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Designer Diary: Ascension: Gift of the Elements, or Transforming Old Into New

Justin Gary
United States
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Hello, BoardGameGeek! I've already written a "first look" article on Ascension: Gift of the Elements (which debuted on March 20, 2017) on the Ascension website, but I wanted to do a deeper dive into the mechanisms and thinking behind the design.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ascension, it is one of the first deck-building games, released in 2010. As a former professional Magic player, I have always had a natural affinity for the strategy in collectible card games. My favorite way to play CCGs is draft, and in a draft, players must select from a limited number of cards, then pass the remaining cards around the table for others to select from.

My initial vision for Ascension was to put the best parts of collectible card game drafts into a single boxed experience that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg. I approached this goal by creating a moving "center row" in which six cards are available for purchase, and new cards are revealed each time a card is acquired or removed. Unlike more static deck-building games (e.g., Dominion), this creates nearly limitless permutations and makes every game different. This forces players to evaluate cards against each other based on what you've already selected, what other players might select, and the time remaining in the game.

The initial game was a hit, and seven years later Stone Blade Entertainment has now released over ten expansions, free apps on Android and iOS, and a virtual reality game available on Steam and the Occulus Store.

Gift of the Elements is the first expansion to revisit our most popular mechanism: events. Events are cards that change the game rules for all players as soon as they are revealed in the center row. Only one event can be active at a time, so when a new event shows up, the old one is removed and play can change dramatically in an instant. There are, however, always challenges when revisiting an old mechanism...

Challenge #1: Complexity and Design Space

When revisiting old mechanisms, the most obvious design space has usually been claimed. Our team spent nearly a year working on the designs for Storm of Soulsand Darkness Unleashed (now featured in our Year 2 Collector’s Edition), and we spent most of that time finding the most impactful designs without unnecessary complexity.

The first thing I did to reduce complexity was to remove the "Fanatic" references from events. In Storm of Souls and Darkness Unleashed, the Fanatic was an "always available" card whose power changed based on the current event. This idea was great in theory, but in practice I believe too complex for the value it generated.

The complexity-to-game-depth tradeoff is the fundamental axis that most designers deal with. Everyone wants a game that is "easy to learn, difficult to master". Unfortunately, those two goals are generally opposed to each other. Every additional mechanism added to a game makes it harder to learn, but (hopefully) adds strategic depth and fun. Finding good tradeoffs is the key skill of good design.

Adding a new "always available" card is a high cognitive burden for players. While I still enjoy playing with the Fanatic, looking back, I don't believe the complexity cost was worth the amount of fun the mechanism provided.

Once I removed the Fanatic from events, I had room to add more complexity to new events. Unlike the original events, events in Gift of the Elements can influence costs in the center row. This can be tricky for players to remember, but the discount makes the events more meaningful and can create some pretty epic turns, allowing players to get high cost cards much earlier in the game.

Challenge #2: Same, But Different

The second challenge with reintroducing a beloved mechanism is to balance the familiar with the new. This challenge is part of any expansion design. You need to keep the game similar enough to what players liked about the original game, but different enough to justify a new purchase. (I talked about this issue in my 2015 article on Gamasutra if you want to dig deeper.)

With the reintroduction of events, I decided to solve this problem by combining it with another beloved mechanism: transform.

By paying the transform cost on an event — 8 runes for the card shown above — you can transform it into a powerful hero for your deck. As a designer, I liked this approach for two reasons:

1. I could be more aggressive with the power level of events that transform into heroes because the previously designed cards that let you acquire cards for free from the center row don't work on events (since events are removed from the center row once they are revealed). Players have to actually earn enough runes to pay for the card, making it harder for the powerful effects to show up early and let someone run away with a game.

2. Players can now interact with an event in a new way. Before, if you didn't like an event, the only hope you had to remove it was to reveal more cards from the center row and pray for a new event to show up. Now, you have the option to transform the event and turn a card that used to work against you into a powerful hero for your deck!

The mechanical advantages are significant, but I also really enjoyed the story behind the events. In Gift of the Elements, the events are represented as mythic, almost god-like figures that influence the whole realm. Being able to recruit those creatures and make them mortal heroes in your deck felt really cool and got a great response in playtesting.

Much More to Explore!

Gift of the Elements isn't just about bringing back favorite old mechanisms. It also introduces two new keywords:

-----Infest: "You add dead cards (Monsters) to your opponent's discard pile."
-----Empower: "You can remove (banish) a card you have already put into play."

You can probably imagine why these two mechanisms were paired together in this set. Infest represents a pretty big departure for an Ascension expansion.

I was often frustrated by the "kingmaker problem", games in which a player who can't win gets to decide which other player wins the game based on who they choose to attack or aid. I prefer that a game is won based upon the skill of the players combined with some uncertainty from random chance. Part of the design goal for Ascension was to remove as much direct player attacking (and the opportunity for kingmaking) as possible. It's impossible to entirely remove this problem from a multi-player game, but I did my best to minimize it. Since Infest allows you to choose which player receives a dead card, it introduces a bit of direct player attack into the game.

Direct attacking has its advantages, however. For one, it helps address the runaway leader problem. Deck-building games are inherently susceptible to this concern. As you acquire better cards, the odds of acquiring even better cards increases, increasing the gap between a single player and the competition. Now if one player is far ahead, Infest gives others a chance to catch up by throwing a few dead cards at the leader. Moreover, some players really enjoy the ability to knock down their friend in a more direct way. As this is our eleventh expansion, I felt it was time to throw those players a bone (beyond our "Samael Claus" holiday promo).

That being said, my design instincts couldn't let Infest show up without some tools to combat it. Empower is a great way to get rid of Infest cards, along with the weaker starting cards that clog up your deck late in the game.

Getting rid of cards in your deck — which we call "banishing" in Ascension — is a critical and challenging part of deck-building games. If you can't get rid of weaker cards, then your deck stays diluted and you limit the opportunities to draw powerful cards acquired late in the game.

However, too much banishing can make decks too efficient, creating very long and complicated turns that make other players want to leave the table. Empower is a fantastic tool because unlike other banish cards, you can use it only a single time. This means that most players will be able to banish a few cards from their deck, rather than run away with the game through massive early banishing.

Empower also has other design implications. Since an Empower card usually replaces a weak (or dead) card, the barrier to acquiring them is very low. The Ascension center row mechanism requires that most cards we create are desirable. If no one wants to buy anything in the center row, the board becomes static and the game won't progress. Empower cards allow us to create cards with weaker effects that are still desirable to purchase because they are an automatic "upgrade" of the cards in your deck.

To that end, the original playtest name for Empower was "Upgrade" and it initially required you to banish a card when you bought it to solidify this theme of one card upgrading into another. We shifted the mechanism after playtesting proved that players didn't like the mandatory banish. We also made the decision to change the name from Upgrade to Empower since it was no longer a direct upgrade of a card.

I hope you enjoyed these insights into Ascension: Gift of the Elements!

Justin Gary

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Fri Mar 24, 2017 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Madness at Midnight, or How To Be An Evil Cultist

mads l. brynnum
2400 Kbh. NV
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The pitch for Madness At Midnight is quite simple: What if you're not trying to stop ancient Lovecraftian horrors from entering our world, but rather actively working to make that happen? So instead of being heroic investigators, each player controls a gang of cultists trying to summon their specific ancient evil.

The First Prototype

From the beginning of when I started working on the game in 2013, the basic design questions were: What would cultists do? What would their goals be? How can they achieve them? What will they need? And so on. By asking those questions, I found out that they of course should be able to learn powerful spells at Miskatonic U. and that controlling powerful locations in Arkham should be one of the paths to victory.

Another inspiration was how to tackle the basic concepts of the Lovecraftian mythology. For instance, sanity (or the lack thereof) is a huge part of the Cthulhu mythos, but since you're essentially playing the bad guys, going insane couldn't just be a way for your cultists to die. Instead one of the key concepts of the game is that the madder your cult gets — that is, the more sanity you lose in order to cast spells and do sinister deeds — the harder it is to control. To put it in game terms, you take actions by spending dice that can be rerolled by gaining madness, so more madness results in fewer rerolls, which means you can't do exactly what you want but have to improvise a bit.

The first prototype used for solo testing, with minis scrounged from Chaos in the Old World

A surprising amount of the initial nuts and bolts of the game is still present in the published version. You control cultists fighting for dominance in Arkham; you can learn spells, grab items, rob graves, and fight the pesky investigators. And, yes, some of this may seem familiar if you have played other Lovecraftian games. I am a huge fan of Arkham Horror, and while I wanted something that felt very different, I wanted it to retain some of the same vibe, only turned upside down.

I approached Sean Brown of Mr. B Games, and he liked the design but felt it maybe needed that last bit of oomph and asked me whether I'd be okay having a second designer take a look at it. Now, relinquishing control over a creative project is always somewhat daunting, but as a designer you must know that this is simply part of the business. However, when he mentioned he knew Richard Launius and would try to persuade him to develop the game, I was all in — and not just all in, but a bit starstruck, really.

The final prototype I made for the Danish convention Fastaval before Richard Launius started working on the game


So Mr. Launius got the game in late 2015 and started working on changes. He had A LOT of ideas, and for a moment I feared the game would change dramatically. In the end, though, he came back with something that greatly resembled the original game, but had more story elements and more variety and which was simply better. I playtested the new version, and from then on out we spent a lot of time emailing back and forth to adjust things — or rather it was usually me emailing about stuff, then him replying quickly with a ton of ideas to fix or adjust things based on his years of experience with both game design and the Cthulhu mythos.

A perfect example of a small, but important change he made was in the number of minions you have. I originally decided on seven cultists for each faction because that seemed like a good number, and it worked well enough. Richard upped this number to 13 and introduced a cult leader, which really changed the pace and feel of the game and simply added more fun. He also introduced special abilities for the minions of the different cults, along with the double-sided board locations that will ensure the game doesn't grow stale even after repeated plays.

What the game looked like after Launius did his magic, but before the final layout

Work, Work, Work

The game was Kickstarted in May 2016, and from then on Sean and I worked hard on finalizing the game, which was a ton of fun but also a ton of hard work. The amount of stuff that needs to be tested, proofed, rewritten, retested, and reproofed is honestly staggering. As an example, I think we spent the better part of two months working on the rules. No, it wasn't made easier by the fact that I live in Denmark and couldn't just pop by to go over everything, but it also goes to show just how insanely difficult writing rules is.

Part of the final pre-production sample, with specific abilities for each factions' minions and a special faction madness ability

I'm very proud to have Madness At Midnight be my first published hobby board game. (I have made and am still making so-called serious games about stuff like team leadership, chain management, STDs, and other exciting subjects.) And I’m also very happy to have Richard Launius' name next to mine on the box. Ever since I was a teen and read my first story by Lovecraft, I've been a fan of the mythos. I played the Call of Cthulhu RPG, I've played the PC games, I've written a book of Lovecraft-themed nursery rhymes, and I have of course played lots and lots of Arkham Horror, so making this game feels a bit like giving something back.

Mads L. Brynnum
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Mon Mar 20, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Gloomhaven, or Trying to Fit a Full RPG World into a Board Game Box

Isaac Childres
United States
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I'm a Eurogamer, but I like dungeon crawls. That's okay, right? I can like two completely different things?

I play games to challenge myself, to engage my brain in solving the complex system the game presents and emerge from the experience victorious — or, if not victorious, at least feeling like I got a good mental workout and performed well in the situation. Because of this, I naturally gravitate toward Eurogames, typically known for prioritizing complex, thinky mechanisms ahead of anything else.

I also just really like slaying monsters with swords and spells, though. I grew up on Dungeons & Dragons, Tolkien, and Final Fantasy. That animalistic urge to pick up a broadsword and chop a goblin in half is buried deep down in my brain.

But, oh boy, if I don't hate dice. If I'm going to win or lose, I want it to happen on my terms, not the terms of random chance. I will sit down and play Dungeons & Dragons or Descent and love every minute of it, but I can never help but think that there must be something better; something with more complex, engaging mechanisms; something that gives me more control over the outcome of my actions; something that gives me an endless supply of tough decisions instead of just rolling dice over and over.

I wanted to make my own dungeon crawl. I wanted to make Gloomhaven.

Developing the Combat System

It all started some three-and-a-half years ago. In 2013, I was still working on my first design, Forge War, but became intrigued with the card mechanisms of Sentinels of the Multiverse. I loved how each hero's deck of cards could feel so different from each other, and I wanted to try to expand that idea to a dudes-on-a-map game of tactical combat.

My first pass, however, was a mess. Instead of controlling one individual character, players controlled different tribes that had anywhere from one to ten characters. This variance did indeed give a wonderfully unique feeling to each tribe, but it also made the game fiddly to an absurd degree. It also didn't help that at that point in my design career, I was dead-set against any sort of randomness in my games.

So I moved on, and I grew a lot as a designer. Forge War was received well, and, in early 2015, I eventually settled on returning to this dungeon crawler as my next major design. I knew that the whole tribe-based approach wouldn't work, nor would the completely deterministic combat resolution. I needed something to differentiate the game from more basic "move and roll dice" dungeon crawlers. I didn't want each character to have a single special attack they could perform once per game. Instead, I wanted every attack to feel special and every character to feel unique. I wanted a card-based system, but was struggling with exactly how to implement it.

Enter Cards Against Humanity. (You weren't expecting that, were you?) Back in 2014, they ran this sort of reality show called "Tabletop Deathmatch", and it was pretty entertaining. Not only that, but entrants on the show instilled two pretty great ideas on me that would eventually permeate into Gloomhaven's design.

The first, I believe, was in reference to the deck-building game The Shadow Over Westminster. The idea was simple: Each player controlled a character running around on a map, but these characters didn't have any innate statistics written down on a card or mat somewhere. Everything that made them unique as a character was distilled down into the deck of cards the player was building. I know it's a pretty simple concept, but it resonated with me as a very elegant way to approach the idea of character statistics.

The second was the idea of multi-use cards. Now, obviously, the game in question, Rocket Wreckers, did not originate the idea of multi-use cards, but the simplicity of its implementation really stuck with me. Each card has an action on it and a distance, and each round you play two cards from your hand: one for the action and one for the distance. It was simple, but it allowed for dynamic decision making.

From there, the game kind of just exploded. Each character could have a unique deck of cards that contained all of the various abilities they could perform. No external stats were needed aside from their hit point value and their deck size. These cards could be dual-use, so that one side contained abilities geared more towards attacking, and the other side contained movement abilities. Players would play two cards each turn, and it would simulate the basic structure familiar in most dungeon crawlers — moving and attacking — but the diversity of abilities would give each character a unique feel and allow the players lots of decisions to make on their turns.

Soon after, the player order was also built into the cards by giving each one an initiative value, and, with some tweaking, the pace of the game was chained to the idea of a character losing cards over time, either slowly through resting or quickly through using super-powerful abilities or taking too much damage. Once players run out of cards, they lose.

I also needed to come up with a system for enemy automation. I wanted the game to be fully cooperative as far back as the early "tribe" design, simply because if a player is controlling the monsters, they're never having as much fun. The monster automation in that earlier design, though, was easily the worst part of the game. Each separate monster had a whole slew of conditional rules about how it prioritized who to attack under various circumstances. In all my testing, I would be the one to move the monsters because I was the only one who could figure it out. My number one priority now was to make it simple, so I looked to Mice and Mystics. I always appreciated how easy its enemy activation was, so I started from there, with a monster on the board simply going after the closest character and attacking.

I did have a secondary priority, though, which was to make monster behavior interesting and variable, so I decided to switch up the monsters' actions every round with a deck of cards that modified a monster's base statistic. Maybe one round a monster moves a little less than you expect, then attacks for a little bit more. Maybe another round, the monster doesn't attack at all, but simply sets itself up to retaliate if you attack it. The best thing about these card decks is that, much like the characters and their own decks of cards, you could give a monster a personality based on how it behaved. Each monster has a unique deck of ability cards, and learning and reacting to their tactics becomes part of the fun.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to address the looming specter of randomness that exists with any dungeon crawl — or really any cooperative game in general. If a cooperative game is completely deterministic, it either has to be incredibly complex to hide that determinism (which is usually a disaster, as I learned in the early "tribe" iterations) or it will quickly become solvable and lose its fun.

And while I have progressed far enough as a designer to know that randomness has its time and place in a game, I still can't bring myself to include dice in a design. I know that some people enjoy the activity of rolling a die, then standing up from their chair in anticipation of what the result of the roll is, but I just loathe dice. Furthermore, I am convinced that a deck of cards is a far superior random number generator due to the simple fact that a deck of cards is customizable. You can't customize a D6 without making a mess with stickers. Plus, depending on how often you shuffle the deck, it actually becomes less random than a die due to the existence of prior information.

What I am getting at with all of this is that I implemented a random element to the attacks made in the game through a deck of "attack modifier cards". For every attack you make, you flip over a card. It may have a "+1" or "-1" on it, and you adjust your damage accordingly. Yay, non-determinism! When you first start playing the game, the deck of twenty cards essentially acts like a D20, but very quickly you find out that it goes much deeper, because you can customize the deck. I'll get to that later...

Developing the Campaign

What was important at this point is that I had a really fun dungeon crawler. Like I said, after the initial innovations with the card play mechanisms, it just exploded into this highly enjoyable system — but that wasn't enough for me. Not by a long shot.

With the early "tribe" iterations, I was content to use the system to create single, independent scenarios. You head into a dungeon with your friends, kill the monsters, and that's the whole game. By the time the newer Gloomhaven system was in full swing, though, I had experienced the campaign play of Descent and knew there was something much more epic to be done. The game play of Descent is fairly basic, but the campaign aspect — stringing scenarios together and accumulating items and advanced abilities to face harder monsters — was scratching an itch I didn't realize board games could scratch. And once you start scratching that itch, you don't want to stop.

As I said at the beginning, I am a huge fan of role-playing games, and the idea that a structured board game could emulate a full Dungeons & Dragons campaign or an Elder Scrolls game was something I was desperate to explore. I wanted to see how far I could push it. I wanted to build an entire world that would feel expansive and open and would actually react to players' choices.

It should be stated up-front that I didn't start this journey trying to make a legacy game. To me, legacy is simply the concept of altering components and revealing new components over repeated plays, and, like any other game mechanism (such as deck-building or worker-placement), it has the potential to enhance a game play experience when used the right way. I don't think a designer should sit down and say, "I want to make a legacy game," any more than I think they should sit down and say, "I want to make a deck-building game." Use the mechanisms where they fit to make your core game a better experience.

To dismiss Gloomhaven as a legacy game is highly reductive and narrow-minded. Gloomhaven is a tactical dungeon crawl with an open and expansive world. Because it is so expansive, however, I felt using some legacy mechanisms was the best way to deliver it to players. If I wanted players to keep coming back week after week to play my game, I had to give them something to work towards. There had to be a sense of discovery to the game, hidden parts that would reveal themselves over time.

The most straight-forward example of this are the locked character classes. There are six character classes players can use when they first open the box and another eleven that can be played only once specific conditions are fulfilled. Maybe seventeen classes was a little overboard for a single box, considering each one has a unique deck of around thirty ability cards, but I love them all, and it definitely feeds into the concept of a giant, unexplored world. All seventeen of these classes could be available from the start, but then you are front-loading the joy of discovery. The best feeling in the game is opening one of those character boxes and seeing what amazing creature is waiting for you inside. It is a major incentive for players to keep coming back for more.

The progression of an individual character is also a massively exciting part of any campaign game. It's hard to call this "legacy" as the idea of character progression has been around for ages, but it is still an important part of that persistent, ever-changing nature of the game. Since it has been around for ages, though, there weren't too many innovations here. Players get money, then they buy equipment that helps them kill stuff better. They gain experience and level up, which gives them access to cooler abilities, more hit points, and the opportunity to customize their attack modifier decks. (I told you I'd come back to this.) This modifier deck customization is the secondmost exciting part of character progression to me because, as I said above, it is not something you can do very well with dice. Your deck starts out as a D20, but then you start taking out bad cards, adding good cards, and it quickly becomes something impossible to represent with any number of dice.

The most exciting part of character progression, though, is the fact that characters retire and get put back in the box. As soon as you create a character, you draw a "personal quest" — a long-term goal that represents the character's sole reason for becoming a mercenary in the first place. When a character completes this quest, they are forced to retire, and this is what unlocks new character classes to be played. This whole concept was born from the fact that I wanted the game to be big. Sure, playing a single character is exciting and fun, but there are so many characters in the box and players are going to be itching to play something new long before they've fully explored the campaign. I wanted this switch from one character to the next to be represented in the mechanisms, so retirement was created.

The other incentive here is that a personal quest gives each character an official story arc. Since the campaign world itself is so big and open, I wanted the narrative to be more focused on the characters than on some over-arching epic plot of world-ending evil. Sure, there is an official ending scenario that players will reach, and the stakes are sufficiently high, but I didn't want players to feel like that was the point of the game. There will be plenty more of the world to explore even after the "end boss" is killed.

Which brings me to the next legacy aspect of the game: the actual map board, a visual representation of both the world that you inhabit and the scenarios that are available to play. The idea here is that this is not a linear campaign. It is a sprawling world full of side-paths and branching story threads that opens up the more you play. I wanted to capture that feel of playing an Elder Scrolls game. You're heading off to a mission when you see some strange cave in the distance. You head over to it, either to explore it immediately or maybe just to mark it on your map so you can explore it later. Even with all the twists and forks in the story, I'm sure there were other ways I could have created a system to visualize what scenarios were available to your party at any given time, but I don't think any could be more engrossing or visually appealing than a nice, big board full of stickers. The world starts as a blank canvas, and, as you play, you slowly start to color in the details, which is something I find incredibly exciting.

The last major persistent part of the campaign are the event cards. I think this was one of the last mechanisms to be implemented, and they emerged as a way to add even more color and immersiveness to the world. I wanted to give the players more choices and give the world more opportunities to react to those choices. Every time players return to town or head out on the road for a new adventure, they draw an event card that gives them a little story, then a binary choice to make. Once the choice is made, the card is flipped over and the consequences are revealed. This is a very simple mechanism, but it allows for a huge number of opportunities to make players feel like they are playing in a living, breathing world. Players will develop a reputation which will then have an impact on the outcome of events. Completing certain quests may cause cards to be added to the event decks, giving the world a chance to react to the players' deeds. Retiring characters will also add cards, meaning that players may run into their old party mates later on down the road. I definitely drew inspiration from Robinson Crusoe here, with the idea that choices you made in events may affect what happens in your game later on. It's just great storytelling, and I'd be a fool not to use it.

In the end, I never intended to make a 21-pound game. I intended to give players a complete world to explore, and those 21 pounds were just the natural progression of that concept. I let the story grow and expand to fill in all the cracks of the world, and I ended up with 95 separate scenarios. To fill in those scenarios, I needed a plethora of map tiles and terrain features, in addition to an expansive bestiary of monsters to make sure the game never felt repetitive. I ended up with 36 different monster types, plus thirteen unique bosses. Add in the seventeen character classes — every exciting and unique character idea I could come up with, each with their own player mat, character sheet, miniature, and decks of ability cards and modifier cards — and, well, all that card stock and cardboard started to add up.

I could not be more proud of how it turned out, though. I feel like I have delivered on my vision, and now I eagerly wait to see where my 21-pound baby goes from here. The game was designed to make additional content easy to create, so I am looking forward to seeing what unique scenarios the community creates from the core system and how the world will continue to expand and grow from here.

Isaac Childres
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Mon Feb 27, 2017 5:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Light & Dark, or The Power of Constraint

Trevor Benjamin
United Kingdom
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Constraint breeds creativity, they say. Well how's this for a constraint? My five-year-old daughter regularly pulls games off my shelf — Kingdom Builder, Splendor, For Sale — and tells me she wants to play them. These are not children's games, of course, so as I pull pieces from the box I have to figure out how to turn them into children's games — and quickly! (Patience is not a virtue shared by many five-year-olds.) This high-pressure design challenge has led to many awful games, but it has also led to the flick-and-flip mechanism that became Light & Dark.

In this case, the game on my shelf was Ding!. Ding! is a trick-taking card game in which players can opt out of a hand if they don't feel they can make the required number of tricks. This decision is tracked through a set of player-colored plastic disks that say "in" on one side and "out" on the other. My daughter and I had just finished playing a stripped-down version of the trick-taking game itself when she said, "Okay, Daddy, now I want to play a game with these", pointing to the disks. So my challenge was to create a child-friendly game using only a set eight double-sided disks, all in different colors. Fun!

As I fumbled with the disks and slid them around the table, inspiration struck. "Okay", I said, "each turn you flick one of the disks. If you hit any other disks, you flip them over. My job is to flip all the disks to their 'in' side; your job is to flip all the disks to their 'out' side." Three rules. That was the game. For the next twenty minutes, we played and, rather surprisingly, it wasn't terrible. It needed work of course, but there was something there.

A few days later I met Matt Dunstan and pitched him the idea, and we quickly hammered out the details. There should be two types of disks, one which you can flick (what became druids) and one which you can't (torches). To win, you need to flip only one type of disk to your side. This sped up the game and added some tactical variability and depth. We also added special power cards for additional variability and texture. Playing on a bar table with condiments and glasses also inadvertently alerted us to how much extra variety you can get from simply changing the amount of clutter in the playing area!

Theme was the next hurdle. It was clear that there were two factions, but who were they and what were they fighting over? Once we recognized that flipping could be "conversion", the rest came quickly: the druids, the torches, and the name. (Bonus points if you can identify the character we borrowed for our prototype druid!)

We brought Light & Dark with us to SPIEL 2015, pitched it to a few different publishers, and got very positive feedback. Perhaps not surprisingly, the best comment came from AEG. After finishing his first game, CEO John Zinser said, "If I can have this much fun with just eleven disks, I definitely want to publish this game!" We were very happy to sign with AEG on the spot, and we love what they've done with the game. (Rita Micozzi's artwork is wonderful!)

So that's the story of Light & Dark. It is an incredibly simple game, but it's a game with a heart. We've really enjoyed making it and hope you enjoy you playing it!

Trevor Benjamin & Matthew Dunstan

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Mon Jan 30, 2017 1:00 pm
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Designer Preview: Jump Drive

Tom Lehmann
United States
Palo Alto
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Jump Drive is a card game for 2-4 players that introduces players to the Race for the Galaxy universe.

Each round, players simultaneously place and then reveal cards to build their empires, discarding other cards to pay for them.

Cards placed score every round, producing victory points and card draws. For example, Deserted Alien Colony produces 4 VPs and two cards each round.

Players must balance building up their income versus gaining points. The game ends once any player has 50+ points. The player with the most points wins!

How Long To Warp Speed?

Cards are either developments or worlds.

Each round, a player may place either one development, one world, or one of each. If only a development is played, the player pays one fewer card. If only a world is played, the player draws an extra card. If both are played, the player pays the full amount and doesn't draw an extra card.

Early on, players must choose between building their empires either efficiently via these bonuses or quickly by placing two cards at once. Since cards score every round, VPs build up rapidly. Jump Drive is quite fast, typically lasting just six or seven rounds with experienced players. This increases the tension around how to build your empire.

Prepare The Drop Ships!

Non-military worlds and developments are placed by paying their listed cost in cards. Military worlds don't cost cards, but must be conquered by having as many or more +1 Military icons in your empire than the military world's listed defense.

A development's powers can affect a world placed with it (but not vice versa), so Drop Ships and the Imperium Blaster Factory could be played together for a total of six cards from hand (these two cards, plus four cards to pay for Drop Ships).

Consult The Archives

Players familiar with two previous games of mine, Race for the Galaxy and The City, will recognize Jump Drive as a cross between them. Jump Drive is not a "re-skin" of The City. While they share per turn scoring, paying for cards with other cards, and 50 VPs to win, that's it: Jump Drive has a different setting, a second card type, different placement rules, military conquest, and a totally different card mix. Many Jump Drive cards share art, titles, and game effects with Race for the Galaxy cards and have no corresponding cards in The City.

Compared to Race, Jump Drive is drastically simplified. I've eliminated goods entirely (along with Produce, Consume, and Trade) and combined Develop and Settle into a single build phase each round, while converting their bonuses into tempo considerations.

Aside from +1 Military, two other Race symbols — the chromosome and the Explore "eyeball" — can appear on the side of cards. These factor into various card powers.

A player who doesn't place any cards in a round explores instead, taking an Explore chip and drawing two cards, plus one card per "eyeball" symbol (including the three eyeballs on the top half of this chip). After mixing them with cards in hand, the player discards as many cards as their "eyeball" symbols for a net gain of two cards (before collecting VPs and income for that round).

One major different from Race is that players can place duplicates in their empires in Jump Drive. There are seven copies of Galactic Trendsetters in the 112 card deck; a player who has placed, say, three Galactic Trendsetters would score 18 points from them every round.

How Fast Are They Doing That Kessel Run?

One complaint about Race (and The City) is that they have "low" amounts of player interaction.

The amount of interaction present in a competitive strategy game isn't just about its form, but whether players can A) judge how well they are doing and B) if they are behind, adjust their play to have a real chance of passing the leader.

A game that provides direct player attacks which are often too little, too late doesn't have "high" player interaction; this interaction is just noise. By contrast, if attacks do often result in lead changes, then this interaction is real. It's not the form, it's the effect that matters.

The simplest interaction is "racing" interaction: judging whether an early leader will be able to maintain the pace and, if so, increasing your pace in response (accepting an increased risk that you get exhausted or stumble, etc.).

In Jump Drive, players have to balance efficiency versus speed. If another player gets off to a good start, then you may have to abandon your "perfect plan" and take some risks by spending more cards to accelerate your empire building and hoping that you draw useful cards.

This isn't the only player interaction in Jump Drive. Many high-cost developments enable players to score extra points based on one other player's empire (of your choice). If another player has two Alien worlds and you have just one Alien world, then placing Alien Technology Institute may still be worth it.

Trade Pact is a cheap way (unless you've already built some Military) to both get started and to implicitly make an offer to other players for mutual benefit. War Propaganda is risky: it's a 6-point net swing in VPs per turn if you lose it to another player, but it can gain you a lot of points if you can maintain the Military lead.

Scan That World

Since Jump Drive is intended to introduce players to the Race for the Galaxy universe, we kept Race's icons, but drastically reduced their number to just military, explore, chromosome, development, and the four world colors.

Most Jump Drive cards are straight-forward, with simple discounts or bonuses. Five cards have more complex powers, such as Contact Specialist, described in text on the card.

We've taken advantage of this simplicity. Mirko Suzuki designed a card template using sideways bleed to show off the artwork from Martin Hoffmann and Claus Stephan. We also added "moons" to the colored worlds as an aid for color-blind players.

Adding It Up

In addition to cards, Jump Drive comes with Explore markers and 84 victory point chips. I experimented with score boards, cribbage-style scoring, score pads, etc. as different ways to keep score. Chips worked best for most people.

If players put their chips below the cards they play each round, they can add the new VPs they earn each round to the number of chips under the previous round's card, and collect this total. This avoids having to count up VPs every round.

The cards were designed to support this, with card names at both top and bottom so they can be easily overlapped. In the rules, we walk new players through an empire's early growth, illustrating how the VP chips are used.

Finally, we provide preset hands (A-D) for players' very first game. After that, just shuffle and deal seven cards to all players, who then choose five to form their initial hands.

Computer, What Is Your Analysis?

An inevitable question is which do I think is better, The City (which is out of print with no English edition) or Jump Drive? I think both are worth owning if you enjoy quick, tableau-building games with hand management, card combos, engine building, and different strategies to explore.

Jump Drive is more "combo-rific" due to the interplay between devs and worlds within turns as well as across turns. Jump Drive's ability to place two cards in a turn and a smaller hand limit (10 vs 12) makes for tougher hand management.

Tempo is important in both games, but saving one turn to place a big card in the next is more effective in The City. This, along with sizing your engine appropriately, is where skillful play can really shine. I still enjoy playing The City and hope to see it printed in English one day.

(From a BGG point of view, does Jump Drive "reimplement" The City? I don't think so. They share per-turn scoring, paying for cards with other cards, and 50 VPs to win, but that's it: Jump Drive has a different setting, a second card type, different placement rules, military conquest, and a totally different card mix.)

While both games are about building a VP engine, Jump Drive places a greater emphasis on card engines. While one can win The City with anything from 1 to 15+ income, it's hard to win Jump Drive without an income of at least four cards per turn.

Even if you go the Military route, you still need income to build +Military devs, find military worlds to settle, and to place a "capstone" development for a final burst of VPs.

I'm excited to see Jump Drive released, and I hope it exposes more gamers to the universe of Race for the Galaxy. Enjoy!
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Mon Jan 16, 2017 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The Making of Greedy Greedy Goblins

Richard Garfield
United States
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I first started working on Greedy Greedy Goblins in about 2004 under the name "Greedy Greedy Dwarves" and later a playtester pointed out that I was missing an obvious alliteration.

I was interested in a real-time, luck-pressing game and thought the atmosphere of pushing your luck in a mine to get the most treasure possible before it collapsed was a strong one. This is not the first time I have worked on a real-time game; my first was a collaborative design, Twitch, in the 1990s. While I really enjoy the game play of Twitch, I do have trouble getting people to play because it is so intensely speed oriented. Players who stick with the game can develop strategies that could counter faster players to some degree, but in the end Twitch is a game about reflexes and fast playing.

With Greedy Greedy Goblins, I wanted to see something different; I wanted the game to be less about reflex and more about making game decisions. To this end the core game was designed as follows: Players look at face-down tiles and decide which cave those tiles go in. At any time, a player can lock down a cave as their own by putting one of their pawns there.

An early playtest version of Greedy Greedy Dwarves with gems, a monster, single and double dynamite,
some x2s (which I don't remember what they were for), and a pillar (with pillars counteracting dynamite)

At first, the pressing of luck was almost entirely about another player beating you to a cave you have played a lot of treasure on. The real breakthrough element in the design was the dynamite, which made the cave much more valuable with one or two pieces, but penalized a player if there were three or more. (You can be and should be greedy-greedy but not greedy-greedy-greedy.) With the amount of dynamite I put in the game — a lot — you can be sure that if there are a lot of tiles on a cave, it is a dangerous place to send your goblins.

This core gameplay appealed to me because a player who chooses to play slowly and be observant can often make better decisions about which cave to take ownership of than a player who just plays quickly at the expense of strategy or a better global awareness. Some of the best players I have seen make just enough moves to throw monkey wrenches into other people's plans while trying to read the best positions to take based on other people's play.

It was important that during the play portion of the game there were not many options that opened because of what you drew; the core play needed to be (1) look at a tile, (2) put it somewhere. If this were a turn-based game, I would likely have a cup of coffee tile which would make the person who played it put two tiles without looking at them face down in a single cave. In this game, though, I had to restrain myself from these sorts of mechanisms as there is plenty of decision-making simply in deciding where to put something; being forced to process more was just asking for players to inadvertently cheat or lose track of the simple flow of tiles that makes the game fun. One exception to that was the torch – which allows a player to see a tile someone else has played – but even this I made optional since so many players forgot to use the power in the heat of the moment.

Using cards to modify the game is one of my staple design tools. I didn't want the cards to be "played fast" for the same reason I didn't want to add tiles more complex than the torch; the focus of the game play had to remain look at a tile, choose where it goes. For this reason, none of the cards are played quickly; instead they are played when the tile-laying is finished. Even so, they still bring variety to the tile play since, for example, a card which makes rubies more valuable will encourage you try to do something clever with all the rubies you run across.

My favorite moment from playtesting was when my opponent realized I was beating them because I was correctly guessing where they were building their biggest treasure trove and grabbing it before they did. Anticipating that they were going to try the same to me, I put a lot of tiles in one cave and when they hesitated about taking it, fearing a trap, I faked trying to get my goblin there — allowing him to beat me to the dynamite warehouse that the cave had become.

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Fri Dec 30, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: One Crisis, Two Diaries

Sotiris Tsantilas
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Part I from Sotirios Tsantilas:

I should have kept real diaries. Crisis is not my first game, after all, so I should have known better. There comes a time when you want to write a designer's diary for your new game, and all the memories have gotten mixed in your head.

Crisis, Crisis, Crisis...well, I remember discussing a lot of stuff with Pantelis at a sunny Piraeus when the crisis broke up, the idea of an economic game, how pissed off we were with the politicians, adding things to the game little by little by taking ideas from the global situation — but is it possible to get things in order? Hmmmm, I may be able to take advantage of the oldest Crisis files in my computer. Yes, that's it. I will try to recreate the timeline of the designing through the dates of the files!

Let's see now where are we...

22-06-2011: Building Cards – Industry1.doc

Well, there are two files in my computer named "Bailout" and "Bailout Elutopia". That was originally the name of the game. They are dated to June 2011, so that's where the sunny Piraeus memories came from. Obviously, Pantelis and I started designing the game at that period. "Bailout Elutopia" includes the Oldstuff subfolder. I think we found the source.

In this subfolder is the oldest file of the game I managed to find: "Building Cards - Industry1". It is a collection of some level 1 industry companies. I can see they are not so different from the final prototype we used until the last couple of years.

On the cards we have printed the minimum and maximum values that this company can produce to help us balance the game. Remember, guys, balance is everything. Also, there is a mysterious (L) and (F) on the production...

In the Oldstuff folder there are more Building type files, the Export Deals, the Specialists file, and most importantly the Player Board, dated 27-06-2011. In this file, other than some aspects that have survived until today's final version, there are long tables with numbers: (L) or (F) money and VPs. Our first concept was to divide the income produced by each company into two categories: Local (domestic) and Foreign. Hence, you had to keep your money in two separate vaults. That's because after the production phase came the taxation phase. According to your contribution to the state, you earned VPs, and if the income originated from abroad, you got more VPs. Thus, we had prepared long tables to assign VPs according to your taxation income. A really fiddly job.

Thankfully, quite quickly we realized that we could incorporate the VPs in the production of the company, so we eliminated the taxation phase completely. The first player board file without taxation is dated 19-01-2012. Of course, until then the game had already been balanced in the previous version which, although fiddly, played really nicely, so we had to work on the mathematics of the game in order to make the new version as good as the previous one. Remember? Balance is everything...


It's time for some heavy playtesting. We have prepared a file with tables in order to keep track of how players are doing in each round, so we can adjust the austerity plans, which is a very tricky part. As in real life, the derivative of the Situation Function is not constant. Hah, gotcha there!

I mean, when things start to go wrong, they go faster and faster, so it's not easy to set financial goals for each round because they don't follow a linear rule. The same holds for growth, too. That's why we had to monitor a player's progress round by round.

(Does this table looks like Greek to you? That's because it is!)

In the meantime, every day something new was actually happening and most of the time it was really easy for us to find material to enrich the gameplay theme-wise. That was the time we thought about the Event and Influence cards. Politicians and economists throughout the globe did their best to provide us with so much material that we had to choose the more intriguing ones and discard the rest. This game was actually built on the theme.

Did I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name? Well, it really was.

01-02-2012: Bailout_rulebook.doc

First, we got rid of Elutopia. With the name of "Bailout" we participated in the 3rd Greek Guild's Game Design competition, and guess what: We won! Both Judges' and Peoples' Awards. Woo hoo!

After that, the road to success had opened before us, and after ONLY six years, publishers rushed to our doorsteps with amazing contracts — but enough with this success story, let's get back to the diary.

02-08-2012: Orion_cover.jpg

When the celebration was over, we thought it was a good time to move to the next level, with more professional artwork that would skyrocket us to the top of BGG's Hotness aaaaand a new extra cool sci-fi name: "Orion Inc."
Have I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name?

You know, Pantelis is a crazy Trekkie, like me, so we immediately agreed on the new name and theme. In this form, we developed the game even more, tweaking some numbers and expanding the Events and Influence Cards.

15-10-2012: orion_rulebook.pdf

The first rulebook of the "Orion Inc." version. The game is pretty much as we know it today, but without difficulty levels.

28-01-2013: snd_retheme.doc

What the heck is that?? I don't even remember discussing, much less writing it. Wow! Radiation poisoning...drifters...zombies????

Okay, let's not talk about that ever again.

17-09-2013: It's an email

From LudiCreations!

Finally, the game is going to be published! Helloooooo, LudiCreations! This is not the first contact between me and LudiCreations, but it is the first time where the name of Crisis is referred to. Everybody seems to be happy with it and with the dieselpunk re-theme, too, that was decided a few months later.

31-12-2013: crisis_1.vmod

I can't believe the date! Get a life, man! It is New Year's Eve, and I'm writing the first Vassal module of the game. I hope it was just a copy-paste, rename, or something else. I can't really believe it...

03-01-2014: allages.doc

Last changes to the game. We changed the numbers of Export Contracts and the way they come out. This way we maximize the possibility of getting almost every combination.

09-01-2014: Board3.pdf

For the first time we introduce difficulty levels.

28-11-2015: Crisis_rules_EN_000.2 orion_rulebook.pdf

The first semi-official rulebook of the game under the supervision of LudiCreations.

The last year was a frenzy of spreadsheets, playtesting, corrections, etc. Believe me, you don't wanna know.
But, the result of this six-year odyssey is the board game named Crisis. I hope you'll enjoy it!


Banker employee tiles
Part II from Pantelis Bouboulis:

I. Development

In mid-June, during the summer of 2010, the Greek financial crisis was just starting to show its jaws, although few could anticipate its deep and catastrophic impact on Greek society over the following years. A few months ago, following a large period of political inactivity, the Greek government was forced to sign the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with its partners in the EU and the I.M.F. As a result, Greece had pledged to implement reforms — such as a 30% decrease of salaries in the public sector, the increase of taxes, and a large number of privatizations — in return for a big loan that would keep the country from totally collapsing and shaking the troubled EU economy. As it is well known by now, the first MoU triggered a deep recession of the Greek economy leading to very high unemployment and a new debt crisis. Seven years later, the situation doesn't appear brighter.

It was in this political turmoil where the idea of the board game Crisis was inspired. I was thinking that it would be interesting to simulate a real economy in crisis, one in which players (playing the role of investors) are trying to save the country following an austerity plan (such as the one enforced by the MoU). That summer day, during a meeting for coffee with my dear friend Sotiris (an experienced board-game designer), I unfolded these ideas (rather crude at that time) and asked for his opinion. Sotiris was thrilled and soon after we began shaping the mechanism of the game, which we agreed to make as realistic as possible. Our main idea was that the investors would buy companies and services (taking advantage of the privatizations), hire local employees, produce goods, and finally earn money, while at the same time paying their taxes to the state.

We wanted these taxes to be very important for the survival of the economy as they represented state's income. In any real economy, if the state's income is low, then the financial situation worsens and this had to be reflected in the entire game. Furthermore, to link the game with the Greek memorandum era, we decided to add specific budget goals, i.e., at the end of each round the total amount of taxes gathered by the state should be greater than a specific number. In order to implement this philosophy we employed a financial-status indicator bar on the board, which actually represents the total tax revenues. If the total amount of taxes gathered is greater than the required goal, then the indicator moves forward, as the financial situation improves. On the other hand, if the players don't pay as many taxes as they should, then the indicator moves toward zero. If it drops below zero, then the country is declared bankrupt and all players lose.

Besides the obvious thematic flavor, the different thematic goals allowed us to simplify the set-up of the game for different player counts. Instead of blocking out options, or varying the available buildings and employees for different player counts, we simply set different budget goals. Thus, although fewer players have all the options available, they also have tighter goals to accomplish. This has the additional advantage that the game plays differently for various player counts (thus increasing replayability).

The first few months of the development we used paper money (similar to that used in Monopoly) for all purchases and tax payments. Each time a player sold goods, we computed the respective taxes (using a simple algorithm), which the player gave to the state, and moved the financial status indicator respectively. As you can understand, this was a tedious mechanism involving a lot of algebraic operations (which posed no problem to Sotiris and me, however, as we are both mathematicians).

Sotiris suggested replacing this mechanism with a simpler one using victory points. Thus, whenever a player sold goods, they gained money together with victory points. In a nutshell, we pre-computed the respective taxes and replaced them with victory points. For example, in the first version whenever a chemical unit was sold, the player earned 6 credits, then paid 3 of them to the state (taxation). In the new version, the player gains 3 credits and 2 victory points (which represent the player's contribution to the state's revenues). Of course this wasn't as simple as I describe it here as we had to convert the money to victory points in such a way that it was reasonable and didn't mess up the rest of the game. However, it is interesting to keep in mind that whenever you gain victory points in the game, this is because you are paying taxes! Don't you wish that taxation was that fun in real life, too?

During this period, we decided to call the game "Bailout", inspired by the famous term that dominated the news all around 2010-2012. Sotiris never liked it, but since he couldn't find anything better, he settled until the mechanism was finalized.

Various employee tiles
Another important issue was to find a hiring mechanism for the employees and a way for each company to benefit from specialized ones. I wanted the game to reflect that if you hire highly specialized people, then the company will flourish. Sotiris liked the idea, and we decided to incorporate this into the game. Thus, we came up with different employee types (workers, farmers, engineers, bankers), the modifier mechanism, and the employee's area, which is actually one of the most crowded areas of the game (as you probably have realized if you have played). We decided each employee would have a specific modifier that reflects the employee's specialties. Thus, highly skilled engineers might give a +3 boost in your company instead of the +1 you get by employing the average engineer. Of course not all employees need to be highly skilled as any factory requires a workforce for the "menial" tasks. This is why each company has slots for various types of employees (ranging from unskilled workers to highly specialized engineers and bankers).

Aside from the local employees, we added two more employee-related actions: the Temp-Employee and the Foreign Employees. These were added to ensure that all types of employees will be present in each round, although with a +1 modifier. As the economy is in crisis, no reasonable highly specialized people are expected to come and work. In many playtests during those early days (mainly between Sotiris and me) we experienced a phenomenon in which available companies required engineers to work, but no engineer was present in the employees section. Although this was not a major problem, it could seriously hurt the strategy of a player. Sotiris (having experience from the other board games that he designed) always felt that the players shouldn't get frustrated with the game if they were to love it.

Sample company cards
Every economy that wants to flourish must take care of its export deficit. In the game, this is represented by losing VPs when you import goods (since currency is leaving the country) and gaining VPs when you export goods (or equivalently paying taxes). Initially we thought about leaving the exports free, which means that each player could export as many goods as they liked (provided that a manager was present in the Imports section). However, later we decided to add a more competitive mechanism that would incorporate some kind of risk (meaning that it's possible to produce chemicals and not be able to sell them). We came up with the deal-acquiring mechanism after a lot of playtesting. The basic idea is that the needs of the global market are time-varying. Thus, we placed different deals (now called export contracts) in each round, ensuring that there is a higher probability to export units of the primary production (e.g., food, minerals) than those of the secondary (chemicals, industrials) or tertiary production (machines). Furthermore, we added a first-in-first-out queue so that players with similar production chains would compete for a spot. Hence, the commitment to industrial production might be risky, but it may also lead to significant profit.

Aside from the traditional legal exporting action, we decided to also include a black market. This action represents outlaw exports that are conducted without taxes. Hence, although the player might gain significantly more money, no VPs are gained since no taxes are paid. The idea for this kind of business came from the tax-evasion problems that we have been facing the last decades in Greece. Although a lot of people became quite rich by not paying any taxes to the state, Greece's economy suffers from these practices.

Up to this point, the game was a collection of solid rules that emulated a real-life economy under crisis, plus some standard board game actions (first player, etc.). However, we wanted to add a spicy twist into the game. Real life situations in Greece became a source of inspiration once again. Regularly in a global economy minor events can shift the economic status. The Event cards were designed to emulate these kinds of effects. Examples are:

• Emergency taxes (out of the blue); this is becoming a daily routine...
• Being downgraded by international agencies
• Corrupt politicians
• Scientists leaving the country
• Strikes and riots
• Real estate taxes

In addition to these "minor" events, we added the influence cards to emulate the real fact that every businessman needs connections within the government to succeed. Not surprisingly, many of them originate from (but are not limited to) the Greek situation as well.

• Corrupt union leaders
• Politicians that are sponsored by investors
• Loans given without proper assessment

II. The Greek Guild's Contest

During the last months of 2012, we decided that the game was almost complete and decided to show it to our friends in the Greek Guild of BoardGameGeek. A lot of those guys were enthusiastic about the game and helped us a lot in the final stages of development with their ideas and their long and many playtests. Many of them are still eagerly waiting for the published edition.

During this time the game was called "Bailout" (yes, Sotiris was still struggling to find a name that he liked) and the hypothetical country in crisis was called "Elutopia" (from the names "Hellas" and "Utopia"). With this name the game took part in the 3rd Greek Board Game Contest, where it won both the reviewers and public awards. The following photo is from a playtest during the competition when the public had the chance to play all games. The guy explaining the game is Sotiris, while I was enjoying my cheeseburger.

Of course, during this stage we didn't have any artwork at all. The game was printed on white papers and we had colored cubes to represent the materials. You can also see the printed money and the small employee cards. There was some amateur artwork involved with the buildings and the event cards that was done by me and Sotiris. It is worth noting that the game that won second place in that contest was Among the Stars...

III. The Orion Era

One morning after the contest, I had a call from Sotiris. This was perhaps the hundredth time that we had contacted each other to discuss the name of the game (although we didn't have any publisher yet). Sotiris had the epiphany to give a sci-fi theme to the game and rename it "Orion Inc". The storyline was that a planet (Valdor) that belonged to a large federation (Galactic Consortium) had financial problems and the federation had devised an austerity plan to save its economy. Being a dedicated Trekkie myself, I was happy with the idea (although I think that I was happier that Sotiris had finally found a name that he liked). We had a good friend draw us some sci-fi themed cards and uploaded both the photos and the rulebook to BoardGameGeek, where the game entered the "Hotness" list.

This is the storyline that we devised back then:

Valdor is a prosperous planet of the Orion Arm that's inhabited by a developing humanoid race. During the last century, the Valdorians have made vast technological and economic progress. Valdor, located relatively far from the economic center of the Galaxy, has asked to become a member of the Galactic Consortium, a large economic union of numerous races occupying the greater portion of the Sagittarius Arm, closer to the galactic center. But it is necessary in order to be accepted into the community to achieve certain difficult economic goals during a tight time frame consisting of seven years. Now it's Valdor's time to shine...or not? Corruption has begun to poison the members of the High Council, while other races would be more than happy to see their effort fail…

IV. LudiCreations

After about a year, we learned that LudiCreations was interested in publishing the game. They had seen the game in Greece and liked it a lot. Of course we were more than happy to have them handle its publication.

More than that, they embraced the game and enriched it with their own vision. The game was renamed Crisis and received a dieselpunk sci-fi theme. The LudiCreations team worked hard not only on the illustrations, but also to rearrange the board and the company cards in order to enhance the playing experience. Also, they were kind enough to allow us to take part in all production phases, asking our opinions on all matters. Now, we are very excited to have an actual hard copy of Crisis in our hands!

Crisis at SPIEL 2016
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Mon Dec 19, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Black Orchestra, or the Art of Patience

Philip duBarry
United States
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Black Orchestra has probably taken longer than any of my previous designs, yet I feel like all the hard work has finally paid off. I have been thrilled with the level of excitement from the pre-order campaign and then the official release at BGG.CON 2016. What could have been a toxic theme and a public-relations nightmare has been remarkably well-received. Dann May and Cody Jones have helped me realize my vision for the game with stunning, yet respectful, art and tense gameplay.

The basic idea for Black Orchestra grew out of my lifelong fascination with World War II and, specifically, the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler. Some of this has to do with a childhood association between the Nazis and the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. I hardly believed that such an authoritarian regime could have ever existed in real life. Since my childhood, I have visited a number of museums including the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Imperial War Museum in London. The atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis surpass one's ability to comprehend them. We will never be in doubt that evil exists in this world so long as we remember these tragic events.

In addition to watching epic films and documentaries, as well as playing games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Axis & Allies, I enjoy reading books on the subject. I found Albert Speer's autobiographical account of the war chilling, though it should be taken with a grain of salt. I have read about D-Day, the Nuremberg trials, and the Nazi hunters of more recent times. However, one book rises above all others. In August 2011, Eric Metaxis published his masterful biography of a lesser-known character in the drama of the war. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy recounts the life of the brilliant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the rise of Hitler. His commitment to preaching the Bible put him directly at odds with the Nazi propaganda machine. He later joined the Abwehr (Germany's military intelligence agency) to work against the Nazi regime from the inside, bolstering the conviction of the conspirators, and ultimately giving his life for the cause.

This book set my mind to the creation of a cooperative game surrounding the various plots to assassinate Hitler. By November 2011, I completed my first prototype. The game combined a few key elements. First, the conspirators had to be motivated to do things in the game. High motivation would allow players to perform their special ability and attempt plots against Hitler; low motivation would limit them to only two cards. Players would also need to manage their level of suspicion as the Gestapo would be relentlessly tracking them down. Extremely high suspicion would land you in jail should the Gestapo decide to conduct a raid.

Prototype game board from 2011

Another core element was the incorporation of a special event deck. I wanted the game to move somewhat sequentially through the events of World War II. You would see Paris fall and other military campaigns ebb and flow. You would also hear rumors about horrible atrocities. Finally, the Allies would begin to close in on the Third Reich. These events needed to be somewhat structured, but they also needed to vary from game to game. The solution was to divide the game's timeline into seven sections and shuffle each of these individually to form the final event deck.

One of the key effects of this deck was to modify Hitler's military support and level of security or exposure. This would lead into another important mechanism in the game: a dramatic dice roll finale. Common design wisdom holds that you should never let the end of a game be determined randomly. However, that's exactly how it happened historically. In this version of Black Orchestra, players would gather materials and modifiers, all seeking the perfect time and place for the assassination attempt. Then you took your chance and rolled a handful of dice — the classic stand-up dice roll on steroids! If you rolled higher than the combined value of Hitler's military support and security, you won. If you failed...the consequences would be swift and severe.

The resulting game captured much of the experience I desired. Playing this first version did feel tense and ominous. I noticed myself and other players having some of the same conversations that must have occupied the actual conspirators of history. Judging when to strike and figuring out the chances of success also helped to moderate the alpha player problem common to many co-op games. With so many variables and the final result always in doubt, there is no perfect solution for a more dominant player to force on everyone else. Of course, the game would need significant playtesting and myriad tweaks and adjustments along the way.

Black Orchestra was off to a promising start, but the road to publication would be long. In fact, I wondered whether any publisher would be brazen enough to embrace such a difficult theme. The subject matter and imagery of the game would close off whole sections of the market, most notably Germany. I could not expect such a game to be welcomed there. Indeed, many of the visual elements in the game violate a number of laws there, to say nothing of the gritty, militaristic feel — something studiously avoided by most European publishers. Even so, my intense interest in this corner of history impelled me to continue playtesting and development. I also felt a calling to recount these tragic events. We ought never forget the factors leading to Hitler's rise to power and the atrocities that resulted.

Prototype for a Conspirator board, and the final version

I spent the first half of 2012 testing and refining the game. One key addition during this time was the use of item tiles. Previously, items had to be collected from the deck of player cards. Now those items would reside at each location on the board. Players would need to collect them in order to fulfill plot requirements. Players would also need to roll a die to find the items, thus creating another use for the dice in the game.

In June 2012 I attended the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, as I had in years past. I brought a number of prototypes with me, including Black Orchestra, though I had little idea of who might be interested in seeing it. During the show I first met Dan Yarrington of the newly-formed Game Salute. He looked at just about every game I brought, suggesting improvements in the theme and presentation of many of them. He also wanted to see two in greater detail: "Bank Job" (now Skyway Robbery) and Black Orchestra. He was intrigued by the bold choice of theme.

What followed was an invitation to the longest dinner of my life. We headed out to the famous Schmidt's Sausage Haus, the perfect backdrop for discussing my Hitler game but not so good for my stomach ailment at the time. After getting lost, we then waited over two hours to get a table. The dinner itself lasted another two hours. We didn't get back to the convention center until 11:00 p.m. We then played my two prototypes, and I didn't get to bed until about 3:00 a.m. In the morning, I signed the game over to Dan under its new in-your-face name: "Hitler Must Die".

The conspirators working to undermine Hitler needed massive reserves of patience if they hoped to succeed. I also found the need for patience as I waited for my co-op game to enter active development and publication. Back in 2012, the picture looked rosy. Game Salute would be kickstarting my games in short order and be ready for more after that. Unfortunately, they ended up signing a very large number of games that season. Mine would have to wait in line. Additionally, Skyway Robbery required an extensive amount of artwork, delaying that project even further. While I had continued to test the game and make marginal improvements, it would not be until a Gen Con 2015 meeting with Dann May, Game Salute's art director, that development would truly begin in earnest.

Our work on the game fortuitously coincided with the appearance of an important new tool: Tabletopia. Other attempts had been made to emulate the board game experience on computers and other electronic devices, but Tabletopia seemed to be driven by a new vision. They succeeded in gaining the cooperation of many publishers, allowing them to offer real games instead of knock-off versions. Though still in beta, Tabletopia helped us playtest Black Orchestra with a fresh intensity. Dann May, Cody Jones (in charge of graphic design), and I spent many sessions hammering out the final product.

Tabletopia playtest in October 2015

Several major systems were added or overhauled during this process. One of the biggest was the change in how dice would work. Instead of using standard dice, we would produce custom dice featuring symbols. Hitler's military support and security level would be simplified and converted to symbols. Now the players would need to roll a target number of crosshair symbols but avoid rolling a certain number of eagle symbols. The experience of players in jail would also change. Now players needed to roll a die result based on their motivation in order to resist an interrogation. If they failed, they would draw an interrogation card. This card lists three painful options. The player must secretly choose one of these options and resolve it. This effect adds some interesting suspense to the game.

We also added the Conspire action to the list of those available. Once per turn, you may choose to conspire by rolling one die for each remaining action. Rolling numbers (1, 2, or 3) will result in bonus actions. Rolling an eagle will increase your suspicion level. Rolling a crosshair symbol will transfer the die to the Dissent track, eventually providing more motivation for the players or lowering Hitler's support.

Finally, we knew that some players might prefer a more difficult experience. This is why we added an advanced variant requiring players to hunt down some of Hitler's deputies as well as Hitler himself. Failure to do so could result in a tarnished victory as one of the deputies would simply take control of the Nazi regime himself.

The last touch was to change back to my initial title: Black Orchestra. We feel this name better fits with the mood and atmosphere of mystery and suspense we are trying to create. It also links the game more directly to its historical roots, something I value greatly. We have been careful to treat this serious theme with respect, trying to hit the right notes with its visual presentation and game play. Thanks to Dann and Cody for all their many contributions. I am quite happy with the end result and I've enjoyed seeing the game make its way into the hands of gamers all over the world. May this critical moment in history never be forgotten.

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Mon Dec 12, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Body Party, or Vanishing Right Before Your I

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Body Party exists due to industry contacts and false memories.

Right after I posted a selfie with the game in August 2014, I was sorry that it had been published and wanted nothing to do with it ever again.


In his book I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter proposes that consciousness is a mirage, an epiphenomenon that emerges from the countless interactions taking place at a scale below our level of perception. An example of such from his book:

One day, many years ago, I wanted to pull all of the envelopes from a small cardboard box lying on the floor of my study and stick them as a group into one of my desk drawers. Accordingly, I picked up the box, reached into it, clasped my right hand around the pack of envelopes inside it (about a hundred in number), and squeezed tightly down on them in order to pull them all out of the box as a unit. Nothing at all surprising in any of this. But all of a sudden I felt, between my thumb and fingers, something very surprising. Oddly enough, there was a marble sitting (or floating?) right in the middle of that flimsy little cardboard box! […]

I peered in between the envelopes, looking for a small, smooth, colored glass sphere. No luck. Then I fumbled about with my fingers between the envelopes, feeling for it. Again no soap. But then, as soon as I grasped the whole set of envelopes as before, there it was again, as solid as ever! Where was this little devil of a marble hiding?


My dad didn't play many games with the family when I was young, preferring solitaire puzzles on the computer such as Sokoban and Everett Kaser's Sherlock as he disliked competition, but every so often he would join us for games, such as the deduction game Alibi from Mayfair Games. For some reason he really enjoyed the challenge of creating complex questions that could still be answered with a number, as was required by the rules: "Using 1 for 'yes' and 0 for 'no,' give me a six digit binary number that tells me which character cards you've seen."

He also liked the Parker Brothers game Funny Bones — coincidentally published the year I was born — most likely because we never worried about who won when we played. Two of us tried to hold as many cards between us as we could while everyone else watched and laughed.


Excerpt from a Bruno Faidutti article about reviews, slightly edited for style:

W. Eric Martin is in charge of the news feed of BoardGameGeek. He's a really nice guy, fun, open-minded, talkative, and I always enjoy meeting him at game fairs. That's why I've always been surprised by how boring his video reviews are, until some day in a Facebook discussion he boasted about the way he could review a game without letting his personal feeling show through, so that gamers could make their own free and independent opinion on whether they will like the game or not. No wonder I don't like his reviews, since the only interesting thing would be his personal opinion on the games.

I find this frustrating and meaningless. By restraining from giving their own opinion, from telling what they have and want to tell, Eric and all the reviewers who share his approach are emasculating their own works. Like the rules paraphrases, this must be boring to write, and it's no wonder it's also boring to read or look at. Such descriptive reviews usually don't give more useful information than the blurb at the back of the box…

Reviewing a game in a cold and impersonal way, ignoring the pleasure, fun, anger or boredom one felt while playing, it's focusing on the subsidiary and ignoring the crux of the matter, the feel of the game. It's frustrating both for the reviewer, who doesn't give his opinion, and for the reader who doesn't learn anything useful. Can you imagine a book or movie critic restraining himself from telling what he thinks of a novel or movie? Where would be the point in reading his reviews? It's not different with games.


Excerpt from a note I sent my then-girlfriend (now-wife) in high school:

But what does it matter because in a hundred years we'll all be dead anyway.


I've met hundreds of publishers since I started writing about board and card games in the early 2000s, and some are better than others at explaining what they want to see in a game design. Matthieux d'Epenoux of Cocktail Games is one of the best. I had met d'Epenoux a few times at SPIEL in the mid-2000s, and in 2008 he contacted me about editing English-language rules for a few upcoming titles, one of which was Reiner Knizia's Robot Master.

I edited the rules, then met d'Epenoux at SPIEL 2008 to thank him for the work and get paid. We talked about how he decides on what to publish, and he gave three rules for Cocktail titles, although plenty of exceptions exist:

• They must consist solely of cards.
• They must be explainable in one minute and playable in ten.
• They must be as fun to watch as they are to play.

He also explained how masterful Knizia is at giving publishers what they want, noting that he'll meet with Knizia at one fair, mention specific topics or types of games that he wants, then Knizia will approach him at the next fair with a catalog of designs to fit Cocktail's needs.


In the late 1990s, a short story of mine published in Speak magazine led to both an agent and a book editor contacting me to see whether I had enough stories, either already written or still waiting to be extracted from my head, to publish as a collection. I found the attention discomfiting, swearing to all that I couldn't possibly do such a thing.


My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a couple of years before he died from complications following a fall. One story of his that I still remember well from his later years:

While running errands one day, he unexpectedly ran into my mother at the mall — unexpectedly as she had taken the other car to do errands of her own — and while he knew who she was, he couldn't remember her name. He figured that his brain had taken all of his "home" information and put it in a mental box to be retrieved later because he was busy with other things at the time and needed to focus entirely on current tasks.


My college English professor, John Batty-Sylvan, introduced me to many great works, the most profound being Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie, a theoretically first-person narrative in which the first person must be inferred from the description presented in the text, description that never veers from what a person might directly sense, placing you directly behind the mask of the main character and forcing you to generate everything that might be happening there. ("La jalousie" can mean either "jealousy" or a certain type of window blind, a lack of distinction unfortunately lost with the English-language title.)

La Jalousie presents a narrative without a narrator, a body of text without a self. This book resonated with me, ringing hard my own empty shell.


More from Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop:

Eventually it dawned on me that there wasn't any marble in there at all, but that there was something that felt for all the world exactly like a marble to this old marble hand. It was an epiphenomenon caused by the fact that, for each envelope, at the vertex of the "V" made by its flap, there is a triple layer of paper as well as a thin layer of glue. An unintended consequence of this innocent design decision is that when you squeeze down on a hundred such envelopes all precisely aligned with each other, you can't compress that little zone as much as the other zones — it resists coompression. The hardness that you feel at your fingertips has an uncanny resemblence to a more familiar (dare I say "a more real"?) hardness.


My memory is fairly terrible — always has been, really — and I often discover after the fact that I'm remembering something in a way that didn't happen, assigning events and quotes to different times or people than where they originated.

Games are concrete objects, with names and numbers that don't change no matter when you take them from the shelf, but I find that I'm not remembering them as well as I used to. I can partly attribute this to the sheer number of games that I see each year, that number ballooning annually beyond the ability of anyone to fathom, much less experience, but only partly. I sample and share what I can, while letting most of it pass over me like rain, content to hope that someone else finds it quenching.


Despite appearing in game demonstration videos and being interviewed on radio shows and having my name in this space all the time, I'm not someone who craves publicity. I'm not interested in being famous, and I feel embarassed each time someone says something along those lines at conventions or game stores or at my house when they show up for game day.

Yes, I'm a guy who does public things, and yes, my name and face is out there, but that's not me. I'm playing a role; I step into that role at a particular time, do the thing, then retreat into privacy once again. I'm not the one who appears on camera. I just play that guy on BGG TV.


Another author introduced to me in college by Batty-Sylvan was Jorge Luis Borges, and some of Borges' recurring themes in his short stories included identity and the mirroring of the world, the abstract and the make-believe being made inseparable from the real, as in this one-paragraph story "On Exactitude In Science", as translated here by Andrew Hurley:

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map,inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658


I often forget to look at myself in a mirror before going out — or maybe "forget" isn't the right word as I just don't think about looking at myself. I know that I'm there because I'm walking around and wearing clothes and eating food so that's good enough, right?


One night, for reasons unknown to me now, I thought of my family and what we played in the past. I reminisced about the gloriously dark cloud at the heart of Bermuda Triangle and our dexterity version of All the King's Men. I thought about Funny Bones and its double-sided cards and its head-to-head play and the points on each side of the card, although I couldn't remember how the game ended.

In the morning, I downloaded the rules for Funny Bones and discovered that it didn't play anything like how I remembered it, so I messed around with my fake recollected game, streamlined it further so that teams competed to hold a certain numebr of cards first to win, then pitched it to Cocktail Games, knowing that the design fit d'Epenoux's criteria and that I wouldn't pitch it anywhere else if Cocktail didn't want it.

D'Epenoux agreed to publish the game, after which I immediately started wondering whether he had signed the contract because he thought I was going to publicize it heavily on BGG, after which I started hating myself for not trusting his judgment and honesty because he had always seemed like an up-front person in the past. I could barely talk to him after that, always feeling like a fraud who had snookered his way into publication. I hesitated to cover Cocktail following the game's announcement as I didn't want to come across as favoring my publisher, effectively punishing it instead. I didn't know how to relate to this experience, and I just wanted it to end so that I could retreat to what I knew and keep on keeping on.


From an email I sent in 2008:

I don't feel that I have to convince others that my point of view is the right POV, that everyone must agree with me. I'm writing as a way to record my own thoughts and beliefs and observations, to figure out what I think. Ideally the writing will interest others and make them think about things in a new way, but I have no faith that it will. People get stuck in tracks of thought, and challenging someone's beliefs is rarely enough to encourage them to look at something from a different POV. Everything gets processed through a person's skein of reality, for good or ill.


While roaming the Boston Pubic Library one day, I ran across a fascinating book by Douglas Harding titled On Having No Head in which he writes about the philosophy of headlessness, what he calls "the headless way" for as he points out you can never see your own head the way that you see the rest of the world, which should give you pause as to what's really going on on top of your shoulders.

One experiment he suggests is called "Two-way pointing":

Point with one index finger outwards at the world, and with your other index finger point inwards towards your no-face.

The finger pointing outwards points at a scene full of countless shapes and colours. It’s a complicated picture. The more time you spend looking at it, the more there is to see. And most of it is hidden — obscured by other things in one way or another.

The view in is different. Here the space is not hidden at all. You can see it all, all at once. In the photograph I can see only part of the room in the distance, but here I see all of the space. There is nothing more to view here, nothing concealed. Nor is this being that I am here — and that you are here (I suggest) — remote in any way. It is right here, it is what I am. It is the "part" of me that I can never lose. What could be simpler than seeing this — and being this? It is uncomplicated, transparent, open to inspection, nearer than near, given in its entirety…

Is this Who you really are? Are you empty of everything, and at the same time capacity for this endlessly changing view out, room for this amazing world? To find out, just look. Seeing the space here is simpler than simple.


As soon as Borges had been presented to me, I read nearly everything he had written, finding multiple similarities between his work and Robbe-Grillet's — so much so that for one of my essays in college English, I "wrote" about La Jalousie by stitching together quotes from Borges' stories and essays. In the final paper, 95% of the essay was someone else's writing now repurposed, my voice clearly heard, yet simultaneously unnecessary thanks to my efforts to ventriloquize the dead.


My story from Speak:

Maybe Next Time

So I see you in a cafe reading the Sunday newspaper and having coffee, and on a whim I sit down across from you so I can read a section of the paper as well, although mostly I look at you over the top of the page. I ask you questions about your weekend and weekdays and work life and home life, and I find out you don't have anyone special in your life, no lover or significant other, no partner who considers you the most wonderful person in the world, and this surprises me as you seem to be a charming and lovely person, intelligent, witty. I invite you out for a movie, dancing, a trip to the circus, a walk on a pier in moonlight. We have an evening that satisfies both of us, more evenings and weekend trips, seventeen months of sharing a bed, a kitchen, an apartment, thirty-four years of marriage before you die, leaving me and our son and two daughters to mourn our loss, leaving me without the most important person in my life, leaving me alone for three years before I die. The only thing that survives us, that shows we were together, are our children, but then our children have four children and their children have nine and those nine, fourteen. Our genes spread through the human race and would be a part of every man and woman on the planet except before that happens everyone is killed by chemical agents that leak out of forty-thousand-year-old canisters. The earth lies empty of animal life for the remainder of its lifespan, for six hundred thirty-five million years and then the sun melts the earth to nothing as it expands and dissipates its energy. The remains of the solar system are devoured one-and-three-quarter billion years later by a black hole, which is then consumed by another, and slowly the entirety of the universe is drawn to one point as one black hole cannibalizes another, then another, increasing its mass until it becomes all-devouring. The enormous and universal mass that it absorbs and contains crushes it back to a single point that explodes a nanosecond later to refill and recreate the universe. Fifteen billion years of development create thousands of galaxies and millions of stars and a million million planets and more specifically, in a galaxy which some of its residents call the Milky Way, a solar system with a plain yellow sun and nine planets, the third planet overflowing with carbon-based life. One species advances to the point that it can transmit energy through wires and double the natural lifespan of its members and send representatives of the planet into nearby areas of space. And you live now on this vast and interesting planet that has many areas you've never visited and millions of people you'll never meet and one of those people is me, who you'll never get to experience or know or care for or love; the only contact you'll have with me is reading a story that I write.



From a Nov. 24, 2016 email from Cocktail Games' Matthieu d'Epenoux:

Here is a royalty statement for BODY PARTY.

The game is not a success and I think that we probably made bad choices in terms of cover.
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Mon Nov 28, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Dexikon, or A Postmortem Analysis

Andrew Rowse
New Zealand
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In the world of video game development, there is the concept of a postmortem: an analysis of a finished project that examines how the different parts of the project came together, what worked well, and what could have been done better. In principle, it's a great way to learn important lessons and improve future development, and it's especially valuable when two or more games with similar themes or gameplay come out close to each other. After a confusing conversation with a fellow game designer who hadn't encountered the term before, I was advised to add this line: Despite the morbid tone of the word, a postmortem is usually done for products that are still very much alive!

Almost six years ago, towards the end of 2010, I started work on a deck-building spelling game that would eventually be called Dexikon. The goal was to create a game that helped usher my Scrabble-playing in-laws into the fold of wonderful modern games, and early in development it was clear that there was definitely something to the idea. After a lot of iteration, Dexikon was published in 2015 by Eagle-Gryphon Games.

The game is a bit like Ascension, but all the cards are letters and you have to use your cards to spell words. You start with a deck of low-value letter cards that are easy to use, and using them to spell words generates points that you use to buy higher-value (and harder-to-use) letter cards and/or victory points. At the end of the game, you get to use all your cards to spell one massive "last word".

Yep. Unfortunately for me, I was not the only person to have this idea, and my slow-and-not-particularly-steady development cycle meant that Dexikon would not be the first deck-building word game to hit the market. That honor would be taken in mid-2013 by Tim Fowers' Paperback, which has achieved widespread recognition as a well-designed and wonderful game.

With apologies to Paige Turner because you never did anything to deserve getting an "art" treatment from me.

I put Dexikon on the back burner when Paperback was announced on Kickstarter, but after I'd had a chance to buy and play a copy of Paperback post-launch, I decided that there was enough to set the two games apart that it was worth pushing on with Dexikon. The most critical differences boil down to two things...

[1] In Dexikon, the most common letters (vowels, S and T) are freely available through the game on multi-letter "core" cards. The ES card can be used as E or S, and the AT and IOU cards work the same. This means that the player gets a lot of flexibility from a couple of core cards and few consonants.

In Paperback, you get a handful of vowels in your starting deck, then any vowel cards gained through play are either short-lived (trash upon use) or hotly contested (claiming the common vowels). You also have access to the common vowel card, a card that you can add to your word even though it's not part of your hand.

[2] In both Paperback and Dexikon, players spell a word each turn to earn currency, which can then be used on that turn. In Dexikon, players must choose to either spend their currency on buying new cards or bank their word and get just half the currency to spend on new cards. The game ends once any player has banked seven words, at which point final victory points are scored from several sources:
• The values of their best five banked words.
• -2 points for each penalty (wild) card in their deck.
• Each N or P card in their deck (1 and 2 points respectively).
• The value of one final word, using as many cards from the player's deck as they like.

Paperback uses four tiers of Dominion-style (and beautifully illustrated!) victory point cards, which are also wild when used in words. At the end of the game, players' final scores are the total value of the victory point cards in their decks.

The different approaches to vowels and wild cards mean that the sort of words you can spell changes over the course of the game in different ways. Both games have an initial period of moving toward more valuable hands that make it harder to form words, but then Dexikon's late-game is characterized by a push to get rid of penalty cards, whereas Paperback's late game is all about acquiring lots of VP cards. The trick in Dexikon is navigating the late-game while making sure your deck doesn't run so low on core cards that you lose the ability to spell words, and in Paperback the trick is making sure that the influx of VP cards doesn't leave you in a position of being easily able to use all your cards but unable to score enough to buy new VP cards.

There are other, less fundamental differences, such as the way the pool of available cards works, the spread of abilities, and the treatment of attack cards. These all contribute to a generally different feel and flow of the game, but the two key differences are what really set the two games apart in terms of mechanical strategy.

Dexikon was Kickstarted by Eagle-Gryphon Games in early 2015 and delivered a few months later. Reviews were generally positive and very naturally focused on comparisons with Paperback. GeekDad (review) and Tom Vasel (review) both preferred Paperback.

Jonathan Liu on GeekDad felt that Paperback has the advantage on ease of play and teaching, and that Dexikon's decision between banking and spending has the potential to be tough and less intuitive than Paperback's decision between regular letters and VP cards.

Tom preferred the look of Paperback, agrees that it's an easier game to teach to new players, and felt that where Dexikon gives an advantage to players with larger vocabularies, Paperback gave the advantage to the player best at deck-building. He also felt that Paperback plays faster.

Craig from Botch Games preferred Dexikon (review). He really liked the choice between banking and spending, and the dilemma of when/if to purge penalty cards. He was surprised by how much he enjoyed the game and described it as one of the most cut-throat deck-builders he'd played. He felt that the use of the score pad for banking (and blocking other players from spelling words) was "the bee's knees" and found it hilarious that you're guaranteed to be able to spell "outset" on your first turn. He thought that Paperback was closer to Dominion, and Dexikon was closer to Ascension.

The "last word" mechanism was a selling point for Eagle-Gryphon when I pitched the game to them, and I've found it's been generally popular with players. The idea that a solid last word strategy can compensate for weaker turn-by-turn banking is appealing, and I've enjoyed seeing games swung by last words.

In Dexikon (without the alternate attack expansion cards), the hand you draw at the end of your turn cannot be interfered with by other players, so you can start planning your next word immediately. This helps keep the AP down somewhat.

Once you've got the hang of using the multi-letter cards, you can usually find a way to use all your cards each turn, which feels epic (but more on this in the next section).

After a lot of playtesting with friends' children, I hit upon a simple way to balance the game across spelling levels: By letting younger players replace one or more of their penalty cards with special penalties, which have exactly the same functionality but are worth 1 instead of 0 when spelling a word. This allowed kids to compete on a fairly even level with their parents, and I think it's one of Dexikon's best features!

In Dexikon, you can always use all your cards on your first turn. Being put at a disadvantage before you've made a single decision in a game is one of my pet peeves, so I wanted to make sure that every opening hand could be completely used, even if you happen to draw all of your non-penalty cards (two each of AT, ES and IOU). By sheer, glorious coincidence, one of two words that you're guaranteed to be able to spell at the outset of the game is, in fact, "outset".

Players generally seem to enjoy the choice to spend or bank. Learning when to switch from deck-building to scoring is not immediately intuitive because of the way that your deck continues to grow (albeit with lower-cost cards) even on turns when you bank. In the end, it comes down to a combination of reading what other players are doing, being aware of what your deck already contains, and (ideally) having a vague idea of which letters you still need to collect to maximize your last word.

There are a couple of minor cosmetic things that give Dexikon a bit of an edge over Paperback: the corner letters on both left and right makes it friendlier for left-handed players, its single deck of pool cards makes it marginally quicker to set up, and the smaller box makes it a bit more portable. That said, it's important to note that few if any people were calling these things out as aspects of Paperback that needed fixing, and Paperback's larger box is stuffed full of extra content and game modes!

The name should have a C, not a K — what was I thinking?! The choice to go with K was a stylistic conceit that has not resonated with players. I think I've seen more reviews/comments about "Dexicon" than "Dexikon"! In contrast, Paperback has a catchy name that is nigh-impossible to misspell!

Dexikon is themeless. The art brief I wrote was to create something with the same theme-neutrality of Scrabble while also evoking a feeling of expensive, leather-bound Victorian tomes. As far as I'm concerned, Simon Brewer (Dexikon's artist) absolutely nailed the brief. Paperback has a light theme that mostly comes through in the pulp novel art on the VP cards, and for all that people might argue that the theme is not intrinsic or necessary, Ryan Goldsberry's art is often called out as one of the satisfying parts of the Paperback experience. I think that the theme makes Paperback feel friendlier, whereas Dexikon comes across as more calculating and potentially cold. Just to be clear, that's on me as the author of the brief; I have nothing but gratitude and awe for how well Simon delivered what I asked for.

Dexikon's multi-letter cards may offer flexibility, but they do so at the cost of familiarity. Wild letters are a concept with which any Scrabble player will be familiar, so there's no real cognitive cost to learning a game that includes them. Scrabble also features the core gameplay of "arrange these letters to form a word", but it's initially difficult to learn to do that with multi-letter cards. In my experience, most people pick it up within a few games, but until they've done so, it can be a stressful experience. In contrast, Paperback builds upon the Scrabble experience without forcing any fundamental changes in thinking, so it's much quicker to get players up and running, and enjoying the card effects and deck-building.

Dexikon gives a bonus point to a player who manages to empty their hand when spelling a word, which helps players feel like they've "solved" a hand and makes them feel good — but it also creates an expectation of using the whole hand, leading to stress, AP, and disappointment when a player winds up with a hand that is hard (or impossible) to fully use. Paperback doesn't offer this bonus point, and since the starting decks are not guaranteed to spell a word with every card in your initial hand, it never fosters the impression that using anything less than your full hand is a failure.

Dexikon's scoresheet mechanism and spend/bank choice are compelling, but they're a big departure from the Dominion style of buying point cards, and that's another cognitive cost to learning the game. It means that the game can potentially go on too long if none of the players have a good read on when to start banking. Paperback uses a scoring system that builds on the Dominion experience in the same way that its spelling builds on the Scrabble experience, and Tim Fowers really nailed the balance between Scrabble, Dominion and SomethingNewAndExciting.

Honestly? Not much except that accursed K in the name. Getting my A into G a little earlier and being first to market would have been great, but the time on the back burner after Paperback's announcement actually resulted in a lot of positive changes, so I would have been first to market with a much weaker game. As it is, I really like the way that Dexikon works differently from Paperback. I like the way that both games gently recalibrate the way that you think about language as you learn to play better, and I think it's neat that the recalibrations are subtly different. (Dexikon works best if you weigh the short-word potential of new letters against their possible inclusion in your eventual "last word", whereas Paperback rewards you for balancing powerful letters with an occasional influx of wild VP cards to make those letters easier to use.)

Early on, I wanted to call the game "Animalexikon" and make each card a picture of an animal that started with that letter (AT would be "American Toad", ES "Elephant Seal", and IOU an ambiguous silhouette called "Ibex Or Unicorn"), but thought it would feel too childish for a hard-ish core spelling game. From the comments on the Kickstarter, a lot of people would have preferred that, but I still think such an approach is better saved for a follow-up title — with no K in the name. My eldest son is five and keen to work with me to make a spelling game for kids, so watch this space…

Unsurprisingly, I like Dexikon, and I think it does a good job of doing what it was supposed to: Provide an iterative word puzzle that evolves based on what you and your opponents do. Though it's fair to say that it's harder than Paperback to grok the way the game plays, I've had very good feedback from the people who have resonated with Dexikon.

Interestingly enough, since Dexikon was released, I've met a couple of other designers working on deck-building word games, and when I played one of them, I was struck by how slightly different mechanisms can completely change the way the game flows. I think there's still a lot of untapped potential in the world of deck-building word games, and I do hope to see those other designers press on with their versions.

Also, and this is really cool, Tim Fowers invited me to help out with the design for an upcoming Paperback expansion. It's very exciting to get to play in another designer's sandbox and to finally have a potential outlet for all the letter combinatorial gubbins that my brain trained itself to do while working on Dexikon. Turns out that stuff is of limited use in regular life! I can't give any details, except that I am very confident it will be awesome...

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Thu Nov 17, 2016 1:00 pm
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