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Designer Diary: Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer

Joey V

Los Angeles
California
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JoeyVigour.com
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Board Game: Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer
The week starting July 31, 2022 marks the U.S. release of my Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer game at Walmart, with the first five hundred copies debuting at Gen Con 2022.

I noticed that CMON chose this past week to announce Rob Daviau's upcoming Stranger Things game, which is a full year away from release. These are two different games for two different audiences, and the world can handle multiple Stranger Things games. I'm actually flattered if they were concerned my game would take sales away from theirs.

This won't be a very technical designer diary, not because social deduction games don't deserve deep analysis, but because sometimes a rose is a rose. My games don't have anything to hide, and I generally avoid games with airs of sophistication or arbitrary mechanisms; the chaotic complexity of human psychology is mechanism enough.

I really like Stranger Things. I like the writing and characters and friendships, and I like how rarely the show dips into the postmodern; the characters treat the world they live in as their real world; they don't see things as merely a stereotype of their decade. These are characters who learn and grow, and the show has value and stands on its own (all the Easter eggs and nostalgia shout-outs aside).

Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer began life as GROWL, which was a project I funded on Kickstarter. There's not too much to say about the design; there's not much TO the design; it's a light little game that, for the most part, is beloved by casual gamers and disliked by some hobby gamers. Yes, it has player elimination, but it is very rare to get eliminated until the game is nearly over (and it's a short game anyway). If you get killed early, you probably should have passed away your wounds...
From gallery of cannibalkid

Tom Vasel hated the game, but I agreed with pretty much everything he said in his negative review. His biggest complaint was that GROWL has the same theme as Werewolf — but I chose that theme because it helped my branding; it helped my sales to have the werewolf theme because I could pitch the game as "Werewolf, but as a quick card game without a GM or app". In other words, it's a game designed for the mainstream gamer, not even something competing with Bézier Games' One Night series.

I never took GROWL very seriously as a design; I didn't worry about trying to make it anything other that what it is. Playtesters liked GROWL, so I published it. It got great reviews in the casual market for the most part, with one reviewer calling it "the most tense 10-15 minute game I've ever played in my life". I think that is a bit hyperbolic, but trust me, I milked that quote like crazy during the Kickstarter:


Despite the werewolf theme, however, GROWL was not inspired by Mafia/Werewolf very much. It's actually the grandchild of parlor games from the 1950s where you wink at someone to murder them or perform a handshake with a finger-tickle. Casual gamers don't mind the "honor system" that drives hobby gamers (and reviewers) crazy. Most casual gamers also don't mind player elimination as long as the game is short and you were not the target of bullying that resulted in the elimination. The basic rules didn't take me long to concept, and I designed and published six expansions for GROWL pretty quickly.

I didn't worry about potential issues, like the fact that it uses the dreaded "honor system" to change into a wolf, or the fact that a subset of players don't like how easy it would be to cheat. My comeback would be "Why would you play with people who cheat, and why would the idea of cheating come so easily to your mind?" I've had the same experience with all of my games: most people like them and a small subset of people loathe them. I can't complain about that; I would happily play 1980s dice-chuckers over almost any modern social game or Euro-style game, so it's normal for some gamers to be on a different wavelength.

I don't worry about people who don't like my games; my goal is to brand them correctly so that people who would like them can discover them. This gets risky when working with IP because there's a lot of love for Stranger Things, and it isn't easy to satisfy everyone. My guess is the Walmart crowd will buy the game but not play it, and the hobby gamers will play it but not buy it — except for you delightful people (you know who you are) who will buy every version of the game. Salut!

Design History

I began my journey by playing a bunch of other social deduction games. I wanted to make sure my idea was at least semi-original. The goal was to not reinvent Werewolf (or One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which I knew would be a potential rival).

The initial idea probably started in 2017 when I was playing a prototype for Little Red Riding Hood: Full Moon Rising by one of my favorite designers, Ta-Te Wu. In that game, you can walk in the woods (draw a card), but there's a single Big Bad Wolf card that can turn you into a werewolf. (There's a similar system with the exposure cards in Who Goes There?)

I suggested that it should take three cards to turn you into a wolf because it's a slower, less radical role change. Ta-Te didn't use the idea for that game, but he was kind enough to let me explore that one mechanism. I imagined a game in which you can get "bitten" but still have time to say "Guys, help me out, I have two bites already and I'm almost a wolf" and a player who is secretly already a werewolf can say "Here's a charm to fix you", but actually gives you a third bite — and you can't now be mad and yell that she's a wolf because you just switched to her team.

From gallery of cannibalkid

I knew I needed a night phase a few times during the game so that a small amount of new information can get added and prevent the discussion from circling endlessly. I may have been inspired by Lifeboat by my friend Jeff Siadek, a game in which players have an end-of-round phase when they must drink enough water to make up for their actions, or else they take wounds.

I designed GROWL on a weekend gaming retreat in Dallas, and I had the luxury of other designers willing to try different formulations of the prototype over several days. The main mechanism is simple:
Quote:
Look at the top card of the deck. Show it publicly, then give it to someone other than yourself, then pass the deck to the left. Your hand represents your role, so if you get three bites you turn into a werewolf, and if you get three wounds, you die. A charm negates an active bite, and a salve negates an active wound. If a night card is revealed, players pass a card to each of their two living neighbors and shuffle the two cards they get in return before looking at them, so if they got a bite, they aren't sure which neighbor is the wolf. When the deck is empty, the wolves win if all players are dead or wolves, and humans win if at least one human is still alive.
From gallery of cannibalkid

I needed a neutral card. Someone suggested that food could be neutral, and two food could supplant a wound, but I thought it would get too complicated. I am not sure why I ended up going with gold as a neutral card, but I think it was the idea that you can collect gold over several games and thus collect personal "points". Some players like this, but ultimately I think this was a mistake. I now think I should have gone with the food concept, especially since each night could require players to eat dinner (discard a food), which could reveal information.

Perhaps I leaned away from this concept because the werewolf theme is already a bit wrong — wolves are not killing humans so much as purposely turning them — so adding an abstract food that humans and wolves both want seems weird. I didn't want to slow down the game by having wolves learn who the other wolves are (except in high-player counts), but if they did know early on, they could facilitate other wolves getting the necessary food. I explored the gold/food concept a bit more in the Spells expansion and the Plagues expansion, and I added some fun things in 7 Sins. (The greed sin card kills a player if they accrue too much gold!)

From gallery of cannibalkid
First prototype; note the individual player powers and poison

I vaguely remember that Bang may have played some small role as one of the inspirations for GROWL. I'm not a fan of that game (especially the length), but I remember that some weapons can target only your neighbors, which likely got me thinking about adjacency. I remember thinking I was very clever for realizing that wolves should have the ability to bite their neighbors only at night — then I got my copy of One Night Ultimate Alien and was embarrassed to learn that all my werewolves have the same rules as the cow in that game. Ob la di, ob la da. (By the way, Ted Alspach from Bézier Games has been very supportive and generous to me over the years, despite my game riding on a thread or two of his coattails. Thank you, Ted, and I enjoy your games very much.)

One goal I had that never came to pass was to have a simple set-up; I wanted to add more night cards to the deck depending on players, and shuffle the deck once before dealing. I thought it would be faster to balance the number of nights to the player count rather than adding more wounds and bites, but obviously that didn't work, so now there are cards that say "6+" and "9+".

From gallery of cannibalkid

Ultimately I was convinced that a major flaw in many social games is the lack of a "dramatic reveal". It's embarrassing to say "I'm the wolf" if there's no big card to flip over, so I committed to the idea early on that there needed to be a "growl" at the end of the game where players vocalize and physically mime if they are a werewolf. This part never changed and has been a core part of the original conception of the game and its branding.

Anyway, the game was tested, people liked it for the most part, a few people hated it, but the feedback from the latter was generally that there was simply "no game here" and that I should not make it. Lots of my friends told me this, and I might have listened except for one glimmer of hope: The people who were not fans of GROWL didn't usually suggest specific changes to improve the game system; they simply didn't like the system. So I decided that this game would not be for everyone, and I moved into heavy playtesting. The biggest problem in playtesting was that humans would accidentally pass bites, or that wolves would be too timid and refuse to pass bites. This led to various problems that mostly got ironed out in the balancing stage.

From gallery of cannibalkid
Old-school GROWL from 2017, with homemade box and fur bag

The Kickstarter did well despite my unfinished art and renderings. Regardless of the fact that I did the so-so graphic design myself, I sort of knew the overall concept and branding was on-point. I like to pretend I'm Don Draper sometimes, even though I usually feel like Harry Crane. (Sorry, Rich.)

From gallery of cannibalkid

I sold about 12,000 copies of the game, and eventually decided to send a bunch of copies to bigger publishers as I was nervous that I would never get a distribution deal otherwise. I hired a wonderful Dutchman named Richard to demo the game at SPIEL '19, and he attracted the interest of Repos Production, which shortly afterward became a subsidiary of Asmodee.

Asmodee picked up the license but had a different game with a conflicting theme (Werewolves of Miller's Hollow), so they asked me to think of re-themes:

• I suggested CULTS! (Nope, they said, not family-oriented.)
• I almost suggested POD PEOPLE, but then I remembered that I'm working on a pod people game, and I didn't want to compete with myself.
• I suggested VAMPIRES! (Maybe, they said, so I whipped together a version in which three stakes kill you.)
• They suggested STRANGER THINGS! (Yes!)

I hadn't gotten to season 3 yet, but the Mind Flayer seemed to be an obvious match for the game, so Repos paired with another Asmodee subsidiary named Mixlore to make the licensing deal with Netflix, then a talented developer at Repos named Pierre began percolating ideas.

Netflix didn't give us any advance information about season 4 — remember how mad the Duffer Brothers were when Stranger Things Monopoly spoiled minor plot points? — so this game is set in season 3, which has lots of fun locations for meetings (nights).

From gallery of cannibalkid

Ultimately, very few things changed from GROWL, but I like the changes:

1. Simplified event cards (meetings/nights), and the third one isn't a special, crazy "Final Night".

2. Lots of events were canned, and there are several new events that I would not have included due to fears of balance issues — but this is a casual game, and I suspect Pierre knows what he's doing!

3. The deck is now face-down rather than face-up, but the rule to show the card before giving it away is still the same.

4. Mind Flayer players know who the other Mind Flayer players are at the beginning if you have at least six players rather than the eight-player limit in GROWL. My guess is that playtesting revealed the Mind Flayer players had trouble winning in casual game groups.

5. Gold coins are now waffles. Eggo — I mean, ergo, we can play around with waffles as a mechanism rather than just as a point system. We can have meetings (nights) in which players have to reveal waffles, discard waffles, or have waffles serve secondary functions if we do expansions. I love the waffle cards. They make me so happy for some strange reason.

From gallery of cannibalkid

• I was disappointed that the English edition uses the word "possessed" rather than "flayed". Admittedly, "flayed" is a pretty gory-sounding term.

• I don't know why Repos got rid of "wound" and instead used "hard hit". Imagine a Belgian accent, and it makes more sense for some reason. This was a co-production between Belgium/Canada/France, so there's bound to be some minor differences in speech.

• You flip your "in play" side to "knocked out" when you get three hits — but the game box strongly suggests that the shadow versions of the characters represent the flayed/possessed versions of the characters, or at least indicates a connection to the Upside Down. I guess showing a bunch of mortally wounded 14-year-olds is not really "family friendly" either, so I accept this decision. (In GROWL, there's a gravestone on the back of your tile that says "I died".

From gallery of cannibalkid

From gallery of cannibalkid

Stranger Things: Attack of the Mind Flayer will be at Gen Con 2022, and it should be popping up in your local Walmart stores over the next few days. It's definitely a mass-produced game as far as the card thickness goes, but I am very proud of how I was able to help shepherd my game without any real compromise all the way through the process. I would like to thank Pierre B., Tanguy G., and everyone else at Repos Production for their hard work.

I'm hoping to add player-power expansions or make other games within the license. Fun stuff could be in store for the future if the game sells. If it doesn't...then we still have Rob Daviau's Stranger Things game to look forward to in 2023.

Joey Vigour

P.S. I'll be at Gen Con 2022: booth 520 (Vigour Games), and Stranger Things will be at booth 815 (Asmodee).

From gallery of cannibalkid
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Fri Aug 5, 2022 1:00 pm
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Developer Diary: Ready Set Bet

Board Game: Ready Set Bet
When I sat down to write a developer diary about John D Clair's Ready Set Bet, I thought about all the different things I should include. I could easily talk about how it's the first game I worked on as a new member of AEG's amazingly stacked development team — I'm learning so much from all of them! — and how they asked me to fit a nine-player game in a medium-sized box, a side effect of how the manufacturing and shipping aspect of our hobby has changed in the last couple years.

I could also talk about my past experience as a table games dealer and pit boss on the Las Vegas strip to figure out the best board layout and money-chip denominations and distribution.

I could talk about, you know, the typical developer diary stuff like the evolution and balancing that was done to very specific bets during playtesting — but to be honest, John already had a pretty solid game that didn't need too much tweaking. I did learn how to convert all my skills working on slot machine games, the career I had after putting myself through art school while dealing on the strip at night, into producing a board game.

I added some UI stuff like the Win, Place, and Show arrows that made it easier for players to understand how those bets work for horses that finish in first, second, and third place.

Board Game: Ready Set Bet

But here's the thing: None of that behind-the-scenes info could convey to you what I learned about the game while playing it with friends and coworkers.

There is a magical element to Ready Set Bet that isn't a physical component. It's not a piece of artwork that we can commission, it's not a little trinket we can have the printers add to the box, nor is it a rule or mechanism that we can explain in the rulebook.

When you acquire your copy of Ready Set Bet, this element is not apparent when you open the box or when you punch out the tokens, shuffle the cards, or line up the little wooden horses on the track. It's just not in the physical components.

Board Game: Ready Set Bet

Instead there's a moment when you realize what that extra ingredient is. You first see it after you've explained the rules to your friends and you toss the dice to move the first horse. When you get to that moment, look up around the table and watch as your friends process the craps-style layout and see how their expressions evolve with each movement of the horses.

There's a sense of urgency and rivalry as they look to get juicy bets in before someone else takes them, but also of camaraderie as their shared fate lies in the fickle hands of lady luck, teasing one horse's early domination only to never roll that number again. With your bets locked in once they are placed, a horse that had so much potential early on can suddenly be overtaken by another who has just now decided to leave the gate.

The air is soon filled with laughter and cries of disappointment as fate toys with the mere machinations of players trying to predict and profit from silly little wooden horses moved by two little blocks with pips on them. The sum of those pips each turn feels like it could be scripted to reveal the most dramatic twists and turns, or the funniest set of nonsensical happenstance — but the magical element isn't the dice.

It's the people.

Board Game: Ready Set Bet

It's your friends coming together for a shared experience. That's what John has captured and somehow fit into the 9" by 9" box. He's made a game that can appeal both to hobby gamers and their non-gamer friends and family.

I hired a voice actor to record commentary for the race app that will be available to run the race for you, and he invited some of his improv friends to play and help him learn the game. Granted, these are some very funny people, but as I went through the recorded footage, I was surprised by how close this is to my personal experiences playing the game with friends old and new!


Thank you for reading! And thank you to AEG and John D. Clair for allowing me to help bring this game into the world! It's been almost as much fun as playing it!

Kirk Buckendorf
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Tue Aug 2, 2022 4:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Paint the Roses

Benjamin Goldman
United States
Maryland
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Board Game: Paint the Roses
I'm Ben Goldman, designer of Paint the Roses.

I developed board games at North Star Games for six years, working on Climate, Most Wanted, and Oceans, but this was the first time I had nearly complete creative control over a design, and I learned a lot through the process.

After years in the making, Paint the Roses launched on Kickstarter, being selected by the platform as a "Project We Love" and reaching its funding goal in just thirty minutes. This article will discuss some of the challenges faced in turning my original idea into the version of Paint the Roses we see today.

For the sake of your sanity (and mine), I'm going to focus on three key areas: theme, feedback, and fun. Let me start by pitching you Paint the Roses as it is now:

Set in the puzzling world of Alice in Wonderland, you and your friends are the newly appointed Royal Gardeners who are working for the notoriously demanding boss, the Queen of Hearts. Paint the Roses is a co-operative deduction puzzle game that automatically adapts to your skill level during play. You need strategy, logic, and teamwork to stay one step ahead of the Queen. Otherwise, the last thing you hear will be "Off With Their Heads!"

Building Understanding through Theme

When I first designed Paint the Roses, it didn't have a name or a theme. The design featured patterned and colored squares placed on a grid with the logic sitting on the surface, and that was it. I hadn't come up with a clear way of describing the design, so my early game pitches weren't great. Here's an example of the sort of thing I'd say:
Quote:
In this game, you place tiles on a grid; those tiles have two variables. Each of those variables has six states, making a 6-by-6 matrix of possible tiles.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

When you place those tiles next to other tiles, you mark how many times a variable relationship on your card was created, and that information is used by the team to correctly deduce what is on your card, and thereby be able to score more points with each tile placement.
I remember how eyes would glaze over by the time I got to "6-by-6 matrix". It wasn't the fault of the design idea, but my game explanations were very mechanical. Dominic Crapuchettes, founder of North Star Games, suggested the introduction of a theme, and after some thought, I found one I thought worked perfectly. The game would be set in the Royal Gardens from Alice in Wonderland.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Before the theme was added my design was a pure score chaser, with no way to lose. Theme opened the door to another change with the introduction of an antagonist, the Queen of Hearts. If players made too many mistakes, the Queen would demand an execution, signaling the end of the game. This change added feelings of tension, relief, and even celebration in a way a simple token wouldn't.

These changes also meant the design, now titled Paint the Roses, could be described in a more thematic and engaging way. Rather than saying "Place tiles on a grid", I now said, "Place shrubs in a garden". The "variables" and "states" became "shrub tiles" showing card suits and rose colors. The reason for tile placement changed from trying to show the "relationship on your card" to trying to solve "the whims of the maniacal Queen of Hearts".

I used to see themes and mechanisms as two discrete things. In creating Paint the Roses, I learned that the theme and mechanisms can be unified, supporting each other. The theme helped change a fairly abstract puzzle into a more immersive experience that we can see ourselves within. After all, who hasn't felt the pressure of a boss, teacher, or parent watching their every move?

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Custom-painted Queen miniature

Finding the Fun

If I'm being honest with myself, the early versions of Paint the Roses were interesting but arguably weren't very fun. Wanting a design to be fun seems like an obvious goal, but identifying and optimizing for this isn't always that straightforward.

Not every game automatically creates laughter at the table, but fun comes in all forms. Screaming in terror on a rollercoaster or quietly reading a book on a rainy day look nothing alike, but depending on who you ask both might be described as a fun activity.

So what did optimizing for fun mean when designing Paint the Roses?

The first thing was to have the players' ratio of fun-to-not-fun time be as far skewed towards the former as I could make it. In Paint the Roses, the fun is the solving of the puzzles, the conversation at the table, and things like longshot guesses that end up being correct. The not-fun part is the cube placement or the frustration of not being able to solve a puzzle. Part of my design work was ensuring that I increased the fun aspects, whilst keeping play as streamlined as possible to outweigh the not-so-fun.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Deluxe edition

The second thing I focused on in Paint the Roses was to align the win condition with the fun directly. In the alpha version of the game, the one with the colored and patterned square tiles, winning was based on cube placement. Deducing other players' turns was still part of the design, but was secondary to a scoring mechanism largely based on counting.

Optimizing for fun needs to be at the front of the mind throughout development; otherwise, you can get lost in the weeds. In Paint the Roses, by changing the win condition to solving other players' cards, the game became dramatically more fun. By streamlining the rest of the game, I let the mundane aspects fade into the background and brought fun right into focus.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Feedback Doesn't Have to Hurt

You love your game. You crafted it. You spent countless late nights fine-tuning the intricate systems that make it tick. So it can be really hard to have someone come along and tell you how they think it could be better. Your natural instinct might be to get defensive. You need to learn to fight it.

My design truly benefited from feedback, so let me highlight a few key examples.

Paint the Roses includes notepads to help you track the game information, but originally note-taking was forbidden. I was very reluctant to include it, but after it was suggested, I came to see how memory could be a barrier to fun and how allowing notes reduced this aspect, thereby allowing the focus to go back onto play.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

When Dominic first suggested introducing a theme to my design, I was unfairly disparaging of the concept and more resistant than I should have been. Once I found a theme that clicked, Alice in Wonderland, I realized just how wrong I'd been.

The introduction of the theme led to Scott Rencher, North Star Games co-president, suggesting adding the Queen of Hearts to the score track, and this changed the game from a pure score chaser to one with a loss mechanism and with palpable tension in play. Based on further feedback, the White Rabbit was added to the game, giving a thematic way to signal the increasing speed of the Queen on the score track.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In hindsight, Paint the Roses without the Queen is a perfectly interesting score-chasing logic puzzle, but she is what makes everything in the game into a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Had I been too arrogant in my own core design, I would have dismissed some of these changes as too large for a game that already worked. Without taking to heart the feedback from others and simply designing in the insular world of my mind, the end result would have led to a worse game.

Of course, not all feedback is made equal, and as a designer, you still need to determine what will improve a game, then how to properly implement it. Although difficult, figuring out how to listen openly and honestly can allow your design to unlock the potential it always had inside.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

These three concepts — theme, fun, and feedback — are what allowed Paint the Roses to become a fully formed game that makes me unabashedly proud, something I'll admit I rarely am about my own work. I know I will take what I've learned on Paint the Roses with me to all my future projects, and hopefully, you can take something from my experience on your own journey. And speaking of journeys, I'm about to embark on the next chapter of my own, by joining Underdog Games as a designer. I look forward to working with the amazing team over there and making some fantastic new games!

Ben

P.S.: Paint the Roses launches in retail on August 1, 2022, and is now available to pre-order via the North Star Games website.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Tue Jul 19, 2022 4:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Animals in Espionage

Joe Hout
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Animals in Espionage
I have played a lot of Magic: the Gathering over the years, and one of my favorite cards is a card that creates a mini-game all in itself. It was one of the most skill intensive give-and-takes, which really challenged both players in an "I split, you choose" dilemma.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
This legendary card is called "Fact or Fiction". The opponent looks at the top five cards of your deck, then splits them into two piles. You choose a pile to put into your hand, then the other pile gets discarded.

I always loved the conversations that came from the splitting of piles. How do you best split the piles to make the other player get the fewest amount of resources? By splitting in a certain way, can you bluff the other player into thinking you have cards in your hand that you actually do not? So much happened when this one card was played. I still play this card when playing Magic Cube with friends, and the conversations still happen, "How would you have split that?" So much play in this one card...

It got me thinking: What if there were a bluffing game that captured this interplay with I split, you choose? I quickly mocked up a prototype for "Fact or Fiction Fruit". You were dealt two secret fruit: a rotten fruit that gave you one negative point, and a super fruit that gave you two positive points. There was also a face-up fresh fruit that both players were trying to collect, with fresh fruit being worth one point. Fruit cards were also given a value of one, two, or three. Each player took turns splitting five cards into two piles. One player splits, the other player chooses, then the splitting player gets the remaining pile. The deck had forty cards , so each player got four splits, with eight total splits between the players. That was the first prototype of the game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I sat down with my two daughters, who were four and six years old at the time — two of my favorite gaming buddies. They teamed up against me. As we each took turns flipping five cards and thinking through the two piles, it reminded me so much of those many times I had played "Fact or Fiction". It was so fun to see my daughters' eyebrows raise as they sneakily moved a fruit to a pile. There was the basic bluff, then there was the double bluff, then there was the triple bluff. It was playing the other player. The best was when my girls would successfully bluff, then giggle and laugh maniacally. There was something here.

I took the design to my friendly local game design group. They have always been extremely helpful, with thoughtful and constructive feedback. There was a lot of potential with this simple and quick game, but it needed a little more. Sometimes your rotten or super fruit did not come up until the end of round. There was nothing to bluff if that happened. Also, it ended up being worthwhile to eventually make the best pile for you and to not bluff towards the end of the round, so we added in a guess at the end of the round, with you trying to figure out your opponent's fruits. This added a lot of additional bluffing to the game. Guessing correctly (or not guessing correctly) often determined the winner.

Board Game Publisher: Twin City Games
I lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the time, and our game design group met at my home. Cody Stevens is one of the members of the group, and he also owns Twin City Games. (Winston-Salem is known as the Twin City.) He was on the lookout for his next game to publish, and he wanted to pursue "Fact or Fiction Fruit". This was like a dream come true — getting to work with my friend, who I know would do a great job. Cody truly was a joy to work with; he involved me all along the process.

We had some design jams and kept playtesting. The game almost kept the fruit theme, but with a deductive theme on it. I believe "Fruit Sleuthies" — think of an orange in Sherlock Holmes attire — was an idea at one point. We jumped over to animals since everyone loves cute animals, and I mocked up a prototype with some cute animals. It clicked into place, and we started to dream and brainstorm these animal spies. Animals in Espionage was starting to take more and more shape. Our friend, Evan, had the great idea to bid on your guess at the end of the round. Depending on how sure you were, you would wager 1, 2, or 3. If you were correct, you gained those points; otherwise you lost those points. This added a lovely layer to this bluffing game.

After numerous playtest sessions across many conventions, Cody came back with what I think is really the magic in Animals in Espionage. After drawing five cards. you would divide four cards into two face-up piles, then give the remaining card to your opponent, who would then place that card in either pile before choosing which pile to take.

This small tweak added so much information exchange with each split. Why is this card the one they are letting me put in a pile? Why did they place that card in that pile? Why did they take (or not take) that card? This small tweak was what was needed to give the player who splits more information, while giving the player who gets first pick some power in manipulating the piles.

I tried it out with my daughters, and we all loved it. Here is a video of my youngest, Rosa, playing. It was just too much fun trying to be sneaky.


There is a feeling when you are playtesting: "I feel like it is missing something." Then there is a feeling when it just clicks into place. This was the moment that Animals in Espionage just clicked and felt right.

We tried several three- and four-player versions, but none of them ever quite worked. They were fine, but they never shined like the two-player version. Cody made the wise decision to make it solely a two-player game.

The spy theme was such a fun theme to lean into. Cody started working with the artists (who did an amazing job!) and we met for lunch. He placed a sealed manilla envelope on the table marked TOP SECRET. I opened it, and it had all the sample art for the game. Each animal was playing on a spy trope, and it was all coming together.

Board Game: Animals in Espionage

Cody had art for two additional animals just in case the three- and four-player variants had worked out, so we came up with some fun variants to add more options to include in the box. The walrus and the mole add quite a lot to the game. I mean, how do you not include a mole in an animal spy game?

Board Game: Animals in Espionage

I could not be happier with how Animals in Espionage turned out. It was such a joy to receive the finished game and sit down with my now seven- and nine-year-old daughters and play. I'm worried, though, because their bluffing skills have gotten even better over the years — they keep winning!

If you're looking for a quick two-player game with a lot of play, check out Twin City Games to grab a copy or swing by the booth (#2209) at Gen Con 2022 to try it out.

Joe Hout

Board Game: Animals in Espionage
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Fri Jul 15, 2022 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Chai Garam

Sidhant Chand
India
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Board Game: Chai Garam
While India slept through the boardgaming wave that swept across many parts of the world in the early 21st century, recently that wave has started to gain traction.

Back in 2019, I had conversations about publishing a certain elaborate board game called "Malabar" with Phalgun Polepalli, the wizard behind DICE TOY LABS. Post-work hours during weekends, I devoted my time to game development and playtests, but the progress was very slow. Around that time, Phalgun launched a print-and-play (PnP) Indian board game resource along with a couple of others in the industry. I must have been sipping chai while checking it out — and that's when the initial idea of Chai Garam was incepted.

Chai (or tea), among other things, is essential to regular Indians and is almost an inseparable part of our lives. Looking at this opportunity to make a PnP game that people could easily download, I quickly thought of a simple game in which players draft ingredients, cook different types of chai, and serve them to customers who are asking for specific orders.

The game would play in three phases: pick ingredients, make tea, and sell tea. In each round, players would draft from a hand of seven ingredient cards, then make tea simultaneously in their saucepan cards based on certain restrictions for recipes, then fulfill a row of order cards arranged during the set-up. This happened for five rounds, then everybody calculated how much they earned from all those orders. The richest player won the game! Sweet and simple.

From gallery of SidFlyesWidTime
How the prototype components transformed into their final forms!

Phalgun, however, saw a lot of potential in this game idea, and we got to talking about how to make this a full-blown game — and that's when the actual game development journey began for Chai Garam. A new market mechanism replaced the drafting mechanism, with players now buying a set of ingredients by paying money, like in reality. The game now included a wider variety of customers, a set of potentially high-earning cards called events, and personal objectives for players to achieve to earn even more money. The stove fire card was removed since it felt like a bummer during playtests, and the number of teapots reduced from five to three.

The game started drawing more similarities to real life to match my inclination towards a strong thematic integration. Early on my vision for Chai Garam was simple: how to tell the unassuming and earthly story of an Indian tea seller through the course of events during a regular day at his business. Sticking to the theme helped me a lot to brainstorm when in doubt and led us to develop mechanisms that mimic the simulation of being a tea seller, commonly called "chai waala" in Hindi. The challenge was to marry the theme and mechanisms in an intuitive way to make it interesting and engaging enough for the common Indian to grasp.

From gallery of SidFlyesWidTime
Different types of order cards from the modified Chai Garam

Even at this point, both Phalgun and I were not sure what the final game would be like, but by this time we had shared a lot of notes and ideas, and it was surely happening! On the design front, playtests increased steadily, and a few of the game ideas — the stove fire, a recipe book (with all sorts of tea you can make), the ability to cook non-standard items (like lemonade, Kashmiri kahwa, etc.) — did a back and forth before we eventually bid all of these things farewell from Chai Garam as it started becoming more and more streamlined.

At this point, we hired an artist for this design — Aditi Desai, who's a close friend of me and my wife — and all my prototype components started to get life. I'd always wanted to give an Indian feel to the game, and this was Aditi's superpower. She brought the entire concept and idea of a tea stall to life with her vibrant art. The Chai Garam box cover was made, and it started getting buzz. I was also sort of involved in the art direction of the game, translating the dream Phalgun had for it to the artist, and it was a long, but fun process. It was like creating our own chai-verse as there were so many characters and ingredients in the game!

From gallery of SidFlyesWidTime
A late-stage design note I shared with Phalgun – consolidating the mechanisms, most of which made it into Chai Garam

At this time, orders changed into customers, each with their own personality. They now started queuing up in rows of three in three columns and got pissed if customers behind them got their order first! Kettles were now saucepans, which more resembled the utensils used in actual tea stalls in India. A chai garam card was a special card introduced for players to take an additional action, and since the game was essentially a race, having an extra turn can really change the dynamics midgame.

I also wanted to introduce the world to various tea leaves that we grow in India, so we have four varieties of tea leaves that players can shop for in the market: Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, and Kashmiri. With such a variety of tea leaves and additives, the permutations of the different flavors and recipes of tea possible in the game was exponential! Which gave rise to the vast heterogeneity among customer cards. The game ended when all customer cards were done for the day!

The second wave of the pandemic hit deep in early 2021, and the overall progress slowed for a while, but I kept working on the balance and theme integration whenever I had time. During this period, some major developments and changes were brought to the game: goals, star ratings, and tea stall (Tapri), among other things. We discussed how to potentially include these in the game, while also keeping in mind the simplicity in terminologies and steps that any person can understand. Players now didn't just prepare chai in the air, but each of them got a sort of player board where they heat their saucepans to cook chai, call customers to their own tea stall, and unlock upgrades that will help them play faster and be more cost efficient.

Public and personal goals were a way players could receive "star" ratings, which was an important parameter now in the endgame scoring. Chai Garam was a game about maximizing the potential of your chai: How much money can you make serving tea to a variety of customers in the most efficient way possible? There were multiple paths of doing this in the game, whether focusing on one type of tea, investing in bigger saucepans, unlocking economic upgrades like free water/milk early on in the game, or just being consistent in serving — and when players tried exploring these aspects, they kept asking to play more! Now players were racing to achieve five stars since that got them the majority of points, and they had enough agency to balance money as well as stars: What was the right mix for a winning strategy? These were the puzzles we wanted players to figure out and enjoy optimizing when playing Chai Garam.

I wrapped up final playtests with all of these new moving parts and fine-tuned these to fit well with each other. For example, snacks were always a good thing to have with chai, so each snack had a different power from the other, and players could implement those in their play styles. While bun maska (being everybody's favorite) allowed players to serve any chai to any customer, biscuits let players collect an extra rupee per cup they sold. Goal cards were more standardized to fit all player counts. At the same time, I created a final prototype for the final version of the game, and we started working on the final rules draft.

From gallery of SidFlyesWidTime
How the prototype components transformed into their final forms!

When we got the whole game together with the final artwork and components, the overall experience was extremely immersive. The art called for nostalgia and created an instant connection. The thematic integration was a very strong factor for people to grasp the seemingly intricate rules; after all, it's just your regular cup of tea!

The game was finally brought to life in September 2021 when it opened up for pre-orders, and there has been no looking back since! I want to sincerely thank DICE TOY LABS for giving me the opportunity to be able to create a game, and the trust will help me continue the pursuit of making good games for everyone to play.

Sidhant Chand

Board Game: Chai Garam
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Tue Jul 12, 2022 4:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The Spill

Andy Kim
Canada
Maple
Ontario
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Board Game: The Spill
I love dice towers. Ever since I discovered these magical structures that randomize dice, then deposit them at their base with a truly random number, I've bought three of my own made of varying materials and will always use one in any dice game. With that background set, let me tell you what happened that brought about the creation of The Spill, which will debut at Gen Con 2022.

I was driving home from a game meet-up when an idea popped into my head: Would it be possible to create a dice tower in which the dice would not drop out of only one side, but instead randomly fall out in one of four different directions? I started visualizing the structure in my head and wondering how I would be able to create such a thing out of cardboard.

Once I got home, with the idea fresh in my mind, I got to work. I took a full 12x12 inch sheet of chipboard, then measured, cut out, and folded what I thought would work as a "four-way" dice tower. Once all the modifications were made, I applied tape to hold it together. At this point, my wife was wondering what I was doing; I explained my idea to her, then ran my first test by dropping four 16mm dice down the top of the tower. The results could not have been any better as each die dropped out a different side of the tower. I tried it again, and this time two dice came out of one side and the other two came out of two different sides. After testing this design several times (and adding a few more runs just because it was so much fun), I started thinking about what to do with this.

From gallery of andykim88

My first idea was to have the dice tower represent some sort of portal to a dark realm of monsters, with the dice representing various creatures that the players would have to repel, scoring victory points if the design were competitive or trying to reach a certain threshold if it were co-operative. I felt there were too many games of this type out there and scrapped the idea. What else would work? Zombies? Deadly disease? Multiplying bunnies?

After asking my wife her thoughts on what might spread out in this manner, she thought of an oil rig that spills oil into the ocean, with the players then working together to manage the spill. It was a great idea, and we started to think further on it. We remembered seeing in the news sea life being contaminated by oil whenever this happens, and we thought of somehow including contaminated sea life in the game, with players needing to rescue them as part of the requirement for winning. Thus, the idea of "Black Waves" (to use the original name of the game) was born.

I got to work on a prototype. This was going to be the most complex board game prototype I had ever created, with 36 double-sided marine life tiles, a fairly large board, and a better-looking cardboard four-way dice tower that was fairly easy to assemble and disassemble. For the prototype, I didn't worry too much about the easy-to-assemble part of the dice tower and concentrated on getting the game to the table.

I'm not a graphic artist (or any kind of artist for that matter) and primarily use GIMP software for all of my preliminary designs. I started working on the game board, which consisted of an area in the middle large enough to seat the dice tower and four concentric circles divided into sectors that would encompass the marine life and player tokens. At this point, I decided to add a few specialists with game-breaking powers that would aid players in fighting the spill. I have always enjoyed games, especially co-operative ones, in which each player has a unique ability to give them the feeling that they have a special role to aid the rest of the team.

As I was working on ideas, I jotted down rules in a Google document. The original (and current) rules had players using four action points to perform various activities on their turn: move, rescue a marine animal, or push back oil, with more action points being needed to rescue a contaminated animal or remove an oil die from the game.

At this stage of the design, in order to scale for different player counts, I looked at the difference with fewer than four players and noticed the only real difference is that with fewer players, there is less opportunity to cover more of the board and all I would have to do is increase the allowable distance for each move action for each player.

The ending of the game was another factor I needed to think of, but just to get the game to the table, I first came up with two losing condition: (1) four or more of one species of animal had died (yes, they died in the original iteration) or (2) ten overflows had occurred. The players would win if the players emptied the bag of dice without a loss condition occurring.

A couple weeks later, my prototype was ready to print at my local printing place and got to the table for the first time. After a few plays, it was fairly difficult but not impossible to win. It was time to playtest like crazy. For the first week or so, I was solo playtesting a lot, playing with two, three, and four specialists. The win/loss ratio leaned towards the loss side mostly based on the number of dice being dropped. Item cards were introduced during this time to try to mitigate some of the random occurrences that can happen through the oil dice-placement mechanism that could have players in the wrong spot at the wrong time, powerless to do anything about it. Although these elements are to be expected, the item cards gave players a way to kind of have insurance to tackle these problems on future turns.

From gallery of andykim88

I spent more time in the next few weeks to test with friends and family to put the game through the wringer to see how different strategies are utilized. The game still leaned on the fairly challenging side, but many times it came down to the last roll to determine the end game outcome. The overall response was very positive. I found that people were passionate about rescuing marine life and at this point, thematically, I decided that the sea life didn't die, but were put into intensive care or "sick bay".

From gallery of andykim88

From gallery of andykim88

From gallery of andykim88

I felt at this point that the design was ready to be put in front of publishers to see who was interested. The annual FanExpo convention in Toronto had been growing a small board gaming section of its convention, including a publisher speed-dating session, which is where I decided to show off "Black Waves". There was a lot of positive feedback from several publishers, with one of them saying it was in strong consideration of being signed in the next two months.

I next brought the design to ProtoTO, Toronto's local board game prototype convention. After several playtests, Curt Covert of Smirk & Dagger Games came by the table and looked interested, so I invited him and his team to sit down and try a few rounds of the game. That's when Curt told me he was ready to sign the game right away. He saw the potential of it being a game that will attract many players with a great story to tell. During that very same ProtoTO weekend, "Black Waves" was signed to Smirk & Dagger Games.

Many changes came during development over the next few years, with a lot of delays happening due to the pandemic, among other factors. One of the most important changes was changing the item cards to be randomly selected at the beginning of the game and activated by rescuing one of each of the six marine animals or clearing out three oil dice. Weather dice were introduced to give the game even more tension throughout, with item cards created to work with this new challenge. Variable win conditions were also introduced to give the game clearer victory conditions, with the original victory conditions still being available when the revealed win condition could not be met. Two new specialists were introduced to work off of the new weather dice and the new implementation of the item cards. Finally, "Black Waves" took on a new name: The Spill.

Board Game: The Spill
Prototype set-up

What started off as an experiment of creating a multi-directional dice tower ended with a game about working together to battle an environmental disaster. Even with the many changes that The Spill has gone through, it never veered too far from the original mechanism of spilling dice from the rig and moving ships around the board to rescue sea life and manage the spill. The tension is still felt from players as the oil continues to fall out of that dice tower, and the conversation around the table is engaging as players work together to try to solve the puzzle in front of them. I am so glad to see it come to players around the world and hope they have as much fun playing it as much as I had creating The Spill.

Andy Kim
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Tue Jul 5, 2022 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Kittens, Beasts, and Boats Come to The Isle of Cats

Frank West
England
Bristol
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Board Game: The Isle of Cats
The Isle of Cats was first released via Kickstarter in June 2019 and was a huge success, gaining over 8,000 backers. Thousands of extra copies of the game were ordered in the months that followed, and I started wondering what the future held for The Isle of Cats...

As a designer, I think it can be easy to design an expansion as you already have all the pieces — and with a successful game, an expansion is as guaranteed as anything can be to see some sales. The obvious path was to start work on a new expansion and get it ready to crowdfund alongside the March 2020 retail release of The Isle of Cats. After all, this is when the game would have the most hype and the biggest chance of success.

I then asked myself a simple question: How do you make the perfect expansion? Certainly not by making an expansion for a game that hasn't been released yet, so I put everything on hold.

My new plan was simple: Wait for the game to release, then monitor everything, read every review, watch every video, and see what people were saying. Rather than design an expansion from scratch, I planned to design an expansion with a list of problems ready to solve.
From gallery of TheCityofKings

The Boots Resource

A great example of this is the boots resource in The Isle of Cats, which is used to determine turn order. The intention of this resource was to encourage players to pick moments at which they wanted to be the first player, to build up speed and find the correct moment to strike.

However, while many people did play this way, there was a group that viewed boots as a secondary resource and prioritized taking fish and baskets, leaving boots as a happy extra if they received them.

This isn't a game-breaking problem, but perhaps an expansion could adjust boots just enough to raise their value in the eyes of more players.

Cat Tile Predictability

The Isle of Cats is all about looking at the options given and finding the best solution, then adapting that solution as your options change. Most players naturally play this way, and rather than hope a specific tile will come into play, they plan for a variety of options. However, some players can get fixated on a single solution and will then get frustrated with the game if the right tile doesn't get drawn from the bag, especially in lower player counts.

From gallery of TheCityofKings

Again, this isn't a game-breaking problem, but it does reduce the enjoyment for a group of players and could perhaps be tackled in an expansion?

Other Issues

My list continued to grow and in addition to the above points, I added:

Early game direction: At the start of the game, your options are completely open, and some people found this overwhelming and couldn't decide on a path to follow.

Additional complexity: A reasonably large number of players wanted to be able to take the game to another level of complexity.

Ideas started to flow, and I was feeling confident that designing a perfect expansion was becoming a possibility — until one last thing struck me. Everything on my list was about "fixing" and "improving" the game, trying to solve the issues I was seeing by creating an enhancement expansion. Yet by this point the game had already sold over 100,000 copies, was quickly approaching the BoardGameGeek top 100, and was being loved by many people.

Was this expansion going to change things too much and cause everything to tumble down?

Two Types of Expansions

I started thinking about a second type of expansion. Rather than add to the game and introduce new systems that changed the experience, I changed my approach to adding replayability without modifying the experience.

This proved relatively easy as I always wanted to experiment with new boat (that is, player board) designs, and they would be a great way to keep the gameplay the same, while changing the puzzle depending on your board.

From gallery of TheCityofKings

The Boat Pack expansion was born, and I was having a lot of fun. The game was the same, yet everything was different. Tiles worked better in different places, the point-scoring lesson cards had different values based on your specific boat board, and it felt brand new.

The Quest Continues

As I wrapped up the Boat Pack expansion, I thought back to my lists — all those notes that I had made and forgotten about while designing an expansion that I could have made on day one after all.

The answer to my original question became obvious: You can't make a perfect expansion.

Once a game has a large enough audience, people will enjoy it for different reasons. It will never be possible to design an expansion that will please everyone as some will want change and others won't.

The Solution

What if I made two expansions? The first for people who just want more of the same experience, and the second for people who wanted something new? Then, what if I broke down the something new into modules that could be plugged in and played (without complex set-up) and allowed people to experiment with the combinations that were right for their groups?

From gallery of TheCityofKings

Rather than forcing everyone to use everything, these two expansions and the sub-modules would give people the freedom to mould The Isle of Cats into the game they wanted.

With the Boat Pack ready and my lists in hand, the Kittens + Beasts expansion came to life with three new modules:

1. A simple module that tackled the boots and cat-tile predictability issues, making it likely everyone would use it.
2. A medium complexity module that gave early game direction and added a few new decisions to the game.
3. A challenging module that took The Isle of Cats to the next level for those wanting a heavier game with deeper decisions.

Kittens Module

The kittens module filled the role of a simple module. I knew thematically people would be most excited about this, so I wanted to keep it accessible. It introduces new tiles that are persistent through rounds, giving you more deterministic access to a small set of tiles and the ability to cycle through them to the colors you need. However, these are accessible only to the fastest of players, adding extra value to the boots resource.

From gallery of TheCityofKings

This module solved two of the key gameplay issues I wanted to tackle and added the missing thematic piece (kittens). It was perfect as it required only a few cardboard tokens that didn't get mixed in with anything else, and you can decide to play with or without them, without having to separate pieces from the core game.

Beast Module

The beast module introduces early game direction by giving you access to a guaranteed high-scoring piece in the first round, which had an inbuilt objective for you to work towards. By the time the objective is completed, you'll be far enough into the game that other paths will have opened and given you a clear path to playthrough.

From gallery of TheCityofKings

Similar to the kittens module, it's made up of just a few tiles in their own bag that don't get mixed with other components, making it easy to plug and play. From a thematic perspective, it also solved another problem by introducing a range of new creatures for those who are less fond of cats.

Event Module

The final module was the trickiest by far. On one hand, I wanted to add to the complexity of the game and make decisions harder. On the other hand, I didn't want to introduce lots of new rules and drastically change the experience of the game. I played around with a lot of ideas and eventually landed with events, which introduce ways of scoring during the game.

From gallery of TheCityofKings

Until now, everything scored at the end, and that means completing the game with objectives fulfilled, so I explored the idea of having objectives for each round, allowing you to achieve them, score them, then break them. As an example, perhaps one part of your player board must be empty at the start of round three in order to get 5 points, but then from round three onwards you could start to fill it.

If each of these new objectives could encourage you to do things that you wouldn't normally do, you're now pressing your luck on how many points you want to earn at the cost of making your last few rounds more challenging.

The more I played with this system, the more I liked it. While it added the layers of complexity, it didn't add much in the way of rules. You already have point-scoring cards for the end of the game, so in reality it's just new point-scoring cards that trigger at a different part of the game.

Wrapping It Up

There are, of course, other things that feature in these two expansions, but this article was written to talk about designing expansions, to challenge people to not just design expansions based on what cool ideas they have, but to see how the wider audience interacts with their games and let that feedback into the process. As with all designers, I have my playtesting groups and connections, but nothing compares to the thousands of players who'll play your game upon release.

I couldn't be happier with how these two expansions have turned out. They enhance the game, and they give players the choice to enjoy the game in the way they want.

I look forward to seeing how they are received in the months to come and whether I add any new thoughts to my lists.

Frank West
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Tue Jun 28, 2022 4:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Creating Animalia: Preventing Extinction

M.J.E. Hendriks
Netherlands
Arnhem
Gelderland
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Board Game: Animalia: Preventing Extinction
Only the sound of our footsteps was audible, each crunch of snow shattering the silence of the blanketed Baltic forest. We had been tracking the Eurasian lynx for hours already, collecting urine, scat, and hair for our research. The idea was to keep a distance of at least three kilometers (approx. two miles), so as not to spook the feline hunter, and so far our study of lynx behavior and ecology had proven successful.

We had been studying the lynx around Europe, in Slovakia, Germany, Finland, Russia, and now here we were, in eastern Estonia, near the lovely shores of Lake Peipus. Suddenly our guide, Aitamah, a local forest ranger, held up her hand. We stopped short, forgetting to breathe. Out of the misty depths of the forest the lynx, the very cat we had been tracking, emerged, silently, crossing our path before disappearing again among the trees.

Animalia: Preventing Extinction is a co-operative card game for one to three players in which you are working for the Institute for Wildlife Conservation (IWC). As a researcher, you want to contribute to the protection of endangered animal species. You will be sent out on missions around the world to collect data on various animals and gain funding in an attempt to save animals and establish a level of awareness among the people of the world.

Players decide on a continent to play, after which they're expected to fulfill the missions belonging to that continent. Each mission is an individual undertaking, with the researcher needing to collect (data on) the animals stated on their mission card. The mechanism used for this is trick taking.

But I am getting ahead of myself. You might be wondering, of course, how we got here in the first place? Well, I'll tell you.
•••

In the beginning there was nothing. Well, not quite nothing. There were two gaming friends obsessed with everything board games: playing board games; discussing board games; even hosting a board game podcast. And from this was born a germ of an idea: "Have you ever heard of a co-operative trick-taking game, and how do you think that would work?" asked Gerben (Gerben Ernst) in an email to me in April 2017. I immediately started to look into this and found Familiar's Trouble, a game we were able to play a few years later, but nothing much else to speak of. It seemed like it was worth the trouble of working something out and I set off designing, coming up with a theme and trying to see how this would work. A day later, we got together and the design process had begun.
Quote:
From gallery of Mr Mjeh
When I design a game, I try to make it as thematically correct as possible. Therefore, I find myself contacting specialists in the field.

When researching the European wolf, I was trying to find out what national park to use for this in the description, so I contacted Ilka Reinhardt, who has done research into wolves in Western Europe. This is why, for the wolf in Animalia, the location is Lusatia as the wolf lives pretty much everywhere in Lusatia, including in active military training grounds, which are — odd as that may seem — the most secure areas for wolves. (The Society for Conservation Biology)
We started with a card game, then switched to a board game with an actual map of the world, then switched back to cards, using them as a route along which the researchers would travel from country to country. In the end, we opted for cards with artwork depicting the countries. Originally, though, the order of the countries as we traveled through a continent was important and something a lot of thought went into. It's strange to think about this now as the order doesn't really play a role in the game anymore. Somehow it's a shame as we enjoyed the idea of the game being not only educational from an animal conservation perspective, but also geographically.

As stated, when we started, there were no major co-operative trick-taking games, but the landscape has changed. Co-operative trick-taking games are popping up like mushrooms left and right. One of the most popular of these is The Crew, but whereas The Crew and most (all?) others allow little to no communication, Animalia is quite different as it revolves around communication. Animalia has no rules on or limitations to what information can be shared, making it a "paradise" for players struggling with AP (analysis paralysis), you might think...

In fact, the opening up of all information — without showing each other your cards since that would allow for an alpha player to just take over and play the game by themselves — has allowed us to make the game goals considerably more difficult (or at least complex) to achieve, without the risk of the players failing all the time. At the same time, this approach eliminates the rules of having to be quiet during a game. This is something I personally always feel is somewhat opposite to what a good (co-operative) game should be; you want to "co-operate", don't you?
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
If you have a family-friendly game, you might want to take children into consideration as well as people with certain...phobias. This was something we struggled with when considering the inclusion of spiders. Arachnaphobia is a thing, right?

In the end, we just decided to go with it. Spiders, too, are a part of the natural world, and why not include them, however scary. Still, we had numerous testers exclaim at the sight of one of our arachnid cards.
This brings us to one of the first problems we encountered with the design: What do we do with perfect information? Do we divvy up all the cards, like in Klaverjassen, a well-known Dutch trick-taking game that uses eight cards from each suit? Do we work with decks, where you start out with a number of cards, but after each trick you draw a new card until you've drawn all your cards (similar to Claim)? Or perhaps we simply remove a number of cards from the equation, like Haggis does.

From gallery of Mr Mjeh
It took many tries, but in the end we decided to opt for an innovative method of causing confusion among the players. Each color (suit) represents a continent and consists of a number of animals. Each card has a number and an animal type associated with it. The 1s, for example, are the arachnids or spiders. We were working with eight cards for each color, but now the trick was to use have just eight types of animals, but ten types. Each continent has two animal types that aren't represented that well (or aren't really well known). For example, the 10s are the "gentle giants", and Europe has long since gotten rid of all gentle giants from its shores. This way each color has different numbers missing, making it more difficult to figure out which animal cards are still in play and what the exact distribution is.

Another design issue was the continents. We planned an order to the continents, starting in Europe, then moving to North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and finally the Arctic. The idea was, initially, to allow for one to six players, with the number of players determining the number of continent cards used. Each player would receive eight cards, and a dummy hand would have to exist, as in bridge, so the number of continents would be the number of human players plus one. Quickly, we determined that the dummy's cards needed to be open information, so they are laid out face up, neatly ordered, with the human players collectively deciding which card the dummy (the IWC!) will play. In the published version, we had to cut the number of cards to make it fit the format (a small box game), and now it's currently a three-continent game, with all animal cards always being used. Strictly speaking, therefore, the game is a two-player game, which is why there are two added variants: the solo game in which you play all hands at once (but will have multiple missions to accomplish for different hands), and the three-player game in which the dummy is played by a player.
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Romania is home to over half of Europe's bears. The wildlife reserve and rewilding efforts in the Carpathian Mountains are one of the main reasons for this, yet the situation is less clear cut than it may seem as man encroaches on nature, and nature encroaches on man, and there is probably no better place to highlight this than here. The bears require a huge habitat and are free-ranging creatures. Intensified farming has a detrimental effect on the bears and their habitat, forcing them ever higher up.

From gallery of Mr Mjeh
(Credits: Lesniewski/Wild Wonders of Europe/NPL/Alamy Stock Photo)

Farms, however, with the accompanying farm animals, are attractive prospects to the bears, and therefore humans find themselves face to face with these huge creatures more often than they'd like. Should we fence the animals in (and out), or should we learn to live with them? How does one "manage" such a large creature on such a densely populated continent?
So how interesting is it to include a dummy player? Any games that require a dummy for a certain player count are generally considered less good and less interesting than when you can just play without. A dummy player will never play at the level of a human, and by necessity it'll require its own rules to be learned. However, here the dummy player was assigned its own role — but to explain that, I have to first tell you about the differences with the cards.

The animal cards range from 1 through 10, with two numbers missing. In a trick-taking game, you can have a trump suit, which was an option for a while — the current continent (for which you are doing missions) would be the trump color — but in the end we went with the 10 cards, the gentle giants functioning as trump. (For the first continent, to make it easier to understand the rules, this is not yet the case.) Other than trump, or "dominant animals" as we like to call them, the higher card always wins the trick. So what if you have only low cards? How do you win tricks? I really like the idea, just like in games with dice, that the low results (cards in this case) also do something special. Thus, we added special actions for the 1 to 3 cards, used "funding" for the 4 to 6 cards, left the 7 to 9 cards alone as they are high enough to win a trick, and kept the 10 cards also functioning as trump cards.
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In Berlin today there live approximately 2,000 foxes. They traipse around the streets, often unafraid, living off the waste and litter of the Berlin residents.

From gallery of Mr Mjeh
Source: Berliner Zeitung

In bygone days, these red foxes were hunters, preying on live prey, but these city foxes have adapted, becoming gatherers, with smaller habitats and different lifestyles. They aren't hunted by man, aren't preyed upon by larger predators, and even traffic isn't really a threat.
Funding, you will ask? Indeed, this brings us to the IWC, which functions as the dummy in the game. The IWC is always looking for more funding, so any trick it wins that contains a 4, 5, or 6 results in $1m of funding. This money counts as your determiner for how well you're doing, but can also be spent on the action cards, which each cost $1m to activate.

Perhaps this is a good place to quickly discuss the mission cards. Each continent consists of six missions, and depending on the difficulty, players collectively receive 1-3 mission cards. Yes, this means that on the easiest level, in a two-player game, one player has a mission and the other does not. Each mission card consists of one animal that needs to be researched, as well as a number of other animals that are similar either by type, region, burrowing habits, or whatnot. (In essence, researching them gives you data you can compare.)
Quote:
From gallery of Mr Mjeh
Another interesting example of reaching out to the experts in the field was when our American editor found there was an actual Institute for Wildlife Conservation in Hungary and advised us to change the name.

Instead, I did some research of my own and found a researcher there with a Dutch-sounding name: Hanna Bijl. I contacted her via Instagram, and she told me that the name of the institute had been recently changed, but that it would probably take another couple of years before all the sites had been updated. Furthermore, she pointed out there was no copyright on such a name, so that that wouldn't be a problem. Hence we decided to keep the IWC.
Now, back to the cards: the action cards! Indeed, in a card game, the cards are shuffled and distributed randomly, so it is always possible that the missions can simply not be achieved, however hard you try and talk things out. For this reason, when you play any 1, 2, or 3, you can pay $1m to immediately take the corresponding action. The 1 allows you to trade a card from your hand with someone else's hand. The 2 allows you to take a card from someone else's trick pile and add it to your own trick pile. And finally, the 3 allows you to take the special continent action, which differs per continent.

Animalia comes with three difficulty levels, three game variants (one for each player count), and two play modes. These play modes existed from the beginning and make the game extremely interesting. You can play a continent (six missions), or a campaign of multiple continents. Whenever you fail any mission, the game ends and you have to start again, but generally players should be able to find out the game difficulty that fits them best pretty easily, and then you should always be able to do well for most of the missions, even if it is on easy difficulty. Each round is a challenging puzzle that lends itself to first discussing what your goals are and how you feel you're going to achieve them.
Quote:
From gallery of Mr Mjeh
Credits: Kate Small
"Nice shooting, bro!" The Instagram account of the hunter is filled to the brim with dead animals, devoid of life, of soul. Each photo sees a hunter, often someone other than the account holder, standing over the dead animal. Holding it. Gloating. A trophy.

"I just have one more dream. One more item on my bucket list that I would like to tick off before I die. Shoot wolves from a helicopter. If only they'd legalize that, then I'd be on the first 'copter out."
Additionally, we have added a table with achievements so you can track how much funding you have collected for a specific continent or in a particular campaign. This way you can tick off the "difficulty levels" and will always still have new achievements you can then chase (for the more difficult achievement, even on easy, can be extremely difficult to attain).
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When you're having artwork done for your game, you really need to pay attention and make sure everything is correct. (Of course, this counts for everything — one iteration of the game box even had my name misspelled!)

With animals that can be an additional challenge. One of the animals for which this was the case was the toucan. We referred to Parque Nacional Tortuguero in Costa Rica for the toucan and used a photo from the internet for our prototype, but the artist painted a toco toucan rather than the keel-billed toucan that should've been used. And how was he to know? The description simply said "toucan". Luckily we were able to spot this in time.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Toco toucan (l) and keel-billed toucan
In the end, it took us five years to get Animalia designed, tested, and published, but we are now absolutely delighted with the final product, with the wonderful artwork by Loïc Billiau. Hopefully, provided we get a good reception, we can start working on the standalone expansion of Africa, Asia, and Oceania as those are pretty much ready to go given that those continents were part of the original game, so many years ago.

I would like to thank you for reading. Enjoy the game, and don't forget to post about your achievements on social media using hashtags #animalia, #animaliapreventingextinction, and #animaliaachievements!

Michiel Justin Elliott Hendriks
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Fri Jun 17, 2022 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Sniper Elite, or How to Turn a Stealth-Shooter Video Game into a Hidden-Movement Board Game

In the wee hours of the morning of January 9, 2019, Duncan Molloy reached out to me on Twitter with a cryptic question, "Hey David...can you have a think about how you excitingly portray sniper characters in tabletop and come back to me?" It took only a few minutes for me to formulate a general response based on research I had done for other games. I didn't know the context of the question, though, so it was just a rough sketch based on the role of military snipers in general. Duncan and I traded a few messages, then he emailed me.

Duncan had recently moved from Osprey Games to Rebellion, where he was establishing a tabletop division. Rebellion is one of Europe's biggest multimedia studios, with comics, TV, film, and especially video games. It seemed a natural fit to expand Rebellion into the tabletop world, and Duncan was the perfect man for the job. A few years earlier he had launched Osprey's board game division. In fact, that's how I knew Duncan. As Osprey's lead for board games, he took my pitch for Undaunted: Normandy way back at SPIEL '14. During the development for Undaunted, Duncan and I got to know each other pretty well. Apparently he trusted me enough to see what I could do with a sniper game.

Duncan's email was enlightening. He wanted to explore the idea of a tabletop adaptation of one of Rebellion's biggest video game IPs: Sniper Elite. He invited me to conceptualize what an adaptation might look like and pitch it to him. In truth, I'm not a huge video gamer. I knew of Sniper Elite but hadn't played it — but it was a very interesting opportunity.

Board Game: Sniper Elite: The Board Game

I spent the day pouring over Sniper Elite videos and strategy articles. The next morning I replied to Duncan's email and told him I was interested in the idea and that my first inclination was a "1 vs. many hidden movement game". Duncan invited me to explore any game concept as long as accessibility was a core tenet.

The next step for me was to identify a design partner. There were two major reasons I wanted a co-designer. First, designing with a partner helps hold me accountable and on schedule. Second, there was the practical issue of designing and testing a hidden movement game; that would be much easier with two designers! The first person I thought of was my friend, Roger Tankersley. Roger and I had worked together in the UK from 2014-2018. During that time, we were part of the same gaming group, and he had also playtested many of my designs. Most important, though, was that Roger is a HUGE fan of hidden movement games. Once I had settled on hidden movement as the key mechanism in the game, I knew he was the perfect person with whom to partner. It also helped that Roger was much more of a video gamer than me.

Fortunately, Roger agreed to collaborate with me on the design of what became Sniper Elite: The Board Game. Our first step was the research phase. When I'm designing a historical wargame, I usually spend six months to a year conducting research before building out the model of a game. Designing a tabletop adaptation of a video game required a similar depth of research, albeit in a much different way. Roger and I dove in head first to the video game. We needed to identify the core elements of the gameplay experience so that we could evoke those elements in the model we created for our design.

Tension, objectives, stealth, the shot, alerted defenders, panic: these were our core elements, what the tabletop game had to evoke. From our first conceptualization meeting, Roger and I knew that the sniper's movement and the defenders' positioning were going to be the key facets of the game. We discussed a variety of models, but our primary goal was to keep the board layout as organic as possible, while also leveraging it to facilitate elegant movement and sniper shots.

Very early in the design process Roger conceived a fantastic solution. Quoting from our design notes:
Quote:
In Sniper Elite, the game board represents an operation-size area where the map is broken into different size spaces, with more spaces in land use types that are harder to shoot through. The map will be designed to offer both long chains of spaces for snipers to take advantage of long shots across the map, and busy clusters of sectors where the hunters can feel relatively safe because of the difficulty of the shot. Control of the spaces is key to the hunters' victory as they limit where the sniper can operate.
This approach to the board never changed over the course of the game design. We started our playtests by borrowing a map from one of the levels in Sniper Elite 4 (Mission 3: Regilino Viaduct). We modeled the board on Roger's idea of congested, dense areas resulting in smaller spaces, while open areas had much larger spaces.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
Early board design concept

In our earliest discussions, we had considered numbering every space on the board to allow for a huge variety in objective locations. We quickly moved away from that model due to our desire to maintain a consistently high-quality experience across plays. In order to ensure that, we streamlined the number of potential objective locations to key spaces on the board.

In addition, we broke the board down into sectors, with each sector assigned to a group of defenders. Each group of defenders would consist of a leader and their soldiers. This board mock-up shows the changes to both the numbered objective spaces and the identification of sectors:

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
Early board design concept

The board configuration was successful. It generated organic chokepoints for the sniper, resulting in the need for stealth movement, while also giving the defenders interesting options for positioning.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
One of the final maps: the Heavy Water Facility from the Eagle's Nest expansion

The next major challenge was the resolution mechanism for the sniper's shots. We began with a custom dice concept. The sniper would begin the game with a set number of dice and could grow the number of dice in their pool with successful attacks. The sniper would declare the number of dice they wanted to use for an attack, roll them, and have to achieve a number of successes equal to the distance of the shot. There were elements of this initial system that we liked, but it largely felt uninspired. It was also missing the tension of executing a carefully timed, critical sniper shot in the game.

Our solution was shifting to a "shot resolution bag". Quoting from our design notes:
Quote:
To successfully make a shot, a sniper must draw a number of success tokens from the shot resolution bag greater than or equal to the number of spaces between the sniper and their target, including the space that the target is in, but not including the space that the sniper is in. The sniper may draw any number of tokens from the bag, but they must announce how many they are drawing and then must complete their draw even after gaining the needed number of successes.

In addition to success tokens, the bag also contains blanks, noise tokens, and noise suppression tokens. If a sniper draws two or more noise tokens, they must place a marker on the space the sniper occupied when they took the shot. Noise suppression tokens cancel noise tokens. A sniper begins the game with 5 success, 3 noise, and 2 miss tokens in the bag. After completing an objective, the sniper adds a noise token; after killing a soldier, they add a success token; after killing an officer, they add a noise-cancel token. The sniper can never have more than 10 success tokens in the bag.
Board Game: Sniper Elite: The Board Game
The final production version of the shot tokens

This "shot resolution bag" concept provided exactly the type of tension we wanted. The impact of the result — success, failure, and misses — kept all players engaged throughout the game. We also made sure to allow for ample opportunities in the game for both the sniper and defenders to affect the composition of tokens in the bag.

With the game board layout concept and shot resolution bag completed, it was time to turn our attention to the most significant challenge of the design: making sure that each board was fun, engaging, and balanced. For that, we turn to Roger's account on the design of our first board: the Launch Facility, which was first posted in the forums on the game's BGG entry.
•••

When David and I started designing a hidden-movement board game based on Sniper Elite, we knew the board designs would make or break the game. We thought about hidden-movement games that used point-to-point movement to create clear routes between objectives. One of our favorites used a continuous grid system of same-size spaces, allowing more freedom of movement. How could we make Sniper Elite stand out among these classics?

Right away we wanted the board design to capture shot difficulty and movement speed in the shape and size of the spaces themselves. We wanted to avoid fiddly rules like "if moving through a building" or "if shooting around obstacles". Pretty quickly we landed on the idea of variable size spaces. Large, open areas with large spaces that let the sniper player take shots from across the map, or cover large distances in only a couple of moves. Small, claustrophobic areas like alleys and building interiors with smaller spaces that slowed movement and made shots more difficult. We built the game around this core design decision.

I like to start with theme and then layer on mechanisms, so like every kid playing with toy soldiers, I grabbed some crayons and a sheet of paper!

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

We wanted to evoke the Peenemünde Army Research center, where V2 rockets were developed and tested. For Sniper Elite, we used the research center to get an idea of the types of buildings and objectives we should include, then built a board tailored to hidden movement. We quickly iterated to a slightly different scale — the breakthrough came at a time when all I had was literally the back of an envelope! That general arrangement of buildings can still be seen in the final board design.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

We tried adding spaces and objectives using a vector-based design program, but it was very difficult to quickly make changes in shape size and arrangement — look at those gaps! Look at all the diagonal corners! A friend of ours, who happens to be a data scientist, taught us to use a spreadsheet to create groups of cells that became our spaces. One huge advantage was the ease of identifying diagonals and changing spaces to remove them (although sharp-eyed readers will see some stray diagonals in this early version). We could also quickly account for the number of moves between objectives, areas with long lines of sight, and cluttered alleyways that slowed movement. We iterated many, many times using this system, making sure we got the board exactly right.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

Art transforms board spaces into places. David and I delivered a near-final board design with descriptions of all the buildings and features, then the artists from the Sniper Elite video games brought it to life. We love all the small details in the missile assembly building, the cluttered interior of the warehouse, and the way that lighting around the buildings evokes the feeling of creeping through the shadows.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

So how does this design affect gameplay? Playing as the sniper, you should quickly identify your first objective and decide on how to get there. You can move quickly through open lanes, alerting defenders but moving past them and darting into the shadows. Or you can move more slowly to avoid detection and surprise the defenders by accomplishing your first objective — and then you better run!

As the defenders, it's important to spread out and block the main lines of movement so that you will be alerted when the sniper runs by. At some point you will commit to an objective and collapse your defenders to pin the sniper in. Use the doorways and roadways to restrict movement, and force the sniper to make a mistake. Just be sure not to over-commit. It's a bad feeling to surround objective 4 only to have the sniper complete objective 5!

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics

We are really happy with how the boards turned out and can't wait for players to get their hands on them. David and I think we struck a good balance for all playstyles — whether you want to run-and-gun, shooting all the defenders who get in your way; or creep along slowly in the shadows, increasing the tension as you near the time limit of your tenth move. One hallmark of a good hidden-movement game is the tension of both sides feeling "I can't possibly win this", and we think we've hit that mark with our board design!

Thanks for taking the time to read this design diary and check out our new game.

David and Roger

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
Final production copy of Sniper Elite
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Tue Jun 14, 2022 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Life of a Chameleon

Nathan Jenne
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Board Game: Life of a Chameleon
Hi, I'm Nate Jenne. I designed Life of a Chameleon with my brother Jake, and we published the game through our own Last Night Games.

We have been designing games together for years and published this game, our first, in December 2021. Life of a Chameleon is a lighter abstract strategy game based on changing colors, eating bugs, and avoiding snakes. In May 2022, it was awarded the 2022 Mensa Select designation, and we couldn't be happier. I'd like to share some of our thoughts while making this game.

The basic idea for Life of a Chameleon came from Jake. He thought it would be interesting to have a game in which the players changed their player tokens throughout the game. One of the first ideas that came to Jake's mind was chameleons since they change color. We started building on that concept and decided that in order to sneak up on food or hide from predators the chameleon would need to change its color. We know that chameleons don't change color in real life to sneak up on bugs or to avoid predators, but we thought chameleons were cool, so we stuck with it.

From the beginning we wanted players to score points by accomplishing objective cards with specific sets of bugs on them. After several iterations of testing, we found that it was too easy to collect bugs and achieve goals, so we imposed a rule that players had to fulfill their objective cards from left to right.

From gallery of 6e38

After more iterations of testing, this seemed too restrictive and didn't allow players enough choice to plan out their moves. How could we land somewhere between "no choices" and "too many choices"? Then inspiration struck: Why not allow a player to fulfill their objectives either from left to right or from right to left? After even more testing, this proved to be the perfect balance between choice and constraint.

Jake and I enjoy games that have multiple ways to score, so naturally we wanted to do so in this design to add to the strategy, interaction, and suspense of the game. We added a deck of action cards that players gain by starting and completing objective cards.

From gallery of 6e38

Ultimately we included both direct and indirect ways to score using these achievement cards. We started with direct ways to score — Gather and Hide – which wasn't enough, so we added indirect ways to score: Extra Action, Sneak, Move Bug, and Wild cards. The indirect scoring cards allow players to surprise their opponents with an extra wild bug, another movement, a sneaky move past a snake, or a bug lure to draw it closer. I love moments of surprise when a player can combine multiple actions into a masterpiece of points.

On the other hand, the direct scoring cards take some effort. A player will need to plan ahead to score these points. They might need to make a tradeoff and forgo extra objectives, or conversely ignore the achievement card. In other instances they could use a Gather achievement card to score and consequently remove bugs their opponent might be trying to collect.

From gallery of 6e38

In the beginning, I was worried about the Gather cards. I thought the concept of herding bugs was great, but I thought that these cards would be too hard to accomplish. As we played with the achievement cards, I realized that previous choices we had already incorporated into the game actually facilitated the Gather goal and even added a deeper layer of strategy to the game.

Earlier, we had decided that when a chameleon moves into a new space with bugs that don't share a color, the player would then have to scare them away to adjacent spaces. We were then challenged with this question: What if all the adjacent spaces were occupied by chameleons that also didn't share a color with the bug? We didn't want an exception to allow bugs of different colors to reside on the same space as chameleons — which was when chaining bug movements was born! Suddenly, a player could opportunistically steer bugs through multiple spaces using chameleons with different colors. We immediately applied this rule to the movement of snakes. These rules prevented deadlocks, but they also gave players a little more control to bend the environment to their benefit.

From gallery of 6e38

A difficult question for many designs we've created is how the game should end. This is a critical part of any game. The ending can create all sorts of problems, including analysis paralysis. We wanted to avoid scenarios in which the last players would spend far too much time calculating their maximum possible score. We wanted the game to have some uncertainty. We wanted players to be forced to take risks and make tradeoffs between scoring more points or being conservative. Since we had already included a twenty-sided die for placing new bugs onto the board, why not add a four-sided die for advancing the game? And that's what we did. Every time an objective card is completed, the player rolls that D4, and everyone holds their breath to see just how far down the track the game will progress.

Life of a Chameleon is an opportunistic game. Players can't plan multiple turns into the future, but instead must pay attention to which colors are on the board, where the other players are, how many bugs are left of each color, how much longer the game will last, which objectives are available, which chameleon colors are available, and which achievement cards they have collected. On the surface the game is straightforward and even easy, but after a few rounds it gets a bit deeper.

From gallery of 6e38

Designing this game was fun. We went through many iterations and surprisingly ended up with something close to what we had envisioned in the beginning. This hasn't typically been our experience as we frequently change between themes and mechanisms during development. It's been fun watching others enjoy the theme and discover the subtle strategy we've designed into this game.

Nate Jenne

From gallery of 6e38
Nathan (l) and Jake
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Tue Jun 7, 2022 1:00 pm
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