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Translator Diary: Munchkin Russia, or From Russia with Linguistics

Julia Klokova
Russia
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Board Game: Munchkin Russia
Remember when you were a kid and mom came to your bed to wish you good night? She probably didn't want you getting up in the middle of the night, but did she ever threaten you with a wolf attack? If not, you're not a Russian.

Munchkin Russia — which debuted as Русский манчкин from publisher Hobby World in October 2020 — is coming out in English from Steve Jackson Games in October 2021, with this set featuring 168 cards with a merry Russian soul. Some entendres worked in both English and Russian with a direct translation, but most of them were an exciting adventure with multiple paths, exemplified by the "Crossroads" card.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Let's begin with the simple ones:

• An "Iron Curtain" as a political situation and a shower curtain combined. Drawing a guy behind a curtain made from iron — voila, 100% match!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

• Another great example and basically a no-brainer was a "ROFLing Pin". In Soviet culture, a rolling pin accompanies a tough Russian woman waiting for her husband who comes back home late and drunk. In the Russian edition of the game, this symbol of an enraged Soviet lady has a rhymed name meaning "a rolling pin with bared teeth".

During the translation, the wide smile turned into a ROFL and we've got ourselves a nice new name! Easy enough, but there were quite a few cards that were more challenging.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

• For instance, the wolf reference we mentioned earlier. It comes from a terrifying lullaby that is known by every Russian child:
Quote:
Sleep sleep sleep
Don't lie too close to the edge of the bed
Or a grey little wolf will come
And grab you by the flank,
Drag you into the woods
Underneath the willow root.
It's totally understandable why a mother wouldn't want a child to fall from the bed, but creating a full-fledged phobia is probably not the best way to prevent that! It's like with the English saying "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite". Falling asleep definitely stops being the top priority in a kid's mind.

In the Russian edition, the card is named "Grey Little Wolf". While the name refers to the lullaby, the image is another layer of the joke. "Little wolf" sounds exactly like a "whirling (or spinning) top" in Russian. Additionally, if you're affected by its Bad Stuff, the wolf "grabs you by the flank" and you lose a level. Thus, there is a clever visual and semantic entendre!

There was one big problem for the translation: No one outside of Russia would know about the lullaby, and even if we used the "grabs you by the flank" phrase, an English-speaking player wouldn't understand the context, so for the translation, we had to abandon the lullaby reference and play with the remaining wolf and whirling top. Here is the result:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

• Another case involves a fairy tale that you might know as "Goldilocks and The Three Bears". In Russian folklore, the bears suffering the intruder are the same, but the girl is called "Masha", which is short for the female name "Maria", while the Russian word for "bear" sounds exactly like a nickname for the name "Michael", that is, "Misha".

In the Russian version, the card gives -3 to your Level if you have the same name as a female character from a fairy tale, and a +3 if your name is Misha. What should we do when there are very few Mishas in America?

We had the idea to instead pursue Goldilocks and her blonde hair so that all blonde players would have a -3 modifier and all brown-haired players would get a bonus. However, we realized that instead of being activated occasionally, this effect would be activated almost every time.

Thus, for the English edition of "Three Brown Bears", we decided to drop the suffering of the bears and let everyone come up with a fairy tale with their name in it.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

• And let's talk about the most sacred one for today. Back in the USSR, everyone had many carpets. People put rugs on the floor, hung them on the walls (preferably on several walls at once). The more carpets you had, the more prepared you were for the winter and the wealthier your family was.

The tradition is still strong, especially among elderly people, but youngsters are not so far removed either. Try googling "Rugs in Russian culture", and you'll quickly realize that it's a special thing to take selfies with a good ol' rug in the background.

The closest translation of the Russian version would've been "Your Carpetliness", but we needed to share that obvious Russian urge, so we went for this option instead:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

As you can see, trying to explain local memes, traditions, or superstitions is a great challenge, especially the ones involving multiple layers of humor and double entendres. This kind of cultural localization is the most tricky and, therefore, the most rewarding of all.

Is there anything that you would've translated differently? Share your ideas in the comments, comrades!

Board Game: Munchkin Russia
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Wed Sep 15, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Messina 1347

Vladimir Suchy
Czech Republic
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Editor's note: Diary written collaboratively by designers Raúl Fernández Aparicio and Vladimír Suchý —WEM

RAÚL:

I feel like I've been designing Messina 1347 my entire life — or at least since that day in the 1980s when my mum (or my grandma, I can't quite remember) gave me La Ruta del Tesoro, one of my first board games. That game was like Monopoly, but based in the Mediterranean during medieval times and published by Cefa. I changed the rules so that my sister and brothers wouldn't get bored, and I remember imagining fleets of ships sailing the sea from Constantinople to Sicily, carrying all sorts of goods and treasures.

From gallery of sucd

Later on, when I was studying computer engineering, I tried to convert all my ideas into a video game called "Mare Nostrum". When I swapped computing for history of art, I abandoned the idea of the game, but years later I became aware that the game had never abandoned me. One day in 2016, I thought it was about time for me to take another look at the design, but this time there was an ingredient that I really wanted to add to the mix: the Black Death. So I started to work seriously on developing a game set in 1347-1348 when the Black Death arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean.

My first idea involved using a map of the Mediterranean as the board, with the same cities as La Ruta del Tesoro, and the mechanism had the boats sailing round the map, just like the pieces move around the board in Monopoly. I rejected that mechanism. Coincidentally, I was playing Maracaibo recently when I suddenly thought, "Hey, that was my initial idea for 'La Peste Negra'! It would have worked!"

When that initial design became stuck in a dead end, I then thought about basing the game in a single city: Messina. After all, that was the first city where plague-infected merchants would disembark. I designed a city with square tiles, forming a board that would change every game, and this idea was quite similar to the end product. Each tile gave you resources or actions, you progressed with influence points and victory points, and infected tiles would lead to penalties if you didn't clear out the plague first.

From gallery of sucd
Messina — Raul's first variant

That game, which was a simple Eurogame but one with a strong theme, won the Zona Lúdica prototypes competition in 2017 and showed me that I must have been doing something right. It went on to win various other competitions and games conventions, and people seemed to really like it. Even though a few publishing contracts fell through, the game was selected for ProtoLab 2018 in Cannes, where a couple of other publishers (one French and one Russian) took an interest. However, I found myself at a dead end once again and had to come up with something new.

I changed the square tiles for hexagonal ones, this time forming a fixed board (which Vladimír would later change back to a modular board), and introduced one of the most successful mechanisms: the player board with double tracks on which you have to choose which way to go at a given point, with your chosen track ending up fusing with the adjacent resource track. That was one of the things that Vladimír liked the most and therefore kept (and improved). This new version won second prize for prototypes at the 2019 JugarxJugar convention in Granollers and first prize in the 2019 Málaga Board Games Convention. The latter was a key moment for Messina 1347: One of the judges of the competition was Vladimír Suchý, who approached me to say that he was really interested in the game and that there was a chance it could be published.

I sent him a prototype, and we began to exchange information about the game via email. He suggested some changes in the core mechanisms and that we publish it as co-authors through Delicious Games, his publishing company. I accepted and ever since then, each of us has been testing it separately and meeting up on Tabletopia to test it together. Little by little, we have been polishing all aspects of the game, and you'll be able to see the results very soon at SPIEL '21. I'm sure it will be worth all the hard work we've put in during all the different stages of Messina 1347.

From gallery of sucd
Raul's version in Málaga in 2019


VLADIMÍR:

At the end of 2019 my wife and I were invited to attend the Málaga Board Games Convention (BGC). The organizers were so kind to us, and the place itself was wonderful, and in addition they asked whether I would be a member of the committee judging a prototype competition they were running. I was honored to accept.

Because I am primarily a player of Eurogames and am also someone who is interested in games that have a historical angle, I was especially interested in a competition entry called Messina 1347 — a game about the arrival and spread of the Black Plague to Europe via Messina in Sicily in 1347. This prototype included some interesting ideas that I'd not often seen in games before. It was, at its heart, a worker-driven game, but it also had a mechanism for spreading infection throughout the city. I also found it interesting how the board state within the game evolved; it simultaneously functioned as the place for the workers to take their actions, but was also where the plague spread, which in turn affected where you might send your workers. I also found the player boards interesting as they used the three different types of citizens in the game on different tracks.

The game at that time — as with any other prototype (mine included!) — wasn't so well balanced in my opinion. I held some discussions with the designer, Raúl Fernández Aparicio, and I told him some of my ideas based on that prototype and suggested how the game could perhaps become better balanced.

Board Game Publisher: Delicious Games
After those discussions, Raúl agreed to make some adjustments to the prototype, incorporating some of my suggestions, and then to send it to on us at Delicious Games, our company, to be further tested. In the spring of 2020, just as life was beginning to imitate art and a real world pandemic was kicking in with Covid-19, Raúl sent us his updated Messina prototype.

The game had been updated with some of my suggestions but it still had some balance issues. At this stage, we thought hard about what we should do next. The prototype definitely contained good ideas, and we believed they could be the basis for an interesting Eurogame. However, at the same time, we were of the opinion that the prototype was not in a state where it could be tested fully or was close to publication. The game, as it existed then, also had a lower complexity weight than other games published by us here at Delicious Games.

From a personal point of view, I was interested in collaborating with another designer to design a game. I have worked on more than ten published designs with myself as the designer, but I had never worked with another designer on a game, and it was something I knew I wanted to try at some point in my design career. I suggested this to Raúl and said that if he agreed, I would try to redesign the prototype and that we would become co-designers on the project. Raúl agreed to proceed on that basis, which was great news.

At that time, we, as Delicious Games, did not make an offer to publish the game because we didn't yet know how the game would go down with playtesters after its redesign. Testing with experienced players is a very important factor for us in determining whether we think a game we have as a prototype could eventually be published or not. We did, however, want to keep the theme of the game and most of the interesting mechanisms as we were sure they would provided the basis for a solid Eurogame.

During the next few months, while I was finishing my own design of Praga Caput Regni, I reworked the prototype for Messina, leaving in what I thought were the most interesting aspects of it.

First, I adjusted the theme of the game so that the gameplay had more of a thematic arc. At the beginning of the game the plague arrives in the city and starts to spread. After a while, it becomes rampant in the city, requiring the players to help fight the plague. After a while, though, it is controlled to a degree and starts to decline to the point where it is possible for citizens to return to the city. This arc, which I tried to replicate through the use of certain mechanisms within the game, hopefully adds layers to the theme of the game and echoes what happened in Messina at the time the game is set.

Originally the game had a board with hexes on it. I wanted to still use hexes, but decided to change the board so that they were individual hexes rather than being pre-printed on a board. This allowed for greater variability as well as the ability to adjust the size of the ‟city" to better match the number of players. Because I like variability in games a lot and consider it an important element of my designs, I added a mechanism in which citizen tokens were randomly placed in different locations each round. It is this aspect together with the variable introduction of plague cubes on those hexes that makes it, in my opinion, an interesting choice as to whether to use a hex for its action or not and also whether to help rescue a particular citizen or not.

Adding citizens to the main board, now divided into individual hexes, was also the basis for the next mechanism in the game. I expanded the idea of the player board into the shape of a country farmhouse where the citizens who had escaped the city could flee to.

From gallery of sucd
Predecessor of the countryside farmhouse

These citizens could then take additional actions at the farmhouse, based on their type, which increased your incentive to take them in the first place. I tried to further enhance the integration of theme and mechanisms here by adding the need to quarantine those citizens who arrived at the farmhouse infected with the plague, which added complexity to the choices of which citizens to bring back to the players' farmhouses and when.

I also redesigned the three tracks on the player boards so that they were more integrated into the game.
Finally, I also introduced the idea of the ships coming into the city. Not only do they bring citizens and goods with them; they also bring the plague itself. This was another attempt to tie the theme of the game to the historical setting.

From gallery of sucd
Prototype after this reworking

Through these changes, the game increased in complexity and formed the basis of the game that we decided to publish.

Even though the time of the Covid pandemic could be seen in a positive light for designers who had more time to spend on designing games by themselves in their homes, it was not a good thing for testing prototypes. In the autumn of 2020, we had to decide how we were going to playtest Messina, especially now that it had become a more complex prototype than what it started out as.

The decision on whether to take it further or not was strongly influenced by the overall situation with Covid. I did initial testing on the new prototype, and I got it to a point that I was happy with. However, there was still a lot of to do on Messina, and now we wanted to put the prototype in front of more groups of different players to find out whether we could publish as it was or whether we needed to redesign anything.

At this point, though, the Czech Republic was under a strict lockdown throughout the whole autumn, and it was very difficult to test this design with other players. We put together an electronic version of the game, but we increasingly found that online testing was not suitable for us to tell whether players liked it or not; when you play online, you can't always see the reaction of the players or tell how many issues are caused by the interface rather than the game itself.

Another problem we grappled with at this time was the theme of the game. In 2019, when we first discussed publishing the game, the idea of a worldwide pandemic was more like something from a science fiction story or something firmly from the annals of history. But now, we had to consider trying to publish a game about fighting an epidemic at the time the world was experiencing one for real.

The final decision about whether we should publish Messina was done after we carefully considered the reaction of playtesters to the theme. We asked people what they thought about the theme, and the answer was mostly the same — that they didn't mind the plague epidemic theme, but that some people may not like it as it may be "too close to home" for them. However, we never actually came across anyone who said that they didn't want to try the game because Covid was around and because of any modern parallels with the game.

In fact, our ultimate decision to publish Messina was our way of showing that while Covid had affected so many facets of our daily lives up that point that we wouldn't be limited or held back by it any more.

From gallery of sucd
One of the first versions of the population wheel

So we decided to publish Messina for SPIEL '21. After that, we undertook extensive playtesting of the game, as did Raúl. We both had different groups of players who playtested the game a lot. We struggled through a lockdown at the beginning of this phase during which time we also tested the game as much as we could online and by playing the game solo. Thankfully, after a while, the situation with Covid improved and lockdown restrictions were not so limiting and finally we could meet players face-to-face to fully playtest the game.

The biggest challenge for us was to balance the game fully. In games of this type where you can gain more workers, it is important that it doesn't turn into a race to get the next worker as this can negatively impact on the possibility for players to try out other strategies. We wanted to ensure that we avoided this potentially dominant ‟snowball effect". After a number of adjustments, I think we managed to avoid this problem well, and I believe that Messina still has a lot of variability that gives players various viable strategies to explore and different ways to win.

To be even more variable, I also suggested that the player boards have double sides with asymmetric farms on the opposing sides and also that the scroll boards have alternate sides that provide different scoring opportunities, both of which provide an even more advanced challenge.

In the end, I think we here at Delicious Games, together with Raúl, have produced another fascinating Eurogame that has a complexity level similar to Underwater Cities or Praga Caput Regni and which combines engine-building mechanisms with wide variability and provides many different strategies to explore.

From a personal game designer point of view, I was able to experience co-designing a game for the first time by helping to further develop a pre-existing game made by someone else. The result is a design in which contributions from both designers were very important both at the start of design and also during its development and its finalization. Our two different approaches helped to create a new game, which is heavily influenced by both designers.

From gallery of sucd
The final form of the game

Finally, the theme of the game can remind us that in the past, pandemics were more dangerous and less predictable or manageable than now. Vaccines didn't exist, and even when they were invented, they couldn't be developed or produced as quickly as they can now. I think we can all agree that as bad as the Covid pandemic has been, we should be grateful that we weren't around at the time of the ‟Black Plague" when it spread around Europe and Asia and killed a third of those that it infected.

That shouldn't take away from the fact that the current pandemic has undoubtedly led to the untimely deaths of a lot people as well as caused hardship of many kinds all round the world. Consequently we decided, following a suggestion from our fans and due to the special situation we are all in, to donate part of the profit from every copy of Messina 1347 sold to the international humanitarian organization "Médicins Sans Frontières".

P.S. Thanks to Mike Poole for the language corrections.
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Tue Sep 7, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The LOOP

Théo Rivière
Belgium
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Board Game: The LOOP
In this diary, co-designers Maxime Rambourg and Théo Rivière take you on a journey through their game design process for The LOOP, a quirky co-operative game that debuts in the U.S. in September 2021 from Pandasaurus Games in which players try to foil the plans of the evil Dr. Faux!

Théo: Like all the best time travel stories, this story starts in the past. Not in the far, far past, but well before I wrote this sentence.

It all began on June 9, 2018 to be exact. I was at the Des Bretzels et des Jeux show in Strasbourg, France, and I had planned a short trip to Brussels with Maxime Rambourg.

In October 2013, I had moved from my hometown in Poitiers in the west of France to Nancy in the northeast to start my very first job at IELLO. I didn't know anyone when I moved there. Shortly thereafter, I became friends with my co-workers, and they took me to a local game bar: La Feinte de l'Ours. I met a lot of people there, including the manager of the bar who would turn out to be my co-designer: Maxime. At the time, I was still a newbie designer. My first game Shinobi WAT-AAH! had just released, and I didn't yet know that I would become a full-time game designer. At the bar, we talked a bit, but we didn't become especially close and we didn't discuss creating a game together. (Spoiler alert: That came later.)

By 2018, I had moved to Brussels, and Maxime passed through the city regularly to visit friends we had in common. With the big success of The Big Book of Madness, he was spending a lot of time on game design. That same year, I quit my job to focus on game design as well, and on forming Team Kaedama. During one of our conversations, we had the idea of trying to make a game together.

Anyway, back to Strasbourg. We had just finished some mediocre burgers, and Maxime offered to show one of his prototypes to me and the incredible Sébastien from Catch Up Games. It was a co-operative deck-building game in which players traveled through a timeline to stop a supervillain.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: After so much time travel, I really struggle to remember the order of certain events...

But one thing is for certain: I already had a good relationship with the guys at Catch Up and regularly showed them my projects. I wanted to get their feedback, but I also wanted to endear myself to them, hoping to work with them one day.

After playing the game together, Théo and I wanted to spend some time at his home in Brussels for our very first co-designing session. We didn't really have an exact project in mind; we just knew we wanted to work together.

Doctor Faux knew this was a pivotal moment because he smashed the passenger window of my car to try to stop us from coming together. Théo overcame that challenge, though, and endured a four-hour drive without a window. I think we spent the entire, blustery drive from Strasbourg to Brussels talking about The LOOP. When we finally arrived at his place, we set up the game and immediately started making changes to my little bits of cardboard.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: And that's how we started working together, sometimes on The LOOP and sometimes on other projects.

It was the first time we had worked together, and I wasn't sure of the dynamic. I remember talking about a prototype and feeling unsure whether I was giving advice to a friend or if we were truly working together — but little by little we clicked, and it became clear that we were a team. That's when the real work started.

In its current form, there was the hint of an excellent game, but there were still a fair amount of things that didn't work well. We specifically examined these aspects:

• Managing clones was done with health points, which was tedious.
• There was a thematic mechanism which was as cool as it was frustrating. Each player had three cards in front of them and would add a new one to the leftmost spot before discarding the (now fourth) rightmost card. Then the effects of all three cards would activate from left to right.

LOOPing back to our time in Brussels, we discussed these issues during that co-designing session and came up with two thematic solutions that made it into the final version of the game:

• Instead of using health points, clones would have an "original era". The goal was to successfully send them back to this era to create a temporal paradox and — BOOM — destroy them.
• At the time, I was still playing Hearthstone, and one of the characters had a power I really liked. Their deck was super unpredictable, but you could use their power to "go back in time and start your turn over". While we couldn't do exactly that, we talked about paying energy to create time loops and completely replay the cards in your hand.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: The Paris est Ludique! convention was coming up fast, and we planned to show those changes to Catch Up. They seemed to like it more, but not enough to jump on it. Admittedly, we knew there was still a lot of work to do to balance out the player experience — the joys of designing super niche co-operative games! — but I felt that by adding loops and destroying clones, we had made some progress.

The main concern at the time was the incarnation of Dr. Faux, who didn't yet have a time machine, but whom we were pursuing across the timeline. Movement, at times, felt cumbersome. There was sometimes a feeling of "I can't do anything satisfying on my turn", which we wouldn't shake for some time. We wanted players to have more control over the different events in the game.

We had another co-designing session in Brussels shortly after SPIEL where we played back-to-back games from morning to night, with no interruptions (except for takeout delivery). After each game, we spent a few minutes discussing what worked and what didn't. We would make changes on the fly, then immediately set up a new game. But during these games, one thing was clear: We were having a wildly fun time playing this game as we were trying to improve it. Ideas were flowing, and we were tossing them to each other, back and forth. When one of us would go in a random direction, the other would refine it. We had finally figured out our workflow, and it was amazing.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: We worked on The LOOP for twelve hours a day for two days straight. The mechanisms were reworked a lot, and the graphic design was completely redone until we were happy with the new version. Well, happy enough to have a nice box to take a photo of and post on social media.

A few days later, I was back on the road on the way to the Ludix show, which was hosting a big prototype competition. To make things simpler, I spent a few days in Valence with Team Kaedama before meeting up with Clément from Catch Up so that we could all carpool. In the car, I brought up our design session on The LOOP to Clem and told him we were going to start showing the prototype to publishers because it was good enough to show off now. Since only a couple of weeks had passed since SPIEL, he was slightly dubious; the prototype he had seen just a few days ago still needed a lot of work. But it was perfect timing since I had the prototype in my bag.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

That evening, I got a gaming group together, and everything went well. Clément made fun of me because I spent the whole time saying "This is my favorite card!" for...well, most of the cards.

On the drive home, we talked about the game again, and Clément had two differing feelings. On the one hand, he really enjoyed the game and wanted to play again. On the other hand, Catch Up was already developing another game by Maxime and didn't want to sign two games by the same designer. He ended up taking the prototype anyway.

I don't remember the exact timing, but we received a VERY long email from Seb (the second half of Catch Up) a few days later. They had played it again, they liked it, but... My first time reading the email, I thought they didn't want to publish The LOOP. (Seb loves to use parentheses between parentheses in very long sentences.) I read it again later and wasn't sure. I read the email out loud and finally understood everything. Catch Up wanted to publish The LOOP — hurray!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: I had a lot of conversations with Seb about their desire to publish The LOOP, but having another of my prototypes in the works caused a problem. The charisma of Dr. Faux was undeniable, and in the end we agreed to focus primarily on The LOOP.

We weren't done yet, though. The game had a linear timeline with nine eras — in the beginning, it was actually 11! — which meant that if a player in the distant past had to travel to an alien invasion in the far future... Well, suffice to say it was a long journey that was often impossible to complete. This frustration was felt too frequently, so we reduced the number of eras to seven. It was better, but it wasn't perfect yet.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo and Catch Up suggested letting players go from the furthest point in the past directly to the furthest point in the future, which would create a temporal loop. The first time we tried a "circular" board, it clearly addressed the need to move more easily and it aligned perfectly with the theme.

Dr. Faux was also causing problems; he was sometimes too chaotic, other times not evil enough. Moreover, his identity as an evil genius, superpowered enemy, and extremely annoying menace felt lackluster. By giving players more ways to counteract his plans, he had lost some of his threat.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

During our brainstorming sessions, we freely threw out ideas to see how others would react. We started looking for a way to add some chaos back to Dr. Faux. We knew we didn't want to roll dice, so Théo came up with a slew of ideas until he suggested this: "Okay, we're not going to do this, it's a terrible idea, but what if we had a tower to drop cubes in..." I definitely replied something like, "Wait, wait, that's actually not bad. A cube tower, huh?"

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We didn't take it seriously, we even joked about it, but the idea had taken hold. We quickly floated the idea to Catch Up to see their reaction, specifically on whether making a plastic tower was even feasible. They approved instantly, saying that it would be eye-catching. They were on board.

I dabble in 3D printing and started creating some designs for the tower. It was quite the process. I have no training in architecture, modeling, or physics, but I had to figure out how to make the cubes fall equally in three different directions. It took several weeks and about twenty different prototype towers in different shapes and sizes until we figured out a functional base. We sent this to a professional (Dominique 3DZeBlate Breton) to polish the rest and make it perfect!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: We say this all the time: You don't stop working on a game when you sign it with a publisher. Oftentimes the opposite is true, and it was certainly the case with The LOOP. We doubled our development sessions with Catch Up and stripped the game down to its core so that we could build it back even better.

I confess, there were multiple moments where I thought we wouldn't be able to perfect every detail. We thought the end was in sight three different times, where all that was left was playtests to make sure it played as planned. But each time, we pulled back. Either the tests brought new kinks to light, or professional partners requested we make new changes.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

It was at this time that I showed the prototype to Simon Caruso to see whether he would be able to illustrate the game. He officially joined the team and a near-final version of the game took shape.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: With the base of the game finalized, we examined the replayability. Multiple characters and plenty of different cards and missions added variety, yet we wanted to give players a challenge that was balanced between the level of difficulty and the sense of accomplishment. We also wanted players to want to play again and again, even after beating Dr. Faux.

Without adding a true legacy element, we thought about adding content players could "unlock" by completing certain actions during the game. This unlocked content could be new characters, new missions, or new cards. We scrapped this idea pretty quickly as it seemed too overdone, so instead we dipped our toes in the temporal vortex to see how different game modes could work as a way to spice up the experience and gradually increase difficulty.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We came up with a dozen ideas and tried different directions, which we quickly pared down to four game modes. Then we tested, polished, retested, refined, and replaced aspects. However, it was hard to determine the perfect balance of difficulty since we had played so many games at this point. We needed the modes to be different enough from the beginning mode, but not completely convoluted, while still forcing players to use different strategies.

This meant we had to pour even more energy into creating these game modes, yet we didn't mind because we were still having so much genuine fun while playtesting. I felt excited each time we changed something because that meant we needed to schedule another playtest session. This all wrapped up with the solo mode that Sébastien came up with. It managed to keep the same play style of The LOOP, while being a fulfilling solo experience.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: The game finally went into production and all we had to do was wait. This wait felt longer than normal. The game had become so much more personal to us than our other designs, so we couldn't wait to see the final product. The first bits of feedback we got from players and press were encouraging. We can't thank you enough for playing and enjoying the game!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Tue Aug 31, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Choo Choo Hullabaloo, or Designing Luzon Rails

Robin David
Ireland
Kildare
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Microbadge: Science Fiction fanMicrobadge: WriterMicrobadge: Carcassonne fanMicrobadge: Book readerMicrobadge: Game Design Hobbyist
From gallery of robindavid
Luzon Rails is a cube rail game set on the island of Luzon — the largest and most populous island in the Philippines. It puts the players in the shoes of rail investors who buy stock in companies, seek to improve those companies, and amass wealth when company dividends pay out. It's easy: buy stocks, develop companies, get rich, win the game! Except that your rivals are also investing in those same companies and won't take kindly to you nosing in on their profits.

Cube Rails

If you haven't heard of cube rails, it's a whole genre in itself, best known for titles like Chicago Express, Paris Connection, and Irish Gauge. These are relatively simple games that aim to finish in an hour or so and place emphasis on mixing up the player incentives. Usually, in these kinds of games, you wouldn't own a rail company, but you'd own shares in several companies, as would the other players. It leads to questions like, do you really want to improve the red company when another player will earn more money from it? Cube rail games are thematically and mechanically similar to the granddaddies of train game, 18xx games, but are vastly easier to get to the table!

I'm a long-time fan of cube rail games and train games in general, and decided one day I wanted to make something of that ilk. I don't remember every detail, but I'll share what I can and give you a peek behind the curtain into the process of creating and publishing Luzon Rails.

Board Game: Luzon Rails
The final game!

Designing Luzon Rails

Well, step one was to pick a place to set the game! I would have chosen Ireland, seeing as I live there, but Irish Gauge was big news at the time. My wife is from Luzon, The Philippines, and we try to spend most Christmases there, so it seemed like the natural next choice. Luzon is a beautiful tropical island with mountain ranges, wetlands, a wide open section in the north, and a tighter winding peninsula in the south — all features that make it perfect for a train game! And bonus points that Luzon has its own interesting rail history to dig into.

The core mechanisms came together quickly after picking a location. This was helped by the game coming from a long and established tradition of similar titles. By the time I had built the map for a prototype, I had an inkling of what I would do to make it stand out and be compelling in its own right. I decided to use a card-driven system, inspired by some war games I was playing and enjoying at the time (and particularly inspired by the excellent political game, Wir Sind Das Volk). This means that each round, players will have a shared set of cards that dictate what actions are available. On a given turn, a player picks a card, implements the action as they see fit, and discards that card. I really liked this idea because I thought it could simulate doing business in non-ideal situations. For example in some rounds, various actions will be abundant, or limited, or not available at all, and this could feel like a year with a poor stock market, or a steel shortage, or a generous government issuing grants to anybody willing to take them.

Board Game: Luzon Rails
The dice are never rolled; their position tracks company value, and their face is the future potential of a company

The game board is the center of the game, so I wanted to make it oversized, even for the playtests. I printed it on eight sheets of paper (it's massive!) and got it ready for my local fortnightly playtest group, Playtest Dublin. I raided a copy of Iberian Rails for components and headed in to test things out.

From gallery of robindavid
A late playtest

The first playtest went well. Everybody was happy, engaged, and trying to channel their inner Andrew Carnegie — but something was missing. I was happy with the core of the game, but it needed more kick to make it stand out.

In search of this, I simplified the game. I had a system whereby players could become company directors if they owned the most shares in said company, and this would create various opportunities and incentives, but truth be told, this was distracting from my main aim in the game. I wanted players to be ruthless moneymakers, unconcerned with the health of a company and concerned only with the dividend potential and their own personal coffers. I didn't want players to feel like they owned a company — they just own the shares! So directors were out. Instead, if you own a single share in a company, you have the right to develop it on your turn. Easy.

Next, I wanted players to do more interesting things while building track or otherwise developing a company. And I wanted the game to more closely match its setting! I wanted each of the five companies to start in a different part of Luzon, so a variety of the island would be developed. But what I saw was that players were just racing the companies to Manila to get bonuses, then kind of floundering with them. How could I get the companies to build in more interesting ways and to interact (and block!) one another?

This was a surprisingly tough nut to crack. When you see a finished game, especially one that looks quite simple, it often looks like everything must have been so straightforward. This was far from the case! I tried introducing all kinds of player incentives, with a variety of location types, abilities, actions. I even tried an ill-fated pick-up-and-deliver system.

From gallery of robindavid
Pick up and deliver was decidedly UNFUN!

I settled on a system that reflects a real difficulty rail investors in Luzon would have faced: that it already has a shipping system made out of boats! I broke the various locations in the game into "coastal cities" and "production cities". As a player builds track for a company, it will connect with these different locations and the value of said locations to the company will depend on what kind of network the company already has. The final version of this is that a production city adds only one point to the company value, then a coastal city adds a number equal to the number of production cities the company is connected to. So a healthy company would spread out across the map, try to hit as many of the production cities as possible, then search for coastal cities, and finally make a mad dash to connect to Manila before the game ends! Way more interesting!

Publishing and Manufacturing

I started working on Luzon Rails in March 2019. It was finished by October 2019, and I began showing it to publishers. Nobody was biting. Remote pitching in the early days of the pandemic didn't help! But it was a game I wanted to see made, so I decided to bring it to Kickstarter. The initial plan was to hand-make each copy and to limit the number of those copies to 100 or so — a fairly well-worn tradition among train games. The game was going to have a paper "board" and come in a zip-lock bag instead of a box.

In order to support the theme, I wanted a Filipino artist to work on the board and cards, so I commissioned work from Jessi Cabasan. Once that was ready, I posted the game up on Kickstarter in October 2020. Within a few days, the modest goal was smashed and enough people were interested that I decided to mass-manufacture the game instead: mounted board, telescoping box (for which another Filipino artist, Tiffany Moon, came on board), a mini-expansion, etc. Not a big deal, I thought, I've had games manufactured before. I hadn't really calculated that making a game in a pandemic has some unique challenges!

There were some factory delays and shipping issues, but my contact in the factory was very helpful and patient. The games left the port in China JUST as Evergreen got stuck in the Suez Canal. The stress of watching a giant ship get stuck in a canal while I knew my own modest crates of games were coming up the rear was something I don't want to relive! My project also missed the current shipping crisis by a whisker! My freight costs were only 30% higher than planned, not the 400%+ that a lot of creators are currently facing. That's something that nobody expected and few creators can accommodate.

Board Game: Luzon Rails
Money! Money! Money! (Not legal tender, not useful for paying freight costs!)

Solitaire

One thing the delay did offer me was the time to develop a solitaire mode for Luzon Rails. I had heard claims that it was impossible to create a compelling solitaire mode for a cube-rails game because the genre relies so much on players' shared and conflicting incentives. I devised a system in which a non-player bot takes company shares over the course of the game and earns money when dividends pay out. The bot forces the player to diversify their own portfolio and consider how best to develop the companies on offer so that they don't throw too much money in its direction. While it's not a replica of the multiplayer game, it's a fun puzzle, and I'm pretty happy with it!

Another backer and BGG user was extremely gracious and designed a two-player variant — something I hadn't even looked at!

Board Game: Luzon Rails
Shares, track, and private companies!

The Private Companies Expansion

Funding a game on Kickstarter has its own challenges but is also a super exciting way to get life into a project. As backers come in, they bring ideas and enthusiasm with them and really spur me on to do something special. I decided to create an expansion for the game to create more variability in each play by diversifying each of the five companies in the game. The Private Companies Expansion is a set of fifteen mini-companies. At the start of the game, each of the five rail companies acquires one of the mini-companies, granting them some benefit or ability. Maybe the rail company acquires a Jeepney company (a kind of private bus) which makes inland cities more profitable, or maybe they get a smaller railway that grants a few pieces of pre-built track. Touches like that, which make the starting offers in the game unique.

Board Game: Luzon Rails
Set up and ready to play!

And now Luzon Rails is here! It's a real thing I can hold in my hands and play and show people. I was always proud of the design, and now I'm super proud to have other people play and enjoy it. Thank you to everybody who helped me get it to this point!

Robin David

[Editor's note: David has copies of Luzon Rails for sale in the BGG marketplace. He did not notify me of this or ask for this link to be included. I wondered about availability myself and discovered it listed. —WEM]
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Tue Aug 17, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The Accidental Game Design of Hashi

Board Game: Hashi
From gallery of jeffinberlin
In the introduction to his short book Pure Drivel, Steve Martin writes about a large break in his film career: "During these years, in which I vowed to do nothing and leave myself alone about it, I accidentally produced several plays, a handful of sketches, two screenplays, and a reorganization of my entire self. I suppose what I’m saying is, if you really want to work, stop working."

At the beginning of 2019, my employer allowed me to take one month off from work in order to enroll in a full-time course at the Berlin School of English to become certified as a TESL teacher (Teaching English as a Second Language). I knew that this intensive course also meant that I would have no time for most of my other activities, including game design, so I vowed to put all my projects to the side temporarily in order to focus on the course.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
An intensive course in teaching English was supposed to put all game designs on pause

However, just as Steve Martin discovered, it is very difficult for creatives to turn off their creativity. And so it happened that, while I was fully immersed in learning the art of teaching my mother tongue to adults from around the world, I accidentally designed a game.

I should not have been so surprised. After all, my environment is oftentimes my inspiration, and I view daily life through the lens of play. Suddenly altering my routine was bound to expose me to new stimuli, especially in the ever-changing city of Berlin.

Taking the subway downtown was something I hadn't done on a daily basis since I worked there as an architect over twenty years ago. I reveled in mixing with the masses of people streaming in and out of the underground tunnels, like tributaries emptying into the Elbe.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
Emerging with the crowds from the Berlin U-Bahn

One of those first mornings on my way to school, as I was waiting on the train platform, a man near me caught my attention. He was drawing lines in a book. I edged closer and tried to peer inconspicuously over his shoulder. It was a book of puzzles consisting of numbered circles, and he was drawing lines to connect the circles. The circles were like islands and the lines were bridges, and whenever an island had as many bridges connected to it as its number, the man crossed that island out.

As we boarded our train, I was so intrigued that I looked it up on my phone. Before the train arrived at my school, I had already downloaded a free app with the puzzle and had solved several of them.

These puzzles are called "Hashiwokakero", or "Hashi" for short.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
I downloaded this app to try the puzzle for myself

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Puzzle

I have a confession to make: I don't really like puzzles. Not jigsaw puzzles, not logic puzzles, not puzzle hunts, and not even escape rooms (although this did not stop me from designing several puzzles when I had a pitch appointment in Essen one year with ThinkFun).

In a puzzle, there is only one solution, one road to follow that everyone must tread — and it's guaranteed to be a well-worn road as I will be far from the first to ever solve a puzzle. In a board game, having only one solution — one path to victory — is considered poor design at best, "solved" at its worst.

The best modern board games usually allow for the creativity of the players, with multiple branching paths to explore. Sometimes you can even go off-road.

In fact, playing my game Pandoria (co-designed with Bernd Eisenstein) online at Yucata has exposed me to different playing styles from around the world, some of which we never encountered before in our test groups in Berlin. That's one of the exciting things about game design: creating a world and then "letting it loose". When I explore that world further myself, even I discover things I haven't seen before. It is as if the game has taken on a life of its own.

From gallery of jeffinberlin

However, despite all my prejudices against puzzles, here I was on my phone in the train, enamored with a simple, one-solution "game" with no replayability. It was the mechanism I liked so much, the number of bridges being determined by the number on each island, and the challenge of making it all fit together. And it had a topographical feel to it, rather than the stale numbers-in-boxes puzzle books that had been so popular recently.

Yes, this simple mechanism could be the basis of a game, a competitive game that allowed for creative play with different challenges each game.

I arrived for my class on time, but during my coffee break, I made my first sketch.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
How quickly can you solve this mini-puzzle I made?

To Roll & Write, or Not to Roll & Write?

It is interesting to me to follow trends in the boardgame industry, and I enjoy new challenges, but trying to design a game using the latest hot mechanism or a popular genre is never a motivation for me. I have yet to try my hand at making a deck-building game, and Alea Iacta Est/Order of the Gilded Compass is the closest thing to "worker placement" I've ever tried. And with the market recently becoming saturated with "roll & write" games, making one of my own was not exactly a priority.

But as I said before, games often take on a life of their own, and this even starts to happen during the design process. When I worked as an architect, we would often say, "I think this is what the building wants to be."

It was clear from the beginning that Hashi, the game, wanted to be a roll & write, and it was my job to make that happen, no matter what my reservations were at the time.

Gamifying a Puzzle

The thing that captivated me about the "Hashi" puzzles was their main mechanism: the number of bridges needed to complete an island was equal to the number on that island — but since a puzzle has only one solution, the numbers were already pre-printed on the islands.

As a gamer, I wanted the freedom to assign the numbers as I played. The positions of the islands would still be predetermined by the map — although there could be many different map variations included — but it would be up to each player to fill those islands with numbers and connect them with their bridges. Each turn, players would be given a new island number to write on their maps and a number of bridges to draw between islands. These would, of course, be determined by dice rolls each round.

Playing the Game vs. Playing the Players

If I was going to enter the field of roll & write games, then I had to address one of its greatest weaknesses, in my opinion: a lack of player interaction.

There is a long-standing — and often emotional — debate in the hobby between those players who prefer interactive games and those who would rather compete against the game system unhindered by their opponents.

Labels for these positions can be negative and unfair: the former often referred to as "mean games" and the latter as "multi-player solitaire", even when not many games are purely one or the other.

As one of my favorite type of games to design is tile-placement (Citrus, Heartland/Gunkimono), I don't shy away from direct player interaction. However, I am also not opposed to players having their own private "sandboxes" in which to play (Jedzie pocaig a deleka), and I even designed a game with both, a central competitive space together with a private space free from the influence of your opponents (Rolnicy/Gloomy Graves). But even in my sandbox games, I try to have at least some interaction, which usually comes from some type of race.

The Urgency of a Race

Another thing I find missing from puzzles is a sense of urgency. The fact that you can take as long as you like to solve a puzzle is part of its appeal as a leisure activity. Games, on the other hand, usually have a time limit. Simply playing a game until the time is up, however, isn't that interesting to modern audiences. We've grown accustomed to a "story arc" in well-designed games, something that builds tension as the game progresses to a climactic finish. The tension and sense of urgency increase as the board fills up and players seek to finish what they started.

In Hashi, you have the built-in goal of completing as many islands as you can by the end of the game, when you no longer have any more islands without numbers.

However, I wanted more urgency than simply "finish this by the end of the game". Each player had their own board, but I wanted them to be looking at their opponents, too. Additionally, I find that games with multiple goals are usually more exciting and allow for more varied playing styles.

So I designed several additional goals for the players, and if you were the player (or players) to complete these goals first, you received a larger bonus than simply completing them before the end of the game. One of those goals is completing a chain of six finished islands that are all connected to each other by bridges. The other is completing a number of islands with flags that are scattered around the board. There are four red flag islands and three blue flag islands, and completing each group awards bonus points as well.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
The three bonus goals in the game, with more points for those who complete each one first

From gallery of jeffinberlin
One of the bonuses is completing all flag islands of one color

It is, of course, a challenge to complete all of these additional goals by the end of the game and nearly impossible to complete them all before your opponents do. Not only does this create the sense of urgency, it also adds to the interaction as players look at each others' boards to see how they are progressing toward each goal, then adjust their own strategies accordingly.

I also designed interaction into the dice mechanism. There were two dice, each with a number between 1-6 and 1-3 lines (bridges) on each side. Players took turns rolling both dice, then placing one die on an illustration of a bridge and the other on a picture of an island. All players then wrote the island number on a free island of their choice and draw the number of bridges shown on the die designated for bridges. In this way, the active player had a choice and could take into account the positions of their opponents as well as their own position.

Board Game: Hashi
My prototype

Playtesting and Pitching

I have to admit, playtesting a roll & write has its advantages! After I had completed my studies, I traveled with my family for a week vacation to an old farm that also had guest rooms and was tucked away in the mountains of "Swiss Saxony" south of Dresden. It is a beautiful and peaceful retreat from the big city, and we've made it our annual winter tradition.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
A winter retreat was perfect for sledding...and playtesting Hashi

We also invite friends to join us during the week, and I brought along several of my prototypes, including my new one, Hashi. And even when others were not interested in playing, I could play the game myself and experiment with different board configurations.

The game was also easy to bring on the airplane during our many flights overseas, and it became a favorite one for my wife to play while traveling, often attracting the eyes of other curious passengers, who would then ask where they could buy a copy of the game.

But there was also a sense of urgency in getting the game to interested publishers. After all, I was surprised that no one had attempted to use the Hashi puzzle mechanism in a game before, and I knew that there may be others working parallel on the same idea, so I made a black-and-white version that was easy to print and play, then sent it to several German publishers I knew, as well as several friends around the world to expand my pool of playtesters.

From gallery of jeffinberlin

Publisher Development

I was thrilled when Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag responded that it was interested in the design as NSV is a world-renowned publisher of roll & write games. I'm also a fan of editor Reinhard Staupe, and he was excited about the game.

Reinhard wanted to change the game to a flip & write, however, and it did improve the game as we could eliminate the extreme situations of rolling too many high or low numbers, which were not as fun. We were also able to print all of the cards on the player boards so that players could keep track of the cards that were still in the deck (to eliminate the need for card-counting), but, of course, one card would be out of play so that you would not have perfect information for the final rounds.

From gallery of jeffinberlin
The prototype for the flip & write version

Production

I am very happy with the clean, serene art and graphic design by Oliver and Sandra Freudenreich. NSV included high-quality dry-erase markers with the game, and the player boards are double-sided, offering players two different map variations.

However, these only scratch the surface — so much more is possible! My prototype included ten different boards, each with different island configurations and different rules and goals. Hopefully, if the game does well in the market, some of these will also be published.

Board Game: Hashi
More boards ready for future expansions

Accidental Game Design Redux

The design of Hashi showed me that I cannot help but design games, even when I'm not trying to. And it also opened the door to a new source of inspiration. I now find myself mining puzzles for other interesting mechanisms that can be used in the more creative space of board games...

...and this time, I'm doing so intentionally.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Board Game: Hashi
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Tue Jul 20, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Brew, or Designing the Whimsical Wilds

Stevo Torres
United States
Texas
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Board Game: Brew
I enjoy prototyping with circular colored stickers — the cheap kind you would use for a garage sale. The process is somewhat meditative and feels intuitive, creating a nice starting place for quickly testing out an idea. While placing each sticker by hand, ideas can flow, imagining how interactions might take place. Brew began its journey with this approach.

At the beginning, the game was a simple push-your-luck game for children. Players would need to roll their dice and match the symbols along a path, trying to reach the end. Each time a die was placed, you would collect a gem and have one fewer die to roll for the next space. The goal was to get to the end and gain the biggest treasure. If you had a bad roll, you could use your collected gems to re-roll as long as they matched the space you were attempting to re-roll.

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner

While this game was fun for kiddos, it didn't scratch the itch for the types of games I personally enjoyed. At the time, I didn't realize that this would be the core of Brew, but I continued iterating and experimenting with the ideas of area majority and set collection. In subsequent versions, players still raced to complete the tiles, but now each card completed would act as a space on a map that could be claimed. Mechanically, this worked fine, but players felt very disconnected, with little to no player interaction whatsoever.

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner

The next version was where Brew began to take shape, and it's the base for what you see today. I remember this moment vividly because it felt like I had broken through. The game no longer felt like an exercise and began offering players meaningful decisions and interactions.

Keeping the dice-rolling and placement core, I scrapped the push-your-luck element and moved the area majority from a separate board to the cards themselves. I changed the gems from victory points to resources that could be spent on cards and provide "take-that" actions, dice manipulation, and additional scoring opportunities.

It was also at this stage of prototyping that the theme of "brewing potions" took shape. The goal in this version was to collect sets of the different types of forest cards (orange, teal, purple, maroon) by fighting for the majority of each card. The more of a specific type won, the more points you would earn at game's end. Collecting one of each would also score points. This scoring method stayed intact for several versions before ultimately being replaced with a simplified option. Players also had small objectives worth points once achieved.

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner

While this was a major improvement from the previous version, something was still missing. Three- and four-player games played out fine, but two-player games lacked the same tension. To address this problem, I added a new die type that both simulated a third player and served as a "wild" die. This change also allowed me to incorporate a series of worker placement spaces in the form of tiles. These were separate from the cards players were fighting to claim and acted as additional, more powerful actions.

With the additional dice and new worker placement spaces, gameplay really opened up. It was a pleasant surprise when these dice improved the three- and four-player experience as well. Allowing players more options, they would choose between using their wild dice to cause havoc in the forest, or use special actions on the worker placement spaces.

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner

After about eight months of iterations and playtesting locally at Unpub, PAX, and BGG.CON, I felt comfortable with the idea of pitching Brew to publishers. A few months after I submitted my sell sheet, Jon Gilmour from Pandasaurus Games responded to my submission. In November 2018, we met at PAX Unplugged and played Brew. I was pleasantly surprised when he asked to keep the prototype for further review. The following January at PAX South, I played once again with Pandasaurus owners Nathan and Molly. Soon after, Brew was signed!

Brew went into development later in 2019, at which point Jon Gilmour and I began working together. It was during this time that the creatures were introduced into the game, serving as an alternate route within the core loop. Major adjustments during development with Jon included balancing of forest cards, player abilities, potion powers, creature powers, endgame scoring, and a handful of other tweaks.

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner

While development continued on with Jeff Fraser, I began focusing more heavily on the graphic design and art direction alongside Nathan and Molly. I ran across Jake Morrison's art on Instagram and immediately fell in love with his work. His style and imagination brought this game to life and provided a whimsical look that really stands out. I worked directly with Jake to establish the world, and we took a "sprite sheet" approach to the illustrations, similar to what one might do when creating an isometric video game.

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner

With this method, I was able to make unique scenes for each forest card. The creatures and potions took on a similar approach. Jake created a set of base illustrations, then added additional features to make each creature feel unique and match the actions of the cards. This also allowed us to make additional content as needed. Andrew Thompson was later brought on to help finish out some creatures and details with the world.

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner

Brew has been on a long journey, and it wouldn't have been possible without the support and hard work of my family, friends, playtesters, and coworkers. I cannot be more pleased with how the game has turned out, and I'm excited for folks to get their hands on Brew!

Stevo Torres

From gallery of StevoTorresDesigner
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Tue Jul 13, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: World Changers, or From Tropes to Treasured Historical Figures

Korea Boardgames
South Korea
Paju
Gyeonggi-do
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Board Game: World Changers
[Editor's note: Korea Boardgames' Leon Scheuber has translated and submitted this designer diary on behalf of game author THEKI. —WEM]

World Changers, which I designed, is a card game for 1-4 players released by Korea Boardgames in 2021. This game has a very simple rule of repeatedly picking one card (or passing) while competing for the highest score of your acquired cards, but the interaction of the card effects can create unpredictable developments. The game is more complex than it looks at first.

World Changers is a game about gathering great historical persons from roughly four thousand years ago during the origins of civilizations to the present age and forming the best team to make humans prosper again on another planet. However, the game had a long eight-year history before it was completed. Here I will introduce this history.

In 2013, I used to have a lot of text chat conversations with my friends. At that time, I was thinking of simple games and ideas that could be played in a short time only via text chat. I was able to roll the dice on the text chat and make secret choices through a third party, but naturally it was not possible to prepare images like in Tabletop Simulator, to express the position or the front and back of the card, or to use a randomizer like a deck of cards. As a result, all the games we were playing were perfect information games and lacked replayability, but that was enough to entertain me and my friends.

One day, I was very interested in a rule that was included in a game brought in by a friend. In that game you generate the effect written on a card when you acquire the selected card, but if you acquire another card through the effect of the card, that second card's effect will not be activated. This rule prevents the interaction of cards from becoming too complicated, but it also means that you can ignore the disadvantageous effect of a card that might say something like "Instead of being powerful, a demerit effect occurs at the time of acquisition".

The next moment, various ideas came to my mind. I felt that this rule was even more widespread, and I was convinced that the game could be replayed and actually commercialized, so I decided to work on the redesign with the permission of my friend.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The cards that started it all

The most important thing I wanted to emphasize was the interaction. To achieve that I first decided on a card with a standard score. Having one "standard card" — the Citizen, 3 VP — with no effect made it easier for me to design and for players to estimate whether they can get three or more points in one turn. Next, I made a "powerful card" — the Spy, 5 VP — with a very high score, but with the side effect of giving one of the player's own cards to an opponent when the card was obtained.

I also created a "mediator" card — the Dancer, -1 VP — with the great effect of getting an additional card from the display when acquiring it. If you pass the "standard card" to an opponent due to the effect of the "powerful card", your opponent's score cannot improve by more than three points. However, if you get the "powerful card" with the effect of the "mediator" card, the effect of the "powerful card" will not be triggered according to the game rules. (The effect of a card obtained by an effect of an other card will not be activated.) This means you don't need to give away one of your own cards to an opponent and therefore are able to get more than three points. Or if you pass the "mediator" card to an opponent due to the effect of the "powerful card", you get rid of the negative point of the former and obtain the high score of the latter.

To possibly protect you from the effect of the "powerful card", I created a "guard" — the Bouncer, 4 VP — which has no effect when acquired, but which keeps others from giving you cards via the effect of other cards, such as the negative cards you may receive from your opponent as in the above example.

In this way, I designed the cards to connect the interactions. I ended up making 32 cards, but most of them were designed to have positive or negative interactions with at least six or more cards. In this game, six cards are randomly selected for use for each player, and as a result, I succeeded in creating a game with an unpredictable extent but simple general rules.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Draftwerk as it was sold at Tokyo Game Market

In 2014, I released a game called Draftwerk at the Tokyo Game Market. I was able to sell more than 250 sets at two Game Market conventions and through consignment sales to board game shops in Japan. This was the prototype of today's World Changers.

In early 2020, I received an email from Leon of Korea Boardgames to republish the game. The most significant change is the presentation. The game was created under the guidance of mechanisms, so I couldn't come up with a presentation that I was happy with. Draftwerk had 32 unique cards of professional categories that you often see in the fantasy world, but I was dissatisfied with the fact that players would not understand why they are collecting these people. However, given the great idea of ​​"gathering historical greats to form the best team", Leon dug deeper into this backstory and suggested the name "World Changers". I was interested in great historical figures because of the influence of Civilization, so I enjoyed working on World Changers.

Board Game: World Changers

Many other improvements from Draftwerk, such as redesigning cards, changing rules, adding solo rules, etc., make World Changers a very nice game. As for the components, as a result of Leon's efforts, a history booklet containing explanations of the great personalities is included, as well as beautiful new artwork and chips to improve playability. By all means, I would like you to read this booklet and play the game while imagining the scenes where great people from various eras are all involved.

THEKI
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Tue Jul 6, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Enchanted Plumes and Harmonious Game Design

Brendan Hansen
United States
Connecticut
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In December 2017, I was on a run, which is to say I was hanging out in my game design brain's most productive office space, racing in search of a theme. Many designers do this, I think? Use moments of downtime to mull, massage, rifle through, and ponder potential ideas and mechanisms. This is not necessarily the most relaxing game design habit I've developed; generally it leaves me frustrated that my brain wants to entertain the well-trodden, but sometimes it's productive. This was especially the case when on that particular run my brain curiously settled on the question: "What about a game designed around peacock courtship?"

Board Game: Enchanted Plumes
Enchanted Plumes box cover

After finishing my run and making it past the initial barricade my brain likes to throw up when presented with a seemingly novel idea — that idea is preposterous, go no further, turn back now, continue at your own peril — I began to earnestly entertain it and think through how a game with a peacock courtship theme might play. It would need characters, peacocks, and a peahen; there'd be feathers, plumage, attraction, perhaps room for ambition and hubris. Most of all, the idea my brain became enamored with was that at the end of the game, players would have peacocks flaunting their plumage arranged before them on the table.

I adore games in which players construct something through the course of play. No matter what the reward for the construction is, there is an intrinsic reward to play itself when a game facilitates this sort of creation and a player can sit back and admire their work, win or lose. There's a ludological inverse to this design paradigm, too: games in which through the course of play the players destroy or deconstruct something, Jenga being a prime example.

Board Game: Enchanted Plumes
Beautifully arranged finished peacock

In the best iterations of this design paradigm, game components themselves take on a toy-like form. While playing the game, the components function as game pieces. When not playing the game, they function as a toy — something that's pleasurable to manipulate solely for the sake of manipulation. During the game, some of that pleasure of manipulation, or play, carries through. When a game component can function both as a component and a toy, or at least something toy-like, a game of this sort is headed in the right direction.

From gallery of BurnsideBH
The table after a completed two-player game

Visual Design

A design tool I value greatly is visual game design. How a game occupies the spaces where we play them is vital to our experience of them. Put differently, the shape of a game shapes our experience playing it. In visual game design, the designer imagines how the game will occupy space at different points in the game, then designs the components and rules needed to guide their players to that destination. It's a powerful tool.

In the case of Enchanted Plumes, I imagined the player's table full of beautiful, vibrant, and sprawling peacocks, made of fanned-out cards, filling the space. It was wondrous and awesome — I wanted it to be real. Following my visual design destination, I knew that the core component of Enchanted Plumes was cards: differently-colored cards depicting feathers that coalesced to form peacocks.

Next, I needed rules for arranging peacocks and how cards would be added to them in a systematic manner to create that shape. Quickly I got to the concept that plumes would be arranged row by row, starting with the largest row and tapering down, one card at a time until only one remained. This structure accomplished a lot for the design. Most importantly, it laid the foundation of risk and reward that's central to the game: Larger peacocks are more attractive, have more effort invested into them, and are therefore worth more points — but they are also more difficult to construct because they contain significantly more cards.

This row-by-descending-row mechanism accomplished something else important for the design when I layered the color trait of the cards on top of it. To accomplish this, I integrated a rule that the feather cards in each row must share a color with a card in the row that precedes it (except for the first row, which may have any colors). Thus, as each new row tapers down, it will have one fewer color than the row preceding it. This rule forces consequential decisions each time a row is passed.

From gallery of BurnsideBH
Prototype cards. Functional!

In Enchanted Plumes, cards range in value from 0-9. Values are important because every card in a peacock is worth points equal to the value of the card — except for cards in your initial row, which are worth negative points. This decision reinforced the risk/reward system that the row mechanism brought to the design and created harmony between the arrangement and the scoring. Sometimes, this system also meant that players surveilling their hand would have an obvious next move, a clear path to follow. These turns of obvious decisions are a boon for the game. They give players a small break and can help players experience a sense of flow as their plan is executing itself smoothly before them. That's an excellent sensation, and I think it's important for designers to consider the pacing and frequency of choices and decisions in their games. If a game is made entirely of agonizing decisions, it will exhaust its players. Designers have to be careful to pace their games such that there's room for all sorts of decisions.

From gallery of BurnsideBH
A showcase of the card art; the eye of each feather color has a unique design to make the ten-color game more colorblind friendly

Feather Tempo, One-Two Step

At last, I understood the rules for peacock arrangement — but what about the rules for card playing? How often would players be able to tinker with their peacock(s) in a given turn, and to what degree? In any card game in which you collect differently-valued cards, there's a tension between using the cards you have versus spending resources (time or otherwise) to acquire and use better cards instead. This is a design rule that can be broken, but even poker, which allows players fairly little agency over their cards (depending on the variant), is made interesting by introducing tension between card quality (your hand) and time (how long your chips will last, with chips being something you trade for more opportunities to see additional cards and increase your card quality). There's something very human about that core tension — working to improve what you have, while also making do with what you have — and it makes for engaging games, so I wanted to explore it in Enchanted Plumes.

External image
The peahen is randomly inserted into the bottom seven cards; when drawn, she initiates the end of the game

It's from that tension between card quality and card quantity that I integrated the rule for how a player approaches playing their cards: Each turn, you one or two cards from your hand. This gives you agency over how and when you would play cards, allowing you to trade time for additional cards (or different cards) at the expense of tempo. Tempo in card games represents an opportunity cost. In Enchanted Plumes, each time a player decides to play only one card during a turn, they give up half a turn of tempo. Playing more cards does not mean that a player will win, as card quality is equally important to quantity, but it thrusts a core tension into the turn structure.

A similar and important rule is that players may start as many peacocks as they'd like — recall that cards in the first row are worth negative points so there is risk to doing so — and may play cards to any of their peacocks. Juggling multiple peacocks at once creates a more dynamic and rewarding puzzle for players interested in tackling such a problem. It creates unique tactical moments in which you can use smaller peacocks to create opportunities for acquiring the cards you need to complete larger ones, and so on...

Draft...or to Filter(!)

I certainly made some egregious blunders in the process of designing Enchanted Plumes, the first of which came when trying to design a mechanism through which players would have agency over their starting hand. Early in the design process was a feather draft, and it was awful.

Starting with the right cards in Enchanted Plumes can be quite powerful and likewise weak of cards can be quite detrimental, so I wanted to be sure the design assisted players in this regard, evening the playing field in the process. Here's how that cumbersome feather draft worked: Players dealt a grid of cards, nine per player, to the table face down. Taking turns, they'd flip two cards face up and pick one of the face-up cards from the table to add to their hand. The draft continued until each player had six cards, then the remaining cards were returned to the deck. The draft was slow, and the choices it asked players to make generally weren't really decisions because often one card was strictly better than others on the table.

Too many choices that aren't decisions can make a game trite and boring, leading players to think, "This game plays itself." Another downside of the draft was that it could take as long as ten minutes to play out. A quick card game should not take ten minutes to actually begin!

It took some time for me to see the light, but finally I decided to cut the system and make something quicker that was a functional facsimile of the decisions that could happen simultaneously. In the published version, each player is dealt nine cards, from which they pick six to comprise their starting hand. With this hand filtering you have agency, it is quick, and the decisions are more interesting because you have more possibilities to consider all at once. Now, instead of a slog, the game starts with a flurry of engaging choices.

Harmonious Design

Here's the second blunder: You know the feeling of searching for your phone, thinking that it's lost, only to realize that you're holding it? That's the sensation I experienced when I'd finalized the scoring system in Enchanted Plumes. The negative base system (cards in the first row count as negative points) worked well, but I knew the game needed to reward players with bonus points for completing peacocks. Without bonus points for completing a peacock, there would be little incentive not to just go tall and pile cards into one massive bird.

My first take was a mess. I'd created reference cards with point values for completing a peacock tied to the size of it. For example, a three-card peacock would earn a few points, a six-card peacock a few more, and so on as the total number of cards in the peacock grew. These distributions were arbitrary and based on my gut instincts. Functionally, they were clunky and a real stumbling block in terms of the play experience.

I often hear people describe games or mechanisms that they enjoy as "elegant". This term is applied to games very liberally and ranges in use from "this system was clever, I hadn't thought of it before" to "this system helps me get into a flow state" to what is better described as harmoniousness in a game, i.e., when multiple rules work synergistically towards the same aesthetic goal. While not always the case, with Enchanted Plumes, the correct design decisions were consistently the ones that increased harmony.

From gallery of BurnsideBH
Players decide how large of peacocks to aim for — here are some cute little peacocks!

I'm sort of embarrassed to admit how long it took me to get to the scoring system that ended up in the game, but it's worth mentioning because the system that's in the published game is the most harmonious I've ever designed and the most obvious in retrospect. After one frustrating playtest, I just sat there looking at the table, tracing with my hands trying to think through how the bonus point system should work when it hit me that at their most base level, players were arranging triangles out of feather cards.

Triangular scoring is a very common mechanism in eurogames. The Castles of Burgundy, for example, uses a triangular scoring system (1, 3, 6, 10, 15, etc...) for the scoring of completed regions based on their size and Sushi Go!'s dumplings are scored using triangular numbers. I was working on a game where players are asked to physically construct triangles out of feather cards on the table before them. Each card in a completed peacock could be counted as a bonus point. The game's form quite literally facilitates triangular scoring. Utilizing the physical shape was a harmonious design decision. There was a direct parallel between the scoring system and the physical peacock arrangement rules that rewarded players for completing their peacocks, encouraging ambition without making it a dominant strategy. It worked perfectly. The marginal benefits of triangular scoring meant that players were reasonably rewarded for taking risks and constructing large peacocks, but with savvy assembling they could also make a wide strategy, a flock of smaller completed peacocks, work. Sometimes the most obvious solutions are the ones right in front of your face.

From gallery of BurnsideBH
Visualization of harmonious scoring

The trifecta of design decisions that follow are the direct result of taking the input of others and their perspective on the game. Enchanted Plumes is a richer game for it.

Mechanisms for card exchanging and drawing are always important in card-collecting games like Enchanted Plumes. Figuring out how to allow players to source new cards without making it too difficult or too easy is key, and the suggestion of fellow designs at the local design group helped me get to the system that ended up in the published version. At the end of a player's turn, they either draw two cards, swap two cards from their hand with the train (a face-up offering of five cards in the center of the table), or do one of each in the order of their choosing. This was a solid and workable system. Importantly, this system introduces player interaction into the game to pull players in and keep them invested between turns. This rule added so much to the personality of the game and allowed players who weren't only engaged by their personal puzzle to look elsewhere and engage more broadly.

Finishing the Plume with the Stellar Calliope Games Team

The final touches to Enchanted Plumes came from Ray Wehrs and Chris Leder after Calliope Games agreed to publish the game. The two core changes they made were wonderful, and I'll always be thankful to them for the tweaks they made as they're brilliant.

The first was to add feather cards with a value of 0 to each suit. To this point the game had been made up of cards ranging in value from 1-9. For some reason I'd resisted this change during testing, but it was absolutely the right change. Integrating 0-value cards made endgame scoring easier since any 0-value feathers could be ignored outside of bonus points, speeding up the scoring process. It also enabled us to push the player count up to six players, adding in values to the deck as the player count grows. Additionally, 0 is a powerful number. Humans love things that are "free" — I'd underestimated the psychological benefits of slamming down two 0s to start a peacock. It feels great, and I'm thankful those moments are in the game now.

External image

Calliope's final contribution was that the last card of a peacock is played face down. This change accomplished two things in the game. It made card counting more difficult and added some uncertainty to the system. Players who didn't want to carefully track other player's peacocks didn't feel like they had to, and the likelihood for analysis paralysis and tanked turns was reduced thanks to an increasing degree of uncertainty as the game state's complexity grew.

This change also brought the card design full circle, increasing its harmoniousness. The card back in Enchanted Plumes depicts a peacock's body, and this mechanism finalizes the motif and rewards the player with a moment of pattern completion for finishing a peacock, plumage and all. The concept of a table full of entrancing peacocks was fully realized through this rule change, and the game's art — Echo Chernik's beautiful work — became another aspect serving the overall aesthetic goal of the game.

With Enchanted Plumes, my design goal was to create a whimsical card game that anyone could pick up and play. I'd hoped to craft something fun, rewarding, and at times a little heartbreaking, in accordance with its peafowl courtship theme. Enchanted Plumes is a harmonious 2-6 player card game that's a joy to play from top to tail, and it will be available from Calliope Games in June 2021.

Brendan Hansen

An abbreviated version of this diary was previously published in Game Trade Magazine Issue 254. Many thanks to them!
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Tue Jun 22, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Exploring Social Deduction Magic with Shamans

Cédrick Chaboussit
France
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Microbadge: Lewis & Clark fanMicrobadge: EurogamerMicrobadge: ShamansMicrobadge: Glow fanMicrobadge: Alice in Wonderland fan
Known mostly for the design of Lewis & Clark, which debuted in 2013 and was updated in 2020, I've been designing games for ten years and haven't had many of them published for a few reasons: designing games is not my main job; the game-publishing process is usually very long; and I keep trying to dig for fresh mechanisms, which is definitely not an easy path!

This process has led to very different published games, which have all been released in a period of twelve months: Tea for 2, which is the card game War revisited with the Space Cowboys; Glow, a beautiful card- and dice-drafting press-your-luck family game published by Bombyx; Lost Explorers, a simple, quick and brainy chip-collection race game published by Ludonaute; and Shamans, a social-deduction game using a trick-taking mechanism from Studio H that is the subject of this post.

Board Game: Shamans

So let's go with my second BGG designer diary!

Birth of an Idea and Inspiration

Shamans is by far my design that creates the most social interaction. The initial spark came at the end of 2016 after numerous plays of Time Bomb. Before that, I used to play The Resistance a lot, and when I was in college long ago — and yes, I got my degree! — traditional French trick-taking games like Belote and Tarot. They all might have had an impact on this first spark.

I thought about designing a social-deduction game that would not rely only on bluffing like most of them. The situation in a trick-taking game where you have to provide a certain color seemed to be perfect: If you are allowed to play any card, you can pretend not to have a card of the color asked and play a card of another color. This principle immediately worked very well!

Then I looked for a rarely used theme that would fit and I ended up using the Blade Runner setting (which I love) to develop the prototype. The first version of early 2017 had the same core mechanism as the final published game, so sorry everybody, I will not have many big design questions and changes as is usually the case. The first idea was strong enough.

Board Game: Shamans
Oh, you can choose the Voight-Kampff tile to prove you're a Runner!

My playtesters and I played this game a huge number of times to finely tune every possible situation. The tiles/tokens were added to create variety while respecting the setting, and the player-count scaling was also adjusted. The final gameplay is exactly what I wanted, and I saw that the game could also be enjoyable with kids aged 10+, despite some "gamer" mechanisms.

Finding the Right Setting and Art Style with Studio H & Maud Chalmel

I had known Hicham for many years at Matagot before he joined Studio H, a new publisher created by the big French book publisher Hachette. I thought Hicham was the right person to show the prototype to at SPIEL '19. A few months later, Studio H confirmed that it wanted to publish the game and to have it released by the end of 2020!

When later I played Oriflamme and Hagakure, two card games published by Studio H, I understood that my "Blade Runner" game would fit perfectly in that game line.

Board Game: Shamans

Studio H brought the thematic idea of Shamans and decided to trust the talented illustrator Maud Chalmel to give a soul to this world. She managed to transform the visual aspect of Shamans into a huge plus, and I'm really impressed by her work! She said she was inspired by a former game she illustrated, (Siggil), and also by the artists Hari and Deepti.

Board Game: Shamans
Mischievous Maud and I in the Studio H offices just before Christmas 2020

Releasing Shamans in 2021

As I wrote previously, I like to explore the game mechanisms in my designs, whatever they can lead me to. Shamans is no exception and a very good example of that. It is far from the current "satisfying" games trend as it produces some harsh interactions between players. Therefore, this is quite a risk for Studio H to release such a game now, so I'm thankful and glad they did.

Board Game: Shamans
Demoing at Orléans Joue con in August 2020

Shamans has been well received in France but is still flying a little under the radar in the U.S., so I hope that Tom Vasel's April 2021 review will give it a bit more visibility.

Closing Thoughts and Future Projects

I'm sure that Shamans will make its way among the players themselves as it is a very unique game. It's not for everyone, but the social-deduction lovers should enjoy it as much as I did designing it!

Board Game: Tea for 2
Board Game: Glow
Board Game: Lost Explorers

All the games mentioned above are already released in the U.S., except Glow, which will be released in mid-2021 in many countries after a very warm welcome in France in February. Its print-and-play solo variant (PDF) was released last week by Bombyx for its tenth anniversary.

Have fun!

Cédrick Chaboussit
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Wed Jun 9, 2021 3:03 pm
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Designer Diary: Ramen! Ramen! and Rule Turns

Brendan Hansen
United States
Connecticut
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Board Game: Ramen! Ramen!
Ramen! Ramen! simmered for quite some time before it was ready to serve. I started designing the game in the second half of 2015, nearly five years to the date that I am writing this. If days were measured in bowls of ramen — which in an ideal world they would be — 1,818 bowls of ramen would be behind me. That's a lot of ramen.

The final, satiating product is a card game that pits 1-4 ramen cooks against one another and the ingredient cards in their quest to serve the most and best bowls of ramen. Ramen! Ramen! is a numbers-on-cards style game that's rife with tension.

Each turn players play two of the four cards in their hand to two out of the three bowls being prepared in the kitchen. When the sum of ingredient cards (which have values 1-7) in a bowl is greater than or equal to fourteen, that bowl is served and scored by the player whose ingredient card tipped the value of the bowl over 13 — but at the end of the game, points for each bowl of ramen are awarded solely on the basis of deliciousness, e.g., the number of unique ingredients in the bowl. This creates a tense back and forth. Players carefully collaborate to construct beautiful bowls of ramen in hopes of being the cook who'll get to serve it, while trying not to overinvest, lest their opponent ultimately be the one to reap the rewards.

Kitchen Prep

When I sat down to lay out the earliest version of Ramen! Ramen!, all I knew was that I wanted to design a card game that put players in the position of a ramen cook. I'd recently moved to Austin, Texas and become obsessed with the legendary local ramen spot, Ramen Tatsu-ya, whose transcendent ramen shook me to my core and helped foster a love for the dish, not to mention a love for well-made ajitama, a cured egg commonly included in ramen that sports a center-of-the-earth-like transcendent molten core of runny yolk goodness. For me, if a bowl of ramen were a universe, ajitama would be its center.

From the outset, the idea for Ramen! Ramen! and the driving force behind its design was all theme. A common pitfall that I fell into, and many less-practiced designers fall into, is following theme down the road to simulation.

It's understandable why this happens. Your brain tries to get at the new task of design from an angle that it already knows. My brain went visual. What does the environment that I am trying to create look like? Surely there would be ingredients, customers who place orders, a wait for service. Maybe there would be a special, spills in the kitchen, collaborations among chefs to get bowls out the window to hungry, waiting patrons. This was my thought process as I created systems I thought needed to be represented in the game to give the player the feeling of making ramen in a ramen shop.

From gallery of BurnsideBH
Ingredient cards and bowls

There is nothing wrong, of course, with simulation games, but I knew that I wanted to create something simple and elegant, something I could as easily play with my friends who were always asking to play Fauna, Dominion, and Camel Up as I could with my cousins who hadn't touched modern board games and probably last played card games during childhood trips to the beach.

Chasing the theme, the first Ramen! Ramen! design was messy, bloated, and far from fun. Here's a list of just some of the features packed into that early design:

● Three unique decks
● A customer ticket system
● Daily specials
● Mechanism to toss ingredients into the discard (spills)
● Tokens
● A variable ingredient scoring system
● Asymmetrical card ingredient counts

From gallery of BurnsideBH
Early messy prototype as I tried to cram a lot into the game

To top it all off, my initial design didn't work for more than two players — I'd thrown everything in the fridge into my pot. The putrid amalgamation wasn't working together. I was discouraged and frustrated. I didn't know how to edit my design. Hopeful that some time away might allow me to look at it from a new perspective, I put the game aside for a few months.

Miyamoto's Axiom

At some point in that window I came across a quote from one of the most sublime game designers ever, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, in a 2010 interview with Eurogamer:
Quote:
A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.
I found my perspective. Wielding Miyamoto's axiom, I took to the design to carve out new systems that could solve multiple design problems at once. How did I do this? Having experienced a number of rough playtests with friends and by myself, it was clear that the customer ticket system was causing a lot of issues. I looked there first.

The initial customer ticket system was very literal. It consisted of a deck of ticket cards, each of which listed all the ingredients you'd have to add to a specific bowl for it to be considered "finished", meaning that it could then be "served," i.e., scored within the game and sent off to point wonderland for the player who successfully completed the bowl. A card might read:

● 2x Noodles
● 1x Chashu
● 1x Nori
● 1x Corn

Both players were working on the bowls together — drawing open-faced cards into two-card hands — and I liked the idea of a tug of war and tension between making progress towards completing the bowl but also wanting to be sure you, not your opponent, was the one to complete it. In this early design, players had only two cards in hand, so generally one could too easily work out whether your opponent could serve a bowl if you made some progress or not, so there wasn't any tension, especially since players drew ingredient cards openly from an array of face-up cards I called the fridge.

The game, if there was one, was remembering what your opponent had in their hand. For the most part turns were deterministic. The ticket system was so cantankerous I'd added rules to try to make it work. Some tickets were easier or more difficult, but I thought it would be clever not to assign individual point values to the tickets to avoid players lucking into outsize points by randomly having the ingredients to fill tougher orders. Instead, ramen tokens worth one point each, simulating time passing, were added on top of cards/bowls each time a turn ended and the order remained unfilled.

In practice this mechanism was fiddly, added unnecessary components, and left turns feeling stale. Players would do as little as possible to make progress, hoping new ingredients that would come into play wouldn't set their opponents up to score the shared bowls.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
I didn't know the term yet, but the game basically came down to output randomness. (Devouring the entire Ludology catalog multiple times gave me the language and concepts I needed to design with intent, and I'll be forever grateful to Geoff Engelstein, Gil Hova, Emma Larkins, and all of the other brilliant hosts throughout the show's lifespan.)

The game sure felt bad, win or lose.

Taking Stock, Making Stock

I knew the order system had to go. I'd made multiple concessions in the design to make it work, and it still wasn't working, really. Anytime a system has to be designed to fix another system, designers should think long and hard about whether the right decision might be to strip out the system that's causing problems rather than trying to bandage it up.

I went back and thought about the core of the game. What did I find the most fun and interesting about it? Combining different types of ramen ingredients to make unique bowls of ramen. Ingredients are evocative and fun; they look good on cards; and the process itself — adding ingredients to different bowls, seeing what ingredients came together in different bowls — was satisfying. There was a kinetic joy to this similar to lining up runs in rummy. Sometimes the bowls themselves would tell little stories: "Wow, this customer must really enjoy ajitama with three of them in their bowl." Still smitten with the idea of a communal workspace, I wanted to work that into the game as well.

A quick side dish on theme and lessons learned designing my first published game, to quote Eric Martin in his New Game Round Up from September 7, 2020: Ramen! Ramen! is "the sixth game about ramen in the BGG database since the first ones were added in 2018. Not necessarily the hottest trend out there, but certainly the savoriest..."

No matter how fresh you think your theme is, chances are someone out there has a similar idea. When I started working on Ramen! Ramen! in 2015, I'm sure these other savvy designers had already begun simmering their own ramen games to life. Design what excites you, design what you love — you'll make a better game for it and your passion will shine through in the design — but don't be excited about a theme simply because it's "original", and certainly don't fall in love with a theme just because it's "original". Chances are even if your idea is original at conception, it might not be at publication. Fortunately, at the heart of my excitement for Ramen! Ramen!'s theme is my adoration of ramen and love of cooking.

But First Ramen, Then the Turn

We've now reached the most difficult part of the design processes: Imagining a made thing differently. Oftentimes designers talk about the process of design as a core iteration loop of:

Design → Playtest → Design (new version), repeat

Many of my designs have followed this pattern, but with Ramen! Ramen! this is the point where I designed a new game, as opposed to a new version, with the pieces I'd liked from the old thing. Sometimes you have to toss out the whole soup and start fresh.

I knew the problem I needed to solve: If the game at its core consisted only of a deck of ingredient cards, how will players know how to construct a bowl, how will they know when that bowl is complete, and how will they know how many points they should earn for doing so?

For the game, those are the three core questions of play that a more abstract, less simulated "order" system would need to answer in the course of the game for the player. I was stumped. This was a lot of questions a single, more abstract system would need to be able to answer, so I did what anyone would do — ask the question: How have others done something like this before?

That's how I realized I needed a "turn" in my new system. Reiner Knizia is a master at creating depth through relatively simple rules and thus Dr. Knizia's designs are a treasure trove of examples of "rule turns". A rule turn is a rule statement that through the use of one "but" creates nuance and depth, making the whole game roar to life. For example:

● In High Society, the player with the most points at the end wins but you cannot win if you have the least money left.
● In Tigris & Euphrates, the player with the most victory points at the end wins but only the victory point type out of the four in the game that you have the least of counts towards your score.
● In Lost Cities, a player may start as many expeditions as they'd like but starting an expedition gives the player -20 points.

A rule turn is an excellent way to sneak depth into relatively simple rulesets, so I designed a rule turn into Ramen! Ramen!.

In culling out the previous "order" system in favor of something more abstract, I realized that if I wanted the game to primarily be made of a single deck of ingredient cards (the fun part), then that deck would need to do a bit more work. I redesigned the ingredient deck — leaving seven ingredients in the game — and added values 0-7 to the cards. Now each ingredient card had two things associated with it: an ingredient type and a value. I had my deck.

Hanging on to that desire for tension between players building bowls together but vying to be the one to finish them, perhaps not unlike a real kitchen environment, I found my turn. Players would be working on up to three bowls simultaneously. When it was their turn to play, they'd play two cards to two different bowls, then they'd check to see whether a bowl is served. Here comes the turn:

● In Ramen! Ramen!, bowls are served when the sum of values of ingredient cards in a bowl is ≥ 14, but a bowl's value in points is equal to the number of unique ingredients represented in the bowl.

From gallery of BurnsideBH
Later prototype that I made by stickering playing cards; this is time consuming and a bit expensive,
so I don't do this with prototypes I make these days, but these prototype cards felt nice

Soup's Up!

Players now would be rewarded for serving bowls of ramen with more of the seven ingredient types in the game and there's more nuanced decision making: "Can I risk putting this bowl's total value at 7?" "Do I think I'm more likely to serve this bowl, or is my opponent more likely to serve it, and if so what type of ingredient do I want to try to add?" "Am I pushing this bowl towards being served or being perfected?"

There were a few more small problems. The open information system was easy enough to solve. I kept a face-up display of cards for players to choose from at the end of their turn, so a fridge is still present, but players also gain one card blindly off the deck. You can't always know what your opponent has, but shrewd players usually have an idea. It's difficult to overstate how important the rule turn is for Ramen! Ramen! It's the core of what gives the game depth without complexity and the core of the tense, finger-numbing, gut-churning feeling of playing down a card and hoping with all your gaming being that you'll be the one to finish the bowl you just added another ingredient to and not your opponent.

With this ruleset, the game is able to accommodate up to four players and be played solo. Ramen! Ramen! is a raucous good time and available for ramen connoisseurs, card game fanatics, and anyone looking for a simple chewy game to sink your teeth into from Japanime Games as of late May 2021.

For details on how to play, you can find the full rules document for Ramen! Ramen! here.

Brendan Hansen

From gallery of BurnsideBH
Turn overview excerpt from the final rulebook
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Tue May 25, 2021 1:00 pm
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