Nudge an effect, grind more games, repeat.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was tweaking the balance without introducing additional complexity. In a heavier game, it can be easier to vary set-up steps or add new pieces to solve scaling issues. At one point, I tried a version that scaled the number of Outrider cards in the Thanos deck to the number of heroes. This did a decent job of maintaining balance, but wasn't as "plug and play" as the game needed to be. I wanted you to be able to shuffle the deck, draw starting hands, and play. With that goal in mind, I dug back into playtesting, making minor tweaks back and forth and generally driving my testers crazy. Eventually a combination of scaling Thanos's life and adding one more Outrider to the Thanos deck (at all player counts) got us to the right balance.
With Great Power...
There are more little stories and decisions than I have space to talk about, but every choice we made was aimed at making the best game possible. Seiji Kanai and Love Letter set a gold standard for a light, quick card game, and Marvel is beloved the world over. I was a huge fan of both, and I wanted to do them justice, so there was a lot to live up to with this project. In the end, I'm really proud of what we made. I can't wait for players to get their hands on Infinity Gauntlet soon, and I hope it expands everyone's idea of what a Love Letter game can be. Thanks for playing!
Infinity Gauntlet: A Love Letter Game will be available at your FLGS on August 14, 2020, and everywhere else on September 4, 2020.
- [+] Dice rolls
Glasgow, which is now out (at least in Europe) as part of the Lookout Games two-player line.
In 2017, I was traveling with a friend as we often do on buses and trains to coastal towns or around Europe. We were on the Eurostar from UK to France, and as we sometimes do, we played the small game Province. It was enjoyable, but they had no desire to play again.
I travel light, which means any game has tough competition to earn a space in my backpack. I love the idea of having a portable, short-playtime game that gives me the satisfaction of a proper Eurostyle city-building game — but if it is going to take up that space and be one of only two or three gaming options, it needs to have a good amount of replay value.
We discussed it, and she said, "Why don't you make one then? Something we can play on our train journeys." She had a good point. Why don't I make it? So now I had a mission and a clearly defined design brief. It had to be portable, highly replayable, and good with two players with a satisfying sense of progression.Passing the time queueing for the Palace of Versailles with a bit of in-head game design
At the peak of summer, the queue for the Palace of Versailles can be long. Really long. However, that time can pass a bit more smoothly if you now have a game to design in your head. Shuffling along the line in the baking heat, I started to piece it together. An early thought was to include tiles. I appreciate the tactile nature of tiles, which don't blow away in the wind and can replace the need for a board, and I think they provide more of a "big game" feel than cards.
I knew I wanted players to build a city and decided they should be building it together. This would be an opportunity for more interaction, felt more thematic, and provided further replayability as you wouldn't be able to control all placements or exactly how the city would form. I think a great thing about tile placement is that it can create interesting decisions, but because we are familiar with spatial reasoning to some extent in our daily lives, it does so with fairly little additional complexity. I'm particularly interested in these emergent properties in games where subtle differences in your actions have consequences for your strategy and that of your opponent.
The city built together would be the central focus, replacing a board. I would make some buildings factories that would also function as worker-placement spots letting you do special things. They would have guaranteed access for the owner, but the other player could visit only if the spot were vacant. This would give a sense of progression as the city and options increased throughout the game. I imagined the square tiles filing up a bigger square and creating a nice clear, tense endpoint to the game as you completed that grid.
I was reminded of my hometown, Glasgow, which was the third city in Europe to adopt the grid structure for its city center. It has been claimed that this was the model on which New York was based, but I'm not certain of the evidence for that. Either way, it has a notably clean grid layout to it, and if I were to create a game, why not somewhere special to me? The game could be a love letter to my friend and my city.
Patchwork and how I enjoy the difficult choice of taking tiles while managing your time and what you think your opponent will take. A feature of this system is that it naturally accommodates different types of players; if I want to be highly competitive, I can think about denying my opponent, but if am playing casually I can just focus on getting what I need.
I modified this system to a single line representing the river Clyde, where goods would arrive into Glasgow. You moved your piece along this river and picked up the tile for use anytime in the round. There were a couple of additional touches to keep some tension: you had to use the action tiles collected that round or lose them, and you could store only a few resources and never gold.First ever playtest
Returning from France after that long weekend, I had the outline of a game. I made a simple prototype shortly after and was pleased to find it all worked. It wasn't the most exciting experience, but it worked. Of course, many things would change as the game developed; scoring for set-related bonuses increased to encourage strategic planning, contracts were "unbalanced" to make decisions over when to jump more difficult, the chaining of builds was introduced to make players pull off bigger plays, and whisky was introduced because I really like the wee barrel component*.
However, it turned out the game needed two major changes to become a smoother and more engaging experience. The first was the workers. The workers did little early game, but as the city expanded, you had more options. A familiar pattern would arise: New players did not use the workers/forgot about them/were unclear when to play them, but the couple of experienced players really liked the workers. I tried having a "family" version without workers and "advanced" with workers, but the family version wasn't engaging enough, and I couldn't trust players would play again until they learned how to use workers.
I noticed the buildings that people enjoyed most were those in which their position in the city was important and realized I could create a more elegant solution by having the factory buildings automatically trigger when buildings were placed next to them — allowing me to get rid of the whole worker system while keeping the engine building in the game intact. If I could remove that, it would drop the play structure down from three actions (move, take tile, optionally place a worker) to simply move and take tile. This streamlining would make it much more approachable.Early version of the game with worker placement
I had a friend who said their favorite bit was the workers and they wouldn't play without them. This made them the ideal test because if they could enjoy the game as much without the workers, I would know that was the way forward. I managed to convince them to try the new system, and while they complained at first, afterwards they said, "It is basically the same" and I was pleased the job was done.
It was around this time I found out about Playtest UK and decided I would try to make their next monthly meeting. It was an exciting prospect, especially when at the session I found myself sitting with experienced designers Asger Harding Granerud, David J. Mortimer, and Rob Harris to playtest my game.**Asger makes a move at my first Playtest UK meet-up
I didn't know how much more work would be needed before I showed the game to publishers, and this seemed the right crowd to ask***. Asger enthusiastically said I should be doing so already. With the 2018 UK Games Expo on the horizon, I contacted some publishers that would be in attendance. There was some general interest, but nothing came of it — other than one encounter that would prove very important.
The first publisher I reached out to was Aporta Games. This was because I really like their titles and I'm an idiot. I hadn't realized that Aporta doesn't publish games from other designers, but Kristian Amundsen Østby was very friendly and made time to meet me. Kristian has an incredible design insight, and although he had not played the game, he said an immediate thought was whether there was a need for rounds. Had I tried continuous play?Showing Glasgow to Kristian; I later discovered a pal, Ben Broomfield, was taking photos for UKGE and happened to catch this moment
After workers, this was the second big "problem" the game needed to overcome. The game played in rounds, which led to a confusing rule for turn order and some set-up time between each round. I think games are largely judged by their time input to entertainment output. I enjoy Catan as a 45-60 minute game, but that time my group tried six players and called it after four hours, I was less of a fan. The upkeep between rounds had seemed trivial, but ultimately all these things creep into our experience of a game.Quote:I was back to the drawing board to try all kinds of different systems to get rid of rounds. They were all too complex or too fiddly with players having to constantly replace tiles when taking. I sat alone at the table one evening to try to figure it out. I laid the pieces out and just stared at them when suddenly it occurred to me — it was so easy: "What if you didn't pick up the tiles?""I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town
But something's the matter with Glasgow
For it's going round and round"
This had been the core of the game — move your piece, pick up the tile — but if you didn't pick up the tiles, it would remove all the faff of refilling/resetting the river. All abilities would become instant; you would move on them and they would activate. Now that would mean making a big circle, with no need to refresh tiles or have rounds. Sure, this change meant some abilities and features had to be totally modified, but it also meant cutting out two pages of the rulebook and getting rid of the most confusing rule. This cut the playtime down significantly, and as a bonus it increased the strategy as people could plan more effectively by seeing what was ahead.
I was concerned this change may reduce variability and replay from not having the randomized river each round but was surprised that it had the opposite effect. It increased the variation between games because now you had to approach each new game with a strategy based on what was there, knowing certain tiles wouldn't show that game.
I now had my game. I had a game that worked smoothly and fit all the criteria I'd initially set out to achieve. My friend and I enjoyed playing it, so mission accomplished. I put it on the shelf and got on with my life.Enjoying a wee pre-lunch game on our travels
In April 2019, I had become a bit obsessed with my work. I really enjoy my job but with no set hours to it, I was getting a bit carried away and decided I again needed the creative outlet of designing. If I wanted to pursue it, I should get a bit more serious. I started attending the Playtest UK sessions and would put time aside to make prototypes.
One week I wanted to attend the session but didn't have anything new to bring and thought, "Why not dust off that Glasgow game and see what some fresh eyes make of it?" I was buoyed by how well it was received; players looked totally engaged and afterwards all said they would buy a copy as it is, one even going so far as to rate it in their all-time top ten. I booked a playtest slot at UK Games Expo that year and showed it to some people there and again had very positive responses, including people asking whether I could bring my copy so their friends could play in the evening. I was incredibly elated seeing people enjoy something I'd created — some cubes and bits of cut-up card coming to life after I explain what to do with them.
On the final day of the event, I swung by to see Hanno alone and playing with his phone, so swooped in. I started explaining a bit as seemed normal in a pitch when he interrupted to clear space on the table and suggest we play. I had never had a publisher suggest playing on the spot. I was a bit concerned during set-up as no gold contracts were in play and wondered whether it would stifle the experience, but there are ways to work every set-up. Hanno got a good combo early, particularly exploiting the whisky factory for easy builds which allowed him to overcome the gold shortage. He joked about how it was over as he chained builds.
I'd played a bunch of times that weekend and lost almost all, sometimes quite badly. In playing my own games, I spend most of the time looking at other players' reactions and engagement, assessing their choices, considering balance, etc.
Now, I've heard people say to let the publisher win when pitching, but I don't believe that and I wanted to make sure he knew he hadn't "broken" the game with this combo. I became determined to win. It was the first time in a long time I felt I really played the game — just played it without trying to analyze it. The sound of the crowds disappeared, and I forgot I was pitching a game. It was close in the end, but I managed to get the victory. Afterwards Hanno told me he could see it being a Lookout title.
I was very fortunate to have interest from other great publishers, and I hope to work with them in the future but have no regrets in going with Lookout. Lookout was happy to keep the theme, and the only mechanical change was a nice little rule introduced by developer Grzegorz Kobiela that increased the gold cost for each bonus build to stop a player going completely crazy in chaining buildings.Snapshots of the prototype progression for some tiles that were present from the start;note parks and tenement art swapped in final for thematic reasons
However, there was one big change from my prototype to the finished product. During the design process, I had expanded the game to play with up to four players. Lookout decided it wanted the game to go back to two players only. While I was reluctant, this would allow it to be a nice neat package with tight play for the prestigious two-player line. (Dear reader, between you and me, you can still merge copies with a few very minor changes to go up to four players — or maybe one day they'll let me do an expansion if the demand is there.)
Klemens Franz brought the beautiful architecture of Glasgow to life and let me include my favorite buildings. Once I saw there were to be people on the contracts, I was keen to make sure the game felt inclusive to the people of the city. With some research, we were able to identify what some of the people at the docks may have looked like at the time and include them in the game. (You can read more about the character diversity here.) I am really proud of what we have created.
I now have a game to play with my friend on our travels. I've had a wonderful time creating it, and I hope you too have a great time playing it.
*Also, because it's Scotland and I don't know whether we're allowed to make games about Scotland without whisky. In the game, whisky is a wild resource to reflect its status as the most important and widely accepted currency.
**Incidentally I shared that 90-minute slot with David Mortimer's The Ming Voyages, which is also being released now and with art from Klemens Franz.
***It was also at this session I met Brett J. Gilbert, who encouraged me to change the name from "Merchant City: Glasgow" to simply "Glasgow". Merchant City is the area where the grid restructure started, but I did concur that "Merchant City" is a very generic Eurogame-sounding prefix.
- [+] Dice rolls
04 Aug 2020
What follows is an account of my thought processes and experience designing Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars, a game in the Consulting Detective line. It has been designed as an introduction to Consulting Detective for those who have never played before, while also giving experienced players something new.The Case of the Missing Mysteries
It was a clear winter's day in 2013 when I was shown into the rooms of the world's most famous detective. He was standing at the fireplace, pipe in hand; his brow furrowed. I had no doubt he was tackling some fiendish puzzle of great importance on which, perhaps, the fate of the entire country depended.
"Holmes", I ventured, timidly, "sorry to disturb you, but I am here to ask for your help."
"Ah, Mr. Neale", he said, looking up. "I was just wondering what to have for lunch. Pray, join me — the table is laid for two."
"You expected me?"
"But how could you possibly..."
"Elementary, Mr. Neale. I noted that after you last helped me solve a case, you seemed restless. You have spent much of your time perusing the works of my good friend, John Watson, and although your countenance indicated you did so with pleasure, there was also an air of despondency. It was as if you felt something was missing. Clearly, you were facing an interminable problem." He moved to the window and gazed out at the passers-by, then added, "And when people have problems, they come to me."
I nodded, and took a seat at the table. "It is as you say, Holmes. Some time ago, I discovered an old copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and fell in love with the game. I eagerly sought out all of the expansions and played those, too. It is a game that perfectly captures the atmosphere of your adventures, drawing the players into the world of Victorian London with compelling and inventive mysteries. And it is an elegant system. First, you read the introduction, consult the map, newspaper and London Directory, and decide where to go to investigate the mystery. After reading the entry for your chosen destination, you repeat the process until you think you have solved the case. At that point, you answer the questions and read the solution. But now, I have played the last of the mysteries and I am bereft. My mind rebels at stagnation. I crave for mental exaltation."
"Very well put — particularly those last two statements", said Holmes, thoughtfully. "I'll remember them. And yours is a position I thoroughly appreciate. But there are no more mysteries. You know that. Even to a brain as astute as mine, no solution can present itself. It is simply..." He paused, and I detected a glimmer in his eyes.
"What is it, Holmes?"
"Well, Mr. Neale. There is one possibility. But it is so outlandish, so extraordinary, that I do not feel you should give it any serious consideration."
"Let me be the judge of that, Holmes."
The great detective raised his eyebrows. "Very well. There are no more mysteries. So why don't you create some yourself? You have written stories all your life, have you not? You have been reading Watson's works since you were eight. Correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that you even composed and performed plays featuring yours truly, for the other children in your school. Now would seem an opportune time to resume such literary endeavors."
"Yes, Holmes", I said. "You are right. I think I could even create a whole series of cases... I will begin at once. Thank you."
I began to stand, but Holmes said, "Hold on, Mr. Neale. Do not be so hasty. There is much to consider before you begin."
"Such as the process of creating a case. Such as whether you will modify or extend the rules. Such as how you will ensure the wonder of my unrivaled intellect is as prominent as it is in the original cases."
"Some say you cheated in those cases."
"I never cheat! It is true that I make a lucky guess on occasion, but unless you are good at guessing it is not much use being a detective, as someone once said. I forget who it was."
"Still, perhaps we should minimize the guessing."
"Meaning I will expound a clear thread of impeccable logic that shows how I reached the solution? Very well. I can do that. In fact, some might say it is my raison d'etre."
"Quite. That's what I'll aim for, anyway. And at the same time, I may update the rules to address some other concerns players had with the original cases. I mean, it is an excellent game — still, perhaps, my favorite — and was a trailblazer in its time, bringing co-operative storytelling to the table long before it became the industry-wide phenomenon it is today, but it's now over thirty years old. Games have changed a lot since then, and players have had ample time to voice their likes and dislikes. For example, many players find it too hard."
"Too hard?" Holmes cried. "But Mr. Neale, the mysteries practically solve themselves!"
"For you, Holmes, but not for most people. In my first few games, we were happy when we got a score above zero. Out of 100."
"Perhaps it could be a touch easier, but many people adore a challenge."
"You're right, so I feel the cases should also cater to those people, but I can't do both, can I?"
"Yes, you can. It is all about the peripheral clues, Mr. Neale. Have a direct path that leads to a solution — the one which I follow, of course — but ensure that for players who wander from that path, there are some encounters that generate further clues, pushing them gently back in the right direction. Thus, those who crave a significant challenge can attempt to follow my path exactly, while those who find it too difficult will gain help by visiting the other locations. To some extent, the game will adapt to the ability of the players."
"That makes sense." I thought for a moment then added, "Although in some cases I have in mind that will be hard to do because there could be one specific thing players have to do to progress."
"Ah, like these 'escape room' games I hear have become rather popular."
"Indeed. And those games help stuck players by using a hints system, so I could do the same. I'll give stuck players help on those cases by making you more useful."
Holmes muttered, "I beg your pardon?"
"Sorry, I meant useful to the players. Some have pointed out that in the original game the rules say they can visit you if they get stuck, but the hints you give often aren't very helpful."
"I didn't want to spoil it for them."
"If they've got to the point where they come to you for help, they want some of it spoiled. They want useful hints."
"A three-pipe problem, indeed," I replied. "But perhaps I can deal with it in the same way I intend to tackle another problem."
"Sometimes, in the original cases, players would visit a location and the entry they read would not make much sense, referring to people and events they knew nothing about. The writers thought the players would go somewhere else first, and so the entry assumed they had knowledge they did not actually have. And I've realized that can be fixed that quite simply, using a tracking system. I will give the game a memory. At some points it will instruct players to circle a letter of the alphabet — for example, if you learn about a stolen wheelbarrow, it may say 'circle the letter H'. Then, when you go to the wheelbarrow shop, you will read one thing if H is circled, and something else if it is not."
"I'm not sure wheelbarrow shops exist."
"That's not the point, Holmes. The point is that the game will 'know' where players have been and what they know. And that means that if they come to you for help, they can read a different hint depending on which letters they have circled. They will get help related to where they are in the case."
"Excellent, Mr. Neale. I believe you are on to something. It also means that during a case, players could acquire useful crime-fighting items, such as a magnifying glass or a deerstalker hat."
"Yes," I replied, and then suddenly, my mind was racing. "And this means that some cases could have objectives! Rather than play until you think you've solved it, maybe you need to rescue someone or find something. And the final case could have multiple possible endings...and perhaps it is a sort of climactic finale like the last episode of a TV series, bringing hidden threads together, weaving them into an unexpected but..."
"Enough!" Holmes interrupted. "I suggested only players could find a hat, and you turn it into War and Peace. By all means, attempt these grand schemes if you are so inclined, but you haven't written one word yet, Mr. Neale, and I fear you are getting a little ahead of yourself." I nodded, suitably abashed. Holmes continued, "Instead, let's move to more immediate concerns — how will you go about devising these mysteries? If I may, I would like to make two suggestions."
"By all means, Holmes."
"It strikes me that one can approach this from the start or the end. If from the end, you create a series of events that lead to a crime, then devise a way of making them appear uncommon and mysterious. Conversely, approaching it from the start, you invent a perplexing mystery — something you find bizarre and cannot explain — and then devise a solution."
"Hmm, I see", I said, mulling this over. "I think I will use both. But I particularly like the second option — in a sense, it means I'd be solving the mystery myself. For example..." I paused to glance around the room, and my eyes settled on the table laid for lunch. "A man is at a restaurant dining with a friend. He leaves the room for a moment part way through the meal, and when he returns the friend is gone. No note, no word, there was no argument or anything he can think of to explain the disappearance. He has not seen his friend since. That seems like an intriguing beginning, so now I just need to think of an explanation that makes logical sense."
"More than one explanation, Mr. Neale. The first one you devise is likely to be the one most players will settle on first, and it will be more interesting if that is not the actual solution. So reject your first solution, and find another."
"Find two logical solutions for an apparently inexplicable series of events?"
"Indeed. Or maybe three or even…"
"I'll stick with two, thank you."
There was a moment of silence, then Holmes suddenly let out a sharp laugh and exclaimed, "Capital!"
Seeing the look of bafflement on my face, he said, "Apologies. An idea just occurred to me that would be highly amusing. As I have often said to Watson..." He paused a moment. "I feel if I spoke this aloud it could constitute what you call a 'spoiler'."
"Perhaps you should whisper it."
Holmes nodded, leaned forward, and whispered seven words in my ear.
I laughed and said, "Yes, I will use that. I think I can make it work."
"Excellent," Holmes replied, with a smile. "Now, Mr. Neale, the game is truly afoot."
Writing the cases was a long, difficult, but rewarding process, and a lot of playtesting was required. And as all designers know, people never do what you expect them to do. I remember some of my first playtests, when, after creating what I felt was a perfectly crafted case, I would watch with growing surprise as the players latched on to viable theories I had never considered, tried to follow up clues I had never intended to be there, and missed clues I had feared were far too obvious. Sometimes, entire rewrites were required. Slowly, from 2013 to 2017, I created ten cases. Thankfully, I found the process became a lot faster and easier as I progressed; I was learning how to anticipate players' decisions and thought processes far more accurately.
Wanting to ensure as far as possible that the logic of the cases was strong, I set myself the benchmark that until at least six groups in succession — all composed of strangers — said they found no problems with Sherlock's solution or the plausibility of it, I would not consider that case for inclusion in the set. A couple of cases never reached this point and were dropped. Those that did reach that point entered another round of testing and were then sent to the publisher (who did more testing).
Early on, I decided I wanted my set to have some kind of coherent theme. In the original Consulting Detective, you are told that you are members of the Baker Street Irregulars, but I felt that, apart from their leader, Wiggins, they never felt that present in the game. I realized that putting them under the magnifying glass was a great way to connect a series of cases and make players feel more invested in the game world as part of a team of recognizable characters.
To this end, the first case in my set is the first full case the Baker Street Irregulars ever worked on, and the following three cases each center around a different member of the Irregulars. After that comes a series of six cases telling the story of a particular year and the arrival of a new Irregular. When Space Cowboys asked me to write a free introductory case, the narrative was complete. Starting with the short demo, An Irregular Meeting, and playing through to the final case in my set, Death of a Detective, players can now follow a story that spans a decade. They will witness the beginnings of the Baker Street Irregulars, learn more about the lives of some of the members, then experience the dramatic and emotional conclusion of one of their most challenging years.
It wasn't until 2016 that I learned my cases would be published. I had sent the first case, The Curzon Street Kidnapping, to Ystari Games in 2014, then sent another two cases in 2015, but various factors meant a long delay before I received a response (mainly the merging of Ystari with Space Cowboys, and internal decisions about what they wanted to do with the line). But I was understandably thrilled when, eventually, they emailed to say they wanted me to create an entire set, and I am forever indebted to Thomas Cauët for championing my cause and persuading the Space Cowboys team of the quality of my work.
And that was only the start of my journey. While writing my cases, I discovered the excellent Playtest UK and met designers Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan, among others, at the Cambridge group. I went to SPIEL, which is now an annual trip (bar 2020, of course), where I pitched new narrative games to publishers and was offered more contracts. When Space Cowboys asked me to visit them in Paris in 2018, I came up with an idea for a Sherlock Holmes Unlock! scenario, which I pitched to them, and they published.
In sum, writing that first Consulting Detective case was the spark that ignited my game design career — a small project that completely changed my life. And it was a meaningful moment for me in 2017 when I was put in contact with one of the original designers, Suzanne Goldberg, and was able to tell her that.
Slowly, I entered the room. Holmes was once again at the fireplace, but this time he looked entirely relaxed. A gentle smile played at his lips.
"I imagine", he continued, "you are hesitating because you feel a sense of guilt for not having visited me in so long."
"Yes", I replied. "I am sorry not to have called, but what we talked about last time — it's all come together, better than I could have imagined. And it's occupied my time, I've been..."
"Solving tantalising mysteries."
"Lost in the gaslit fog of Victorian London."
"Re-reading Watson's works with a new appreciation; noticing things you never noticed before."
I realized there was no point in speaking. I just nodded.
"In short", he continued, "you have been engaged in all the things you were searching for when you last came to me. Your absence has been proof of my success — do not feel guilty for it. My only question is, why have you come to me now?"
I shifted uneasily. "Because I have an idea. Well, more than one, actually." As I spoke, I handed him a file with some sheets of paper: sketches, names, plot outlines, diagrams...
He spent a minute or two looking over them, and I noticed him grin when he saw a familiar face. Then he said, "I see. You are concerned that in writing mysteries where I am not the central figure I may feel resentment; that perhaps in some way you would be betraying me. Well, I can assure you that is not the case at all, Mr. Neale. I may be the greatest detective, but I know I am not the only detective. This simply shows your problem will not return for some time yet, if ever. You have found a way to keep mysteries at the heart of your life, and there are so many stories to tell. Go and tell them, with my blessing."
"Thank you, Holmes."
As I moved towards the door, he said, "I have also had an idea."
"This set of cases you have written. What if there was more for players to discover?"
"What do you mean?"
"Ha!" He exclaimed, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "I am aware this may be another 'spoiler', so I have taken the liberty of writing it down for you." He passed me an envelope, which I pocketed.
"I will be sure to include it," I said.
"Excellent. And remember, whenever you need me, I am here." He gave a small bow, then walked over to the armchair.
Outside, I paused to look up at the window where he sat. He had lit his pipe and was letting the smoke drift and curl around him as he gazed over Baker Street, bathed in the last of the evening light. Seeing his meditative expression, I suddenly realized it reflected his confidence that there will always be more problems to solve, and that the world will never fail to present new and intriguing mysteries to those who go looking for them.
- [+] Dice rolls