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Designer Diary: From Medieval Traders to Indian Zamindars to Old Western Trains, or The Long Winding Journey of Whistle Stop

Scott Caputo
United States
Santa Clara
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How did a game originally about medieval merchants bringing tributes to various kings become a game about Old Western trains traversing the USA, supplying goods to boom towns? It's been quite the wild ride for sure.

It all began with a crazy idea: Could I make a tile-laying pick-up-and-deliver game? I was just coming off of the publication of my tile-laying game Kachina in 2009, so I was eager to make another tile-laying game but of a totally different type.

Tile-laying and pick-up-and-deliver? Those mechanisms seemed a bit at odds with each other. Sure, Steam has tiles in it, but you buy the tiles you want and place them where you want. I wanted a game in which you drew random tiles and built the board as you went, playing as medieval merchants who pick up goods and pay tribute to kings as they appeared on the board. My first game name was "Tribute".

But what if no kings appeared on the played tiles? Early on I realized I wanted to have some known goals at one end of the board that all players could work toward. These were kings who wanted a lot of goods, so players needed to plan carefully to gather all of the right items. There would still be a number of lesser kings mixed in with the normal draw stack that would come out randomly, and these kings generally wanted fewer goods. You scored points with each successful tribute.

What if you needed a good that wasn't on the board yet? I realized there needed to be a trading post where players could trade one good for another — yet scarcity was a good thing. I didn't want it to be too easy to get the goods you needed, so I decided there should be two classes of goods: common and rare with rare resources half as likely to appear on the tiles. A player would have to trade two common resources to get a rare resource.

I knew I wanted "crazy" tiles, tiles with lots of twisting paths much as in games like Tsuro and Metro. I love mazes, and I liked the idea that even building the routes you needed with these "crazy" tiles would be a challenge. The early tiles had arrows going all different directions. Every turn, each player would draw one tile and place it on the board where they wanted. Players had to follow the arrows. Arrows went either forward or up and down; players were not allowed to move backward.

I also knew I wanted players to control not one, but multiple traders, each of which could traverse different parts of the board. Each turn after playing a tile, players could move one trader. Players would need to decide which trader to move and players' traders would block each other. I didn't want players to have to remember which resources were collected by which traders, so I decided that all collected resources are available to all of your traders. This eliminated the need for elaborate bookkeeping.

I liked the idea that players could gain extra moves and store up extra moves for future turns. I called these food tokens. Players would be limited to how much food they could spend on their turn, but they could ration out the food as they saw fit. There would be an inn where players could gain these food tokens.

So what happened when players paid tribute to a king on the far end of the board? The player's trader would come off the board and be placed on a special bonus track where the player could receive free resources and food. It was strong incentive for players to reach the end of the board and when one player got all of their traders off the board, the game would end.

Players would start the game by placing their traders along one of twenty starting spots on the far right of the board. I quickly realized that players needed more reasons to place their traders, so I added another starting column, this one in the middle of the board which players could reach in a few turns. This column would start with an inn, a trading post, a couple of kings, and a few other tiles. In this way, players had both mid-term and long term goals to consider when placing their traders.

Somewhere around this time as I was playtesting, I got feedback that the theme didn't really make any sense. If the board was a map of Europe, how were there so many kings so close to each other? My dad did some research and proposed a startling idea: What if the game were set in India and the kings were zamindars, that is, Indian aristocrats? The unusual exotic theme appealed to me, so I decided to retheme the game.

I arrived at SPIEL 2012 to promote the release of my game Völuspá, and I brought four games to pitch to publishers, including "Zamindar", my newly rethemed "Tribute" prototype. Based on good advice from another game designer, I asked my publisher, White Goblin Games, for help in getting contacts at companies I wanted to meet. I ended up pitching "Zamindar" to KOSMOS, Ravensburger, Lookout Games, Argentum Verlag, and White Goblin Games. Several of them wanted to play a full game, and I remember fondly playing "Zamindar" in the SPIEL cafeteria while drinking a cup of tea, people walking by with plates of food, peering at the game we were playing. Both Lookout and White Goblin Games expressed interest, and I went home pleased that I had placed both copies of "Zamindar" with publishers.

After SPIEL, I got the most feedback from Lookout as they were definitely playing the game and seemed to enjoy it. They told me they were bringing the prototype to Nürnburg, where they would play all of the best prototypes to decide which games to publish. I was excited my game was in such serious consideration, but soon enough Lookout let me know they were passing on my game. From their perspective, there wasn't enough going on in the game, and the dominant strategy was to always go for the end goals as quickly as possible. White Goblin Games went dormant for a while, so both publication leads ended.

This led to the first round of soul-searching for the game. How good was this game? Could I really overcome Lookout's feedback? I got to work. First, I decided that there should be more incentive for players to make tributes to the zamindars in the middle of the board. Each of the eight "lesser" zamindars would have a unique crest. When you made a tribute to one of these zamindars, you received their crest. The player who collected the most crests would earn a large number of points, and players in second and third place would receive points as well.

Then I brainstormed a ton of new ideas for other types of tiles that could be in the game. Originally, I thought these extra tiles might be an expansion idea, but I realized the base game needed these new tiles. I came up with the stables tile that could give players a horse token, which was like a food token, except players could skip over other players or go backwards. I came up with the elephant tile that could give players an elephant token, a way to earn extra points for making tributes. There was also the Royal Court, where players could turn in their crests for points. Needless to say, the gameplay transformed with all of these new mechanisms.

I attended Protospiel San Jose in April 2014, showing off my newly revised "Zamindar" along with other games. I caught the eye of Victory Point Games, to whom I showed the design, but they had some concerns about the game length. The game ended once one player got all of their traders off the board. This variable ending condition could lead to longer games — sometimes over ninety minutes — and it certainly could lead to a feeling of drag toward the end.

At Protospiel, I also ran into Ted Alspach of Bézier Games, whom I knew from attending a local game convention year after year. I approached Ted and asked him whether he wanted to see my game. About a month later, I showed the game to Ted and Toni at Kublacon. I remember the session well. We played on the top floor of the hotel, a room with lots of windows filling the room with mid-day sun. Toward the end, Seth Jaffee walked by. He quickly picked up how the game worked and started making suggestions to Ted and Toni about "you can do this and this and then go there…" Within a few weeks, I heard from Ted that he wanted to sign the game, and I felt like it might be finally be done.

I quickly realized how wrong I was. First came an intense period of changes. Ted assumed the role of developer for the game. As Ted likes to say, I had a created a train game; I just didn't know it yet. I was open to the new theme of Old Western trains, so I set about thinking of new names and metaphors for all of the game components: Player would control trains, not traders. They'd use coal to move, not food. They'd deliver to towns, not zamindars. They collected stock, not crests. They gained whistles, not horses. They found gold instead of elephants. They brought their stock to the stock market, not their crests to the royal court. It all fit together pretty well.

Next came development on the tiles. The arrows had to go. I had a feeling the arrows were too busy. First, Ted tried long rectangular tiles, but that still seemed overwhelming to players, so he suggested hex tiles.

This reduced the number of paths per tile from 8 to 6. I was worried this might limit mobility and the maze-like feeling I wanted, but this change ended up working fine. I still got to have some pretty crazy twisty paths even on the hex tiles. Also, Ted added blank tiles (i.e., tiles with no stops on them) which turned out to be really useful in letting players move their trains further down the board.

In the prototype, players got a free move, then could spend coal to make two extra moves, but Ted didn't like the two types of movement in the game. Instead, he proposed that players receive two coal on every turn to do their normal moves as well. Players also got to start with three whistles, so they could avoid getting blocked by other players.

In order to address the game length issue, I first suggested that once the board was completely filled with tiles, there would be a maximum of five more turns. This involved giving the start player a special marker that they would need to flip over, after which they would keep track of the final five turns. This was an improvement over the old ending condition, but it involved too much bookkeeping for the start player and felt less streamlined.

Ted suggested the game should take a set number of turns, and he thought the supply of coal could work as the timer. A trail of piles of coal tokens signaled which turn the game was on. On each turn, players took all of the coal off one pile. The working title was "Western Steam", and it seemed to really be coming together.

I had to go to London for a business trip in January 2015, so I brought "Western Steam" to a Meetup event by the London On Board group and they seemed to really enjoy it. Drinking a pint of beer and eating a hearty plate of fish and chips while playing the game in the quaint upstairs of a pub, I felt like the game development might finally be done.

Ted decided to do a blind playtest of "Western Steam" with a group of gamers at Yahoo in March 2015. I posed as another playtester, but I was in charge of explaining the rules. I was hopeful, but my hopes were quickly dashed as the other playtesters at the table completely trashed my game. Nobody enjoyed it. One said there was literally no game in the box. They struggled to say anything good about my game. Afterward, Ted said he had never experienced such a harsh playtest. Ted was still committed to the game, but he said it was up to me to make changes so that it could pass the same test again. Gulp.

Thus came the second round of soul-searching about the game — even deeper this time. Maybe I couldn't make this game work. Maybe I would fail. Though the criticism from the blind playtest hurt, I had to listen to the underlying complaints and try to address them. They seemed to boil down to 1) not enough player interaction and 2) not enough meaningful decisions.

I had some ideas of how to address the first point. Many parts of the game were too nice. If players tied for the most stocks, they shared the points. Effectively, most people could gain some points from the stocks without working too hard. Also, players started with three whistles, so they were never really blocked. Both of these parts needed to change. I changed the stock scoring so that there was a separate score for each stock type and only the top player received the points — no ties! To accomplish this, I numbered the stocks 1 through 6, and if two players tied, the player with the lower stock number would win. In this way, players needed to pay attention to which stocks other players were collecting. Also, I reduced the number of starting whistles to one to make players sweat a little more and have trouble getting around opponents.

I belong to the League of Gamemakers, and one benefit of the League is being able to rely on the collective knowledge and expertise of its members. I met up with Teale Fristoe, a fellow Leaguer and designer of Corporate America, in the summer of 2016, and he proposed the most important change yet. From the beginning of the design, players were forced to play a tile every turn, and that was part of what the playtesters at Yahoo didn't like. Being forced to play a tile every turn may not help you. and it slowed the game down, too. Teale suggested that players should play a tile only when they need to, as in only when their train would go down a path with no endpoint. I loved this idea. This changed everything. Players moved their trains every turn, but they played tiles only when they really wanted to go somewhere off the edge of the board. I allowed players to play multiple tiles at once so that they could potentially move a train a long distance on one turn, something that was never possible before in the game.

I went back to Ted saying I had fixed the game, but Ted wasn't so sure. He still wanted more. He wanted more ways to use resources. What if players could trade in resources to do various actions like trading? I admit I initially hated the idea. It seemed overly complex, but then it inspired a variation of his idea. What if players could hire workers who gave them a special action or ability? Once hired, these workers would stay with the player, who could use their benefit turn after turn until they were hired away by another player. That seemed fun. In my initial prototype of this idea, I had characters like the Coal Loader, who let players turn in a coal for more coal, and the Store Owner, who let them gain any token they wanted. Soon, I had twelve characters, each with interesting powers and some of them highly interactive. The Outlaw, for example, forced other players to pay the Outlaw's player to leave a town.

The addition of these workers seemed to kick the game into an even higher level of fun and strategy. Every game would have a random set of workers available. They added variety and another way for players to build their own path to victory. Ted opted to turn the workers into upgrades, and all of the powers were themed around different railroad cars, objects, or buildings.

When Ted played the new version with the new tile-laying rules and the upgrades, I could tell by the smile on his face that the game might finally be done. We did another blind playtest, this time at his house with another group of gamers. Again, I sat in and this time at the end of the playtest, everyone at the table seemed to really like the game, giving an average rating of 8. That felt good.

To give a little more praise for Ted, the first pass of the art was more realistic, featuring gritty landscapes like traditional train games, and he rightly decided it wasn't the right look for the game. Eventually, he decided on a more whimsical direction, with brighter colors and cheerful tokens. (Those whistle-shaped whistle tokens are very cute.) He also came up with the final game name: Whistle Stop.

I'm grateful for all the help I received along the way in Whistle Stop's six-year development. I'm glad the version I submitted to Lookout Games did not get picked up and the version I blind playtested at Yahoo did not get made. As fellow Leaguer and game designer Luke Laurie likes to say, "Good games take time." I feel like that has been true with Whistle Stop, and I'm very proud of the final version.

Scott Caputo

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Tue Jul 25, 2017 6:40 pm
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Designer Diary: Sherlook, or Not Sherlock — Spot the Difference!

Silvano Sorrentino
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Everything started back in 2013, at the end of October, soon after the yearly SPIEL game fair in Essen, Germany. I was chatting about Dobble's great success with Roberto Corbelli, CEO of dV Giochi. Dobble has many perks: It's extremely easy to explain; it quickly allows the players to check who won a given round; it's unpredictable due to the random combination of cards in play; and it can be played by many players at once. I, too, wanted to write something as accessible as that, so I started working on several ideas, trying to focus on graphic elements as one of the main components of the game mechanisms.

I recall the eureka moment: I had loads of colored pieces of paper and cards, looking for a use, scattered about on my extremely messy desk, and I stopped to look at two identical cards. What if they had not been totally identical?

Did someone already come up with a game in which the player must spot slight differences between two illustrations? It's a rhetorical question: Of course they did. This is a well-known game, in Italy as well as abroad, appearing on countless game magazines, including extremely popular ones such as La Settimana Enigmistica, which has run it weekly for decades.

It would have been interesting to have a never-ending "Find the Differences" game in which one could always find a given number of differences between two randomly selected cards. In a couple of days, I had found a technical solution to this effect, one that I will discuss later. There still was another Dobble characteristic that I wanted to reproduce: The way in which one could instantly find out who had won a hand. A game in which the players must spot differences was not ideal for this because the control phase would have been too slow. I decided to base the game on the count (or the estimate) of the number of existing differences.

The first draft of the idea was called "Almost". Drawing is not my forte, so I decided to create a prototype with pixel art. I found apt images from my favorite TV series, Doctor Who, on and prepared a prototype deck of cards of "Almost: Doctor Who" (with my best regards to BBC solicitors!) to show would-be publishers that the game could easily be adapted to any license.

The game was based on an extremely simple idea: Picking two random cards, there are N differences between them. Try looking for them here:

Turning the cards, you discover the position and the number of these differences:

The rules of this first prototype were minimal: The players would look at the two cards, and one of them could stop the round in any moment, giving their estimate. A player, for example, could say "Almost 3!", stating that they thought there are approximately three differences between the images. If the player was exactly right, they could take two cards. If they were almost right, e.g., the estimate was one less than the real answer, they could take only 1 card. If they were wrong, i.e., in any other case, they had to give one card to the player on the left and one card to the player on the right. The game would continue until the deck was exhausted, after which the player with the most cards won.

The first round of playtesting was… well, a disaster. The starting idea was good, but its realization — glossing over the issue of "placeholder" graphics — left a lot to be desired. The main flaws were:

d10-1 The round cards were too small, which made it difficult to spot the differences.
d10-2 The player with the cards in front of them had an unfair advantage against those on the other side of the table.
d10-3 Each round of the game lasted either too long (waiting for someone to talk) or too little (when players with few points tried to answer randomly, having little or nothing to lose).
d10-4 The cards, even with all their little differences, looked "all the same", making for a repetitive and boring game after a while.

Crime Scene

During the 2013 Christmas holidays, I thought the game over, with its pros and cons. I became increasingly convinced that the basic idea had to be developed better and that all the various issues could be solved. I also realized that if the game were to be proposed to a publisher, its strong focus on illustration demanded the help of an artist.

Luckily, I knew an excellent illustrator: cartoonist Benny Gemma, whom I had already worked with for the production of both my Globetrotter game and a series of illustrated mysteries for a renown puzzle magazine, a relationship that had lasted every week for over an year. The protagonist of these mysteries was the brilliant Inspector Crosby, one of our original creations. It must have been for this reason that, reasoning with Benny, I came up with a theme that seemed perfect.

The images of the game had to depict a scene of crime, seen from above. In the middle of the scene, a chalk outline of the corpse, with several objects scattered around it, the result of a messy fight. Benny has a humorous style, and the scene would have never looked gory.

The first sketch drawn by Benny Gemma

The cards would have been bigger and more detailed, about the size of a photograph; we could have added many funny or quirky items; the blank corpse in the middle added a bit of space to the image, so that it no longer looked like a random assortment of objects. What's more, now that the scene was shown from above, there would be no impression of being on the wrong side of the card if you were sitting on the other side of the table.

For a couple of months, between working commitments and other duties, Benny and I worked together to create a set of forty cards; this seemed like the ideal number to have enough variety while allowing us to play on the differences. On the back of each card, one could find up to five differences. Thus, in this version of the game, there were between one and ten differences between two random cards.

Two cards from the prototype, drawn by Benny Gemma

The work was really easy because it was based on a non-trivial scheme in which I indicated the changes to make on each card for each box of the grid. "What's this grid?", you might ask. It is the basis of the mechanism that makes the game work, together with the "template" card. In order to explain it, let's create two cards for a hypothetical "Almost BoardGameGeek".

Let's start creating a grid. The cards are really small in this example, so a 3x3 grid will suffice.

Let's then design the "template card": It must have drawings on about half the boxes of the grid, with drawings being allowed to occupy more than one box. Starting from this card, we can design other cards by adding, subtracting, or modifying objects.


d10-1 The template card.
d10-2 We added the chess king and subtracted the die.
d10-3 We modified the meeple (turning it upside down), modified the diamond sign (turning it into a heart sign and moving it), and added a Go stone.

As we create new cards, the differences among these and the template are shown on the boxes of a common grid. The modifications to the new cards must be made on different boxes:

The result is the creation of the first two cards of the BGG edition of the game:

On the back of these cards we have something like this:

The back shows at a glance the total number of differences between these two cards (a number equal to the total number of green circles — five in this case) and their location. Note the little trick: We have effectively shown the differences between these two cards while we actually marked the differences between each card and the template.

Coming back to our story, I now had a prototype with forty richly illustrated cards. During the development, however, the new "crime" theme had inspired me to come up with another improvement on the first prototype. Instead of interrupting a round as soon as a player gives their estimate of the number of differences, now there are ten evidence markers in play, numbered 1 to 10.

Each player can take one at any time, and once they have, they cannot change their mind. Points are awarded to those who guessed correctly, or (if no guess was right) to those who came closest, whether high or low.

In addition, in order to add variety, I added a special die whose faces showed the position in which the cards should have been tiled for the current round:

* Lined up next to one another (like the "Find the Differences" puzzles)
* Placed opposite one another
* Tiled by the short side
* Thrown randomly on the table (!)

With these materials and a score track, the new prototype looked good in its box. The old title, "Almost", wasn't representative of the game anymore, so I renamed it "Crime Scene". I then started to print, cut, and pack the cards and the various game pieces. The best opportunity to show the game would be at SPIEL in October 2014. I had appointments with some publishers that might be interested in producing it, not knowing that a disturbing surprise and a great stroke of luck were just around the corner.


As usual, the months leading to SPIEL flew away fast. Time reserved for game developing was never enough, curtailed as it was by day-job deadlines and hard-earned vacation time. I was trying to test "Crime Scene" thoroughly with various friends and with members of Finibus Terrae, a game association and shop in my town.

It was then that a friend gave me a piece of news that made me groan: BGG's "Gone Cardboard" had featured a game by Christophe Boelinger called Difference, coming out for Gigamic. The game seemed to have something in common with mine. Worse still, the game was a new edition of a design from 2010 published by Z-Man Games called What's Missing. During the creation process, I had looked on BGG for games similar to mine, but I had focussed on obvious keywords such as "spot", "difference", "appears", and others.

I... ehm... had completely missed What's Missing!

Boelinger's game and mine definitely had an idea in common: In Difference, choosing two cards at random, one can find differences between them. In that game, the differences are always exactly two. It was therefore clear that the author had started, like I had, from a template card, then designed other cards with only one difference in each of them. The players of the game had to find, as quickly as they could, the two differences between the card on the table and the card they have in hand.

For a bit, the news discouraged me. The two games seemed too similar. Then, all things considered, I realized that they shared only one common idea, namely trying to answer this question: How do you create a "Find the Differences" game that can be played indefinitely?

From there, Boelinger and I diverged in our approaches. His is a pure "difference game" based on spotting and reporting the differences, while mine is more similar to an "auction game". It's not necessary to list the exact differences between the two cards as long as one gives an estimate of their number. In my opinion, this fact was the basis of having an original game, even compared to the classic "Find the Differences".

Armed with this conviction, I did what professional courtesy dictated: I wrote to Boelinger, explaining the genesis of my game and sending him the rules. He very politely replied that the two games could coexist peacefully, but he urged me to seek a second opinion from Gigamic. The publisher quickly answered my query, giving me a cordial and encouraging reply. They had compared the rules of the two games and judged that the only similarity (the "Find the Differences" core idea) was actually in the public domain. For the rest, they had found Difference and "Crime Scene" to be profoundly distinct.

Isn't it ironic that we spent time looking for differences in two "Find the Differences" games? Anyway, that's why Christophe Boelinger and Gigamic are thanked in the manual.

I was back in the saddle, but before I could fully concentrate on SPIEL in October, there was another fair fast approaching. It was much (much!) smaller, but just as important as far as I was concerned. September 2014 would have seen the third edition of BGeek, the comic and game fair of my city Bari, located in the Puglia region in southern Italy. The main guest of the game section was Spartaco Albertarelli, the author of games like Kaleidos, Coyote, Magnifico, and several official variants of the classic Risk! (S.P.Q.Risiko!, FutuRisiko!, Risiko! Master, etc.). Spartaco had worked extensively with Editrice Giochi, the publisher that had introduced in Italy classics like Clue and Dungeons & Dragons, and it had been just a little over a year since he had founded his publishing house, KaleidosGames.

Spartaco's timetable at BGeek was rather busy, with several meetings on different themes. In one of them, he discussed the synergy between board games and video games. On that occasion, Spartaco talked about some of the issues of a video game adaptation of his iconic Kaleidos game, which is based on the careful observation of rather rich and elaborate images. One of the problems was to create a wide variety of different images, featuring objects shown in perspective, while avoiding "collisions" of said objects. As Spartaco talked, I thought a possible solution couldn't differ too much from the "grid" I had used with "Crime Scene", and I told him I could show it to him.

So, the next day, bringing Spartaco back to the hotel, we played a couple of rounds of "Crime Scene" and... boom! He immediately liked the game so much that he considered the possibility of publishing it under his KaleidosGames label, which until then had released only games designed by him. I told him that I would have loved the arrangement, but I was already going to show the game to other publishers. Spartaco wished me luck, saying he expected me to sign a contract when still at SPIEL.

Ever since I've met him, that's the only prediction he made that turned out wrong. Everyone liked the game in Essen, but for various reasons no deal got through. The last rejection came a few months after the end of the fair. Strangely, I felt relieved; my hands weren't tied anymore, and I could go back to work with KaleidosGames.

The protagonists of the game were now police inspectors who are glancing at a picture, so I decided to change the title to "Blinkspector". Spartaco reluctantly accepted the change. To be fair, nobody really liked it, not even me… but for the moment it stuck.


Due to various real life contingencies, it took a whole year to see any further progress. I met Spartaco again during SPIEL 2015 and, together, we reasoned on how to produce the game. The outlined production team was nothing short of phenomenal, with Chiara Vercesi and Paolo Vallerga to focus on graphics and visual design of the game. Chiara started to draw the final version of the cards from the prototype design (a necessary step, given the structure of the game), while Paolo took care of the rest: cover, game pieces, rule booklet, etc.

One of the actual cards of the game, illustrated by Chiara Vercesi

Spartaco really disliked one of the rules of "Blinkspector": If a player guessed the correct number of differences, they were the only one who scored points that round. Running the game with six players and counting on having only ten rounds in the whole game, this rule was frustrating for those who couldn't get any points for several rounds, despite begin close to the correct answer. As editor (and publisher), Spartaco asked me to sort out this problem. I was also to remove the die from the game as it caused too much unpredictable randomness.

I once heard Reiner Knizia giving really good advice to game designers: "If you have two problems, try to find one solution that works for both." With three days of relaxation in a wellness center in Salento, I managed to find that kind of solution.

The new rules of the game stated that three medals — worth 1, 2 and 3 points — would be up for grabs in each round, and the 3-point medal (drawn at random) would show how the cards should be displayed during that round, giving the same variation previously obtained with the use of the die. With this method, we could control how many rounds of each type there were — we decided upon two of each of the five possible layouts — making sure that the right amount of variety was achieved in every game.

The new scoring system assigned:

* A red medal (1 point) to the player who guessed closest to the right answer, but was higher.
* A yellow medal (2 points) to the player who guessed closest to the right answer, but was lower.
* A green medal (3 points) and any unassigned red or yellow medal to the player who guessed correctly.

This system, while simple, had a number of positive effects on the game. You may have noticed, for example, that those who approach the right answer but are too high earn fewer points than those who approach it from below; this happens because if between two cards there are, say, six differences, one thing that might happen is that a player sees four or five differences and gambles on there being a few more and taking the 7 or a higher number. In this case, it is obvious that at a certain point we just guessed. If we came close to the truth, we are good, but we do not deserve a hefty prize.

The correct answer earning the unassigned medals was a nice idea that came to Spartaco while talking on the phone. This gives a bigger prize to those who win the rounds in which the solution is at the extremes (i.e., 1, 2, 9 or 10 differences), which are the most difficult to guess right. Furthermore, this solution made giving the exact estimate more desirable, granting up to 5 points (3 + 2) to the correct player. At the same time, the rules discouraged random answers, allowing for a more tense game.

The most attentive investigators among you have noticed that the tokens had now acquired a yellow hat with an unmistakable shape. The reason was obvious: the name "Blinkspector" didn't win any sympathy from anyone, and we all decided that a catchier name was needed. Staff brainstorming led to several suggestions:

C.S.EYE: Nice pun, unfortunately lost on non-Anglophones
Photocop: Again, a nice play on words between photo, cop and photocopy, due to any given card being almost identical to the others
• Police Line, Do Not Cross: Obviously too long, but it would have been nice to have a box with this title on a yellow ribbon running through its entire length
Luminol: Sounds good, but it is actually not too relevant to the game
• And finally... Sherlook!


I must say that I am really proud of coming up with this title, being a great fan of the Sherlock BBC series (just as much as I am of Doctor Who... remember the origins of the game?). The play on words, suggesting a detective who looks — it is SherLOOK, in case you missed it! — immediately won everyone's heart. The final graphic design of the game started from this new and definitive title. Chiara Vercesi drew some sketches of the cover, each better than the previous one. I'll show you only four of my favorites below.

All of the mock covers were evocative, but in the end we decided to choose the one "displaying" the game better, the one with the two pictures on which the detective is working. Starting from that idea, Paolo Vallerga cast one his spells and pulled out this cover and this logo, hitting the bull's eye, as far as I'm concerned.

The work on the graphics of the game would deserve its own little diary, penned by the three talented illustrators (Benny, Chiara and Paolo) but lacking that, I invite you to look for the many little classy touches that Paul hid in his illustrations. For example, can you find the five references to Sherlock Holmes hidden in the logo of the game?

This story is almost over, even if the actual making and final playtesting took another year, and we didn't manage to complete it on time for SPIEL 2016. The game will be out very soon, anyway, and I want to salute those of you who have endured this long article with one last little secret.

As you may recall, the playtest of "Almost" had been a disastrous affair, and one of the flaws of the original prototype was that the images were too similar, soon boring the players. How did we solve this problem in Sherlook, which contains forty cards that look "almost" identical? Benny and I had the idea of placing many small inside jokes on the cards in order to keep the viewer's attention up and to entertain those who wanted to try to find them.

As an example, take a look at a snippet from these two cards. The first image shows a stain of blood, but... are we sure it actually is blood? The second image, apart from removing the nose profile from the silhouette of the victim, shows a fallen bottle of red wine. No blood spilled in this game then!

Actually, a careful examination of all the cards in the game may suggest to you that there is not even a real victim! And who knows, perhaps, as you play, you will notice that there are:

d10-1 Multiple references to a renowned board game
d10-2 A single reference to another board game that's extremely famous in Italy
d10-3 An artistic, surrealistic reference
d10-4 A veiled allusion to a 1988 videogame
d10-5 An acknowledgement to a great football team
d10-6 A bad joke that risked being censored
d10-7 A belated cure
d10-8 A play on words for musicians
d10-9 The initial of the main suspect
d10-0 And, last but not least, a quote from Doctor Who, to go full circle and go back to "Almost"

I wanted to write these designer's notes mainly to thank all of those who contributed to help Sherlook see the light. A game such as this one, in which graphics and game design are so closely entwined, just couldn't be produced without the help of Benny Gemma, Paolo Vallerga, and Chiara Vercesi. I would like to give them my full appreciation, and to thank all of those who had fun playing with me and beating me almost every time (after initially saying, "All right, we'll play, but you know all of the cards… you'll win for sure!").

The story of the design of this game has been a long one, and if I didn't risk boring you, I could add many more anecdotes to the ones I shared here, but now there's no time. There's a case to solve, and two pictures of the crime scene with revealing details. Take your pipe and hat, Sherlook: The game is afoot!

Silvano Sorrentino

P.S. Thanks to Simon Mas for the translation into far better English than mine!
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Wed Jul 19, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Stroop, or Coaxing a Game out of an Established Phenomenon

Jonathan Chaffer
United States
Grand Rapids
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Grand Rapids Area Boardgamers
Some things are far more obvious in retrospect. Such is the design of Stroop, a speedy perception card game with simple rules.

Psychological Origins

I can't remember exactly when I first saw a Stroop test. I feel like it was the kind of thing I would have encountered in a GAMES Magazine issue pilfered from my mom's bedside stand. I do recall being delighted by the idea and making flashcards with markers and note cards to test myself and my friends. Throughout the following years I saw it referenced time and again, most notably in the briefly-popular Brain Age game for the Nintendo DS.

The Stroop test is simple. A subject is presented with a series of words, each printed in a different color. The subject is then asked to quickly speak aloud the names of the colors in which the words are printed, and they are timed during this task.

Next, the subject repeats this task, but this time the words are the names of colors, instead of being random words.

This causes the subject to stumble and take longer to complete the task. The experiment demonstrates the Stroop effect, named after psychologist John Ridley Stroop, and shows that the interference between different systems in the brain — in this case, language and color recognition — can slow down both systems.

From Experiment to Game

Flash forward to 2013 when I was in the midst of brainstorming ideas for new tabletop games to develop, and I randomly stumbled across the Wikipedia page for the Stroop effect. This led to the immediate question: Could this be a game?

Now Brain Age had used the Stroop effect in its simplest and most obvious form. It was not really a game, but rather an activity at which you could improve; you were timed on how quickly you responded to the colors and given a score that you tried to improve upon the next time.

The clear way to transform this into a card game was to do exactly the same, but with multiple players. I would print the names of colors onto cards, with ink colors that didn't match. Then players would run through the deck like flashcards, saying the colors out loud and being timed on their effort.

Even before physically prototyping this, it was instantly an unsatisfying implementation. For one thing, a speed contest such as this is usually uninteresting. It is a solo experience that people happen to compare their efforts on, which is something I can enjoy at times but rarely gravitate toward.

But the bigger problem is that the Stroop test can be defeated. Once a subject knows what they are being asked to do, they can use techniques, like squinting, that make the words harder to read, which makes saying the names of the colors much easier. I certainly didn't want players to be able to circumvent the challenge in this way, or worse, to have to make rules against squinting!

Chain, Chain, Chain

The key to cracking this problem was, as is usually the case in design, to come up with the correct incentives for the behaviors I wanted. Need players to read the text and not just squint at blurry colors? Don't make a rule telling them to do read it. Instead, force them to use the text for something.

What purpose could reading the color name serve, then? The clear choice was to link the name of this color up to the color of another word. This forms a nice chain of words, each of which describes the next one.

Exploring Attributes

For the first Stroop prototype, I lifted wholesale the rules of 7 Ate 9, a speed game involving simple arithmetic. Players would race to get rid of their cards by playing onto a central pile, and legal plays consisted of any card that was described by the center one.

In broad strokes, this worked as a game, but it had some issues. The biggest one was the number of potential legal plays on a given card; with eight colors, as in my first prototype, one in eight cards are legal to play. This turned out to be far too small. Iteration revealed that anything smaller than about one in five cards being legal made the game grind to a halt. Shrinking the color space this much, though, made the deck homogeneous and uninteresting.

The solution to this was to introduce additional axes for card descriptors. Aside from color, what else could be used to describe these words? The original Stroop psychology experiments included some other ideas, such as the position of words, but these did not tend to lend themselves to card designs. Instead, I experimented with typography and decided I could easily distinguish the case of a word and could outline it or not.

This was an improvement, but one more axis was needed to flesh out the deck. Some brainstorming surfaced the idea of counting the letters in the words themselves. To make this work, I needed to finesse my color choices, and settled on the following word list:


The final list had the very nice property that each word has 3, 4, 5, or 6 letters, and there are three words of each of those lengths. This meant that, at minimum, one in four cards were legal plays on a given center card.

The Round 2 Head Trip

The 2013 prototype was workable, but the game came into its own in the run-up to Protospiel Michigan in 2014. As my testers began getting very fast with the existing rules, I began looking for ways to provide variants and new challenges. The winner was to reverse the legal play rule: Instead of playing a card that is described by the card in the middle, players now had to read the words on the cards in their hands, and play one that describes the middle card.

The fun of the game is in players getting confused, and how better to confuse people than to switch up the rules midstream? The variant became codified as round two: After the first round is over, scores are recorded and players began anew, with the altered rule for legal plays.

The rules were then simplified to reduce the need for a scoring mechanism. Instead of keeping score, I realized that performance in round one could be used to handicap round two. After round one, players keep their unplayed cards, and the played cards are redistributed evenly, so the better a player performs in round one, the fewer cards they have to get rid of in round two. This neatly determines an overall winner without the need for scorekeeping.

Deck Composition

The possible combinations of attributes could yield a total of 192 cards: 12 words x 4 colors x 2 sizes x 2 patterns. This deck was clearly overkill, so for my working prototype I used half of these combinations, chosen so that exactly half of the cards were big, exactly half solid, exactly one-fourth red, and so on.

I went to some lengths to retain this balance throughout development. When green letters turned out to be difficult to distinguish from blue and yellow in some lighting (and as I endeavored to serve colorblind players as well as possible), I moved to black letters mostly because "black" and "green" both have five letters.

My insistence on a balanced subset of cards turned out to be a bit superstitious; once the card distribution was defined, it could be altered a bit from perfect symmetry without anyone noticing. The final deck has 65 cards, enough for a four-player game, and is slightly uneven without an effect on gameplay.

One improvement in the composition was removing as many "self-describers" as possible. It turned out that players had a reduced challenge in dealing with cards that happened to describe themselves, e.g., a blue card that reads "blue". The final deck has no cards of this type, with the notable exception of the word "four" which inherently describes itself. Now the "run of fours" that can happen in a game just gives a bit of fun texture to the proceedings.

Experiments Along Further Axes

The twelve-word list is enough for most players for quite some time, but I also put some effort into ideas for further expansion to keep the game fresh for as long as possible. Heather Newton gets credit for the seed of the idea for the expansion included in the game box, which features cards with backwards text:

Some other experiments have proved less successful, but fun nonetheless. Never will a typographer squirm so much as if you show them the following card:

Gone Cardboard

And now Stroop is in print! The journey isn't over for me, though, as I'm actively working on variant rules for less stressful games and figuring out what it means to translate this game into a foreign language when word lengths are such an integral aspect of play.

I hope you'll enjoy this tiny brain-twister of a game!

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Mon Jun 12, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: New York Slice, or Today's Pizza Originated in San Marco

Jeffrey Allers
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When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie…

In this case, it wasn't a celestial object that struck me; it was Alan Moon. Fifteen years ago, I had officially entered the boardgaming hobby here in Germany, and I was playing catch-up with a steady diet of Knizia, Kramer, Teuber, and (especially) Moon. When I began to design my own games, this prolific quartet of the "German school" of streamlined "themed abstracts" were my inspiration.

I enjoyed playing most of Moon's games, with one of those being San Marco, co-designed with Aaron Weissblum. I thought it was a brilliant marriage of the pie-division problem with an area majority game, but the division part was possible only for 2-3 players. In fact, I almost preferred their two-player variant of the system — the tiny card game Canal Grande — to its beautiful board game parent, because even with three players, downtime was an issue.

I wondered whether it was possible to make a pie-division game that was accessible by more than 2-3 players. I thought about this off and on for a long time. Years passed and I would churn ideas through my head in those in-between times when I was on my bike, in the shower, on the subway, or drifting off to sleep at night. (Some people count sheep; I "count" game mechanisms.)

One of the issues that held me back was finding an appropriate theme. Then, quite suddenly, I had one of those revelations of the obvious, like an apple falling on my head to remind me of the power of gravity. Why not make a pie-division problem about…pies?

Suddenly, everything fell into place. It would be a set-collection game, with different types of pies worth varying amounts of points if you had the most at the end of the game; the more valuable pies would also appear with greater frequency, making it more difficult to collect a majority. To reduce downtime, the slices of the pie would be have to remain in the same order that they were revealed.

I also wanted another choice, another option to score points and a dilemma to add more tension to the game. Instead of collecting a slice, players had the option of "eating" them (i.e., flipping them over); the player would receive guaranteed points from these slices, but they would not be counted for the end-game majorities. That was it. Fifty-five slices, and five pies later, I tested the game to immediate success. It was the first and last time my battle-hardened playtesters were satisfied on the first run-though, and it did not take long to secure a contract for what would become the best-selling game of my modest career: Aber bitte mit Sahne, Piece o' Cake, Una pointe de Chantilly, Sla je Slag (room)

The pies looked great on a table in a café and always attracted a crowd. Gamers found it to be an appropriate "filler", and best of all, scores of my friends who do not play games enjoyed it as well.

Making Games in a "Cult of the New" Industry

For better or worse, the industry has changed dramatically since I entered the hobby. Gamers have always been excited about new games, and a sharp increase in game publishers has met the demand. Admittedly, this has probably helped me find publishers for my game designs, giving me more options — but it also means that very few games remain in a publisher's catalogue for more than a couple of years. Thus, it was inevitable that sales for Piece o' Cake would eventually decline and the game would disappear from the original publisher's catalogue.

The upside to the current state of the industry, however, is that a good game can be published again, sometimes with a new theme and even new variants. With this in mind, I began shopping the game around again after it was off the market for a few years.

Shortly after releasing the original game, the publisher asked me to brainstorm ideas for an expansion to include in Spielbox magazine. Because the original game was so streamlined, it was quite easy to come up with multiple ways of adding new twists and variety to the game. The Joker Slice was chosen for the magazine: a slice that could be added immediately to any other flavor or eaten for 2 points.

The other expansions included combination slices that would count as a ½ slice for two different flavors, and slices with special actions or end-game bonuses on them, such as "You receive 1 bonus point for every different flavor you collect" or "You choose first on a future round". Since all of these ideas worked well and the publisher had no plans for a larger expansion, I posted them on BGG for fans of the game to print and play.

When I began pitching the game to publishers again, I went back and revised the expansions and included them in the pitch. The main change was that the special action slices were now tiles that could be placed with any group of slices.

A Different Kind of Pie

In 2016, Ted Alspach of Bézier Games and I were chatting about doing a project together, and he suddenly remembered Piece o' Cake and asked whether that was available. Soon he was testing and developing the game together with my expansions and was excited about the possibilities. His suggestion to change the theme to pizza was perfect and led to some brilliant production decisions: the expansion adding bonus actions and rewards would become the "daily specials", the rules would be printed as a fold-out menu, and a scoring pad would be included in the form of a restaurant check. And, of course, the game box art would look like a pizza box!

Sample score sheet and menu-style rulebook

Although the theme is based on the thin, New York-style pizza, the game is deeper due to the new mechanisms, and it also offers more variety to each game. It's rewarding for me to see it in print again with all the extra "toppings", and even more so to see the attention to detail that Ted has given the game.

I hope that New York Slice is a welcome main course for those who enjoyed the dessert of Piece o' Cake, and best of all, that many new players will want to dig into the game — and the hobby — thanks to the update.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Dinner is served — very sloppily served, mind you...
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Fri Apr 7, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Heptalion, or Seven Steps to a Finished Game

Néstor Romeral Andrés
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Heptalion is a simple combinatorial tile-placement game (and associated set of puzzles) designed in 2011. This diary describes the various design problems that arose when trying to create a child-friendly game that adults would also enjoy, and the steps I took to resolve them.

This diary is an excerpt of a paper released in issue 1 of The Game & Puzzle Design Journal.

1. Introduction

I will present a combinatorial abstract strategy game and its derived puzzles, focusing on how "keeping it simple" revealed unexpected problems and how these were tackled, while finding interesting design techniques along the way.

I describe my design goal first, instead of following an exploratory process, and how the mechanisms, components, and victory condition naturally followed. This process shows how design constraints can lead to the discovery of interesting mathematical properties and new combinations of components and mechanisms. Finally, the game is transformed into a puzzle, which turns out to be as interesting as the game itself.

Figure 1: The Heptalion set

2. History

I designed Heptalion in 2011 and published it through my company nestorgames in 2012. The published set is shown in Figure 1 above. A version for Android smartphones was released in 2014. A short description of the game:

Heptalion: Players draw an equal number of tiles from the bag at random, then place them face up for all to see. Players take turns placing one of their tiles on the board, face down, to cover a pair of symbols that match the two symbols on the tile. The last player to move wins.

Heptalion has its roots in 2010, when another of my games — Hippos & Crocodiles — was rivaling the sales of my most successful game, Adaptoid. Hippos & Crocodiles (Figure 2) is very simple. Players take turns placing one of their animal-shaped tiles, either a hippopotamus or a crocodile, onto the board until one player cannot make a legal move, thereby losing the game.

Realizing that the complexity of a game is not correlated with its market success, I decided to design another game that was even simpler than Hippos & Crocodiles to see whether its success could be reproduced. This time, though, I wanted to focus on the parents, them being the ones who buy the game and have to play with their kids, but have no time to play it themselves. I wanted to create a game that was easy and quick to learn and play, mistake-proof, short and replayable.

With these objectives in mind, the first step was to create a list of design goals, consisting of a set of obvious design problems and potential solutions.

Figure 2: Hippos & Crocodiles

3. Design Problems

The following list describes the design problems I faced when creating Heptalion and their solutions:

1. Problem: Steep learning curve and resistance to change on behalf of players.
Solution: Use an already existing and well-known game component (e.g., cards, pawns, dice, etc.) so that players feel comfortable with it.

2. Problem: Too many rules force players to check the rulebook frequently and also may lead to misinterpretation and conflict.
Solution: Move the rules to the components, in a "poka-yoke" approach, so that mistakes and misinterpretations are almost impossible.

Poka-yoke is a Japanese term that means "mistake-proofing", and it refers to any mechanism in a manufacturing process that helps an equipment operator avoid (yokeru) mistakes (poka) by drawing attention to human errors as they occur. More broadly, the term can refer to any behavior-shaping constraint designed into a process to prevent incorrect operation by the user.

3. Problem: Game length may scare young players and parents.
Solution: Keep the number of turns low (around 10–15), as well as the duration of each turn, to avoid "analysis paralysis".

4. Problem: Be able to accommodate several players.
Solution: Make it multiplayer without extending the duration of the game through a finite number of pieces shared among all players.

5. Problem: The set should be affordable.
Solution: Use a small and cheap to manufacture set of components.

6. Problem: Allow a high degree of replayability, so the players get value for money.
Solution: Random set-up based on a combinatorial distribution of the components.

7. Problem: Games that are easy to make at home lose sales.
Solution: Use components that are not usually found at home.

Note that item #7 is not a design problem as much as a business problem. However, I have to take such considerations into account when designing since I am also the publisher. Many amateur game designers seem to ignore such issues when designing their own games, even though they can be very important to publishers.

4. Problem-Solving Process

This section describes the problem solving process used to tackle the problems listed above. The key to most of these was to find a magical game component that:

* is widely known (solves problem #1),
* does not have many parts (solves problem #5),
* is sufficiently complex (solves problem #6), and
* is hard to replicate if customized (solves problem #7).

A standard dominoes set satisfies these criteria nicely. A set of standard dominoes has 28 tiles, showing all possible pairs of numbers from 0 to 6. Although a larger set could have been used for my game, 28 tiles proved to be sufficient. One tile per turn gives each player 14 turns in a two-player game, which solves problem #3.

For a four-player game, each player has only seven turns. This is a bit small, but the game nature encourages players to play several games in a row, which is a desirable feature in games, showing that the game is appealing and replayable.

Thus, problem #4 was partially solved. In order to fully solve it, I released an expansion pack called Octalion that uses a larger board and increases the number of tiles to 36 (so that each player has nine turns in a four-player game).

Octalion also solves problem #7 as a set of 36 dominoes is non-standard and thus difficult to find. The design hurdles seemed to be dropping quickly so far, except for problem #2; trying to solve it was like trying to open a matryoshka or babushka doll, in which solving each layer just revealed further problems to the solved.

I then focused on the victory condition, which for me is the meaning of a game and the most important part of the rules. The components are the tools that the players use to achieve the goal.

I decided to use the same victory condition as Hippos & Crocodiles and many other successful tile placement games: The last player able to make a move wins. This is a very powerful victory condition as it does not need to be checked every turn (as with a checkmate in chess) and avoids the need for scoring; the game simply ends when it is not possible to play anymore.

It made sense that players would start with the tiles split amongst themselves, which is simpler than players needing to draw a tile each turn or keep track of the number of tiles in hand, etc.

Players would take turns placing a tile on the board only where it could fit (which feels natural), but they must be forced to choose from several places to fit them (as otherwise the game would be boring).

The ideal board would fit all tiles and allow each tile to be placed in several different places. Each move should eliminate some other potential moves so that the number of legal moves reduces and the game converges to a result that is not trivially predictable. Moreover, the shape of the board must be roughly rectangular to fit an A4 sheet as this is the size of the boards that I print.

A 28-tile set of dominoes contains 56 half-tiles (i.e., squares) in total, so I first tried using a 7x8 grid of 56 squares for the game board. This proportion roughly matched the shape of an A4 sheet, with some room for the game title, but there was a problem.

A 7x8 grid has the desired 56 squares, but it has (6x8) + (7x7) = 97 pairs of orthogonally adjacent squares, as shown in Figure 3. These represent the places that double-square domino tiles can be placed, but in order to have the same number of available placements for each tile (for a balanced distribution), this total should be a multiple of 28.

Figure 3: The 97 adjacent pairs on the 7x8 grid

The nearest multiples of 28 are 3x28 = 84 and 4x28 = 112. Since 7x8 allows the maximum number of paired squares, it is impossible to reach 112 with 56 squares, hence 84 pairs became the target number. The problem can now be stated as:

Find an orthogonal grid shape with 56 squares and exactly 84 adjacent pairs.

Having no idea what shape such a grid might take, I started with a 7x8 rectangle and began moving squares around. Moving a border square to another place on the perimeter (except corners) reduces the number of pairs by two (-3 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Moving a border square to a side subtracts two pairs overall

But it's not possible to reach an even number by repeatedly subtracting 2 from an odd number, so I then tried the corners. Moving a corner square to another place on the perimeter (except corners) reduces the number of pairs by one (-2 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Moving a corner square to a side subtracts one pair overall

This meant that 13 squares would have to be moved to reach the target number of 84 pairs — but there was a faster and more flexible way; moving inner squares to the perimeter reduces the number of pairs by three with each movement (-4 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Moving an inner square to a side subtracts three pairs overall

Furthermore, removing a square adjacent to a hole and moving it to the perimeter reduces the number of pairs by two (-3 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 7, which is conveniently an even number.

Figure 7: Moving a square adjacent to a hole to a side subtracts two pairs overall

Playing around with these square movements for a few days, I came across the diamond shape shown in Figure 8. This shape was perfect; it was symmetrical, appealing, had 84 pairs and 56 squares, and worked well within an A4 page ratio.

Figure 8: The diamond

However, finding the right shape was only part of the solution, and the actual distribution of symbols within this shape posed a new problem:

Find a distribution of numbers 0–6 within the diamond shape such that each occurs exactly eight times, and each pair of numbers (28 in total) occurs exactly three times (3 x 28 = 84).

This new problem was a hard one for a nonprogrammer, and brute force enumeration would be too time consuming, so it had to be attacked from a different perspective. I looked for simpler patterns that might occur in a valid distribution, hoping that this easier task would allow me to build the board.

The breakthrough came when I considered the A-A tiles that contain matching numbers: 0–0, 1–1, 2–2, etc. We want each A-A tile to have three possible placements, the same as any other tile, and it turns out that this can be achieved efficiently if each number occurs in one of the patterns shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9: Tetrominoes with three adjacent pairs

These shapes, called tetrominoes, are used in many games and puzzles, such as the well-known LITS puzzle from Japanese publisher Nikoli. Note that this set includes only tetrominoes with exactly three adjacent cell pairings and excludes the fifth 2x2 tetromino with four adjacent cell pairings; the fewer the better in this case.

The trick was to then place seven of these tetromino patterns inside the diamond grid, then number the corresponding grid cells accordingly.

Figure 10: A solution for the diamond board

After a few hours' work with the help of a spreadsheet, I found the final distribution shown in Figure 10. The numbers were replaced by colored symbols (Figure 11), and after playtesting, the game was ready for release. It has since proven popular with players and does not show any obvious first or second player advantage.

Figure 11: The final board

5. Other Solutions

Shortly after releasing Heptalion, Mark Tilford and Grant Fikes used computer analysis to find other valid distributions for the diamond shape as well as other shapes with valid distributions. Two of these, shown in Figures 12 and 13, have since been released as expansions for the game.

Figure 12: Fikes' board

Figure 13: Tilford's board (with the "n" representing nestorgames)

6. Android Puzzle App

A few months later, Kris J. Wolff (designer of Pilus) proposed developing an Android version of Heptalion. Kris had previously developed an Android app for my game RED, but that app lacked something important: a set of puzzles.

We therefore included some puzzles in the Heptalion app. The rules for the Heptalion puzzle emerged naturally from the board game. The aim is to place a subset of the Heptalion pieces, according to the game's rules, to exactly cover a predetermined board shape. This is different from the board game as all pieces in the solvers' hand must be placed in order to complete each challenge.

Figure 14: A medium difficulty Android puzzle

The app creates challenges involving 3-19 randomly placed pieces such that each challenge has a unique solution. Since not all pieces are included in a challenge, there are usually some unplayable adjacent board spaces, and this adds a new twist in the deduction process for the player. The algorithm for creating challenges is described in Appendix A.

The difficulty of each challenge is estimated as the product of the number of ways each piece can be placed in the initial challenge. For example, the challenge shown in Figure 14 has a difficulty score of 983,040, which makes it of medium difficulty.

Heptalion puzzles are designed with some pieces being removed in order to have unique solutions and increase their degree of deducibility.

7. Conclusion

In finding a board of the appropriate shape and size for a certain set of tiles, acting under a certain set of constraints, I had to solve a number of design problems in order to achieve the game that I wanted. This diary describes the design steps that led to my game Heptalion and the associated Android puzzle app.

I believe that the techniques discovered along the way — the application of poka-yoke to board game design; the use of maths to tweak the board shape and define the exact subproblems to be solved, and so on — will help with the development of future games.

Néstor Romeral Andrés

Appendix A: Puzzle Generation

This Appendix describes Kris J. Wolff's algorithm for creating unique Heptalion puzzles in his Android app for the game.

1. Start with an imaginary 11x11 board.
2. Choose between 3 and 19 pieces to use. The most interesting and difficult puzzles seem to be those with 17 out of the 28 available.
3. Place a piece in a random location.
4. Place each other piece in a random location, such that its two squares each touch at least two squares on pieces already placed. This avoids single square protrusions which would have trivial instantiations.
5. Run through all possible ways to place the chosen pieces on the board. If more than one solution exists, discard and restart.
6. Check that each piece has more than one valid placement (as otherwise its placement is trivial). If any pieces have only one valid placement, then discard and restart.
7. Each level is given a "difficulty" rating, which is calculated as follows: Start with difficulty=1, then for each piece multiply the difficulty by its number of valid placements.

Special thanks to Cameron Browne and Russ Williams for revisions.
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Tue Apr 4, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Ascension: Gift of the Elements, or Transforming Old Into New

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #1: Complexity and Design Space

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #2: Same, But Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much More to Explore!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Gary

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

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

The First Prototype

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Work, Work, Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing the Combat System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing the Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Benjamin & Matthew Dunstan

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

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

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

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

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

How Long To Warp Speed?

Cards are either developments or worlds.

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

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

Prepare The Drop Ships!

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

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

Consult The Archives

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

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

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

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

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

How Fast Are They Doing That Kessel Run?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scan That World

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

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

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

Adding It Up

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

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

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

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

Computer, What Is Your Analysis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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