Archive for Designer Diaries
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In 1994, my first game, Wyvern, was published. It was a trading card game with a mythological dragon theme. I loved doing the research for that game and told myself I would revisit this theme sometime.
All of a sudden it is twenty years and sixty published games later when I finally decide to get back to that dragon theme. I wanted to design a game in which all players are focused on the same thing rather than multiplayer solitaire with individual boards or hands of cards for players. This led me to do my first game that is not card driven: Dragon Island. I wanted to create a game state that changed with every player's turn and in which every player's strategies would be altered by each play. To do this, I chose tile-laying as the mechanism. The tiles are double-sided and players start each turn by adding a tile to the island.
Each player is a wizard involved in discovering Dragon Island. Players get energy from the island to help them build things and capture dragons, and they tame some of the dragons to help them explore the island. They also discover treasure maps that can lead them to hidden treasures on the island.
In my first version, I had a movement system I really loved. Each wizard had one terrain as their native terrain, and they could move through these tiles for free. Then I made a wizard pay a gold piece to get through a tile that was not their native terrain. It is an important lesson in game design that sometimes you have to give up on something you like a lot to help the real "fun" in the game come to the fore. Figuring out where a player could move on their turn became a tactical chore. Players would want to do some of the fun things in the game without having to brain burn to figure out the movement. It was the playtesters who showed me that the game had plenty of things to ponder without adding the movement complexity. I went through a period with no movement restrictions at all. I knew I would come up with some movement restrictions eventually, but I wanted them to come from the theme of the game and not just a mechanism.
Gold led me to the answer. After all, dragons love gold. This love was at the center of the Wyvern design, and I wanted to make sure it was in Dragon Island as well. I came up with a way that wizards can maneuver the dragons around the island by tempting them with gold. You pay 1 gold piece and can move a dragon from one tile to any other tile. The only thing you can do with gold is influence dragons.
Then it hit me: What if you could make a dragon your pet? Then the dragon could fly you to its own native terrain from anywhere on the board. This became the key to movement. If you do not have a pet dragon, you can move only one tile on a turn. (This was later amended to allow you to teleport to the Wizards Keep starting tile and stay there or move one tile from there.) To tame a dragon to be your pet, you must be on a tile with only one dragon and offer the dragon three gold pieces. They will always become your pet for the gold. You place the three gold on the pet card and put the dragon on the card. Each pet offers the flying service to its native terrain as well as an ability to help you in one of the strategic areas of the game. At the end of the game, each gold on your pets is a game point, and there are ways gold pieces can be removed from your pets. I am happy with how the movement in the game turned out and very glad I listened to my playtesters.
All the tiles have actions you can do when you are on them. The problem is that first you must deal with any dragons that are on the tile. In addition to making them your pets, you can capture them, spending 10 active energy in order to capture all the dragons on that space. You get fame and remove the dragons from the board. Once you are on a tile with no dragons, you can now do the action the tile allows you to do. Then, you still can discover treasure there if a treasure map you hold shows that treasure is located there. I was inspired by Takenoko when coming up with how you would know where to find a treasure. It is not the same idea but comes from loving that game.
As you can tell, there are a lot of things you can do on a tile. The fun comes from the fact that you can do them all on one turn. You will find yourself trying to set up a few big turns in the game by maneuvering dragons around so that you can deal with them to get fame, do the action on a tile, and discover treasure all at the same time.
The one part of the game that never changed during the design process was how you get your energy. I did not want a separate system of gaining resources; I wanted it to come out of one of the basic actions in the game. I did this by making it part of your tile placement, which is the first thing you do on a turn. You place a tile on the board and gain one energy of the tile you placed and every tile that is touching it. This makes where you place tiles critical because every time you are doing something in the game that requires energy, you can pay only energy of the tile on which you are doing the action or every tile touching that tile. This is what "active energy" means. This creates lots of interesting decision space in where you place tiles and where you travel on the board to take actions.
I have not told you everything that happens in the game, so some surprises still await you. At its heart, Dragon Island is a midweight Eurogame that gives you an adventure theme and treats dragons with the respect I believe they deserve.
I've never designed a game, and I don't consider myself a game designer. The closest term I'd agree to is game developer, but what I do to games isn't really developing them in the traditionally understood way as much as modding them.
So when Phil Eklund approached me about doing a design for an intermediate game between his Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna series — called at various points during the design process "Bios: Paleozoic", "Bios: Pangaea", "Bios: Fauna" and "Bios: XX" — I was initially cautious. For a start, I had already designed a "Bios: Paleozoic" which was a mod to Bios: Megafauna that allow you to start the game earlier in the Paleozoic era. More importantly, I didn't have the confidence to build a design from scratch.
However, I do have some previous experience with procedural map generation, so I decided to concentrate on building a game which procedurally generates the map by using craton movement instead of tile-laying. Jon Manker also came on board the project with the offer of mentoring me and acting as a co-designer, but our actual contributions would evolve substantially throughout the course of the project so that Jon ended up in a developer as well as designer role.
My initial proposal to Phil was as follows:
... I've figured out a non-climax based tableau. I'm going to attempt to model plate tectonics instead
The idea will be cards consisting of super continents (spanning two cards), mountains, landmasses (reverse side is ice), archipelagos (reverse side is ocean). Each card will have a drift number and direction and represent a plate. Colliding plates will either subduct or form mountains or super continents. Rules to be determined.
My reasoning for eliminating climaxes was to cut down on the recognition factor of having to read climax numbers off the map. This part of the original Bios: Megafauna makes creeples (Megafauna's creature meeples) on the lowest climax location significantly more vulnerable to elimination by a new biome being introduced. Improving game state legibility became a central tenet of the new Bios: Megafauna game, and we eliminated DNA, acculturation, roadrunner genes, and a separate size chart for very similar reasons.
Phil insisted very early on that we were going to model skeletal types rather than dentition, and that there be six named cratons. This meant I was working with 2x2 cratons to keep to approximately the same playing area size as Megafauna. I built an event-driven craton movement model that allowed for the formation and separation of a Pangaea supercontinent by giving cratons a direction and using rotation and advance actions to move them on an underlying tile map.
This system was ultimately abandoned as it was prone to have the cratons fly off in any direction and never collide. To fix this required carefully stacking the event deck so that cratons would move in similar directions with a bias to collide and that any variation in movement order was tightly controlled.
But stacking the deck made getting the events work in such a way that Jon and Phil never completely understood it. (Knowledge transfer over the internet is a hard thing to do.) Phil recommended that we go with a horizontal collision model with some vertical movement, and the craton movement has been much more robust and largely unchanged since that suggestion.
Going to a horizontal collision model was driven by another Phil requirement to use hex instead of square cratons, and that requirement was driven by something that had become more and more obvious as development for Bios: Genesis wound down and we began working on the new game in earnest: There wasn't enough design space for a Bios: Genesis that ended up with terrestrial creatures, Bios: Pangaea which did something with those creatures, and a planned Bios: Megafauna 2 that allowed those creatures to grow to enormous sizes.
We made the call to fold Pangaea and Megafauna into a single game. This decision effectively meant that we would be redesigning Megafauna almost from the ground up instead of keeping it largely unchanged. Adopting hexes allowed us to dynamically generate the hex-based Bios: Origins map by using craton movement in Bios: Megafauna 2.
Being a direct sequel to Bios: Genesis meant we could do a lot of the simplification by simply adopting the decisions that had been made in Bios: Genesis and extending them into the new game. This meant organs instead of DNA, with Phil deciding to introduce a fifth organ type to represent cold resistance, and promotable mutation cards, although we innovated by having the promoted side in one of two possible origins to represent specialization of base organ types in various ways (with a large amount of latitude in how this occurs in practice).
One mechanism that survived a long way into the game design process but which was ultimately cut was the intended replacement for BMF 1's acculturation abilities which were called ecomorphs. These would have allowed for everything from the development of various tools (now subsumed into the emotion system) to acting as a keystone species such as a beaver or prairie dog as well as a variety of hunting methods. But a third row of cards in the market made ecomorphs problematic to begin with, and they were completely eliminated when we realized that putting special rule text on the cards ran counter to the improving the legibility of the game state.
Oxygen, clouds and trapped carbon
Contrast the elimination of ecomorphs about midway through the design process with the carbon cycle tracking. As a part of the craton movement, I had suggested that we eliminate event-based CO₂ modeling and go with a counter-based system with CO₂ reservoirs being placed on the map by outcomes such as continents colliding to form mountains. Phil expressed cautious interest in the idea, then ruled it out, preferring a more conservative event-based CO₂ system that was recognizably similar to the first edition of Bios: Megafauna. But in one of many redesigns of the event system (no other system had more changes to it), Phil adopted my initial suggestion, adding the tracking of O₂ (which I had abstracted out) and water, which could fill up the atmosphere (representing greenhouse gases) or clouds (causing precipitation).
Given I am in the most junior of the designers involved in the creation of Bios: Megafauna 2, it is remarkable how many of the systems I initially proposed survived in the final game. However, Phil has definitely owned the design in this instance, which he should do given that he ultimately lives by the success of his games. And he would often pose me a challenge, such as coming up with a way of defining emotions or horror plants in the game, then take a seed of my initial suggestion and take the design in the direction he wanted to go. The tempo of development largely seems to have been that I would build version 1 of something, Phil would flesh out and build the final version, and Jon would ensure that the fun has been put in the game.
I am quietly optimistic that we've been successful in ensuring that Bios: Megafauna 2 is more fun and more of a game than its predecessors. The collision of species expanding on the map is incredibly enjoyable, and lends a "knife fight in a phone booth" feel to the whole proceedings. The climate and tectonic engine lends enough randomness and arbitrariness to feel like a Sierra Madre game, and the personification of Medea as player controlled means that the microscopic world of Bios: Genesis never feels too far away. There are simulationist elements that were in Bios: Megafauna 1 that are missing in the successor game; the climax and biome interactions are simplified and abstracted and that is the loss I feel most keenly, but the games of Bios: Megafauna 1 I played during the development of Bios: Megafauna 2 just highlighted how little direct control players had in the first version.
The art by Johanna Pettersson is beautiful and evocative, and Phil's collaboration with Karim Chakroun continues to pay off in information design and display. I hope you will enjoy playing Bios: Megafauna 2 as much as I have enjoyed making it.
I am used to being involved in time-consuming and exhausting projects (and even to finishing them): I did 504, for example, and I had a five-year project called "Freitag", but...
After finishing Fabled Fruit, which already was more work than expected (because it is "only" a 25-minute game, but needed 59 different card actions to be designed), I was ready for the three games I had in the pipeline for SPIEL '17. But Fabled Fruit became a big success and the fable concept cried for more, so I moved the planned projects to 2018 and had the idea for the "Fast Forward" line: Fable games without a rulebook that can be learned while playing.
But this concept needed to be started as a series with at least three games at once. (IMO)
The main problem with fable games: Testing is more difficult. You have to play the same game several times in a row with the same group, and you cannot recreate the effect of a surprising change with the same group. You need a lot more different gaming groups.
Classical games you can test a few times, make some changes, test again, and so on. With fable games, it is difficult to see how a small change in the first game might influence the game five games later. You have to test this change a lot more — and I do not want to lose all my testing players (a.k.a. friends).
But "Fast Forward" is awesome!!!
The inspiration came to me one evening while playing Dead Man's Draw. I was a bit exhausted from the day and just wanted to start to play. I said to my gaming group, "Just start this one, it is easy enough to be learned while playing. Starting player, please turn the top card face up." Without realizing it, we were suddenly in the middle of a game. Afterwards I was thinking that games should be designed that way — and having the fable concept, I could start with a very simplistic idea and from game to game add more "game" to that idea.
Starting was kind of easy. I designed a mixture of Dead Man's Draw and Diamant. The first test was amazing: My gamers played the game nine times in a row and did not want to stop playing (but had to because of some minor changes I needed to do). But I needed to promise them that they could continue to play it during the next game session exactly where they stopped.
So after that start, I needed two more "Fast Forward" games to have the series of three titles I wanted to release. The first of these two new games became FEAR, and the other did not progress any further than being an idea in my computer; it was never tested. But I already had two games in the pipeline! I then had an inspiration to make a game about "capturing the flag" and this turned out to become FORTRESS, which is not about capturing a flag anymore, but if you know where it came from, you can still see that connection.
Thus, three "Fast Forward" games were developed. I was happy.
But there was a problem with the three games: One of them was weak. The first one and FEAR were creating very similar experiences of the three, but FEAR was better. I managed to look at it as objectively as possible and accepted that I needed to not publish the first one. There are too many press-your-luck games, and the game was not better than Dead Man's Draw, so it was removed from the line. It was early in 2017 and once more I had only two "Fast Forward" games. I was about to accept releasing only two games when I got the idea for FLEE, which is completely different from the other two and very appealing. It had to be done.
Now, I am happy to have three very different "Fast Forward" games, all three connected by one great concept. The easy game FEAR is very good to learn the "Fast Forward" concept, and a great game to play with the complete family and casual gamers. And FORTRESS is the next step, more complex without being complicated, a game with a lot of great surprises. And finally FLEE, a game in which you really have to focus to solve the cooperative puzzle. This game feels a bit like an escape room — a really difficult escape room!
But I said five fable games, not only three...
The series of three fable "Fast Forward" games seemed not to be enough, three games to be tested hundreds of times in ever-changing game groups. But the game starting it all was still successful, so I needed to expand Fabled Fruit. One gamer in our group played it a lot with his daughter and after finishing, they demanded more. Why not? Let‘s make an expansion!
In theory, Fabled Fruit is easy to expand; you need only to add more locations, but I already designed 59 different locations and I ran a bit out of ideas — and the end game of Fabled Fruit was designed to be a real end game, with no chance to "open" that again to continue with more locations. That said, giving gamers only twenty new locations to play a separate set of games of Fabled Fruit was boring.
Adding limes to the game was the central idea. Green fruits, very good. Now every fabled juice card must be paid for with at least one lime. At the start of each game, limes are not shuffled with the other fruit cards and must be acquired differently. Adding these new location cards after the second half of the normal Fabled Fruit locations was the connection to the base game.
Twenty new locations meant that you could play 8-10 consecutive games to finish this new campaign. Thus, this has the same problem as with all fable games: A single game itself is short, about half an hour, but the campaign is loooong. You need about three hours to play it once.
Keep smiling, it could be worse!
I smiled and it got worse. The annual question came up: How to expand Power Grid this year. Easy, just make a fable campaign for Power Grid, a campaign with only three consecutive games (with fifteen cards to be revealed during the three games) could not be too difficult, right?
But the Power Grid base games each have two maps (classic or deluxe both use similar regions of the world: Europe (or Germany) or North America (or USA)), so why not develop three games per map with two separate sets of fifteen cards? Let's see: 3 games per map and 2 maps = 6 games to play. A single game of Power Grid in this campaign is played in two hours (a bit longer than normal because you're changing the rules while playing), so I needed to test two new prototypes with six hours of playing time each...
At least I was happy that our sixth release for 2017, the solitaire game Finished!, was already finished as of April 2016. No further testing of that game!
Finished! is a game in the vein of a classic "patience" game like Klondike, just a game about sorting a deck of 48 cards with a twist, played with a cycling deck. Discarded cards are placed under the deck to be drawn again later. After seven cycles, you need to have sorted the complete deck. The name of the prototype was "Bubblesort: The Game". It is not an implementation of the well-known bubblesort algorithm, but you sort cards in bubbles of at least three cards.
Now, all six titles are in print, so new topics on my schedule include work on the new games for 2018 and some plans to be realized for the 25th anniversary of my company, 2F-Spiele.
The most important thing for now: I like the resulting games and expansions, and whoever wants to play them all needs only 25 hours net playing time.
-> It's your turn now.
Editor's note: This story serves as an addendum to or parallel retelling of the events in TauCeti Deichmann's Sidereal Confluence designer diary on BGG News. —WEM
I walked over to see what game Kristin Matherly was playing at the Gathering of Friends. She said, "Sit down, you need to play this." She introduced me to TauCeti and Doug, and TauCeti taught me this negotiation game called "Trade Empires". Wait, did you say "negotiation game"?
Like many gamers, my first non-kid board game was Monopoly. Monopoly is a terrible game in which the first thirty minutes are spent rolling the dice and buying every property you land on. Then you have five minutes of negotiating to get color sets that you can build on, and then two hours of rolling the dice to see who wins. I loved the five minutes of negotiating, and if I could get a game which was all negotiating, I was there. Kristin knew this.
Kristin wisely gave me the bankers (Eni Et) on my first game. I took to it immediately and saw the essence of the game, even if it wasn't perfectly presented. In that first game, I noted two rules I didn't like and I subverted them immediately. TauCeti had this rule that you could not negotiate with a player you were not "connected" to, and sometimes I was the connection between two players. I could have demanded tribute on each deal they made through me, but I didn't like the connection rule and suspected I'd want to avoid a tariff on myself in this game or others, so I imposed no tariff at all.
TauCeti also had combat in the game, and when Doug decided to attack me to steal a colony, I told him I'd not make any deals at all with him for the rest of the game if he did attack.
"You're just saying that. You'll make deals with me later", hoped Doug.
"No, he's not bluffing", said Kristin.
Thus, no combat. Even in this first game, I was focused on what I wanted from "Trade Empires": constant negotiation with all players.
I think I won that game. It was awesomely fun.
Kristin and Doug and TauCeti had just finished playing "Trade Empires" when I spotted them. I was disappointed that I had missed it, but they were willing to play again. I think we started at 11:00 p.m. and finished at 3:00 a.m. Nobody was tired.
This time I asked for a race completely different from the bankers and was given the mob (Zeth Anocracy). I didn't need to be told that I was to bully and intimidate the players into giving me free stuff to avoid my attacks. I think I won that game, by a lot.
The next day, TauCeti was headed home, and I went over to talk to him. I was prepared to ask for files so that I could print my own copy of his game, but secretly hoped he'd give me his prototype. He did the latter, and I was very pleased.
Playing in Maryland
After lots of emails with TauCeti about rules questions, I finally put together a group of people to play this game. I'm well aware that negotiating games are not everyone's favorite, but people were willing to humor me. They were fun games, which led to more rules questions and suggestions, but I was worried that the nine races you could play were not balanced. I mean, I lost my third game — to a 14-year-old. Can you imagine me losing?
What quickly became apparent to me was that TauCeti was a game designer willing to try out my outlandish suggestions. That is startling. Most game designers don't want to mess with their baby and are not really interested in suggestions from playtesters, and many game designers realize that playtester suggestions usually point to a problem, but the suggestion itself is terrible. But TauCeti was open-minded and enjoyed talking game design as much as I did, so hundreds of emails went back and forth between us about "Trade Empires".
I decided to figure out whether the races were actually balanced, but with nine races and so many combinations of three to seven players, it would not be possible to play enough games to know. Thus, I wrote a computer program to play the game for me. To simulate trades, my program would randomly generate thousands of possible trades, and each race would evaluate whether it liked the trade or not. If both sides agreed, the trade happened. This well simulated human players. Simulating combat was important, and decisions about which research to go after or which colonies to take were easier. My program could play a complete game in about one-tenth of a second.
For several weeks, I'd set the computer to simulate all possible games a hundred times. It would take all day, and when I got home from work, I'd load the results into a spreadsheet to see which race was doing too well and which was getting crushed. Sometimes I'd just change my program to play better, and often I'd make a tiny change to a race to bring it back in line, then I'd set the program to run overnight and I'd wake up in the morning to check it again. Checking twice each day to see how the simulations went, I had all the data I needed.
Every time TauCeti updated his rules, I updated my program and ran it over and over. I sent him many spreadsheets with long discussions about the tiny tweaks I made.
After a six-player game with some friends, all of whom are good game designers, we made some radical suggestions.
We officially came out against combat. Players did not use it to go after the winner; they just went for targets of opportunity. That was officially No Fun™ and we wanted it out. We suggested instead that some ships be for colonizing, others for research.
We suggested that each race not have a board, but instead a small deck of factories, and that factories can be flipped over to the improved side with some inventions. We suggested those factories can be traded, but must be returned after each turn.
And TauCeti listened to us and seriously considered all our changes. Unheard of! He essentially accepted all those changes, and adjusted the rest of the game to fit. This man is open-minded in a way I can only hope to be.
These changes required rewriting my simulation software from scratch. Every few days I'd send TauCeti a new spreadsheet and lengthy commentary about how to change the cards to work. It's amazing that I managed to squeeze in work, sleep, and eating with all the effort I was putting into "Trade Empires".
I even wrote a separate program that would take the set of cards and create PDF documents with them, ready to be sent to a professional printer. I had at least four full sets of the game printed, which at several hundred cards was a lot of printing.
Less is More
Time and again in game design, the best final product takes the good original idea of a game and strips out everything that gets in the way or is unnecessary. The final game: no hand limit of pieces, all players can trade with any other player from the beginning, one kind of ship, no two-way factories, no multi-choice factories, no points for colonies, only two kinds of factories at all (white for economic engine and purple for upgrades), and no damn combat. Just two hours or so of glorious negotiation.
How I Play
I have a confession. I love games because I love systems. I want to see systems work well, and while I also enjoy pitting my wits against others, in "Trade Empires" — now called Sidereal Confluence — I have a different goal. I want all the systems to work brilliantly. I don't want any resources to sit idle; I want them to be used as efficiently as possible, including those resources owned by opponents. My scores are regularly over 60 points, but I feel great if I can get everyone else's scores just as high. As Doug says, "Trade Empires" rewards the player who cooperates the most. If I play poker with you, I'm going to con you out of your money. If I play Sidereal Confluence with you, I'm going to offer you a fair deal, and I'm going to work with a third player to get just a bit more out of that cool factory that a fourth player has, giving us all a tiny bit more resources to work with.
Unless I'm playing the Zeth Anocracy. Then you are screwed.
The inspiration for Claim started with a love of trick-taking games and a sadness that there are very, very few for two players. My family traditionally has played a lot of card games, and trick-taking games are my personal favorite of the classic card game genre. Oh Hell! is my personal favorite because I love the bidding, but Euchre is also a family staple. Sadly, neither of these are functional for two players without clumsy variants.
Thus, the quest to make Claim was born, driven by a want of a two-player trick-taking game — but there was something else underneath that. Creating a new trick-taking game is almost a rite of passage for a game designer. It is a design space that has centuries of development behind it. A trick-taking game offers a unique challenge that differs from most other designs because when you design a trick-taking game it's not only a new design, but it is also an homage to the genre and its history.
Like any modern trick-taking game, Claim was inspired in part by another trick-taking game. Classics like Wizard and Sluff Off! are rooted in Oh Hell! and other bidding games. Clubs and Diamonds were developed to fill the spiritual gaps between Spades and Hearts. Haggis and Tichu derive from climbing games like Big 2. (You may direct your arguments on whether climbing games are trick-taking games in the comments below.) Trick-taking games are designed to be a heartfelt love letter to the genre, all while trying to make your own mark in the busy design space. I wanted to do the same: Give homage to trick-takers past (and in this case, mostly forgotten) while bringing an update to the modern age.
For Claim, the mechanical inspiration was the Whist series of games, specifically German Whist, which has a unique twist in that the game is played in two phases: 1) You play "tricks" to draft a hand of cards for the second phase, then 2) you play your drafted cards, with the player who collected the most tricks winning. This is a cool mechanism, but has its flaws. The first phase can feel a bit boring. You aren't playing to win tricks, but rather cards, and you get no immediate excitement from doing so. In the second phase, it's possible to know who the winner is before the round starts based on which cards were collected in the first phase. These two problems meant the game could be very hit or miss.
I wanted more from this game. It was clever, but not robust enough for a satisfying play every time. From playing this game, and my journey through trick-taking games in general, I wanted to take what I thought was fun and build a whole new game around it.
The theme came first. The original name of the game was "King of the Kingdom", which was later switched to Claim by publisher White Goblin Games. The idea was that the King had died, so now you were trying to win the throne. I pictured two candidates vying for control and influence for the throne. The game would be played in two phases: First, you draft followers from one of the five different factions in order to fight for you. Then, in the second phase, you go head-to-head with the other player with the followers you've acquired.
That had a nice flow, giving a thematic anchor to the game on which I could build. This theme led to a unique winning condition. Most trick-taking games require you to win a certain number of tricks, or simply the most. I wanted which cards you won to matter; the game wasn't just about winning tricks, but which tricks.
From that idea, I decided that the game would have five factions. At the end of the game, each player would have a pile of cards that they'd won in tricks, but the total number of tricks wouldn't matter; what would matter are the factions themselves, specifically the number of cards you have in each faction. If you have the most, you win that faction's influence. Win the influence of three of the five factions, and you have won the quest to claim that throne.
Those parts of the game came together quickly. The theme felt right, and the win condition felt unique. One of the issues with the original game of German Whist is that the best strategy tended to be to dominate in a single suit, then run with it. That was no longer the case in Claim. You needed to do well in several suits to win. It was a lovely twist that bucked the norm of trick-takers.
The game was pretty fun at this point. The fact that you needed to have majority in three out of five factions was already cool, giving an almost "area control" feel over the game. It felt like you were doing more than just collecting cards. But I wanted these five factions to feel unique, so I decided to play around with special powers and that's when things would really get turned on their head — and the most development time came into the process.
I wanted just five powers. I didn't want a lot of card text. I didn't want cards within each faction functioning differently. I wanted each faction to play differently, but be easy to learn and play. Having fun the first game is important. I didn't want a bunch of different exceptions for each card. I wanted this to be a game that any lover of card games, whether they enjoyed modern games or not, could step into and learn quickly — but unique powers are tricky like that and are hard to master.
There was a core concept for these factions, and that was related to the end game condition. You win by gaining influence in three factions. Thus, I wanted each faction to have a unique strategy to win it, almost as if each suit had a unique mind game to collect them. This is how Claim turned into something special.
The Goblins and the Knights came first. They were fun to play off one another. Knights could instantly beat Goblins, which was simple to learn but tricky in practice. Since you have to follow suit, your opponent can pull Knights out of your hand early before you can use them to capture tons of goblins.
With the Knights having a distinct advantage over Goblins, the Goblin ability was tricky. I didn't want a circular rock-paper-scissors concept in which each faction had a priority as I find that's hard to track. In the end, I went thematic: Goblins aren't special, but there are a lot of them. This was balanced by putting in fewer Knights. So you have lots of Goblins and few Knights, but Knights instantly beat Goblins. This had a great flow and gave an extra twist to you needing to win a majority of the factions. A few Knights can win you a faction, but Goblins take a lot of work and planning.
The Undead were next. I wanted a faction that played around with the first phase of the game. The first phase is when you play tricks in order to win your cards for the second phase. Those cards are typically discarded — fodder for the drafting phase — but not the Undead. The Undead are the only ones you are able to collect for the end game scoring in the first round. This is super fun and added more meaning to the first phase. Now, if you want to win the Undead, you have to start thinking early, or else you'll start phase two already behind your opponent!
The Dwarves were a slightly evil twist since you can collect them when you lose. Thus, if your opponent is running away with a suit, you can play Dwarf cards and collect them for the endgame scoring. The winner of the hand still gets any non-Dwarf cards, and this adds a way to collect cards even when you are losing. Winning the Dwarf faction is something challenging but fun.
Last were the Doppelgangers. These are wild cards, so they match the suit played. This keeps all the other factions on their toes, and these cards are a hot commodity. You can use a Doppelganger to get a match in a faction you need during play, but they count as their own faction at the end of the game. Once again, a very tricky faction to get hold of.
With those developments, the end result was this lovely little two-player trick-taking game called Claim. It’s rooted in traditional trick-taking games, but it creates a fun little niche all its own. What I'm most proud of is how the winning condition of needing to gain majority in three of the five factions plays out. It's not as simple as trying to gain a bunch of hearts or spades in play. You have to start thinking during the drafting phase, and each faction has its own little puzzle to solve in order to win it, yet these puzzles conflict with each other. If you think you can win Dwarves, you need to lose tricks — but you need to win tricks to beat other factions. And, how many Knights can you spend to ensure you win Knights, while also holding some back to defeat Goblins? Do you want to use your Doppelgangers to boost a faction you already have, or do you want to lead with them to ensure they are on your side at the end of the game? These five abilities added to a streamlined ruleset make for a fun and quick game, and one I am proud of and still enjoy playing. I hope it's a game you'll all enjoy playing, too!
"Wasteland Express Delivery Service includes an emergent narrative story that takes place interactively over the course of eight games. Alternatively, players can dive in with a randomly generated scenario that will play out over the course of a single story-driven game session for infinite replay possibilities."
Plus, in case it wasn't totally clear there are a bunch of SWEET minis. Like super, awesome ones where you can actually load the goods right in the back. IN THE BACK. Even the goods are minis because why the heck not.
Hi! This is Matt Riddle. I am generally no one of consequence, but I am kicking off this 4,000+ word designer diary because I am one of the three designers. Buckle up.
Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons. At least compared to the sheer talent, will, and stunning good looks of the designers assembled to create Wasteland Express Delivery Service (WEDS), the new hotness coming soon from Pandasauraus Games. Ridbackmour? Gilbackddle? Pinchmouridle? Manbearpig? Whichever celebrity name you prefer for the trio of Jon Gilmour, Ben Pinchback, and Matt Riddle and wherever you intend to get it tattooed on your body doesn't matter so long as you do not forget to check out this game.
I mean, look at that sexy; there is literally SOOO much of it
At some point nearly five years ago, Ben and I started kicking around the idea of doing a train game. We played a lot of Steam, but we wanted to actually pick up and deliver goods, not just build routes. At the time, we had just seen Fleet released to moderate success, so we were totally prepared to take on Martin Wallace and a top 100 game and make it better — also, not really, as Steam and WEDS have almost zero in common beyond the BGG mechanism classification. Still inspiration is just that, inspiration. Ben is the designer notebook guy. He sketches and doodles and jots down ideas. One of those ideas was octagons with different movement patterns that left squares in the middle that could be cities. As it turns out, not completely original since Keythedral did it ten years earlier among others, but it was very underutilized. Let me turn it over to Ben to discuss some of the initial design.
Early octagonal action... in space — SPACE VIKINGS!
Before I get to that, I want to talk about Jon. I'll never forget the day I first met Jon Gilmour. It was a great day for him. Not so much because he met me, but rather because it was Thursday of Gen Con 2014 and well over a hundred people were wrapping around the Plaid Hat Games booth and down the aisle waiting in line to buy his new game, Dead of Winter. And by down the aisle, I mean so many people that it was blocking the entrance to some other pretty major publishers' booths.
(Matt: Like Queen Games, their booth was completely surrounded. How were gamers going to rush to grab Cubo or Orcs Orcs Orcs…)
The Plaid Hat crew was king at this moment. So Matt says to me, "Hey let's see if Jon's around. I want to say hi." I of course had no clue they had ever talked but apparently they had. This is why I keep Matt around, mind you. Sure, he can design games, but he's also not afraid to make friends with absolutely everyone.
So we walk up to Jon and he's sporting quite a grin. He was just standing there soaking it all in. My first thought was, someday I want this feeling he is having right now. We talked some and I walked away telling Matt how genuinely nice I thought Jon seemed and Matt told me that Jon actually lived only about four hours from us. Huh.
Matt did his thing and within a month or so, we were Skyping with Jon and talking about working on something together, which quickly led to day trips and all day Panera sessions with Jon. Matt does what Matt does — but what Matt doesn't do is sit around on his couch sketching shapes while thinking, "You know the octagon is a very under-represented shape in board game maps today. And wow, when you put octagons together, you get squares left in the voids. How is this not a thing everywhere already!?"
(Jon: Even before I laid my hands on it and did awesome Jon Gilmour theme integration and play experience game design magic, this was already one of the best pick-up-and-delivers I had ever played. Okay, this was actually Matt again, but Jon really said that on multiple podcasts and such.)
Back in 2011, Matt and I were prepping for our first ever game design, Fleet, to Kickstart in the spring, and we were already neck deep in a handful of other designs. The bug had bitten us badly, and there wasn't a spare moment when I wasn't thinking about games themselves or, more likely, game design. So as mentioned above, the simple act of randomly sketching shapes on a notepad while watching TV led me down a pretty serious rabbit trail. A 4×4 map of octagons as terrain with cities/outposts/strongholds being the square voids and the edges was a very quick progression for me that night.
By the time I showed this to Matt probably a week later, I had already decided that we were going to do a pick-up-and-deliver train game using this set-up. My paradigm for train games in 2011 was mostly Age of Steam/Steam, and I thought a game in which you actually hump the goods across the board physically seemed like a novel idea.
It turns out this form of goods pick-up and delivery was actually commonplace, but the board wasn't. As I researched it, I did find some games using octs and squares, but not as many as I thought I might. This map with different octs being different terrain, using squares as cities, and the system of moving around these shapes was there on the couch in 2011 and it's still the backbone of Wasteland Express Delivery Service five years later. It's really cool to see an idea like that come to fruition and better yet to realize you never could have done it right on your own. What I was going to do with this system is a thousand times lamer than what came out of working with Matt, Jon, and the eventual greater creative team Pandasaurus assembled.
The other gameplay element that developed over the next five years that would survive countless thematic changes and mechanical iterations was this idea we had of a player action mat.
If you can remember ever counting to ten a thousand times over and over during two hours of Tikal (a game that I love,by the way), then you can understand the desire to come up with an action selection game in which the game held your hand a little bit more and guided you to the actions you could do and even kept track of them.
Eventually Matt and I came up with the idea that each player has an action mat that lists the actions available to them and has boxes next to these actions for activation with action cubes. Each player has the same amount of action cubes to spend over a series of rounds, and the cool thing we found quickly was that this action cube allocation allowed us to not only present the available actions to the player, but also to limit the amount of times players can take a certain action in a certain timeframe organically because the action cubes do not clear and refresh until they're all spent.
One other thing we loved about this system was that it kept the game moving and the downtime was small because a player's turn is to play one cube to their mat and take that action. Turns then become very quick, and the game hums around the table: Move, Buy a good, Attack, Take a job, Deliver, Visit a shop, etc. Now mind you, I could have never imagined the levels of awesomeness our little player mats would be taken to after we met Jon. Safe to say when we met Jon, we had a very solid system that worked well mechanically, but it was far from awesome. Really, really far from awesome as it would turn out.
Side note: Jon has a rule when talking about design direction. The rule is, "Which one is more fun?" That's it. It seems simple, but so often we aren't wired to think this way. We're so worried about balance and all these other things that we miss out on something as important as, "Which one is more fun?" And the coolest thing is balance came even after choosing fun time after time. The lesson here is that you can balance later; make it fun first.
Mechanically there's the backbone. The octagon and square terrain/cities/outposts works amazingly well for trucking around goods, fighting, and performing missions. The player mats/action cube system has given players a nice and easy way to maneuver through our world. What we've done with this system is add an absolute mountain of special missions to accomplish. The three main factions in the game each have unique decks that give agendas to push, tasks to complete, and possible crazies to join your truck riding shotgun. But for a huge thematic game, the turns seem shockingly simple, and that's probably the thing I'm the most proud of from the mechanical side. Often I feel like I'm playing an RPG questing-style video game on the tabletop. The game mechanisms literally get out of the way and let people focus on the adventure at hand.
ZZZZZZZ... Oh, hi! Did Ben just write 2k words on a shape? Exciting stuff. That wall of text is why I have to write all the rulebooks, or if the publisher will spring for it, pay someone awesome like Dustin Schwartz to write them. Writing rules suuuuuuucks.
As designers, Ben and I are pretty quick to proto and even quicker to cut and run on a game if it's a fail bomb. If a proto sucks or is meh or is even just pretty good, we broom it and move on to something else. We do not hack at games endlessly that aren't working. We have plenty of ideas worth pursuing, so why try to polish a turd? WEDS was the exception — not that is was a turd, but that we would shelve it but never fully quit on it. We knew that in the bones of this sprawling pick up and deliver was a great game.
As I mentioned in passing above, WEDS had so many implementations: train game, soul gathering, regular Vikings, then for the longest time… SPACE VIKINGS! (You have to say it with a 1980s rock screech or the ol' 1980s toy commercial announcer guy voice: SPACE VIKINGS!!!!) I mean, it SEEMED like a really good idea with two awesome things mashed together. When we decided on space vikings as the official theme, I even wrote up the following opening story:
As the 9th century dawned on the Baltic Sea, the Viking Era was in full swing. Viking expansion was rampant and, in the way of the forefathers, the great Viking chieftains of the age were increasing their territories and holdings through hard work, pillaging, trading…and more pillaging! Well, most of the chieftains, that is. Clan Forkbeard did not have a chieftain. It had five. Sort of. Each one was more worthless than the last. Things had been going so well for so long that the five sons Forkbeard had been born with the proverbial amber spön in their mouths. The brothers took from the great Baltic Sea with no regard, no respect, and certainly no tribute. This behavior angered Aegir, the god of the sea. After a score of years with naught a monument built nor an offering left, Aegir had enough. Watching Clan Forkbeard move from island to island in the great Scandinavian archipelago with indifference, leaving destruction and waste in their wake, Aegir decided it was time to teach them a lesson. In his righteous indignation, he would restore the glory of his magnificent Baltic Sea and banish Clan Forkbeard…TO SPACE! Space Vikings!
Clan Forkbeard must restore their honor and earn Aegir's favor if they are ever to return to the only home they have ever known. Spread across a small but habitable system of planets deep in Ridback Galaxy, the brave and suddenly motivated Vikings have rallied their clan and are conquering the solar system the only way they know how — as Space Vikings!
Ya, that was a thing. At one point it even had a Quantum Leap joke about trying to get home and righting what once went wrong, dunno where that went. All that to say we had shelved the game but never stopped thinking about it.
Fast forward in time and I am tweeting away looking for anyone willing to print and test a print-and-play of our then-upcoming card game Eggs and Empires. Lo and behold, I get a DM from Jon Gilmour. Now understand this was pre-DoW, so he was just Jon Gilmour, not JON F@#$ING GILMOUR. Hell, thanks to Fleet Ben and I were considerably more "famous" at the time. (Famous in the context of an incredibly small and obscure corner of the internet…so not famous, but whatever the equivalent is for a couple of tier 3 hobby game designers.) Jon plays E&E and likes it. He and I chat a bit, find out we are pseudo local, and become Twitter friends, eventually leading to this collaboration.
As we turned Space Vikings into WEDS, so much stayed the "same": the player mats, the movement, the action system, and the economy. I am proud of the economy. It is not ground-breaking, but it is clever and works very well. Initially it was a very linear chart-y looking thing.
But the idea that the good in demand would set the price has persisted. We did a lot of work to make it simple and non-maintanence-y. I acutally think it was friend of the team, dicehateme himself Chris Kirkman who first suggested the wheel layout that we ultimately ended up with.
Another area we spent a lot of time on was the combat. We went down some major rabbit holes working on different combat systems that were sometimes clever, sometimes fun, sometimes neither. The more we did this, the more we decided it wasn't helping the game. We knew we were designing in the "mid-atlantic" or "Eurotrash" space, and the folks that play those big, sprawling thematic games are completely cool with a full page of conditional combat rules. We tried some systems that we came up with and a few we borrowed, but WEDS is a Euro pick-up-and-deliver at its core, and they just did not feel right. The closest my Eurogamer heart comes to enjoying combat is the displacement system in Hansa Teutonica. The other end of the spectrum is the simple yet effective X-Wing — roll X dice vs Y dice and hope you win! I think we ended up at a simple yet effective middle ground. It was what worked. We have notes for a few combat variances we are going to try in the inevitable expansion.
The biggest change of all that came through the development with Jon and Pandasaurus was getting rid of victory points. In every iteration pre-WEDS, you would play for two hours, roll some dice, have fun…then count to sixty-something. Again, I LOVE counting victory points. LOVE IT. As a designer, I love the granularity you can put into a game giving out points here, points over there, MOAR POINTS IS MOAR BETTER.
But for WEDS, it didn't make sense and it was NOT thematic. As we spent months working on making WEDS as thematic as possible, the points continually got in the way. Another buddy of ours from The Geek All-Stars podcast, Dan Patriss, had played an early version at Unpub 5 and mentioned in passing we should consider a Twilight Imperium-style system of goals. He is my boy, but I totally blew him off. Fast forward to a Panera Bread in Lansing, MI and Jon, Ben, and I are having that exact conversation, so we did it, and Priority First Class Contracts were born. That change, more than anything else, changed the feel and elevated the gameplay to what it is now.
Look at that super boring Euro-y scoring: blah blah blah monuments, set collection, space bucks! 1vp for $5, how original!
First, I want to say that, while we joke about me coming on board and "fixing" WEDS, that is not something I can take credit for. When I first played the game (when it was "Space Vikings"), I was a bit leery about what I could bring to the project. I don't really have great self-confidence, and to think of how I could possibly come on and make this project better, was a bit overwhelming. I took some time to digest it, think about it, and come up with some proposals for Matt and Ben.
I feel that one of my strengths is knowing what I like in a game and trying to further enhance that, so that is what I focused on. How could I help them make the things that were already great in this game better? The biggest was really theme. Some gamers feel that theme doesn't matter. There are great debates between designers about theme-first vs. mechanism-first design. My philosophy is Experience First. I ask myself what experience I want the players to have, and how I can best evoke those emotions.
When I played "Space Vikings", I tried to ask myself what other themes would fit and what kind of experience did I feel the game was already evoking, then I spent time trying to bring that experience further to life. I feel that when I came to Matt and Ben with a rework of the game, it was really only about 15% different. I cut some things, I swapped some things around, and I put a new coat of paint on it — but the heart was there, beating in this gritty post-apocalyptic shell.
Next, I want to talk about collaboration. It's something I love to do. I really think I work best when I'm not in a vacuum. Matt and Ben are not collaborators. They are much more of a symbiosis. They operate as a single unit, and it's amazing to be a part of it. They eat math and crap out great Eurogames unlike anyone else I've ever seen.
So when we started talking, it was easy to form a new rhythm with them. When I first got married, my father-in-law told me about the concept of an "emotional bank". In a relationship, you deposit into the emotional bank, and sometimes you withdraw, but you want to build a bigger and bigger positive balance. I feel like that is the key to good collaboration as well. I apply this concept to everything I do, so working with Matt and Ben was no different. Some days we would go back and forth on things we were passionate about. Some days I would win them over with my cries of "MOAR FUN", and on other days they would drop math bombs unrelentingly. In the end, we were all passionate about the game, so it helped us all stay invested in building a really good emotional bank account, and I feel like the game shows that love.
Finally, I want to talk about failure. Every game sucks at some point. If you don't feel like your game sucks, you are not being honest with yourself. I am a huge proponent of the "fail faster" school of design, and luckily Matt and Ben are fans as well. While hanging at Panera, we would mark on, tear up, and change things with abandon. You have to be willing to try new things with your designs and explore them. Your prototype doesn't need to look pretty. Don't be afraid to mark it up, scribble on it, and try things that dont make you comfortable.
(Matt here again. We are going to let Nathan chime in here. He and his wife Molly are Pandasaurus Games. They are the ones that decided to go all in on WEDS and make it awesome. They rule.)
This, I suppose, is the part where Molly and I (Pandasaurus Games) enter the picture. I was goofing off at my desk back when I still had a day job and saw a Twitter post from either Matt or Ben — it doesn't matter which one as they are a single legal entity — asking who wants to sign their new co-design with Jon Gilmour about delivering goods in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I replied yes, thinking it was a total lark and figuring that some way-cooler-than-me publisher would get the game.
Then I got a message back from one of Ben and Matt asking whether I was heading to Unpub that weekend. I was in fact not heading to Unpub at all, but was probably heading to Brooklyn to have brunch and watch a bad movie with our friends, so I did what any smart person would do and lied. Of course I was going to Unpub! Plans were cancelled, hotels were booked, and a rental car was procured. Molly, our dogs and I then proceeded to drive through the start of a blizzard from Manhattan to Baltimore.
When we got there, the first thing we did was grab Matt, Ben and Jon and a table outside the main hall where they gave us a five-minute elevator pitch of what was at the time called "Wasteland Truckers". (It would keep this name until about six weeks before we announced the game.) We were absolutely floored by the mechanisms and systems of interaction that were being described. Upgrading your vehicle, delivering goods, taking on jobs for factions — we knew all of those systems would present interesting choices for the players. At the time, the game still had a score track attached to it, but the plan was already in place to move them to the contracts.
Molly and I did not play the game there, but we would get our first hands-on with the game a few weeks later when we got a prototype copy of the game. We were already about 70% sold on the concept, but we obviously had to make sure the game was fun and balanced and all of the things that actually matter for a game to be a good game. About ten turns into our first game, we stopped and looked at each other and our grins were clear what we were both thinking: We were playing something super special.
As a publisher, you see a ton of prototypes, and many of them are good. A very few of them make you want to play the game again right away. Very, very, very few of them feel immersive or thematic when they are white foam core with chicken scratch on them. This one did.
Look at that white foam core! This is much later in the process, but still. So white.
Also, you can see Jason Kinglsey almost. He did the awesome player mat.
From there we knew we needed to throw the right artwork behind the game. One of my favorite comics from about fifteen years ago was a book called DMZ that was put out by DC's Vertigo imprint and had fantastic edgy artwork. I started out looking for art in that style and wound up getting put in touch with the actual artist from DMZ, Riccardo Burchielli, who was available and excited to work on the board game. Cue cartwheels at Panda HQ. This would be the formation for the rest of the graphic design. We wanted everything in the game to feel cobbled together from the leftover remnants of the world from before. Jason Kingsley nailed that exact aesthetic. We then turned towards making sure the graphic design was clear and easy to read, which meant multiple print-and-play iterations being playtested for absolute clarity and smoothness of the play experience.
It was at this moment we realized we had a real problem on our hands. Set up and tear down of Wasteland Express was taking far too long — like 30-40 minutes. I have games in my collection that I love that have really long set-up times, and I know they never hit the table. I asked the design team what could be done about this. Jon put me in touch with Noah Adleman at Gametrayz, and the rest is, as they say, history. Noah came up with the most insane insert solution I have ever seen for a game — not just something used for storage or quick set-up, but also trays that you actually use during the game that label different cardboard chits for easy location. Set-up is down to about 5-8 minutes now, and the experience is vastly improved for it.
I feel really weird being the guy ending this, but I will say that I think the job of a designer is to see the statue in the block of granite. The publisher's job is to smooth out the rough edges and make sure the statue gets placed somewhere for it to be seen. I hope that the miniatures and the graphic design and the Trayz do justice to what is, I think, our best published game to date.
Adam P. McIver
OH, HI BGG! I'm Adam P. McIver. You may know me from the art/graphic design work I've done on the smattering of games flashing in my GIF-y little avatar over there on the left, or you may remember my slick little microgame Coin Age, which won a Golden Geek award a while back, or you may have no idea who I am at all, which is totally fine, obviously. No worries, I get it. There's a lot to keep up with these days, it's hard to stay on top of it all. It's way more important to know your next-door neighbor's name than some guy on the internet. Make connections! Build community!
Anywho, you may be asking how I went from designing a microgame that is essentially a single card to creating Ex Libris, a hotly anticipated Gen Con 2017 release with over 150 cards? Well, it certainly wasn't as easy as just adding 149 or so cards, let me tell you. Turns out I actually had to design a COMPLETELY different game!
Just Another Idea in a Notebook
I, like so many other game designers, keep a lot of notebooks. Over the years I've filled probably a dozen or so notebooks with board game ideas, sketches of components, development notes, and more. A common bit of wisdom you hear from game designers is to get your idea into prototype form and on the table as early as possible. This is one of many areas in which I'm not terribly wise. I tend to keep game ideas in my notebook for a long time, making more and more notes, tweaks, sketches, and more sketches. Ex Libris began in the same way, with a few scribbles and notes to outline an idea.
Also pictured above: a couple of the dozens of doodles my wife Kerry sneaks into my notebooks
I love games where you're visibly building something in front of you as you play, games like Best Treehouse Ever, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Suburbia, Sapiens, etc., games where the placement of the components result in your own little creation by the end of the game. Being a bit of a bibliophile, I realized that one of the most aesthetically pleasing things to me is a well-curated, substantial bookshelf filled with hardcover books and old leather-bound tomes. And graphic novels. I'll be honest, about half of my library consists of comics. I decided to design a game about building libraries. And not just any libraries — fantasy libraries.
Why fantasy? Because I really enjoy when something potentially mundane and dry is paired with a magical setting. I prefer Caverna to Agricola, for instance. I bought into Thunderstone instead of Dominion. I'd likely rather play Dungeon Petz than a pet-raising game set in reality...
Actually, a realistic pet shop strategy game sounds pretty cool to me, now that I think about it. Lemme make a note in my notebook real quick...
Oh, yeah, fantasy libraries. With that seed in mind, I began brainstorming the game's connective tissues: fleshing out a basic theme, identifying the experience I wanted the players to have, and working out the game mechanisms that would tie it all together. From the sketches pictured above (and a few other pages of less visually-interesting notes), I let the concept guide me. I narrowed down to six categories of books that would exist in a fantasy world, then imagined what sort of rules would govern the quality of a bookshelf.
Before long, I broke outside of my notebook, created a slew of book cards, and started to play with them. I quickly realized that I didn't want the game to be solely driven by card-drafting since so many games have already done that well, so I expanded the scope and added worker placement to the mix. The action spaces represented locations where players would gain cards and manipulate their bookshelves. Taking it a step further, I included mechanisms that would vary the available locations so that each round would feel and play differently from the one before it. It all began to come together into something promising, and I'll admit I was very excited!
The Slog of Solo Playtests
A bit more honesty for y'all: I am not good at solo playtests. Having to keep track of the unique objectives of each imaginary opponent, simulating decisions without basing them on information that I know, but my fictitious fellow players aren't supposed to know, but also knowing what they know, but they don't REALLY know it, because they're just a figment, after all...
It may come as no surprise at this point in this rambling designer diary that I have ADD. Solo playtesting is a struggle for me. I ran through the earliest iterations of Ex Libris several times by myself, making changes and tweaks in between tries, but each time felt more like work than fun to me. My largest takeaway was, "It's a shame I wasted so much time on this." I placed it in my prototype closet, in the "maybe come back to these some day" pile. I lost a few nights of sleep turning over and over in my head just what had gone wrong and how I could fix it. Did I mention I also suffer from insomnia? I've got a really fun physiology!
(Don't run away just yet — a mid-post turnaround is just about to happen, I promise!)
Getting Encouraged by Encouragement
Fast forward a short while to pre-Unpub 6 preparations. Unpub is one of my absolute favorite conventions of the entire year. For anyone who is unaware of it, Unpub is a convention that exclusively showcases unpublished games. It's the best. Trust me. I was packing up an armload of other prototypes when Kerry asked me, "Are you taking that library game you've been tinkering with?" As an explanation of why I wasn't planning to, I began to describe the gameplay a little bit. This led to teaching her how to play, which led to breaking it out to play a sample round, which led to playing an entire game. And another one. And another one.
Now, Kerry has played a LOT of my prototypes in varying degrees of polish. She's a great sport. I can usually work out pretty quickly when she is suffering through a crummy experience and when she thinks I am onto something. Her demeanor was unlike anything she had exhibited after previous playtests. "This was fun. You have to take this. At least play it with Alex (J. Alex Kevern) and Chris (Chris Bryan) and see what they think, but I really like it."
Here's the strange part: I really liked it, too! The experience was much closer to what I had intended in the first place, and I was able to connect with the gameplay and strategy much better when it was being bounced off a non-fictitious opponent. Turns out that board games tend to work better when you play them with other people! Who would've guessed?
My takeaway was to accept that solo-playtesting just isn't my forte. I have an incredible amount of respect for anyone who is able to do it, but recognizing your own limitations is an important step, I think. With Kerry's encouragement, I decided I would take Ex Libris with me after all.
The first day of Unpub (and every day, really) was a whirlwind. So many fun prototypes and great people. Seriously, go to Unpub. All day, Ex Libris buzzed in the back of my head, scratching at my brain. I had registered my other games in the event program, but Ex Libris sat in my bag, nagging me to be played. Before I knew it, the day was over and our little crew was headed back to the hotel room to crash. At some point on our walk through the streets of Baltimore, I asked whether Alex and Chris would be up for trying Ex Libris before bed, and they obliged.
These were (and are) two of my very good friends, but I went into that playtest with a fair amount of nerves. Teaching any game late at night to worn-out convention goers can be a really rough situation, and both of these guys were beat from a day of playtesting. We pulled a table between the beds of our hotel room, put on our pajamas, and took a crack at it.
In my opinion, observing your playtesters during gameplay is nearly as important as their responses and opinions afterward. If you're observant, you can pick up on the experience they're having. After a round or two of play, I started to notice everyone waking up a bit. I began to catch sly smiles and nodding glances between my opponents. Kerry (who is one of the world's best sleepers) was sitting up straight and poring over the cards in her hand. As we neared the end of the game, everyone cared about who might win.
It was a hit. I can't remember their exact feedback (my night-brain was too tapped to remember to make notes), but Alex and Chris both made it very clear to me that I had created something special. That I should be proud. That Ex Libris was good.
I slept like a baby. No insomnia for the happy game designer.
A Playtest Leads To a Pitch
The day after our late-night library session, Unpub continued as normal. Alex had the table directly behind mine and had an early pitch with Renegade Game Studios for what would end up becoming Sentient. They had shown immediate interest and left his table smiling and energized (which makes sense as I loved Sentient two turns into my first playtest). After congratulating him and talking a little shop, Alex said, "Oh, hey, I also told them they should definitely check out Ex Libris today if they had time."
Within a whirlwind few hours of exchanging phone numbers and coordinating plans, Scott Gaeta and Sara Erickson from Renegade were at my table, and I was nervously fumbling my way through a rules explanation. Playing the game was a blur. Again, I don't remember much from the playtest, other than a few questions were asked and I air-balled a few bad jokes. They were friendly and seemed like they enjoyed themselves, and before I knew it, we had shaken hands and they were gone.
I wasn't really sure how the whole thing went (or how it all happened, really). Publishers often play their interest close to the chest, which I appreciate. There's no point in getting a game designer's hopes up if you can avoid it. By the end of the day, though, Scott and Sara had swung back around my table to ask whether they could take a copy of my prototype home with them. So that's a good thing, right? Right?
Streamlining, Signing, and Special Assistants
After Unpub, I immediately put together another Ex Libris prototype — as I had given Renegade my only copy, whoops — kept playtesting with more and more people, and began streamlining. I took note of which locations were used the most, which were most often ignored, and which seemed cool, but weren't enticing enough or didn't work exactly as intended. Locations were axed and added, nerfed and nitpicked. It was (and still is) vitally important to shelve book cards in Ex Libris, but only a few of the early locations allowed you to do so. The number of cards in a player's hand occasionally slimmed to frustratingly few toward the end of the game. I needed more ways to get cards and more opportunities to shelve them.
The further I developed the game, the more fun I was having with it. It was scratching an itch that no other game in my collection could get to. I've heard game designers say, "Design the game you want to play", and I found myself always wanting to play it. Feedback from playtesters was clear and consistent. They were all having fun, and I was feeling great.
Then one evening as I was wrapping up work, I received an email from Scott Gaeta letting me know that they had been playing Ex Libris with their groups back home, that everyone had really been enjoying it, and that they wanted to offer me a publishing contract. I was ecstatic and let the whole world know via social media as soon as possible. You know, as you do.
Working with Renegade was a treat from the start, surprising no one who is familiar with Scott and Sara. The process was very collaborative, and they were receptive to letting me explore new ideas. The first of which was the addition of special assistants.
A peek at early notes and sketches of the special assistants!
To add further replayability to the game, each player would now have one worker with a unique ability attached to the meeple itself. Thematically, I wanted to tie those abilities to intriguing settings for the libraries. The Fire Imp comes from a volcanic library, for instance. The Gelatinous Cube hails from a dungeon library, of course. I feel like these variable player powers really put the game over the top. Each one adds a nice wrinkle and gives you the opportunity to explore different play styles from game to game. Luckily, Scott and Sara agreed, and special assistants became officially official during a meeting at Gen Con 2016.
You can really see the excitement on Scott Gaeta's face!
During the meeting, Sara pointed out a funny book title I had scribbled on one of the cards.
I responded, "Yeah, it'd be cool if every book had a unique title."
"Do you think you'd be able to come up with a title for every book?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think I probably could." I replied, not really thinking it all the way through.
A Battery of Book Titles
There are 152 book cards in Ex Libris. Across those 152 cards, there are 510 individual books. I got to work throwing all the wordplay and cleverness at the problem I could muster, but I quickly realized that it would be far more difficult than brainstorming a list of funny titles. Those titles had to correspond to the game's six categories, which needed to be equally represented in the deck. And since alphabetical order is important when you're shelving cards, the arrangement of this list of 510 book titles could potentially throw the balance between the categories off, even if they were all equally represented. If the majority of the "Monster Manual" titles clumped together alphabetically, they'd be less likely to be drawn than a category that was dispersed evenly across the entire list.
I'd inadvertently given myself a gigantic logic problem to solve. Luckily I love myself a challenging puzzle! Using a combination of multiple spreadsheets, spare cubes and discs, hundreds of squiggly lines, and the kind of free time you have when your significant other is in Vancouver for fourteen days on business, I somehow cracked it.
The incredible spreadsheet conundrum!
I'm extremely proud of the result. My hope is that players will discover new books every time they play, and that you'll have plenty to read and laugh at when your AP-prone friend's turn is taking way too long.
Enter the Artwork
When the time came to begin production, Scott ran a list of potential illustrators by me, and I jumped at the chance to work with Jacqui Davis. Before long, the oddball world I had imagined for this game was being brought to life by her amazing talent. She populated the locations with a diverse cast of charming townsfolk and captured the perfect mood.
And then there were the books. Jacqui's artwork came together so perfectly with the iconography I created and the typography I used for the book titles that I couldn't be happier.
Seriously, look at these sexy books!
The View From Here
I'm writing this the week before Ex Libris debuts at Gen Con 50 in Indianapolis. This has been such an incredible journey that it's a little overwhelming to approach the end — even moreso considering that if it weren't for my wife and friends, it may never have left the closet. I'm hoping it will connect with an audience that will love it and share it with their friends and family. There's a fair amount of buzz building behind the game, and I'm beyond excited that it is so highly anticipated.
Creating is hard. Brains are weird. Encourage creators.
Marry your best friend. Listen to trusted friends. Work with great people.
Design your dream game and share it with everyone.
The first time I worked on Slide Blast was when I was designing game projects that were called "games for beginners". These projects were created specifically for people who didn't have experience with board games. To create them, I started by looking at classic games and worked on adapting some of the mechanisms. I really wanted to do a tile-laying game, but I realized that unfortunately a lot of these games were already on the market.
I sought the help of fellow designer Samgoo Seo who was very interested in the project. He came up with a simple game design of tile placement with hexagonal tiles on which he had traced some roads. The game at this stage was too simple, so we didn't have any big expectations — but we liked the game play, so we started the project with this concept in mind.
The first prototype of the tile placement game
We went around board game stores and the BGG website to look out for similar games and took care to point out what issues those types of games had. Our prototype version was too easy to play, and it was hard for us to make it stand out. We tried to add more elements with many tests done over several weeks. There were several tiles which had to be changed and we made lots of scoring adjustments.
The next step was to find the right theme for the game to improve the player's immersions and fun. Among several concepts, we chose two themes: one was roller coasters, the other was waterpark slides. We were more inclined to choose the roller coaster theme at first — I'm a big fan of Rollercoaster Tycoon! — but we finally decided the waterparks were better as there are not a lot of games with that theme!
Scenes in the game similar to what I pictured in my head; the waterpark looked more lively and fun
At this stage, we were feeling confident with the game's development. Alas, we hit a wall that we had not thought of during our first playtests: "What happens if two players collide?" We realized that player collisions were going to be a considerable problem, and we did not find a solution to fix the issue right away. The game then fell down in my priority list and development stopped for a while.
During another playtest, as we were confronted with the issue once again, a friend of mine came up with an idea: "What if one player goes underwater to avoid the collision?" This made me think that players could possibly jump from one tile to another as a way to avoid the problem. The right solution came alive with the "lifeguard" tile that can be used by players to jump from one place to another in the waterpark. Not only did it make the game more balanced, but the theme was improved as well! I couldn't wait to show this game to publishers!
When I showed the game to Kevin Kim of Mandoo Games, he liked it very much and we were ready to get the game developed towards the final product!
The prototype submitted to Mandoo Games
During development, Kevin asked us to add more elements to the game to make it unique. However, we liked our easy set of rules and didn't want to make the game too complex. At this point, we added the big attraction tiles, which are the equivalent of connecting three tiles at the same time. These tiles gave playtesters the impression that they had something more powerful in hand. The artwork could also benefit from bigger tiles to make spectacular attractions! Kevin also suggested we add a tunnel tile similar to the lifeguard tile as this element added uniqueness to the design of the game.
Mandoo then contracted Christophe Swal, a French illustrator, to do the artwork for a great result in the end!
The first Slide Blast sketch by Christophe Swal
As we were getting near the end of the development, playtesters giving us feedback encouraged us to add a strategic element to the game. We carefully thought of a way to satisfy both families and gamers, and we added the bonus token rule: Each time a player helps another player extend their slide, the original player can take a bonus token that is added to their final score!
That's the story that led us to SPIEL in 2016 with more than one hundred copies sold on the second day — and we are just getting started with the game now being available in North America with FoxMind! I would like to thank my co-designer Samgoo, Kevin Kim of Mandoo Games, and Longshore for their support on this project.
Hope you enjoy the game!
One of the characters in Slide Blast; he looks a bit like me!
Daniel Skjold Pedersen
13 Minutes: The Cuban Missile Crisis is a two-player microgame with tough decisions released in early 2017 by Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games.
When the big brother to 13 Minutes — 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis — was released in 2016, Asger and I wrote a 13-chapter long designer diary. In that spirit, this piece will be 13 short, almost anecdotal stories of what 13 Minutes is and how it came to be.
1. What is 13 Minutes?
The 13-second pitch is that 13 Minutes is Love Letter meets 13 Days.
2. No, really, what is 13 Minutes?
The slightly longer story is that it is a two-player microgame set at the height of the Cold War during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In the game, you want to flex your superpower muscle and dominate battlegrounds, but — and there is a but — if you push your agenda too far you may trigger nuclear war, so be careful.
And did I say that you play only five cards per game, so each decision matters a lot?
3. Sitting by a pool
When 13 Days was funded on Kickstarter back in July 2015, I was vacationing in Italy. I celebrated by the poolside, but not with a glass of red wine as you would expect. In my hand I had 13 blank cards and 13 red and blue cubes and a pen.
Half an hour later, I had figured out how to translate the 13 Days experience into a microgame setting and sketched the basic cards for the first prototype of 13 Minutes.
Designing the easy 80 percent
4. Why 13 Minutes?
The idea of making a microgame version of a political card-driven game had been buzzing in the heads of both Asger and I for some time back then. We like to push game genres into new territories. 13 Days did just that as a 45-minute distillation of some of the nail-biting and tense moments from epic political games like Twilight Struggle.
13 Minutes is pushing that genre quite a bit more. We wanted to see whether it would float.
Stakes are high in 13 Minutes, which is no different from in 13 Days. The game is all about brinkmanship. It is a balancing act of cunning play and a tug-of-war of brute force.
You want to dominate battlegrounds to gain prestige, but each time you add influence to a battleground, you draw that card closer to your side of the table. Doing so is great because at the end of the game cards on your side will be all yours if no one dominates — but then again it is not great at all because all cards have a colored DEFCON symbol. If you end the game with three of the same color, you have triggered nuclear war and lost the game.
6. First origin
I use my notes app on the phone all the time, and a lot of that is for game-related stuff. For me it is a useful tool to get thoughts out of my head, but coincidentally it also allows me to track the first note I have for 13 Minutes. It goes:
13 Days with only 13 cards (and cubes). 5 US, 5 USSR and 3 neutral.
Played cards become battlegrounds.
Command: Add influence — move card closer to your zone. Remove influence — move card away from your zone.
Suspense: Endgame reveal — you may trigger nuclear war!
And then some more stuff that didn't end up in the game.
An early prototype when events were all symbols
7. Why so obsessed with the number 13?
As any designer can tell you, working under constraints often brings creativity. We set up constraints for ourselves all the time. Sometimes arbitrary ones (e.g., what if you couldn't talk?), but most often from experience (e.g., is that rule necessary?) or production concerns (e.g., we need to limit the components to one deck of cards).
With 13 Minutes, the framework was integral to the core idea. How could a microgame in the world of 13 Days ever have anything other than 13 cards as well as 13 cubes for each player?
8. Building a political world map
The "map" in 13 Minutes is an abstraction, but an important one that serves two main purposes.
First, it underlines the global nature of the crisis. In the beginning there is only Cuba — one battleground on the table. As you play cards and take actions, those cards become new battlegrounds. Though Cuba is still the most important battleground (as it's worth double prestige points), you learn that your resources are limited and will have to pick your fights with care.
9. A living DEFCON track
Second, the "map" is an evolving DEFCON track. Controlling cards left and right is not a problem until you consider the implications.
You are walking a tightrope. Too strong actions in one area may tip you over and be the final push to nuclear war.
10. How Cuba was born
Looking at the game now, one would think that the Cuba card — the sole face-down card — was introduced to the game by flipping a card to hide information. Actually, what happened was the reverse.
In the beginning, all cards were played face down to hide their DEFCON color. It was sort of a memory game inside the game that was totally unnecessary. Losses due to nuclear war would come at a higher rate in those early playtests, and players did not appreciate the lack of control. The obvious solution was to play cards face up, and thus Cuba was born to retain some uncertainty.
Note all the face-down cards on the table; Cuba is everywhere and nowhere
11. The devil is in the detail
What I am most proud about in the game are two details that enhance the core experience of brinkmanship.
I) The player who dominates the most military (orange) DEFCON cards at the end of the game gains 1 extra prestige. It is a little reward worth going for — but the deck contains one extra orange card, so the odds of going broke on DEFCON is considerably higher. Value and risk go hand in hand.
II) The Cuba battleground awards you 2 prestige, making it another reward you should fight for — but then Cuba will likely go into your sphere of influence and push you to play a more cautious game. Here again, value and risk go hand in hand.
12. So did we push it too far?
The first reviews suggest no. This is both pleasing and upsetting:
• Pleasing obviously because we want to make games for an audience that is larger than two.
• Upsetting because a part of me wanted to cross over that threshold. At least all this has sparked a new project that used to be a standing joke with us: 13 Seconds.
13. How to play
Are you tired of reading rulebooks? Dan King, also known as the Game Boy Geek, has done a most excellent "Rules School" video. I point all new players towards his instructions.
Have fun with the game!
Daniel Skjold Pedersen
The evolution of a cover; I am responsible only for the leftmost one...
For many players, the core game of Custom Heroes will be familiar. This is a climbing (or ladder-climbing) trick game, and there are many versions of this type of game; "President" was what my friends and I called our version growing up, and this used just a standard deck of cards. Before I was deep into the gaming hobby or had discovered that many climbing game variants already existed, I thought it would be nifty to make a game like "President", but with a "cool and different twist". As a novice designer, I tried unsuccessfully to pitch the game to publishers. The game, while fun, lacked a good hook or attribute that made it stand out from what I came to learn was a very crowded design space.
In 2013, I started working on a game that used what Alderac Entertainment Group is now calling the "Card Crafting System": Cards are in sleeves, and at the start of the game or during play one or more semi-transparent cards are sleeved with the cards; essentially, multiple layered parts are turned into a single card held together by a card-sleeve. The key here is that a card can be "crafted" with new powers and modifiers, while still functioning like a card, i.e., it can be shuffled, dealt, drawn, played, discarded, re-dealt, etc. and still retain all modifications.
One example of how a card might evolve over the course of a game
My original card-crafting game design was Edge of Darkness, a medium-weight, Euro-ish game that AEG licensed back in 2015. That game is now in the layout phase of production. I followed up that design with Mystic Vale, a light deck-building game released by AEG in 2016, then continued exploring the enormous amount of design space that the card-crafting system opened up.
It occurred to me that a relatively simple endeavor, yet potentially quite interesting, would be a merger of card crafting and climbing tricks. Take a classic game like Asshole with a symmetric deck of numbered cards, and add the ability to modify cards as they are played — the key being that all modifications on cards are retained such that the deck of cards dealt out in the second, third, and fourth hands will be increasingly different from what was dealt in the first hand. This idea didn't make for an exceptionally unique design like I sought to create with Edge of Darkness, but it did make for a pretty radical twist to the established climbing trick game system.
I wanted to keep the game approachable and fast-paced, so the variety of modifications players could apply to cards were kept simple, things like increasing or decreasing the value of a card, or turning a card into a wild or a trump. I experimented with more complex effects, like permanent abilities that players would keep from round to round, but the AEG guys felt this slowed the pace of the game and took the spotlight off the card crafting.
Numbers aren't the only thing that can change
For the strategy-inclined gamer, a key difference in Custom Heroes from other climbing trick games is the addition of resource management. Before each hand, players each draw a number of "card advancements": transparent cards that you can sleeve onto cards to modify them with a plus, minus, or text effects. Whenever you want, you may elect to sleeve an advancement onto a card in your hand and permanently modify that card. At the end of each hand, any advancements you didn't sleeve will still be available for the next hand; any advancements you did sleeve stay on the card, which is then randomly dealt for the next hand.
Wise use of advancements is usually the difference between winning or losing a hand. Conversely, ineffectual use of advancements means you are squandering resources that could have helped in future hands. Therefore, your decisions aren't just about doing the best in this hand, but about maximizing the power of your resources over multiple hands. Rather than blow all your resources for first place this hand, maybe settle for second place and fewer victory points (VP), but an advantaged position going into the next hand.
The card crafting also drives other major differences from more traditional climbing trick games. Numbers often start clumping, for example. In the first few hands, having four-of-a-kind is a big play. By the last couple of hands, you may see seven- or eight-of-a-kind, and your four-of-a-kind is no longer the powerful play it once was. Also, the power-numbers in the deck shift; 10s start the game as the highest numbers, but by the end of the game you might see three 12s beaten by three 16s. These and other dynamics make for a climbing trick game with a fresh feel, and in my experience, many shout-out-loud moments.
Three 7s? Try harder
The scoring system I went back and forth on for a while. It was important to have a scoring system that both kept the game length reasonable and kept all players in the running. I tried several different things, but ultimately ended up with a "win threshold" concept. Points are awarded for doing better each hand (e.g., the first person to play all their cards gets 5VP, the next player gets 3VP, etc.). To win the game, a player must get to 10 or more points, then get first place in a subsequent hand.
What this means is that even if you are trailing 12 to 0, if you get first place in a hand, you deny other players the ability to win the game and you force another hand. Eventually either someone has won or all players have 10 or more points, which leads to a final winner-take-all hand. This almost did what I wanted it to. Most games would end in the fourth, fifth, or sixth hand, which worked great. However, some games would push into seventh or even eighth hands — and by that point, the deck would start reaching a threshold where there were too many advancements on the cards; the game would slow down and overstay its welcome. I wanted to cap the length at six hands, but that meant that if you were too far behind going into the fifth or sixth hand, you were effectively eliminated.
At this point we had a game we really liked with one hiccup that affected maybe 10% of games. AEG CEO John Zinser and I hung out for a whole evening, brainstorming and playing. A lot of ideas were discussed, but when we hit on the right idea we knew it at once. Six hands would be the maximum number of regular hands. If at the end of the sixth hand, no player had yet won by conventional means, there would be a two-player championship hand in which the player with the most points and the player who won the sixth hand would face off head-to-head. This meant points were still crucial, but even if you were way behind, you still had a chance of stealing a shot at the title. Therefore, in the sixth hand all players have a chance, though the players with the most VP still have a better chance.
Hope that sounds interesting! I've certainly had fun with this little design. Happy gaming!
John D. Clair
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