Archive for Designer Diaries
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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!
I first started working on Greedy Greedy Goblins in about 2004 under the name "Greedy Greedy Dwarves" and later a playtester pointed out that I was missing an obvious alliteration.
I was interested in a real-time, luck-pressing game and thought the atmosphere of pushing your luck in a mine to get the most treasure possible before it collapsed was a strong one. This is not the first time I have worked on a real-time game; my first was a collaborative design, Twitch, in the 1990s. While I really enjoy the game play of Twitch, I do have trouble getting people to play because it is so intensely speed oriented. Players who stick with the game can develop strategies that could counter faster players to some degree, but in the end Twitch is a game about reflexes and fast playing.
With Greedy Greedy Goblins, I wanted to see something different; I wanted the game to be less about reflex and more about making game decisions. To this end the core game was designed as follows: Players look at face-down tiles and decide which cave those tiles go in. At any time, a player can lock down a cave as their own by putting one of their pawns there.
An early playtest version of Greedy Greedy Dwarves with gems, a monster, single and double dynamite,
some x2s (which I don't remember what they were for), and a pillar (with pillars counteracting dynamite)
At first, the pressing of luck was almost entirely about another player beating you to a cave you have played a lot of treasure on. The real breakthrough element in the design was the dynamite, which made the cave much more valuable with one or two pieces, but penalized a player if there were three or more. (You can be and should be greedy-greedy but not greedy-greedy-greedy.) With the amount of dynamite I put in the game — a lot — you can be sure that if there are a lot of tiles on a cave, it is a dangerous place to send your goblins.
This core gameplay appealed to me because a player who chooses to play slowly and be observant can often make better decisions about which cave to take ownership of than a player who just plays quickly at the expense of strategy or a better global awareness. Some of the best players I have seen make just enough moves to throw monkey wrenches into other people's plans while trying to read the best positions to take based on other people's play.
It was important that during the play portion of the game there were not many options that opened because of what you drew; the core play needed to be (1) look at a tile, (2) put it somewhere. If this were a turn-based game, I would likely have a cup of coffee tile which would make the person who played it put two tiles without looking at them face down in a single cave. In this game, though, I had to restrain myself from these sorts of mechanisms as there is plenty of decision-making simply in deciding where to put something; being forced to process more was just asking for players to inadvertently cheat or lose track of the simple flow of tiles that makes the game fun. One exception to that was the torch – which allows a player to see a tile someone else has played – but even this I made optional since so many players forgot to use the power in the heat of the moment.
Using cards to modify the game is one of my staple design tools. I didn't want the cards to be "played fast" for the same reason I didn't want to add tiles more complex than the torch; the focus of the game play had to remain look at a tile, choose where it goes. For this reason, none of the cards are played quickly; instead they are played when the tile-laying is finished. Even so, they still bring variety to the tile play since, for example, a card which makes rubies more valuable will encourage you try to do something clever with all the rubies you run across.
My favorite moment from playtesting was when my opponent realized I was beating them because I was correctly guessing where they were building their biggest treasure trove and grabbing it before they did. Anticipating that they were going to try the same to me, I put a lot of tiles in one cave and when they hesitated about taking it, fearing a trap, I faked trying to get my goblin there — allowing him to beat me to the dynamite warehouse that the cave had become.
Part I from Sotirios Tsantilas:
I should have kept real diaries. Crisis is not my first game, after all, so I should have known better. There comes a time when you want to write a designer's diary for your new game, and all the memories have gotten mixed in your head.
Crisis, Crisis, Crisis...well, I remember discussing a lot of stuff with Pantelis at a sunny Piraeus when the crisis broke up, the idea of an economic game, how pissed off we were with the politicians, adding things to the game little by little by taking ideas from the global situation — but is it possible to get things in order? Hmmmm, I may be able to take advantage of the oldest Crisis files in my computer. Yes, that's it. I will try to recreate the timeline of the designing through the dates of the files!
Let's see now where are we...
22-06-2011: Building Cards – Industry1.doc
Well, there are two files in my computer named "Bailout" and "Bailout Elutopia". That was originally the name of the game. They are dated to June 2011, so that's where the sunny Piraeus memories came from. Obviously, Pantelis and I started designing the game at that period. "Bailout Elutopia" includes the Oldstuff subfolder. I think we found the source.
In this subfolder is the oldest file of the game I managed to find: "Building Cards - Industry1". It is a collection of some level 1 industry companies. I can see they are not so different from the final prototype we used until the last couple of years.
On the cards we have printed the minimum and maximum values that this company can produce to help us balance the game. Remember, guys, balance is everything. Also, there is a mysterious (L) and (F) on the production...
In the Oldstuff folder there are more Building type files, the Export Deals, the Specialists file, and most importantly the Player Board, dated 27-06-2011. In this file, other than some aspects that have survived until today's final version, there are long tables with numbers: (L) or (F) money and VPs. Our first concept was to divide the income produced by each company into two categories: Local (domestic) and Foreign. Hence, you had to keep your money in two separate vaults. That's because after the production phase came the taxation phase. According to your contribution to the state, you earned VPs, and if the income originated from abroad, you got more VPs. Thus, we had prepared long tables to assign VPs according to your taxation income. A really fiddly job.
Thankfully, quite quickly we realized that we could incorporate the VPs in the production of the company, so we eliminated the taxation phase completely. The first player board file without taxation is dated 19-01-2012. Of course, until then the game had already been balanced in the previous version which, although fiddly, played really nicely, so we had to work on the mathematics of the game in order to make the new version as good as the previous one. Remember? Balance is everything...
It's time for some heavy playtesting. We have prepared a file with tables in order to keep track of how players are doing in each round, so we can adjust the austerity plans, which is a very tricky part. As in real life, the derivative of the Situation Function is not constant. Hah, gotcha there!
I mean, when things start to go wrong, they go faster and faster, so it's not easy to set financial goals for each round because they don't follow a linear rule. The same holds for growth, too. That's why we had to monitor a player's progress round by round.
(Does this table looks like Greek to you? That's because it is!)
In the meantime, every day something new was actually happening and most of the time it was really easy for us to find material to enrich the gameplay theme-wise. That was the time we thought about the Event and Influence cards. Politicians and economists throughout the globe did their best to provide us with so much material that we had to choose the more intriguing ones and discard the rest. This game was actually built on the theme.
Did I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name? Well, it really was.
First, we got rid of Elutopia. With the name of "Bailout" we participated in the 3rd Greek Guild's Game Design competition, and guess what: We won! Both Judges' and Peoples' Awards. Woo hoo!
After that, the road to success had opened before us, and after ONLY six years, publishers rushed to our doorsteps with amazing contracts — but enough with this success story, let's get back to the diary.
When the celebration was over, we thought it was a good time to move to the next level, with more professional artwork that would skyrocket us to the top of BGG's Hotness aaaaand a new extra cool sci-fi name: "Orion Inc."
Have I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name?
You know, Pantelis is a crazy Trekkie, like me, so we immediately agreed on the new name and theme. In this form, we developed the game even more, tweaking some numbers and expanding the Events and Influence Cards.
The first rulebook of the "Orion Inc." version. The game is pretty much as we know it today, but without difficulty levels.
What the heck is that?? I don't even remember discussing, much less writing it. Wow! Radiation poisoning...drifters...zombies????
Okay, let's not talk about that ever again.
17-09-2013: It's an email
Finally, the game is going to be published! Helloooooo, LudiCreations! This is not the first contact between me and LudiCreations, but it is the first time where the name of Crisis is referred to. Everybody seems to be happy with it and with the dieselpunk re-theme, too, that was decided a few months later.
I can't believe the date! Get a life, man! It is New Year's Eve, and I'm writing the first Vassal module of the game. I hope it was just a copy-paste, rename, or something else. I can't really believe it...
Last changes to the game. We changed the numbers of Export Contracts and the way they come out. This way we maximize the possibility of getting almost every combination.
For the first time we introduce difficulty levels.
28-11-2015: Crisis_rules_EN_000.2 orion_rulebook.pdf
The first semi-official rulebook of the game under the supervision of LudiCreations.
The last year was a frenzy of spreadsheets, playtesting, corrections, etc. Believe me, you don't wanna know.
But, the result of this six-year odyssey is the board game named Crisis. I hope you'll enjoy it!
Part II from Pantelis Bouboulis:
In mid-June, during the summer of 2010, the Greek financial crisis was just starting to show its jaws, although few could anticipate its deep and catastrophic impact on Greek society over the following years. A few months ago, following a large period of political inactivity, the Greek government was forced to sign the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with its partners in the EU and the I.M.F. As a result, Greece had pledged to implement reforms — such as a 30% decrease of salaries in the public sector, the increase of taxes, and a large number of privatizations — in return for a big loan that would keep the country from totally collapsing and shaking the troubled EU economy. As it is well known by now, the first MoU triggered a deep recession of the Greek economy leading to very high unemployment and a new debt crisis. Seven years later, the situation doesn't appear brighter.
It was in this political turmoil where the idea of the board game Crisis was inspired. I was thinking that it would be interesting to simulate a real economy in crisis, one in which players (playing the role of investors) are trying to save the country following an austerity plan (such as the one enforced by the MoU). That summer day, during a meeting for coffee with my dear friend Sotiris (an experienced board-game designer), I unfolded these ideas (rather crude at that time) and asked for his opinion. Sotiris was thrilled and soon after we began shaping the mechanism of the game, which we agreed to make as realistic as possible. Our main idea was that the investors would buy companies and services (taking advantage of the privatizations), hire local employees, produce goods, and finally earn money, while at the same time paying their taxes to the state.
We wanted these taxes to be very important for the survival of the economy as they represented state's income. In any real economy, if the state's income is low, then the financial situation worsens and this had to be reflected in the entire game. Furthermore, to link the game with the Greek memorandum era, we decided to add specific budget goals, i.e., at the end of each round the total amount of taxes gathered by the state should be greater than a specific number. In order to implement this philosophy we employed a financial-status indicator bar on the board, which actually represents the total tax revenues. If the total amount of taxes gathered is greater than the required goal, then the indicator moves forward, as the financial situation improves. On the other hand, if the players don't pay as many taxes as they should, then the indicator moves toward zero. If it drops below zero, then the country is declared bankrupt and all players lose.
Besides the obvious thematic flavor, the different thematic goals allowed us to simplify the set-up of the game for different player counts. Instead of blocking out options, or varying the available buildings and employees for different player counts, we simply set different budget goals. Thus, although fewer players have all the options available, they also have tighter goals to accomplish. This has the additional advantage that the game plays differently for various player counts (thus increasing replayability).
The first few months of the development we used paper money (similar to that used in Monopoly) for all purchases and tax payments. Each time a player sold goods, we computed the respective taxes (using a simple algorithm), which the player gave to the state, and moved the financial status indicator respectively. As you can understand, this was a tedious mechanism involving a lot of algebraic operations (which posed no problem to Sotiris and me, however, as we are both mathematicians).
Sotiris suggested replacing this mechanism with a simpler one using victory points. Thus, whenever a player sold goods, they gained money together with victory points. In a nutshell, we pre-computed the respective taxes and replaced them with victory points. For example, in the first version whenever a chemical unit was sold, the player earned 6 credits, then paid 3 of them to the state (taxation). In the new version, the player gains 3 credits and 2 victory points (which represent the player's contribution to the state's revenues). Of course this wasn't as simple as I describe it here as we had to convert the money to victory points in such a way that it was reasonable and didn't mess up the rest of the game. However, it is interesting to keep in mind that whenever you gain victory points in the game, this is because you are paying taxes! Don't you wish that taxation was that fun in real life, too?
During this period, we decided to call the game "Bailout", inspired by the famous term that dominated the news all around 2010-2012. Sotiris never liked it, but since he couldn't find anything better, he settled until the mechanism was finalized.
Another important issue was to find a hiring mechanism for the employees and a way for each company to benefit from specialized ones. I wanted the game to reflect that if you hire highly specialized people, then the company will flourish. Sotiris liked the idea, and we decided to incorporate this into the game. Thus, we came up with different employee types (workers, farmers, engineers, bankers), the modifier mechanism, and the employee's area, which is actually one of the most crowded areas of the game (as you probably have realized if you have played). We decided each employee would have a specific modifier that reflects the employee's specialties. Thus, highly skilled engineers might give a +3 boost in your company instead of the +1 you get by employing the average engineer. Of course not all employees need to be highly skilled as any factory requires a workforce for the "menial" tasks. This is why each company has slots for various types of employees (ranging from unskilled workers to highly specialized engineers and bankers).
Aside from the local employees, we added two more employee-related actions: the Temp-Employee and the Foreign Employees. These were added to ensure that all types of employees will be present in each round, although with a +1 modifier. As the economy is in crisis, no reasonable highly specialized people are expected to come and work. In many playtests during those early days (mainly between Sotiris and me) we experienced a phenomenon in which available companies required engineers to work, but no engineer was present in the employees section. Although this was not a major problem, it could seriously hurt the strategy of a player. Sotiris (having experience from the other board games that he designed) always felt that the players shouldn't get frustrated with the game if they were to love it.
Every economy that wants to flourish must take care of its export deficit. In the game, this is represented by losing VPs when you import goods (since currency is leaving the country) and gaining VPs when you export goods (or equivalently paying taxes). Initially we thought about leaving the exports free, which means that each player could export as many goods as they liked (provided that a manager was present in the Imports section). However, later we decided to add a more competitive mechanism that would incorporate some kind of risk (meaning that it's possible to produce chemicals and not be able to sell them). We came up with the deal-acquiring mechanism after a lot of playtesting. The basic idea is that the needs of the global market are time-varying. Thus, we placed different deals (now called export contracts) in each round, ensuring that there is a higher probability to export units of the primary production (e.g., food, minerals) than those of the secondary (chemicals, industrials) or tertiary production (machines). Furthermore, we added a first-in-first-out queue so that players with similar production chains would compete for a spot. Hence, the commitment to industrial production might be risky, but it may also lead to significant profit.
Aside from the traditional legal exporting action, we decided to also include a black market. This action represents outlaw exports that are conducted without taxes. Hence, although the player might gain significantly more money, no VPs are gained since no taxes are paid. The idea for this kind of business came from the tax-evasion problems that we have been facing the last decades in Greece. Although a lot of people became quite rich by not paying any taxes to the state, Greece's economy suffers from these practices.
Up to this point, the game was a collection of solid rules that emulated a real-life economy under crisis, plus some standard board game actions (first player, etc.). However, we wanted to add a spicy twist into the game. Real life situations in Greece became a source of inspiration once again. Regularly in a global economy minor events can shift the economic status. The Event cards were designed to emulate these kinds of effects. Examples are:
• Emergency taxes (out of the blue); this is becoming a daily routine...
• Being downgraded by international agencies
• Corrupt politicians
• Scientists leaving the country
• Strikes and riots
• Real estate taxes
In addition to these "minor" events, we added the influence cards to emulate the real fact that every businessman needs connections within the government to succeed. Not surprisingly, many of them originate from (but are not limited to) the Greek situation as well.
• Corrupt union leaders
• Politicians that are sponsored by investors
• Loans given without proper assessment
II. The Greek Guild's Contest
During the last months of 2012, we decided that the game was almost complete and decided to show it to our friends in the Greek Guild of BoardGameGeek. A lot of those guys were enthusiastic about the game and helped us a lot in the final stages of development with their ideas and their long and many playtests. Many of them are still eagerly waiting for the published edition.
During this time the game was called "Bailout" (yes, Sotiris was still struggling to find a name that he liked) and the hypothetical country in crisis was called "Elutopia" (from the names "Hellas" and "Utopia"). With this name the game took part in the 3rd Greek Board Game Contest, where it won both the reviewers and public awards. The following photo is from a playtest during the competition when the public had the chance to play all games. The guy explaining the game is Sotiris, while I was enjoying my cheeseburger.
Of course, during this stage we didn't have any artwork at all. The game was printed on white papers and we had colored cubes to represent the materials. You can also see the printed money and the small employee cards. There was some amateur artwork involved with the buildings and the event cards that was done by me and Sotiris. It is worth noting that the game that won second place in that contest was Among the Stars...
III. The Orion Era
One morning after the contest, I had a call from Sotiris. This was perhaps the hundredth time that we had contacted each other to discuss the name of the game (although we didn't have any publisher yet). Sotiris had the epiphany to give a sci-fi theme to the game and rename it "Orion Inc". The storyline was that a planet (Valdor) that belonged to a large federation (Galactic Consortium) had financial problems and the federation had devised an austerity plan to save its economy. Being a dedicated Trekkie myself, I was happy with the idea (although I think that I was happier that Sotiris had finally found a name that he liked). We had a good friend draw us some sci-fi themed cards and uploaded both the photos and the rulebook to BoardGameGeek, where the game entered the "Hotness" list.
This is the storyline that we devised back then:
Valdor is a prosperous planet of the Orion Arm that's inhabited by a developing humanoid race. During the last century, the Valdorians have made vast technological and economic progress. Valdor, located relatively far from the economic center of the Galaxy, has asked to become a member of the Galactic Consortium, a large economic union of numerous races occupying the greater portion of the Sagittarius Arm, closer to the galactic center. But it is necessary in order to be accepted into the community to achieve certain difficult economic goals during a tight time frame consisting of seven years. Now it's Valdor's time to shine...or not? Corruption has begun to poison the members of the High Council, while other races would be more than happy to see their effort fail…
After about a year, we learned that LudiCreations was interested in publishing the game. They had seen the game in Greece and liked it a lot. Of course we were more than happy to have them handle its publication.
More than that, they embraced the game and enriched it with their own vision. The game was renamed Crisis and received a dieselpunk sci-fi theme. The LudiCreations team worked hard not only on the illustrations, but also to rearrange the board and the company cards in order to enhance the playing experience. Also, they were kind enough to allow us to take part in all production phases, asking our opinions on all matters. Now, we are very excited to have an actual hard copy of Crisis in our hands!
Crisis at SPIEL 2016
Black Orchestra has probably taken longer than any of my previous designs, yet I feel like all the hard work has finally paid off. I have been thrilled with the level of excitement from the pre-order campaign and then the official release at BGG.CON 2016. What could have been a toxic theme and a public-relations nightmare has been remarkably well-received. Dann May and Cody Jones have helped me realize my vision for the game with stunning, yet respectful, art and tense gameplay.
The basic idea for Black Orchestra grew out of my lifelong fascination with World War II and, specifically, the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler. Some of this has to do with a childhood association between the Nazis and the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. I hardly believed that such an authoritarian regime could have ever existed in real life. Since my childhood, I have visited a number of museums including the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Imperial War Museum in London. The atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis surpass one's ability to comprehend them. We will never be in doubt that evil exists in this world so long as we remember these tragic events.
In addition to watching epic films and documentaries, as well as playing games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Axis & Allies, I enjoy reading books on the subject. I found Albert Speer's autobiographical account of the war chilling, though it should be taken with a grain of salt. I have read about D-Day, the Nuremberg trials, and the Nazi hunters of more recent times. However, one book rises above all others. In August 2011, Eric Metaxis published his masterful biography of a lesser-known character in the drama of the war. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy recounts the life of the brilliant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the rise of Hitler. His commitment to preaching the Bible put him directly at odds with the Nazi propaganda machine. He later joined the Abwehr (Germany's military intelligence agency) to work against the Nazi regime from the inside, bolstering the conviction of the conspirators, and ultimately giving his life for the cause.
This book set my mind to the creation of a cooperative game surrounding the various plots to assassinate Hitler. By November 2011, I completed my first prototype. The game combined a few key elements. First, the conspirators had to be motivated to do things in the game. High motivation would allow players to perform their special ability and attempt plots against Hitler; low motivation would limit them to only two cards. Players would also need to manage their level of suspicion as the Gestapo would be relentlessly tracking them down. Extremely high suspicion would land you in jail should the Gestapo decide to conduct a raid.
Prototype game board from 2011
Another core element was the incorporation of a special event deck. I wanted the game to move somewhat sequentially through the events of World War II. You would see Paris fall and other military campaigns ebb and flow. You would also hear rumors about horrible atrocities. Finally, the Allies would begin to close in on the Third Reich. These events needed to be somewhat structured, but they also needed to vary from game to game. The solution was to divide the game's timeline into seven sections and shuffle each of these individually to form the final event deck.
One of the key effects of this deck was to modify Hitler's military support and level of security or exposure. This would lead into another important mechanism in the game: a dramatic dice roll finale. Common design wisdom holds that you should never let the end of a game be determined randomly. However, that's exactly how it happened historically. In this version of Black Orchestra, players would gather materials and modifiers, all seeking the perfect time and place for the assassination attempt. Then you took your chance and rolled a handful of dice — the classic stand-up dice roll on steroids! If you rolled higher than the combined value of Hitler's military support and security, you won. If you failed...the consequences would be swift and severe.
The resulting game captured much of the experience I desired. Playing this first version did feel tense and ominous. I noticed myself and other players having some of the same conversations that must have occupied the actual conspirators of history. Judging when to strike and figuring out the chances of success also helped to moderate the alpha player problem common to many co-op games. With so many variables and the final result always in doubt, there is no perfect solution for a more dominant player to force on everyone else. Of course, the game would need significant playtesting and myriad tweaks and adjustments along the way.
Black Orchestra was off to a promising start, but the road to publication would be long. In fact, I wondered whether any publisher would be brazen enough to embrace such a difficult theme. The subject matter and imagery of the game would close off whole sections of the market, most notably Germany. I could not expect such a game to be welcomed there. Indeed, many of the visual elements in the game violate a number of laws there, to say nothing of the gritty, militaristic feel — something studiously avoided by most European publishers. Even so, my intense interest in this corner of history impelled me to continue playtesting and development. I also felt a calling to recount these tragic events. We ought never forget the factors leading to Hitler's rise to power and the atrocities that resulted.
Prototype for a Conspirator board, and the final version
I spent the first half of 2012 testing and refining the game. One key addition during this time was the use of item tiles. Previously, items had to be collected from the deck of player cards. Now those items would reside at each location on the board. Players would need to collect them in order to fulfill plot requirements. Players would also need to roll a die to find the items, thus creating another use for the dice in the game.
In June 2012 I attended the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, as I had in years past. I brought a number of prototypes with me, including Black Orchestra, though I had little idea of who might be interested in seeing it. During the show I first met Dan Yarrington of the newly-formed Game Salute. He looked at just about every game I brought, suggesting improvements in the theme and presentation of many of them. He also wanted to see two in greater detail: "Bank Job" (now Skyway Robbery) and Black Orchestra. He was intrigued by the bold choice of theme.
What followed was an invitation to the longest dinner of my life. We headed out to the famous Schmidt's Sausage Haus, the perfect backdrop for discussing my Hitler game but not so good for my stomach ailment at the time. After getting lost, we then waited over two hours to get a table. The dinner itself lasted another two hours. We didn't get back to the convention center until 11:00 p.m. We then played my two prototypes, and I didn't get to bed until about 3:00 a.m. In the morning, I signed the game over to Dan under its new in-your-face name: "Hitler Must Die".
The conspirators working to undermine Hitler needed massive reserves of patience if they hoped to succeed. I also found the need for patience as I waited for my co-op game to enter active development and publication. Back in 2012, the picture looked rosy. Game Salute would be kickstarting my games in short order and be ready for more after that. Unfortunately, they ended up signing a very large number of games that season. Mine would have to wait in line. Additionally, Skyway Robbery required an extensive amount of artwork, delaying that project even further. While I had continued to test the game and make marginal improvements, it would not be until a Gen Con 2015 meeting with Dann May, Game Salute's art director, that development would truly begin in earnest.
Our work on the game fortuitously coincided with the appearance of an important new tool: Tabletopia. Other attempts had been made to emulate the board game experience on computers and other electronic devices, but Tabletopia seemed to be driven by a new vision. They succeeded in gaining the cooperation of many publishers, allowing them to offer real games instead of knock-off versions. Though still in beta, Tabletopia helped us playtest Black Orchestra with a fresh intensity. Dann May, Cody Jones (in charge of graphic design), and I spent many sessions hammering out the final product.
Tabletopia playtest in October 2015
Several major systems were added or overhauled during this process. One of the biggest was the change in how dice would work. Instead of using standard dice, we would produce custom dice featuring symbols. Hitler's military support and security level would be simplified and converted to symbols. Now the players would need to roll a target number of crosshair symbols but avoid rolling a certain number of eagle symbols. The experience of players in jail would also change. Now players needed to roll a die result based on their motivation in order to resist an interrogation. If they failed, they would draw an interrogation card. This card lists three painful options. The player must secretly choose one of these options and resolve it. This effect adds some interesting suspense to the game.
We also added the Conspire action to the list of those available. Once per turn, you may choose to conspire by rolling one die for each remaining action. Rolling numbers (1, 2, or 3) will result in bonus actions. Rolling an eagle will increase your suspicion level. Rolling a crosshair symbol will transfer the die to the Dissent track, eventually providing more motivation for the players or lowering Hitler's support.
Finally, we knew that some players might prefer a more difficult experience. This is why we added an advanced variant requiring players to hunt down some of Hitler's deputies as well as Hitler himself. Failure to do so could result in a tarnished victory as one of the deputies would simply take control of the Nazi regime himself.
The last touch was to change back to my initial title: Black Orchestra. We feel this name better fits with the mood and atmosphere of mystery and suspense we are trying to create. It also links the game more directly to its historical roots, something I value greatly. We have been careful to treat this serious theme with respect, trying to hit the right notes with its visual presentation and game play. Thanks to Dann and Cody for all their many contributions. I am quite happy with the end result and I've enjoyed seeing the game make its way into the hands of gamers all over the world. May this critical moment in history never be forgotten.
W. Eric Martin
Body Party exists due to industry contacts and false memories.
Right after I posted a selfie with the game in August 2014, I was sorry that it had been published and wanted nothing to do with it ever again.
In his book I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter proposes that consciousness is a mirage, an epiphenomenon that emerges from the countless interactions taking place at a scale below our level of perception. An example of such from his book:
One day, many years ago, I wanted to pull all of the envelopes from a small cardboard box lying on the floor of my study and stick them as a group into one of my desk drawers. Accordingly, I picked up the box, reached into it, clasped my right hand around the pack of envelopes inside it (about a hundred in number), and squeezed tightly down on them in order to pull them all out of the box as a unit. Nothing at all surprising in any of this. But all of a sudden I felt, between my thumb and fingers, something very surprising. Oddly enough, there was a marble sitting (or floating?) right in the middle of that flimsy little cardboard box! […]
I peered in between the envelopes, looking for a small, smooth, colored glass sphere. No luck. Then I fumbled about with my fingers between the envelopes, feeling for it. Again no soap. But then, as soon as I grasped the whole set of envelopes as before, there it was again, as solid as ever! Where was this little devil of a marble hiding?
My dad didn't play many games with the family when I was young, preferring solitaire puzzles on the computer such as Sokoban and Everett Kaser's Sherlock as he disliked competition, but every so often he would join us for games, such as the deduction game Alibi from Mayfair Games. For some reason he really enjoyed the challenge of creating complex questions that could still be answered with a number, as was required by the rules: "Using 1 for 'yes' and 0 for 'no,' give me a six digit binary number that tells me which character cards you've seen."
He also liked the Parker Brothers game Funny Bones — coincidentally published the year I was born — most likely because we never worried about who won when we played. Two of us tried to hold as many cards between us as we could while everyone else watched and laughed.
Excerpt from a Bruno Faidutti article about reviews, slightly edited for style:
W. Eric Martin is in charge of the news feed of BoardGameGeek. He's a really nice guy, fun, open-minded, talkative, and I always enjoy meeting him at game fairs. That's why I've always been surprised by how boring his video reviews are, until some day in a Facebook discussion he boasted about the way he could review a game without letting his personal feeling show through, so that gamers could make their own free and independent opinion on whether they will like the game or not. No wonder I don't like his reviews, since the only interesting thing would be his personal opinion on the games.
I find this frustrating and meaningless. By restraining from giving their own opinion, from telling what they have and want to tell, Eric and all the reviewers who share his approach are emasculating their own works. Like the rules paraphrases, this must be boring to write, and it's no wonder it's also boring to read or look at. Such descriptive reviews usually don't give more useful information than the blurb at the back of the box…
Reviewing a game in a cold and impersonal way, ignoring the pleasure, fun, anger or boredom one felt while playing, it's focusing on the subsidiary and ignoring the crux of the matter, the feel of the game. It's frustrating both for the reviewer, who doesn't give his opinion, and for the reader who doesn't learn anything useful. Can you imagine a book or movie critic restraining himself from telling what he thinks of a novel or movie? Where would be the point in reading his reviews? It's not different with games.
Excerpt from a note I sent my then-girlfriend (now-wife) in high school:
But what does it matter because in a hundred years we'll all be dead anyway.
I've met hundreds of publishers since I started writing about board and card games in the early 2000s, and some are better than others at explaining what they want to see in a game design. Matthieux d'Epenoux of Cocktail Games is one of the best. I had met d'Epenoux a few times at SPIEL in the mid-2000s, and in 2008 he contacted me about editing English-language rules for a few upcoming titles, one of which was Reiner Knizia's Robot Master.
I edited the rules, then met d'Epenoux at SPIEL 2008 to thank him for the work and get paid. We talked about how he decides on what to publish, and he gave three rules for Cocktail titles, although plenty of exceptions exist:
• They must consist solely of cards.
• They must be explainable in one minute and playable in ten.
• They must be as fun to watch as they are to play.
He also explained how masterful Knizia is at giving publishers what they want, noting that he'll meet with Knizia at one fair, mention specific topics or types of games that he wants, then Knizia will approach him at the next fair with a catalog of designs to fit Cocktail's needs.
In the late 1990s, a short story of mine published in Speak magazine led to both an agent and a book editor contacting me to see whether I had enough stories, either already written or still waiting to be extracted from my head, to publish as a collection. I found the attention discomfiting, swearing to all that I couldn't possibly do such a thing.
My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a couple of years before he died from complications following a fall. One story of his that I still remember well from his later years:
While running errands one day, he unexpectedly ran into my mother at the mall — unexpectedly as she had taken the other car to do errands of her own — and while he knew who she was, he couldn't remember her name. He figured that his brain had taken all of his "home" information and put it in a mental box to be retrieved later because he was busy with other things at the time and needed to focus entirely on current tasks.
My college English professor, John Batty-Sylvan, introduced me to many great works, the most profound being Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie, a theoretically first-person narrative in which the first person must be inferred from the description presented in the text, description that never veers from what a person might directly sense, placing you directly behind the mask of the main character and forcing you to generate everything that might be happening there. ("La jalousie" can mean either "jealousy" or a certain type of window blind, a lack of distinction unfortunately lost with the English-language title.)
La Jalousie presents a narrative without a narrator, a body of text without a self. This book resonated with me, ringing hard my own empty shell.
More from Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop:
Eventually it dawned on me that there wasn't any marble in there at all, but that there was something that felt for all the world exactly like a marble to this old marble hand. It was an epiphenomenon caused by the fact that, for each envelope, at the vertex of the "V" made by its flap, there is a triple layer of paper as well as a thin layer of glue. An unintended consequence of this innocent design decision is that when you squeeze down on a hundred such envelopes all precisely aligned with each other, you can't compress that little zone as much as the other zones — it resists coompression. The hardness that you feel at your fingertips has an uncanny resemblence to a more familiar (dare I say "a more real"?) hardness.
My memory is fairly terrible — always has been, really — and I often discover after the fact that I'm remembering something in a way that didn't happen, assigning events and quotes to different times or people than where they originated.
Games are concrete objects, with names and numbers that don't change no matter when you take them from the shelf, but I find that I'm not remembering them as well as I used to. I can partly attribute this to the sheer number of games that I see each year, that number ballooning annually beyond the ability of anyone to fathom, much less experience, but only partly. I sample and share what I can, while letting most of it pass over me like rain, content to hope that someone else finds it quenching.
Despite appearing in game demonstration videos and being interviewed on radio shows and having my name in this space all the time, I'm not someone who craves publicity. I'm not interested in being famous, and I feel embarassed each time someone says something along those lines at conventions or game stores or at my house when they show up for game day.
Yes, I'm a guy who does public things, and yes, my name and face is out there, but that's not me. I'm playing a role; I step into that role at a particular time, do the thing, then retreat into privacy once again. I'm not the one who appears on camera. I just play that guy on BGG TV.
Another author introduced to me in college by Batty-Sylvan was Jorge Luis Borges, and some of Borges' recurring themes in his short stories included identity and the mirroring of the world, the abstract and the make-believe being made inseparable from the real, as in this one-paragraph story "On Exactitude In Science", as translated here by Andrew Hurley:
. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map,inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
I often forget to look at myself in a mirror before going out — or maybe "forget" isn't the right word as I just don't think about looking at myself. I know that I'm there because I'm walking around and wearing clothes and eating food so that's good enough, right?
One night, for reasons unknown to me now, I thought of my family and what we played in the past. I reminisced about the gloriously dark cloud at the heart of Bermuda Triangle and our dexterity version of All the King's Men. I thought about Funny Bones and its double-sided cards and its head-to-head play and the points on each side of the card, although I couldn't remember how the game ended.
In the morning, I downloaded the rules for Funny Bones and discovered that it didn't play anything like how I remembered it, so I messed around with my fake recollected game, streamlined it further so that teams competed to hold a certain numebr of cards first to win, then pitched it to Cocktail Games, knowing that the design fit d'Epenoux's criteria and that I wouldn't pitch it anywhere else if Cocktail didn't want it.
D'Epenoux agreed to publish the game, after which I immediately started wondering whether he had signed the contract because he thought I was going to publicize it heavily on BGG, after which I started hating myself for not trusting his judgment and honesty because he had always seemed like an up-front person in the past. I could barely talk to him after that, always feeling like a fraud who had snookered his way into publication. I hesitated to cover Cocktail following the game's announcement as I didn't want to come across as favoring my publisher, effectively punishing it instead. I didn't know how to relate to this experience, and I just wanted it to end so that I could retreat to what I knew and keep on keeping on.
From an email I sent in 2008:
I don't feel that I have to convince others that my point of view is the right POV, that everyone must agree with me. I'm writing as a way to record my own thoughts and beliefs and observations, to figure out what I think. Ideally the writing will interest others and make them think about things in a new way, but I have no faith that it will. People get stuck in tracks of thought, and challenging someone's beliefs is rarely enough to encourage them to look at something from a different POV. Everything gets processed through a person's skein of reality, for good or ill.
While roaming the Boston Pubic Library one day, I ran across a fascinating book by Douglas Harding titled On Having No Head in which he writes about the philosophy of headlessness, what he calls "the headless way" for as he points out you can never see your own head the way that you see the rest of the world, which should give you pause as to what's really going on on top of your shoulders.
One experiment he suggests is called "Two-way pointing":
Point with one index finger outwards at the world, and with your other index finger point inwards towards your no-face.
The finger pointing outwards points at a scene full of countless shapes and colours. It’s a complicated picture. The more time you spend looking at it, the more there is to see. And most of it is hidden — obscured by other things in one way or another.
The view in is different. Here the space is not hidden at all. You can see it all, all at once. In the photograph I can see only part of the room in the distance, but here I see all of the space. There is nothing more to view here, nothing concealed. Nor is this being that I am here — and that you are here (I suggest) — remote in any way. It is right here, it is what I am. It is the "part" of me that I can never lose. What could be simpler than seeing this — and being this? It is uncomplicated, transparent, open to inspection, nearer than near, given in its entirety…
Is this Who you really are? Are you empty of everything, and at the same time capacity for this endlessly changing view out, room for this amazing world? To find out, just look. Seeing the space here is simpler than simple.
As soon as Borges had been presented to me, I read nearly everything he had written, finding multiple similarities between his work and Robbe-Grillet's — so much so that for one of my essays in college English, I "wrote" about La Jalousie by stitching together quotes from Borges' stories and essays. In the final paper, 95% of the essay was someone else's writing now repurposed, my voice clearly heard, yet simultaneously unnecessary thanks to my efforts to ventriloquize the dead.
My story from Speak:
Maybe Next Time
So I see you in a cafe reading the Sunday newspaper and having coffee, and on a whim I sit down across from you so I can read a section of the paper as well, although mostly I look at you over the top of the page. I ask you questions about your weekend and weekdays and work life and home life, and I find out you don't have anyone special in your life, no lover or significant other, no partner who considers you the most wonderful person in the world, and this surprises me as you seem to be a charming and lovely person, intelligent, witty. I invite you out for a movie, dancing, a trip to the circus, a walk on a pier in moonlight. We have an evening that satisfies both of us, more evenings and weekend trips, seventeen months of sharing a bed, a kitchen, an apartment, thirty-four years of marriage before you die, leaving me and our son and two daughters to mourn our loss, leaving me without the most important person in my life, leaving me alone for three years before I die. The only thing that survives us, that shows we were together, are our children, but then our children have four children and their children have nine and those nine, fourteen. Our genes spread through the human race and would be a part of every man and woman on the planet except before that happens everyone is killed by chemical agents that leak out of forty-thousand-year-old canisters. The earth lies empty of animal life for the remainder of its lifespan, for six hundred thirty-five million years and then the sun melts the earth to nothing as it expands and dissipates its energy. The remains of the solar system are devoured one-and-three-quarter billion years later by a black hole, which is then consumed by another, and slowly the entirety of the universe is drawn to one point as one black hole cannibalizes another, then another, increasing its mass until it becomes all-devouring. The enormous and universal mass that it absorbs and contains crushes it back to a single point that explodes a nanosecond later to refill and recreate the universe. Fifteen billion years of development create thousands of galaxies and millions of stars and a million million planets and more specifically, in a galaxy which some of its residents call the Milky Way, a solar system with a plain yellow sun and nine planets, the third planet overflowing with carbon-based life. One species advances to the point that it can transmit energy through wires and double the natural lifespan of its members and send representatives of the planet into nearby areas of space. And you live now on this vast and interesting planet that has many areas you've never visited and millions of people you'll never meet and one of those people is me, who you'll never get to experience or know or care for or love; the only contact you'll have with me is reading a story that I write.
From a Nov. 24, 2016 email from Cocktail Games' Matthieu d'Epenoux:
Here is a royalty statement for BODY PARTY.
The game is not a success and I think that we probably made bad choices in terms of cover.
In the world of video game development, there is the concept of a postmortem: an analysis of a finished project that examines how the different parts of the project came together, what worked well, and what could have been done better. In principle, it's a great way to learn important lessons and improve future development, and it's especially valuable when two or more games with similar themes or gameplay come out close to each other. After a confusing conversation with a fellow game designer who hadn't encountered the term before, I was advised to add this line: Despite the morbid tone of the word, a postmortem is usually done for products that are still very much alive!
Almost six years ago, towards the end of 2010, I started work on a deck-building spelling game that would eventually be called Dexikon. The goal was to create a game that helped usher my Scrabble-playing in-laws into the fold of wonderful modern games, and early in development it was clear that there was definitely something to the idea. After a lot of iteration, Dexikon was published in 2015 by Eagle-Gryphon Games.
The game is a bit like Ascension, but all the cards are letters and you have to use your cards to spell words. You start with a deck of low-value letter cards that are easy to use, and using them to spell words generates points that you use to buy higher-value (and harder-to-use) letter cards and/or victory points. At the end of the game, you get to use all your cards to spell one massive "last word".
Yep. Unfortunately for me, I was not the only person to have this idea, and my slow-and-not-particularly-steady development cycle meant that Dexikon would not be the first deck-building word game to hit the market. That honor would be taken in mid-2013 by Tim Fowers' Paperback, which has achieved widespread recognition as a well-designed and wonderful game.
With apologies to Paige Turner because you never did anything to deserve getting an "art" treatment from me.
I put Dexikon on the back burner when Paperback was announced on Kickstarter, but after I'd had a chance to buy and play a copy of Paperback post-launch, I decided that there was enough to set the two games apart that it was worth pushing on with Dexikon. The most critical differences boil down to two things...
 In Dexikon, the most common letters (vowels, S and T) are freely available through the game on multi-letter "core" cards. The ES card can be used as E or S, and the AT and IOU cards work the same. This means that the player gets a lot of flexibility from a couple of core cards and few consonants.
In Paperback, you get a handful of vowels in your starting deck, then any vowel cards gained through play are either short-lived (trash upon use) or hotly contested (claiming the common vowels). You also have access to the common vowel card, a card that you can add to your word even though it's not part of your hand.
 In both Paperback and Dexikon, players spell a word each turn to earn currency, which can then be used on that turn. In Dexikon, players must choose to either spend their currency on buying new cards or bank their word and get just half the currency to spend on new cards. The game ends once any player has banked seven words, at which point final victory points are scored from several sources:
• The values of their best five banked words.
• -2 points for each penalty (wild) card in their deck.
• Each N or P card in their deck (1 and 2 points respectively).
• The value of one final word, using as many cards from the player's deck as they like.
Paperback uses four tiers of Dominion-style (and beautifully illustrated!) victory point cards, which are also wild when used in words. At the end of the game, players' final scores are the total value of the victory point cards in their decks.
The different approaches to vowels and wild cards mean that the sort of words you can spell changes over the course of the game in different ways. Both games have an initial period of moving toward more valuable hands that make it harder to form words, but then Dexikon's late-game is characterized by a push to get rid of penalty cards, whereas Paperback's late game is all about acquiring lots of VP cards. The trick in Dexikon is navigating the late-game while making sure your deck doesn't run so low on core cards that you lose the ability to spell words, and in Paperback the trick is making sure that the influx of VP cards doesn't leave you in a position of being easily able to use all your cards but unable to score enough to buy new VP cards.
There are other, less fundamental differences, such as the way the pool of available cards works, the spread of abilities, and the treatment of attack cards. These all contribute to a generally different feel and flow of the game, but the two key differences are what really set the two games apart in terms of mechanical strategy.
Dexikon was Kickstarted by Eagle-Gryphon Games in early 2015 and delivered a few months later. Reviews were generally positive and very naturally focused on comparisons with Paperback. GeekDad (review) and Tom Vasel (review) both preferred Paperback.
Jonathan Liu on GeekDad felt that Paperback has the advantage on ease of play and teaching, and that Dexikon's decision between banking and spending has the potential to be tough and less intuitive than Paperback's decision between regular letters and VP cards.
Tom preferred the look of Paperback, agrees that it's an easier game to teach to new players, and felt that where Dexikon gives an advantage to players with larger vocabularies, Paperback gave the advantage to the player best at deck-building. He also felt that Paperback plays faster.
Craig from Botch Games preferred Dexikon (review). He really liked the choice between banking and spending, and the dilemma of when/if to purge penalty cards. He was surprised by how much he enjoyed the game and described it as one of the most cut-throat deck-builders he'd played. He felt that the use of the score pad for banking (and blocking other players from spelling words) was "the bee's knees" and found it hilarious that you're guaranteed to be able to spell "outset" on your first turn. He thought that Paperback was closer to Dominion, and Dexikon was closer to Ascension.
The "last word" mechanism was a selling point for Eagle-Gryphon when I pitched the game to them, and I've found it's been generally popular with players. The idea that a solid last word strategy can compensate for weaker turn-by-turn banking is appealing, and I've enjoyed seeing games swung by last words.
In Dexikon (without the alternate attack expansion cards), the hand you draw at the end of your turn cannot be interfered with by other players, so you can start planning your next word immediately. This helps keep the AP down somewhat.
Once you've got the hang of using the multi-letter cards, you can usually find a way to use all your cards each turn, which feels epic (but more on this in the next section).
After a lot of playtesting with friends' children, I hit upon a simple way to balance the game across spelling levels: By letting younger players replace one or more of their penalty cards with special penalties, which have exactly the same functionality but are worth 1 instead of 0 when spelling a word. This allowed kids to compete on a fairly even level with their parents, and I think it's one of Dexikon's best features!
In Dexikon, you can always use all your cards on your first turn. Being put at a disadvantage before you've made a single decision in a game is one of my pet peeves, so I wanted to make sure that every opening hand could be completely used, even if you happen to draw all of your non-penalty cards (two each of AT, ES and IOU). By sheer, glorious coincidence, one of two words that you're guaranteed to be able to spell at the outset of the game is, in fact, "outset".
Players generally seem to enjoy the choice to spend or bank. Learning when to switch from deck-building to scoring is not immediately intuitive because of the way that your deck continues to grow (albeit with lower-cost cards) even on turns when you bank. In the end, it comes down to a combination of reading what other players are doing, being aware of what your deck already contains, and (ideally) having a vague idea of which letters you still need to collect to maximize your last word.
There are a couple of minor cosmetic things that give Dexikon a bit of an edge over Paperback: the corner letters on both left and right makes it friendlier for left-handed players, its single deck of pool cards makes it marginally quicker to set up, and the smaller box makes it a bit more portable. That said, it's important to note that few if any people were calling these things out as aspects of Paperback that needed fixing, and Paperback's larger box is stuffed full of extra content and game modes!
The name should have a C, not a K — what was I thinking?! The choice to go with K was a stylistic conceit that has not resonated with players. I think I've seen more reviews/comments about "Dexicon" than "Dexikon"! In contrast, Paperback has a catchy name that is nigh-impossible to misspell!
Dexikon is themeless. The art brief I wrote was to create something with the same theme-neutrality of Scrabble while also evoking a feeling of expensive, leather-bound Victorian tomes. As far as I'm concerned, Simon Brewer (Dexikon's artist) absolutely nailed the brief. Paperback has a light theme that mostly comes through in the pulp novel art on the VP cards, and for all that people might argue that the theme is not intrinsic or necessary, Ryan Goldsberry's art is often called out as one of the satisfying parts of the Paperback experience. I think that the theme makes Paperback feel friendlier, whereas Dexikon comes across as more calculating and potentially cold. Just to be clear, that's on me as the author of the brief; I have nothing but gratitude and awe for how well Simon delivered what I asked for.
Dexikon's multi-letter cards may offer flexibility, but they do so at the cost of familiarity. Wild letters are a concept with which any Scrabble player will be familiar, so there's no real cognitive cost to learning a game that includes them. Scrabble also features the core gameplay of "arrange these letters to form a word", but it's initially difficult to learn to do that with multi-letter cards. In my experience, most people pick it up within a few games, but until they've done so, it can be a stressful experience. In contrast, Paperback builds upon the Scrabble experience without forcing any fundamental changes in thinking, so it's much quicker to get players up and running, and enjoying the card effects and deck-building.
Dexikon gives a bonus point to a player who manages to empty their hand when spelling a word, which helps players feel like they've "solved" a hand and makes them feel good — but it also creates an expectation of using the whole hand, leading to stress, AP, and disappointment when a player winds up with a hand that is hard (or impossible) to fully use. Paperback doesn't offer this bonus point, and since the starting decks are not guaranteed to spell a word with every card in your initial hand, it never fosters the impression that using anything less than your full hand is a failure.
Dexikon's scoresheet mechanism and spend/bank choice are compelling, but they're a big departure from the Dominion style of buying point cards, and that's another cognitive cost to learning the game. It means that the game can potentially go on too long if none of the players have a good read on when to start banking. Paperback uses a scoring system that builds on the Dominion experience in the same way that its spelling builds on the Scrabble experience, and Tim Fowers really nailed the balance between Scrabble, Dominion and SomethingNewAndExciting.
Honestly? Not much except that accursed K in the name. Getting my A into G a little earlier and being first to market would have been great, but the time on the back burner after Paperback's announcement actually resulted in a lot of positive changes, so I would have been first to market with a much weaker game. As it is, I really like the way that Dexikon works differently from Paperback. I like the way that both games gently recalibrate the way that you think about language as you learn to play better, and I think it's neat that the recalibrations are subtly different. (Dexikon works best if you weigh the short-word potential of new letters against their possible inclusion in your eventual "last word", whereas Paperback rewards you for balancing powerful letters with an occasional influx of wild VP cards to make those letters easier to use.)
Early on, I wanted to call the game "Animalexikon" and make each card a picture of an animal that started with that letter (AT would be "American Toad", ES "Elephant Seal", and IOU an ambiguous silhouette called "Ibex Or Unicorn"), but thought it would feel too childish for a hard-ish core spelling game. From the comments on the Kickstarter, a lot of people would have preferred that, but I still think such an approach is better saved for a follow-up title — with no K in the name. My eldest son is five and keen to work with me to make a spelling game for kids, so watch this space…
Unsurprisingly, I like Dexikon, and I think it does a good job of doing what it was supposed to: Provide an iterative word puzzle that evolves based on what you and your opponents do. Though it's fair to say that it's harder than Paperback to grok the way the game plays, I've had very good feedback from the people who have resonated with Dexikon.
Interestingly enough, since Dexikon was released, I've met a couple of other designers working on deck-building word games, and when I played one of them, I was struck by how slightly different mechanisms can completely change the way the game flows. I think there's still a lot of untapped potential in the world of deck-building word games, and I do hope to see those other designers press on with their versions.
Also, and this is really cool, Tim Fowers invited me to help out with the design for an upcoming Paperback expansion. It's very exciting to get to play in another designer's sandbox and to finally have a potential outlet for all the letter combinatorial gubbins that my brain trained itself to do while working on Dexikon. Turns out that stuff is of limited use in regular life! I can't give any details, except that I am very confident it will be awesome...
Jordan & Mandy
Hi there! We are Jordan and Mandy Goddard. Yep, you guessed it — we are married, and we design games together. We love getting the chance to work on projects together in our free time, and what better hobby than one in which we get to play games all the time! Here is the story on how our latest game, Lotus, came about and how it evolved over the course of two years…
Lotus is a game that was developed mechanisms-first, then grew into its beautiful theme along the way. The process started during the summer of 2014. Our early objective was to create a board game-like experience using cards and no board. We started playing around with how cards are held in your hand and how that same fanned-out shape could be placed down on the table to create a full circle of cards. This led to the development of the game's core mechanism of set completion with five different sets, ranging from three cards to seven cards. Using a little geometry to identify the exact angle of overlap for each set, we were able to guide placement of each card for a clean shape every time.
It didn't take long before the card-laying mechanism naturally led us to a theme of building flowers. That theme, in addition to our desire for a board game experience, led to the addition of butterfly meeples to be used for area control of the flowers in the garden. We gave the design the name "Bloom" and got to work on a ruleset and petal card illustrations.
It doesn't always make sense to invest in full art so early in the game design process, but in this case, the petal cards actually help enable the mechanism by providing guides for placing the next card in the set. The art also provides a visual indicator of progress toward the completion of each flower, which is helpful during gameplay. We had a full art prototype made to confirm whether our vision was going to work as we expected. It was time to move on to playtesting!
Thanks to the great community at Unpub and the Blue Noodle, we were able to show our design to a large number of wonderful people and receive incredibly valuable feedback. Their countless hours of playtesting various iterations and providing detailed suggestions helped us polish the details. We also leaned on the Reddit community, specifically the TabletopGameDesign subreddit, for some early feedback on artwork and general concepts of the game. You could even say this process led to some budding friendships.
Daryl Andrews, Gil Hova, Jordan Goddard, Ian Zang, Tony Miller, Mandy Goddard, Isaac Shalev (back row)
Tiffany Caires, Daniel Newman (front row)
About a year into our project, in the summer of 2015, we partnered with Renegade Game Studios. It was a wonderful experience working with the Renegade team and collaborating with their extended network of game designers and artists. While the core mechanisms of the game remained unchanged, there were a few significant improvements made as a result of working with the new team.
Theme and Visual Aesthetics
We learned that the name "Bloom" was already taken by a European game, so we started brainstorming alternatives. (Two examples were "Blossom" and "Garden in Bloom".) The final decision for "Lotus" didn't come about until after we landed on the idea for the box art. Kane Klenko (designer of Covert, FUSE, and Dead Men Tell No Tales) led the art direction for Lotus and we owe him a HUGE thank you for how beautifully everything came together. Illustrations were provided by Chris Ostrowski and graphic design by Anita Osburn — what an amazing team!
The box cover took on a clean, inviting, mysterious feeling through the use of negative white space to draw attention to the gorgeous Asian-inspired artwork. The petal cards bring the game to life with their bright, bold colors and natural imperfections that allow for no two completed flowers to look exactly the same.
The final theme was a result of the art direction — or at least of a feeling the art evoked. Players are invited into a mysterious lotus garden where they compete for flowers in order to harness the wisdom that the mystical blossoms provide. Each player also commands a set of insect guardians that helps them gain control of flowers and aids them in gaining special abilities to make their quest more successful.
Mechanism and Components
For what may seem like a fairly simple set of rules, the game did pose a number of challenges for us during playtesting. It's interesting to look back now to remember how much it really changed over the course of two years in development.
Below are a few examples of ideas we tested that didn't make it into the final version of the game. We also show the issues that kept these ideas from working and the solution that was implemented in the final version of Lotus.
A few more tweaks here and terminology updates there, and we finally had the Lotus rules. Final components were also taking shape, including a change from using just butterfly meeples to including three other critters — ladybugs, dragonflies, and caterpillars — to round out the mix of insect guardians.
The most fulfilling part of the entire process was supporting the launch of Lotus at Renegade's booth at Gen Con 2016. The reception of the game was so positive, and we are just so excited to see other people enjoying playing with their families and friends. If you have a chance to play, we would love to hear your feedback on Twitter @JordanandMandy.
Thank you so much to everyone who helped us along the way!
Jordan and Mandy Goddard
Ancon — a charming city with a lake surrounded by verdant hills, a pleasant marina, a beautiful opera house…
In winter when tourism is dormant, its streets are empty and fog rises from the water, Ancon's beauty takes a rather eerie and melancholic turn, verging on the sinister: something like Death in Venice (without the sun) meets The Shining (without Jack Nicholson running after you with an axe).
Needless to say, I was there one winter.
I had just flown in to replace a deficient colleague in a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. I didn't know anybody on the production (the fate of latecomers) and had packed only one book: Jared Diamond's Collapse (which describes how brilliant past civilizations have collapsed almost overnight for badly managing their natural resources –something that, according to Diamond, will happen to us soon, if we do not change our ways).
Was it the uplifting read, the loneliness, the fog? Sitting in my hotel room, thinking about what the next game in the Oniverse series could be, I decided: "I'm going to take the WORST game mechanism ever and use it to make a fun solo/coop game" — and the worst game mechanism I could think of was "roll and move".
Ah, roll and move! The mechanism that most of us "serious gamers" love to hate! How could I possibly turn this into something that I would consider a satisfying and fun solo game experience?
My first impulse was to think: "Onirim: The Dice Game". You are in a labyrinth and have to get out. To do so, you must outrace a bad guy running towards you (it was obvious to me that he'd be running towards you as thematically absurd as it was at that time; my intuition would be proven right a couple of weeks later) and get to the exit (the bad guy's starting point) before he reached the center of the labyrinth (your starting point).
To make things interesting, you wouldn't only need to go as fast as you could, hoping for high rolls (where's the fun in that?); along the way, you would have to gather pieces of a key-like artifact. Only with the complete artifact would you be able to open the exit door. And the path would actually be made of the pieces, so no need for a board or track. For this reason, you would sometimes need to go slower in order to pick the right piece (obviously, there are several copies — four actually — of each piece, allowing you to jump over some of them).
Already in my first draft, the bad guy was not alone: an arch-villain would hover over the race, sabotaging your progress.
So the primal situation with its game-nurturing contradictions was the following:
• You want to go fast BUT must sometimes slow down to get missing pieces.
• You want the bad guy to go slowly BUT you must be careful that he doesn't land too often on the pieces you will need. After all, he steals each piece he lands on, so you sometimes need him to jump over a larger part of the track.
• You need to prevent the arch-villain from too often sabotaging your race as he makes you discard pieces you already have if he gets high results on the dice.
Three actors (player, bad guy, arch-villain), three dice.
And instead of each actor having their own dice, you would roll all three dice each turn, then assign them.
This was the first playable version. It had enough hard and fun decisions in a short amount of time for my taste, so I didn't throw the prototype out the window.
Still there were some flaws: I had no expansions at all and a lot of elements didn't make sense thematically: Why would you race towards the bad guy? Why is he ignoring you when you cross paths in the narrow alleys? Why do you lose as soon as he gets to the center of the labyrinth?
The solution actually came from a tiny, but annoying thematic/component-related problem: How could I represent the player?
In Onirim, the player has no physical presence in the game components: the cards represent the visited locations and the encountered dreams — but the player somehow stays "themself", which I find coherent with the story that the game is telling. And the same goes actually for Sylvion, Urbion, and Castellion.
Would I change this here? And how? A humanoid figure running? An abstract pawn?
Then the answer dawned on me: The player should either be wearing a suit or be in a vehicle! A diving suit? A car? A boat? A submarine!
And suddenly everything made sense!
You weren't escaping anything; you were diving into the depths, towards the lair of the arch-villain, who was no longer hovering over you, but firmly waiting at the bottom of the ocean, prepared to conquer the whole aquatic world of the Oniverse.
The bad guy would be the arch-villain's henchman, a ghost ship — or rather a phantom submarine! — on its way to the surface to bring desolation to your homeland, the Happy Isles.
That's why you have to get to the bad guy's starting point before he gets to yours: By destroying his boss, he will become powerless! And in order to defeat this arch-villain — a sinister Darkhouse that emits darkness instead of light — you would need help from various inhabitants of the depths, no longer inanimate pieces of a key.
This thematic change not only made everything more coherent, but it somehow opened up the game to various expansions, as if the thematic inadequacy of the first draft had me stuck into a mechanical dead end.
First, you could have various submarine designs. With of a simple "air conduct rule" (you can take a new member in your ship only if their cabin is adjacent to the cabin of another member), some submarines would be much easier to man than others. I came up with six different shapes, ranging from quite comfortable (lots of adjacent cabins) to very tricky (with cabins connected only to one other cabin).
Niobe racing the Hammer to Zion through a mechanical line, Lando and Nien Nunb maneuvering the Falcon through the Death Star pipes, Max and Furiosa bogged down under enemy fire — what would a good race between vehicles be without obstacles? In the "Reefs" expansion, some of the crew-members gain special abilities to outmaneuver various sub-aquatic traps that would otherwise bring your ship to a grinding halt, making you lose a whole turn, while the Phantom Submarine, impervious to anything in its way, would continue on its path up relentlessly!
If some crew members were pilots, other could become…fighters! The "Mercenaries" expansion develops on this and adds a new climax to the mid-game. (In a movie — or an opera — you would call it the first act's finale.) Now when you cross paths with the Phantom Submarine, you have to fight him! Not only does it start with better equipment, but it can also enslave fighters it meets on the way, further increasing its strength.
Fighters, pilots…how about some mechanics? Those would have the ability to re-roll some dice, but only if helped by a new sort of crew member: the Undersea Mages! This expansion actually brings a new type of dilemma; the fighters and the pilots help you as part of the crew on the submarine, but in order to get a mechanic's help, you have to pair it with a Mage in a separate section of the ship. Re-rolling dice is cool during the game, but is not part of the winning condition…
And what about the Darkhouse, lurking in the depths? I decided it would be fun to make him a cheater: the fourth expansion (named after him) brings rule-changing cards into the mix. Each turn, a new rule comes into effect, slightly modifying how the dice are rolled or assigned, how the figures move, how the tiles are distributed, and so on. Some of those cards make the game trickier, some make it easier; you choose at the beginning of each game how difficult you want your mix to be, then randomly reveal five cards that will be in effect alternately each turn.
Finally, what's a good crew story without some heroic sacrifices? The last expansion adds those; you will have to sacrifice some of your hard-earned crew members in order to accomplish heroic actions that may help you tremendously — but only if triggered at the right time!
This is how I made the journey from the quiet shores of Ancon's lake to the troubled ocean of the Oniverse, full of turmoil, submarine fights, and tricky tides.
The worst game mechanism ever? Probably.
A fun solo/coop game? Grab the dice, and dive into it to find out!
One of the first things they taught us in film school was that when writing a script, you need to write about what you know. Although we didn't agreed with that opinion, inevitably we did write about characters and situations that we had already experienced. Everything about this profession was new to us, and it's unlimited options were frightening, so we needed something familiar in order to get a foothold. It was obviously easier to reproduce something we already knew than to imagine, and then create, a whole new universe. As we grew as artists, we had the chance and ability to venture outside the known and usual stories to create something truly unique and new. That took time, practice, and a lot of hard work.
Some years later, the same happened to me again when I started designing board games. Here, like in the film industry, I was entering a whole new — and equally massive — ocean of potentials, and I needed something familiar to grab and float onto.
So the first game I ever tried to make was about the film industry, a subject I already knew well. As a beginner, I fell into literally all the traps a first-time designer can fall into. My first game was way too long and complicated, it had every mechanism I had encountered, and most importantly it wasn't fun. Thankfully I had already dealt with many, many, many failures and disappointments in my first job, so I didn't give up and I made a second, a third, and many more versions of that initial game. At some point I was confident enough to show it to a publisher, mostly for feedback and thoughts. In no way was it a finished design, but the meeting was positive enough for me to keep at it.
From that meeting, I learned about a national board game design contest that was taking place in my town. I was encouraged to participate in it, but I felt it wasn't the right time to show my design to such a wide audience. I promised to myself that next year I would be ready. In the meantime, I put aside my first game and tried to complete other ideas I had. Some were very promising, and some were unimaginable disasters.
Some months later, the next national board game design contest was announced and a friend of mine suggested that I should participate with my cinema game. I felt it was still too complicated and big for that environment, so I decided to make a new game, specifically for the contest, by keeping the same theme and inserting new, streamlined and easier mechanisms. I needed to create a game that could convey the theme of managing a movie studio by using only cards. I wanted a game that would be easier to set up, explain and play than the heavy worker placement and economic game that I had already made, so I tested many different mechanisms and I ended up loving the idea of hand management. As in real life, you need to manage correctly your crew and cast, as a production of anything audiovisual is an extremely long and hard process. I also wanted to incorporate a sense of expansion and progression, so I decided to implement deck-building aspects to the game by adding new crew members that the players could hire to their studios.
The projects at the beginning were only movies, but soon I realized that by adding new kinds of projects, such as television series, commercials and awards, I could add multiple ways to victory, much more replayability, and of course cool new artwork!
Early in the design process, I also decided to make the game two player only as I thought I could manage the balance better and I was able to playtest it more often. In the initial playtests, I was happy with the general idea and direction of the game, but I needed to make sure that players always had interesting choices to make during their turn and were not obliged to play a specific card. Unfortunately by making some big changes to the game, I went to the opposite direction. I though it would be cool to have each type of project always available to the players. That way they always had something to do in their turn, but the problem was that these many options didn't help the pace of the game, and by removing the limitations I had made the game less interesting. By reverting to the original idea of shuffling together all the projects and dealing some of them in the middle, I could create an interesting puzzle again.
Many versions later, I was convinced that the game could support more players, but I wanted to make sure that by adding more players I wouldn't add more chaos, so I decided to incorporate specific set-up patterns in order to ensure that by the time a player's turn came up again, the available projects would be mostly the same.
After a lot of work, I had a version that played 2 to 4 players in forty minutes, and I was confident enough to submit my game to the competition. During that competition the designers would have the opportunity to playtest and showcase their games, and after three months the jury would select the ten best games. The first of the three playtest events was very enlightening because for the first time strangers played my game and gave me feedback. Up to that point, my focus group was friends and family that although sincere still wouldn't hurt my feelings with aggressive opinions and critiques — but strangers didn't care about my feelings and that's exactly what I needed! After the first event, I redesigned almost every card in the game and I introduced goal cards. I felt that players needed a sense of direction both for the entirety of the game and for the early rounds, so setting up objectives that reward fame points for specific strategies helped to guide the players, even those who deliberately avoided them.
With the new version of the game, I went to the second playtest event, where I had the chance to show it to three different publishers! Drawlab Entertainment was the first company that immediately liked my idea and soon we met again to further discuss the game and its potential. From the first moment, their level of enthusiasm for my game won me over, and after months of balancing and developing its core aspects we had managed to create an amazing game based on what I knew best: cinema. The game ended up in third place in the card games category, but I felt like a winner as I knew I had found the best home for my creation.
I hope you will enjoy Motion Pictures: Movies Out of Cardboard and keep enjoying it as we develop more content from the endless world of audiovisual productions.
Motion Pictures on display in the press room at SPIEL 2016
In the present day, new movies, comics, books, video and board games are constantly struggling for our free time. New products come out every day, and many of them are so extraordinary that you just can't miss them. In order to catch all that stuff, sometimes we want to play something fast with just a few components, but at the same time we want to get the same range of emotions and amusement from a larger, complex game. Of course, all designers have the dream of making a game with just a small amount of components and cards, but that has become particularly important recently. We, as designers, decided we wanted to take up the challenge of creating a "minimalist" game.
In fact, it happened that I created the basic concept of Behind the Throne during just one single evening. There is something archetypal and basic, yet fascinating, in the mechanisms of "pressing your luck". However simple at core, I like these games a lot. It is always interesting to me to try to assess risks in these games. It's funny when you find out that you scared yourself in vain or (vice versa) you were too self-confident. That's why I like the idea of number comparison, and the ability to predict the risk seemed interesting to me.
The next morning, I made the prototype and showed it to my co-author Oleg. He was just about to take a break after designing Pirates of the 7 Seas. As this game was pretty light, I convinced him that we would be able to finish it quickly — but of course everything was not as easy as I had thought it would be.
Monsters That Almost Got Main Roles
After several days of testing, when we had determined the basic properties of cards and their values, it was the right time to make a "true" prototype, with actual art and layout, partly because I perceive a game much better when it has at least some art, which helps players to memorize specific cards and so on, but also because we had decided to give the game to our friends to see their reaction.
The game is quite abstract and almost any theme would fit. It could be based around animals, robots, aliens or something else. I decided it would be nice to see on cards some funny monsters that help their lord to win. Their appearance should help the players guess their abilities.
I went online to search appropriate images, preferably with a consistent style, and I was delighted when I found a series of very original monsters, just like I needed. Each of them had its character; they were very skillfully drawn and made everyone smile. There was even a back illustration for the cards! However, I couldn't find the contact data of the creator! That is how the game almost became a game in which the main characters were funny monsters.
After that, I started looking for an artist. I wrote to several people we worked with earlier, but after a few sketches, we still had not found the right style. Those monsters I had found were so awesome that we couldn't create something we liked as much if we insisted upon sticking to this theme, so that's when we decided to change it.
Politicians and Their Games
Together with the talented Ukrainian artist Denis Martynets, who worked with us on Pirates of the 7 Seas, we started looking for a new theme. It so happened that my friend dropped in and started talking about politics, conspiracy, and corruption — and suddenly I realized that this theme fits the mechanisms perfectly, even better than monsters. This theme allows you to control different people with the different abilities useful to you, outbid them, and try to surround yourself with the most influential people.
Denis made a few sketches. We were looking for a medieval look. Although this topic is used a lot in games, it allows for very colorful characters. We also added a little bit of fantasy, and to make it less grim, we focused on the grotesque. Oleg and I both didn't like the first two sketches in terms of proportions and style. Denis was about to refuse this job, but I convinced him to try one more time, and with this third attempt I was amused and convinced this was just what we needed! The character looked great. By the way, this card is the "judge" card today.
Balance of Powers
We worked on the game's balance for quite a long time. It seems the game is pretty simple and everything is ready, but this is a game with just nine types of cards (and they must have certain numbers), so there were a limited number of elements we could tweak for tuning the entire balance. Every little detail has a huge influence on the gameplay. We had a large number of different versions of the game and balancing it all took a few months until we got the desired result. We finally decided on the abilities and how the game should finish in order to keep the intrigue until the very end.
For this I have to thank our colleagues from Ares Games. They were the first ones who believed in this game and helped us with the final version. They were very patient, in spite of the fact that balancing of the game delayed its finishing much longer than we planned. By the way, there were originally tokens in the game; you can see them in the pictures which appeared with the announcement of the game. We used them to indicate cards with invalid abilities, but the constant shifting and placing irritated us. And Oleg, after he returned from one exhibition, brought a great solution, the idea coming after explaining the game to one of the exhibition visitors who constantly forgot to add or remove tokens. That's when Oleg figured out how to help him. It was a simple but effective solution: just rotate the cards when their power cannot be used! Ever heard of it?
Behind the Throne
Finally, we had to choose the name of the game. We thought we had found the right one, which fit well all the various intrigues, different fights for the throne, and backroom conspiracy: "Gray Cardinal". The name is derived from true historical events and one famous individual whose activities made famous this well-known term.
But this idiomatic expression translates differently in different languages. For example, in English it sounds like "Behind the Throne". We wanted a name to be the same in most languages, so we decided to use this title because it expresses well the main point of the game: Players are influential people who can have different levels of impact on the same characters.
The Experience vs Luck Factor
Does luck have a great impact in this game? Of course, but it is not decisive. You have to be careful and take risks in this game. I can also give one piece of advice: Do not ignore card exchange in this game. It is actually a very powerful thing. And, of course, you may well instigate others against the leader. That's politics!
Awaiting Players' Reaction...
Behind the Throne has just released in English and will soon be in the hands of players in the U.S., Europe and China. Its premiere was in Poland, surprisingly, but that is where we premiered our Mysterium game as well, so it happened again that an Ukrainian game appears first in the hands of our good neighbors. It almost looks like a tradition!
I hope you will enjoy the game. We have put in so much effort. We would appreciate your feedback! We accepted the challenge of minimalism. If we coped with it or not, you will decide — now it is time for a new project!
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