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Designer Diary & Game Overview: Think Again

bruno cathala
France
st pierre en faucigny
Unspecified
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Party games are a kind of game I didn't touch very much, not because I don't like them — I looooooove funny games when they are good, such as Time's Up!, Spot it!, and Liar's Dice) — but because it is really hard to find THE good idea (or is that The Big Idea?), the idea so simple that you can explain the game in thirty seconds, clever enough to make everyone laugh, and — most difficult of all — different from what has already been done.

Working together with Ludovic (Maublanc), we decided to do everything in reverse order: Let's make a quiz game! And then we heard the crowd: "Boooo! So common!" Hmm, a quiz, yes, but a quiz that would not play with your knowledge because everyone would know every answer.

So, where is the originality? Well, if you already know all the answers, you'll have to be faster than the other players. What's more, you'll have to give WRONG answers!

Yes, therein lies the core concept of Think Again! I ask you "What is the color of milk" and you have to answer green, or red, but NOT white (or blue, if you are a Star Wars geek). And if I ask you who wrote Romeo and Juliet, answer Poe, but not Shakespeare!

Try doing this in your head, and you'll see that it's not that easy to QUICKLY give wrong answers to really simple questions!

Dunce and genius co-designers
But there is more: To trick the smart ones who would prepare wrong answers while the question is being read, the reader will show you the back of the next card immediately when he finishes reading the question. If that card back is red or has the word "Wrong" or depicts the character with the dunce cap, you have to answer wrongly, as explained above. But if the back is green or has the word "Right" or shows the image of a genius, you have to give a good – that is, a correct – answer, the real truth!

And this is all you need to have a great moment. You'll laugh because someone will answer the wrong/right way or the right/wrong way — you know what I mean! — with people saying things you would never think of in a lifetime, like ants live at the White House or you can make a phone call with a razor!

Oh, one last (nasty?) thing: The game includes a few absurd questions, questions that have no right answer, e.g., what is the color of the letters of the alphabet? It is soooo funny to see people search for answers to those questions, when of course the only correct answer to such absurd questions is "Think again!"

•••


I thought that I'd give a game overview to accompany Bruno's diary, but he has summarized both the origin of the idea and how to play, so I'm left with little to do but second his assessment of the game, having played once on a press copy from IELLO. With each question read, everyone but the reader seems poised to blurt out almost anything that comes to mind. The challenge is that wrong answers must be in the "proper" category for the question, so you can't yell "Tiger!" for every answer that's supposed to be wrong but instead must think your way to the almost correct answer, discarding nearly every possible answer that could be given to a question in order to be off the target to just the right degree.

I'm not sure whether this is intentional, but as the reader I like to slide the card that determines whether an answer should be right or wrong from the bottom of the deck and flash it to others without knowing which way they're supposed to be answering. Their brows beetle together for a few seconds, then the answers spring out in a batch and you learn (perhaps) which type of card you revealed.

One nice feature of the design is that only the first answer matters. Whether someone is right or wrong with their right or wrong answer, that person scores or loses one point, and no one else scores anything. This keeps the focus of the game on being fast and first, which naturally spurs more mistakes than if players waited to bat second. If you're behind on points, you're on edge just a bit more, for both good and bad, as each question is read, but as with many party games in the end you're thinking (again) more about the experience and the players with whom your share table time than who won.

Rectangular cards in the 2012 French version become square in the English one
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Tue May 20, 2014 4:22 am
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Designer Diary: Five Tribes, Part 1

bruno cathala
France
st pierre en faucigny
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In Q4 2014, Five Tribes will start appearing on game store shelves worldwide. I am often asked to talk about the game creation process, so I decided to take this opportunity to try to lay out on paper, as closely as I could in an admittedly long journal entry, the entire thought process that led to the creation of such a game, writing things down in the exact order in which they occurred in my head — and perhaps most importantly, going beyond explanations that I would qualify as purely mechanical and attempting to share my deepest personal motivations and the reasons behind each of my choices vis-à-vis the gaming experience that I sought to create this game.

1. How it all began

In January 2014, with the opening of TricTrac's pages to contributors of all kinds, I wrote a first article on how to engineer fun and encapsulate it in cardboard. That article dealt with a subject that is dear to my heart: the intimate relationship between playful fun and frustration. So I have to admit I found it quite funny and ironic, after taking a step back, to come to realize that it is again a personal frustration that was for me the trigger for designing Five Tribes. Let me explain...

I have now been a game designer for almost twelve years as my first game got published in October 2002, and my work has been revolving around games exclusively since April 2004 (following the sudden disappearance of the "real" job I had until then in a military-industrial complex).

I consider myself very fortunate among game designers: Up to this point, every single year has seen several of my games published. Believe me, I measure every day the opportunity and luck I've had, and I dread the day when my own desires may no longer be in tune with those of game publishers and players worldwide.

So I'm one of the happy few, yet a sense of frustration has been slowly building up inside me in recent years for in spite of these multiple yearly publications of new games, and despite garnering some real critical success among the public, my royalties have never quite followed suit and given me financial serenity or independence. So, in parallel with the development of my own creations, I am required to work as a game developer — sometimes going as far as supervising the actual manufacturing of some titles — on behalf of different publishers for games designed by other authors.

This work is exciting and brings me a reassuring economic stability, but it has a counterpart: It is time consuming. In fact, when I am commissioned to work on a "big" game for a given game publisher, it requires a profound intellectual immersion on my part in this subject. Immersion that prevents me from having the time to develop a project of the same magnitude for myself. As former manager of French TV Channel TF1 Patrick Le Lay would have said, "all my available human brain time" is completely absorbed by the task at hand.

So, in the middle of this process that is as time-consuming as it is exciting, I let the pressure off by designing "small", "fun little" games — lots of them. Note that I do not mean "small" in a pejorative way; I mean "small" in regards to the time it requires to create, develop, and playtest such short little games. And thus were born The Little Prince, Noah, Sobek, Okiya, SOS Titanic, etc... Let me be clear: I love each of these games and do not disavow them in any way.

Worse, sometimes while doing this, I take mental note, in a corner of my head or in one of my notebooks, of an overall architecture or design idea for a beefier game, one that would require more work. And I keep it for later when I'll have time. And then I get mad and frustrated when I see another very successful game based exactly on this idea come to market, nipping my own design in the bud. This is, for example, how I caught a severe case of the blues when Trajan came out more than a year ago, for I had put on paper all the architecture of a game based on exactly the same mechanisms for initiating different actions. The exact same game, basically!

This is how little by little over the years this frustration, born out of my own lack of time for my personal involvement in larger projects, has grown, boosted by the feeling sometimes that I had been outdone yet again on a great game design idea I had had.

This frustration, and the brain turmoil that accompanied it, grew and grew — until it erupted in late 2012.

2. For him, it all started on a dark night...

Overall, my working time is organized as follows: From Saturday to Friday, I work on various projects in which I am involved, usually a dozen in parallel, all at varying levels of progress: Updating and prototyping (files and other components), file validation before printing, rules writing and editing, image sourcing for other projects, various and varied coordination with authors / illustrators / publishers / manufacturers connected to these projects (Skype is my friend) ... then Friday night, off to Annecy for an evening of gaming in "The Lair", an aptly-named brewery in the city center.

There, each Friday night, players of all stripes meet. It begins with a drink (or four or twelve, it depends), telling bullshit (here, the degree of stupidity varies with the number of glasses), eating together (do not ask for the duck salad with no salad but french fries, just say a "Cathala" instead), and after a coffee, it's time for games until one in the morning. It's in this small, cozy cocoon that I've had the opportunity to assemble a team of always enthusiastic playtesters ready to validate my projects from the past week.

Late December 2012, a Friday morning: Lots of work... Too much of it. I badly want, no, need a break!

For the past few days I have been thinking about my old project stifled by Trajan again. I want to use Awélé's system of sowing for...something else. The night that just ended was a sleepless one, so I began to run a game in my head, a game for two (I swear, it's not on purpose):

• Some tiles, laid in a square. Say nine tiles.
• On these tiles, some pawns of three different colors, randomly placed three to a tile.
• On your turn, you empty a tile and drop its pawns on adjacent tiles, one at a time, without backing up on your move. (Still following, at the back of the class?)
• For a movement to be valid, there must be already be at least one pawn of the same color as your last pawn on the final tile you end your move on. Much easier to explain with an illustrated example than it reads!
• On that final tile, you grab all the pawns matching the color of the last pawn you dropped (so a minimum of two).
• The game ends when no more moves are possible. Each captured pawn is worth as many victory points as the number of pawns of that color still on some tiles.

That's... That's all. I "mentally" played a few virtual games in my head throughout the night, and since they felt fun, the next morning when I got to my office, before moving onto heavier stuff, I really wanted badly to revisit my nocturnal thoughts to validate these ideas.

For the nine tiles, no need to look too far. A few beer coasters from my own personal collection should do, flipped face down so as to offer a neutral background color.

For pawns? Piece of cake ... I have a stock of cute and colorful wooden dino-meeples. They come from an incomplete box set of the first version of Evo — a great game ... Philippe, if you read me ... you know how big a fan I am of this one — purchased for €1 in a garage sale just to scavenge cardboard and wooden pawns for prototypes.

Once set up, all this stuff looks cute and makes me want to play. The tiny dinos give a semblance of theme that is useless at this point, but that just enhances the thing. I play against myself. No, I'm not schizophrenic!

And neither am I ;-)

This game feels right: It's simple, seems rather clever, and even though playing alone necessarily lacks pizzazz, I feel there is enough to do something with. Already from the get go, the system works well, so I want to add a little variety to the game. I decide to give a specific effect to each tile in the game: The player who empties a tile at the end of his traveling MUST apply the effect of that tile. Fun + replayability.

At this stage, here's what it looks like on my computer. (Yes, I use PowerPoint rather than Photoshop, showing my age and laziness, no doubt):


So on that Friday night, it's with this minimalist prototype in my pocket that I head out to "The Lair", and there, over drinks, five or six plays follow in rapid succession.

My morning hunches are confirmed: The game is quick (5-10 minutes), intense, and with an evil twist that is far from displeasing me.

In short, there is probably still some development to do, for even more variety in the tiles' effects and to ensure, for example, that there is not a game-breaking advantage for any of the two players, but these are details for the most part, easily solvable. By the end of the evening, I'm confident that I have a game that is already done, by and large, and showable to a game publisher.

Except that...I stay awake all night because once again it's a game for two, which I like a lot already, but that does not fill my need to work for myself on a project of larger scope! And I've got a nagging feeling this little game engine that could might be the foundation for a much beefier, more ambitious project.

In short, the ideal jumping board for a different, bigger and bolder adventure...

(Editor's note: Bruno Cathala plans to continue this diary in installments on the Five Tribes game page on BGG. Five Tribes will be published by Days of Wonder in Q4 2014. —WEM)
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Thu Apr 3, 2014 2:27 pm
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Designer Diary: The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet

bruno cathala
France
st pierre en faucigny
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Written by Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala

Antoine: The initial idea for The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet goes back to March 2011. Digger had just been released in the then-new "cylindrical metal box" game line from Asmodee. I liked the roundness of this packaging straightaway and I remember thinking, "It's a pity that the games in this line – Digger, Dobble, Djam – underexploit the specificity of the box's shape". Thus, I started to think about a game that could fully be part of this line, based on its round cards – and I wanted the roundness of the cards to be justified by the theme, so what about planets? I decided to have a word about this idea with Bruno.


Underexploiting the box's shape; overexploiting its potential to explode

Bruno: When Antoine informed me of this idea of highlighting the use of round cards to represent planets, I was immediately up for this adventure. We started then to brainstorm about game rules via an email ping-pong match, with each idea we proposed bouncing off the ideas of the other player. We immediately converged on a card draft system in which the active player chose a card, then gave the remaining cards to the player of his choice, and so on until the last player had to take the final card. Each player started the game with a central card – a sun –around which he would have to place six planets during a round. The scoring was still undefined, but it should depend on the number of planets of each color.


Antoine: As we were making the first prototype of the game, The Little Prince was starting to take center stage – television series, comic strips, jigsaw puzzles, and more – as works by Antoine de Saint-Exupery were about to be out of copyright. The Little Prince is a universal masterpiece that fully fit with our little game based on planets. Thus, it was obvious: Let's change the theme!

Bruno: It was clear that this new theme fit perfectly well, and it brought an immediate feeling of good will as I've read The Little Prince three or four times during my life. Moreover, it brought a poetic atmosphere to the game, something less cold that simple planets around an unknown sun.

Thus, our planets were not only colored but they were inhabited by little princes, foxes, and sheep, both male and female. That allowed us to create dilemmas about the final scoring. Indeed, in each color, the points were equal to the number of little princes multiplied by the number of planets of this color – but running counter to this, pairs of animals gave a nice bonus, too, and you could make couples only with planets of different colors. The planets had lampposts as well which were an important item in the game as the player who had the fewest lampposts lost points at the end of the game. (Extraterrestrials like to act in dark places, after all, which explains why we can never see them...)


Antoine: Now we were busy testing, updating, and improving our prototype of The Little Prince until we got a stable version – but after several games we had to admit that despite it working well, the game was not fully satisfactory. It didn't have enough fun, enough richness. At that point, in my mind the game started to sink in the dusty darkness of the abandoned games' shelf.

Bruno: Except that it would have been a pity to give up such a poetic project, all the more so since during Bruno Faidutti's Ludopathiques gathering in April 2011, the Ludonaute team with whom we played a couple of games noticed the design – so much so that they got in touch with us in December 2011 to ask whether the game was already booked by a publisher. We were charmed by their approach as they wanted to get in contact with Saint-Exupery's assignees in order to work with an official license for "The Little Prince". We hid from them our doubts about the game rules, and each of us decided to work on our own parts: Ludonaute on the possibility of licensing The Little Prince, and us on an update of our game system.

We met again at the Valence game fair in early April 2012. They knew for sure then that they could work with the copyright license, and we – well, we had not made any progress. It was still the same game that worked well but was not satisfying thematically. Another annoying issue was that the game lasted three rounds, but with no progress from one round to another; the three rounds were identical. We feared that after the first game this redundancy would lead to boredom.

A motivated publisher, an exciting theme, identified issues but with no solution on the horizon, and a new meeting at the Ludopathiques gathering in three weeks – we were under pressure! Then we tried something crazy: Make another game completely different from the first one. Using a smart game mechanism I had in the pipeline, we designed a new game that worked pretty well; it was simple, easy to understand, but honestly not more satisfying than the first one, thematically speaking. The Ludonaute team played the game during the Ludopathiques, and I shall remember for a long time the disappointment expressed on Anne-C's face during the game. Not that the game was not interesting in itself, but it was too different from the first game, without the draft system's interaction that everyone enjoyed at the end. We parted with this shared disappointment, promising to meet soon with new proposals.



At that point, I took a moment to stop and try to reason analytically:

1. Everybody has enjoyed the draft system of the first version that leads towards a nice interaction, with the dilemma of either optimizing one's own score or minimizing the next player's score...with animated discussions, tearful eyes, and beseeching looks.

• We have to keep that, and that must be the basis of the new version.

2. Playing three identical rounds is not satisfying, and we risk boring the players. At the same time, the game duration with these three rounds is fine.

• We need to find another way of playing a single round, with the same total game duration.
• If the duration is okay, that means that we will share 3x6=18 cards in all – but if every player has 18 planets around his sun, there would be a complete shambles on the table.
• Okay, but what if the 18 cards represented a single planet?
• Yes! And the circular planet could be inscribed in a square.
• Eighteen is not a perfect square, but sixteen is!
• So what if each player makes little by little a planet from 16 cards in a 4x4 square...

3. The theme is not present enough in the first version. In particular, it's not satisfying to see tens of Little Princes on the table. Moreover, in the novel, there is no extraterrestrial and no mention of animal couples. However, it does contain loads of other characters, a rose (love), elephants, a snake, volcanoes, and baobab trees.

• Let's make the most of this opportunity to introduce all of these other elements.
• In particular, we need to maintain the player's scoring dilemma by mixing on these cards positive items (characters, animals, lampposts, etc.) and negative items (volcanoes, baobab trees) in accordance with Saint-Exupery's works.

4. The scoring system of the first version works well, but Antoine has always rightly found it too complicated for the target market: a mainstream family. Most notably, even if I think it's simple to add up multiplication results, I've often noticed during test sessions that anyone can make mistakes.

• Let's make it simpler...and richer!
• To do this, we still have left the corner boxes of the square; what if each corner provides a particular way to score?
• In this way, it's possible to highlight the entire character gallery.
• Then in each game, players will have to adapt to different situations.
• As a result, this will also mean no risk of redundancy and boredom.

Of course, at that stage all of this was only theory, stemming from analytics. I needed to talk with Antoine since we would be giving up the initial idea of the project – to make a game with round cards!


Antoine: I was captivated by the new version of the prototype even before my first game. The game play had become richer without the rules becoming harder to understand. The theme was even more present. All lights were green!

The following playtesting games confirmed the validity of the new version. All the players who knew the first version preferred the new one without exception, and the players who played for the first time enjoyed it a lot. This version was the correct one. We had finally got our Little Prince game! That said, we still had to adjust the game flow, making small final adjustments to make all the wheels turn and keep the pace of the game fun. The small Ludonaute team also made a contribution, suggesting that the cards be played face-up rather that hidden in hand. This reduced the wait and lead to delightful bargaining between the players. A proposal quickly adopted! They also asked us to modify some items of the game in order to match the graphic elements that the assignees of Saint-Exupéry put at their disposal.

The last point of the game design was the addition of a variant for the core gamers, that particular species that calculates everything at full speed in their little supercharged brain...


Final look of the artwork and graphic design
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Tue Mar 12, 2013 8:29 pm
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