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Designer Diary: High Rise, or Building Skyscrapers and Contemplating Lepidopteran Body Horror

Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Microbadge: LudologistMicrobadge: Battle Merchants fan - AxeMicrobadge: The Networks fanMicrobadge: NYC Board Game Designer's Group memberMicrobadge: Spielbany
Board Game: High Rise
In 2017, I held an event at a private convention for some fellow game designers in which we brought out some very early games of ours. My thought is that we would share a bit of a laugh at them and see how far we've come.

That didn't happen. Instead, we played a bunch of earnest games with genuinely good ideas in them that were buried in awkwardly-designed mechanisms and naive ambitions.

One of them was my beleaguered auction game called "Wag the Wolf", which I wrote about in my designer diary for The Networks. It features an amazing auction mechanism that failed to work in two different games (The Networks and Battle Merchants). If you're not familiar with that saga, I highly recommend reading that designer diary first. I won't go into detail about "Wag the Wolf"'s auction mechanism here as I described it at length there.

We all agreed that the auction mechanism was really cool and the rest of the game was pretty crummy. One of the designers at the event, Jonathan Gilmour, encouraged me to move forward. By 2017, I was, in all modesty, a fairly decent game designer. Knowing what I know now, could I take Wag's auction mechanism and actually make it work?

If you've played High Rise, you know the answer: No. No, I couldn't.

Still, the journey produced what I think is the best game I've made so far — even if it almost killed me.

The Eggs are Laid

These days, I begin making a game by looking for an interesting intersection of theme and mechanism. Once I find that join, a lot of design questions seem to answer themselves.

In this case, I knew from the jump that the players had to be greedy, wealthy players, so the first draft of the game was about stock acquisition. Players bid on a mix of cards: some face-up that were always good, some face-down that were a mix of good and bad. Most cards offered valuable stocks, but some cards did nothing (I called them "meeting" cards), and some cards were PR crises that lost the players points.

Players who folded in the auction could mitigate PR issues. Players who won the auction outright got to take two face-up cards; other players got a mix of face-up and face-down cards.

From gallery of IngredientX

This was a decent start, but as I tested it, I realized that skyscrapers were a better theme. In a couple of months, the game was about constructing huge buildings, so unlike my early designs, the game's theme was stable from the start and that helped speed up the design process.

With the new theme, I thought "Bedrock" would be a cool name, but later I realized that I had missed an excellent opportunity for a pun and switched to the name the prototype would take for a year: "Bidrock".

The Caterpillar Hatches

At this point, "Bidrock" continued leaning into the "Wag" auction mechanism. There was now a building deck with cards that came out face up and a fate deck (containing random money cards and negative-effect cards) that came out face down. The buildings had various characteristics that would award set collection bonuses. As the bidding increased, more cards came out.

Players would lap cards on each other so that a "tall" building was a series of overlapped cards. At some point, based on the style of building, the player could consider the building "done" and score points for it.

Players would place buildings in one of four neighborhoods that would give money, add floors to buildings, or create a building multiplier. There were also bonuses for being the first in the neighborhood, for having multiple types of buildings in a neighborhood, and for having the tallest building in the neighborhood.

From gallery of IngredientX

While the guts of that game were still wildly different than what's in the High Rise box, you can start to see some glimmers of the final game here. There are multiple neighborhoods, a feeling of constructing tall buildings, and tallest-building bonuses in each neighborhood.

In fact, from here through the rest of the design process, I would hang onto the feeling of constructing a building — height, verticality, dimension — as a core experience of the design.

But still, the game was far from being a gorgeous butterfly. It was still an ugly, hairy caterpillar.

The Caterpillar Munches on a Leaf

Bidding for individual buildings wasn't interesting enough. I split up the building requirements into resources that players received at auction. High bidders would receive first choice and the most materials.

From gallery of IngredientX

I had a conversion of resources to floors originally, so, for example, some buildings would require three concrete and two steel per floor, and the buildings had wildly different VP values. Thankfully NYC-Playtest hero Rocco Privetera suggested a vital maxim: Each resource corresponds to one floor, which corresponds to 1 VP. That immediately wiggled its way into the core of the game and never left. It helped the transparency and clarity of the design tremendously.

The Caterpillar Begins Spinning Its Cocoon

The "Wag" auction is a hidden-money auction. In the original game, you can't bid more money than you have. This is an okay rule; it's hard to enforce, but I've seen several games that have the rule, and player cheating isn't usually an issue.

Still, it was a loose end. I wondered: What would it be like if players could take out loans?

So I introduced a loan mechanism through which players would take out loans if they were short of money, with the loan being represented by loan cubes. This completely changed the dynamics of bidding as players could bid far more than they had. It also made bluffing interesting as a player bidding far too much money could fold for an amount they could afford and perhaps force other players to overextend.

From gallery of IngredientX

In practice, however, this change created crappy dynamics. Players would bid the maximum amount and accept a bunch of loans, and the other players wouldn't have any meaningful decisions for that auction. I tried disincentivizing this behavior, but this was the beginning of the end for the "Wag" auction mechanism in the game.

Even so, from this point onward, the game always had a negative currency. Loans were just the beginning, and even though the form and name would change, that would become a critical component of the game.

The Caterpillar Dissolves into Goo

At this point, I had a game that was working decently. Each round of the game had a "bid" half and a "build" half. The bottom of the board was the bidding track; it had lost the "Wag" bid pointer at this point, but your position on the track at the end of the auction mattered. Buildings went into the top half of the board, but you were limited in the number you could place in each neighborhood.

From gallery of IngredientX
Blueprints were across the top of the board. Anything with a bag icon was a colored cube pulled out of a bag. The "shrug" icon indicated a resource of any color could be used, and the futuristic icon at the bottom of the leftmost two blueprint spaces was a new mechanism: Elastoplastic, a fancy new resource. At the time, Elastoplastic could stand in for any resource, but you needed Elastoplastic for the blueprints that called for them.

My friend Daniel Newman, an excellent game designer who studied architecture in school, suggested the name as something architects use as a generic term — the architect equivalent of Unobtainium, if you will.

You'll also notice the big square in the bottom-left of each blueprint box. That was a neutrally-colored floor that the first player to construct a blueprint took. Another idea that survived to publication!

Up until now, I'd tried to stay thematic and give a name for each resource — concrete, steel, glass, and so on — but at this point, I just gave them colors. To handle the buildings, I took Rocco's maxim to heart and had the players actually construct the buildings out of the wood squares I used to represent the resources. One resource equals one floor equals one point.

Oh, Gil, if only you knew the trouble you were setting yourself up for...

I had tried to address the maximum-bid issue by introducing a mechanism in which as you bid various amounts on the track, you would pass boxes with bonus components. You could pick from only one box, regardless of how many you passed, so you were incentivized to make smaller jumps, not jump all the way to the end. If you've played High Rise, this should sound very familiar!

The game was...okay. It just wasn't amazing. Finally, my friend (and ridiculously good playtester, and even better designer) Ryan Courtney told me what I needed to hear: It was time to drop the auction mechanism. But maybe it would work as a Tokaido-style time track?

The Pupa Bubbles and Burbles

No designer likes to make such massive, fundamental changes to their designs so far in, but this was worth a shot. I tried a few different boards; the board pictured below is an early attempt.

One playtester suggested that removing the auction meant that I could also remove money from the game. I was intrigued by this and modeled the game currency as debt instead. Most actions would cost "favors", which modeled debt that the players could pay back by visiting spaces with the gray box and red X.

Players would start at one of the four spaces at the top and move clockwise around the board, landing on a space that gave them stuff in a one-way track. The first space (at the top-left) would give players three random resources and a favor cube. The next space gave a yellow resource, a random resource, and a favor cube.

From gallery of IngredientX

For the actual mechanical implementation of the favors, I "borrowed" the poverty mechanism from Martin Wallace's London. I didn't feel too bad about this because I figured I'd have to twist the mechanism so much during testing that it would assume its own identity — and I was right. That problematic loan mechanism eventually turned into one of the core parts of High Rise's identity: corruption.

You can also see the bonus spaces survived the auction purge. Players who crossed those spots first would get to take everything out of one box.

The white squares on the box represented Elastoplastic, which was also represented by the futuristic icon. I don't know why I had two different icons for the same thing, so don't ask. But deep inside the cocoon, the butterfly was forming.

Almost Ready to Emerge

They say that when a caterpillar becomes a pupa, it actually disintegrates inside its cocoon and reforms as a butterfly. It sounds painful. It sounds intense. And it sounds like my design process for this game.

From gallery of IngredientX

The board above shows a fundamental change I attempted. Instead of fixing spaces on the board, I shuffled cards and dealt them to spaces on the board. I later settled on a hybrid approach with some spaces being fixed on the board and others as modular "tenants" that would differ each game.

While I always had "neighborhoods" in the game, this was the first time they were implemented as modular tenants that you could build on and get powers from. Another big part of High Rise's design settled into place here.

And it's about here that another critical mechanism emerged that separates this game from other one-way track games. I noticed a lot of players waiting for other players to jump ahead, then annoyingly taking all of the spaces ahead of them one-by-one. I tried out a rule that forced players to do only one action in each block, and what do you know? It worked perfectly, serving as the stick to the carrot of the bonus spaces, and it makes the game feel really different.

I also had one more problem: I could no longer justify calling the game "Bidrock" since it was no longer about bidding. I thought about switching back to "Bedrock", but people kept thinking it was a game about The Flintstones.

I cast around for a new name (pointedly ignoring Ian Moss' repeated suggestion to call it "Buildrock"), and it was Manuel Correia who gave a name that suggested tall buildings as well as escalating tension: High Rise.

A few people have since asked me whether the game is about the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, but far fewer than The Flintstones folks.

The Butterfly Emerges, But with Wings Too Wet to Fly

Daniel had a big hand in laying out the board below, when he semi-seriously refused to test the game unless I let him help me make the board more readable.

This board is actually close to the final board, mechanically speaking. Players would start in the upper-left of the board and travel clockwise. We have fixed spaces and modular "tenant" spaces. We have bonus spaces. We have favor tokens that will soon become corruption. We have areas that cost extra favors to enter if you're not the first one in. And in the early spaces, you get a predetermined resource, and you may draw a random resource for a favor.

From gallery of IngredientX

Most importantly, the blueprints under the game title no longer have a "shrug" icon. Some clever playtester suggested folding that into Elastoplastic's abilities. It was now a two-way wild, and if players matched it exactly, they'd get an extra floor in their building. The only thing that would need to change for that part of the game was the name.

At this point, it's easier to point out the differences that still remained. Blueprints were still determined by random cube pulls, which was time-consuming and fiddly. I didn't have the trading spaces quite down; at the time, I allowed players to trade resources of one color for that number of a different color, and they could get an extra resource for a favor. And you can get resources only in the first half of the board (although Uptown still had many tenants who offered resources).

And if you look at the Construction zones, you'll see they're placed a bit weirdly. The first one is all the way at the bottom-right corner of the board. The three neighborhoods listed show the neighborhoods you were allowed to construct in from that spot. This was difficult to parse and annoyingly restrictive.

But the biggest difference was the City Center.

The Butterfly Gingerly Feels Its New Body

I wanted it to feel different than the other neighborhoods. In fact, you'll notice that the neighborhoods and the resources share colors. That's because each neighborhood was "tilted" towards a specific resource. You can see this a bit in the final game; there's at least one tenant in each neighborhood that gives a floor of a specific color.

From gallery of IngredientX

I originally wanted the City Center to feel completely different. Its buildings did not follow standard blueprints. Instead, each building in the City Center took three blue resources and as many floors as you could supply of a single different color. I wanted those buildings to be tall.

At Dice Tower 2018, Marguerite Cottrell played the game and told me at the end that if they played again, they would have focused exclusively on the City Center. I wasn't 100% sure about this, but I tried it in a playtest later that night. Another player saw me doing it and followed my lead — and we ran out of resources halfway through the game. Maggi, bless them, had broken the game. I had to pull the City Center back into line with the rest of the game!

You can see the stacks of resources standing in for buildings. At this point, I made a fateful decision: I asked Daniel to design stackable plastic pieces that I had 3D-printed to stand in for the dull wooden squares.

The Butterfly Spreads Its Shimmering Wings

The new plastic bits looked awesome. The prototype, even without art, had amazing table presence. I realized that this could be a hook for the product. It looked so good! Sure, sometimes players had to swivel their heads around past the buildings to study the board, but that was worth it, right?

From gallery of IngredientX

There was also the tiny issue that the design of the game necessitated almost three hundred plastic bits. After all, players were using the same game components for both resources and buildings, so I needed enough to last the game! But people would see how awesome the game looked, and they'd be fine with it, wouldn't they?

Other game design elements and conventions presented themselves. Favor finally got renamed corruption. The above photo shows a tile that says "13" — that's the height of the corresponding building, and I turned those tiles into flags that players could insert into the caps of their buildings, which was both more functional and looked better.

You'll notice the blueprints were now small rectangular tiles instead of cubes. I tried this to quicken set-up, while still preserving some randomness. The tiles "bunched" several cubes together, but setting them up still wasn't trivial. Finally, my playtesters pointed out that the size of the random space the blueprints offered was not important enough to require so many tiles. The blueprints became a total of 15 large cards, which made set-up infinitely easier.

The construction spaces got a huge improvement when I realized how much better it would be if players could construct on any space, but they got corruption unless they built in one specific neighborhood. It also fixed a nagging problem I had with the City Center. Until then, I had required players to gain one corruption to build in the City Center, which was an easily-missed rule. Now, players were free to build in the City Center, but the game rules elegantly forced them to take Corruption anytime they did so.

Heiko Günther, my longtime graphic designer (and quite a good game designer himself), tried the game at SPIEL and pointed out that a lot of my tenant powers were active for the duration of the game, which added a lot of complexity. With his encouragement, I made the game less of an engine-builder and more combo-riffic, with a bigger proportion of one-use and once-per-round cards. This might sound disappointing to fans of engine-building games, but it was absolutely the right call; it decreased the game's cognitive load and better focused the core challenges of the game. It was a critical improvement.

Heiko also helped me streamline the corruption track. Previously, each space on the track had three numbers: the points you lost if you had most corruption, the points you lost if you had second-most, and the points you lost otherwise. Instead, we split the first- and second-place points elsewhere and inserted gaps in the numbers in the track so it would go up faster than a plain linear progression.

Even so, the game length was starting to run very long with all my changes, almost three hours. I enjoyed this way of playing, but realized I needed a way to play in less than two hours, so I created a "standard mode" that lasted only two rounds instead of three. I've since found that several players vocally prefer one or the other, so I'm glad I put both in.

I discovered that "elastoplasticity" is actually a thing, so I decided to give Elastoplastic a fictional name, which is how UltraPlastic got its name.

I also created a three-player side of the board and started focusing on the one- and two-player game. Soon, the game was in great shape. I had people excited to back the game on Kickstarter. It was time to push the button and bask in praise of my next great game.

The Butterfly Smacks Head First into an 18-Wheel Truck

That Kickstarter lasted one day. I canceled it when potential backers balked at the US$100 price tag I had settled on to pay for all the awesome bits I thought would sell themselves.

From gallery of IngredientX
Image by Johi Smedberg from Pixabay

It was a silly unforced error. I didn't have enough art in the game and did a terrible job of communicating my vision to the public. "This is an excellent game" is not a game hook, and no amount of positive reviews and excited buzz could get backers past my ugly prototype graphic design, even though I'd already announced that I'd contracted the hugely-talented Kwanchai Moriya to handle the art.

Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

What if I replaced the cool plastic bits with punchboard buildings in plastic standees? The game would keep its awesome verticality, I could better frame Kwanchai's art, and I could probably cut the game's price close to half.

The cool factor of the game would definitely drop. I wasn't sure what people would think of plastic stands. Wouldn't they harm the bottoms of the cardboard buildings? And that core hook of the game was gone. Would it work?

Only one way to find out. I put together a prototype with chipboard and label paper.

The big moment of relief came early on. During a game, my friend and sparkling game designer Adi Slepack asked, "What space is that building on?" Before I could answer her, she lifted up the building in the way, read the space, and placed the building back where it belonged. A plastic building would have fallen apart, and this was so much more intuitive.

Cardboard buildings also handled the issue of reading a building's height. We wouldn't need separate "flags" to fly from the top of a plastic building; they came right on the card.

It worked. I relaunched, this time with a US$60 pledge level.

The Butterfly Gingerly and Cautiously Takes to the Wind Again

The new campaign started well, but when we hit the well-known "trough of despair" a few days in, people started doubting whether we would fund. I had launched the campaign at a time when I went to three conventions in the span of two weeks — Granite Game Summit, GAMA Trade Show, and GDC — and I dedicated myself to tirelessly showing off the game at all three. Thankfully, Heiko had come up with a prototype board in the meantime, so people no longer had to stare at my hideous abomination of a board featured in the original campaign.

From gallery of IngredientX

The campaign was touch and go. For three weeks, I had no idea whether the game would fund or not. I'm glad I was on the road; relentless demoing isn't as effective as you think it is — it's a lot of work to communicate to a relatively small amount of people — but it was great at taking my mind off the stresses of the campaign.

Towards the end of the KS campaign, Kwanchai's art for the buildings and board came in, god, Kwanchai, you're amazing! Posting that art gave a bunch of people confidence in the last few days of the campaign.

High Rise hit its $50,000 funding goal six hours from the end of the campaign. The Kickstarter wasn't the smash success I was hoping for, but it was a success. Despite all the doubt and frustration, the game would get made.

It was just a matter of making it.

The Butterfly Slowly Finds Its Strength

Below is a hilariously out-of-focus selfie of my friends at the Variable Player Power podcast trying High Rise at SPIEL '19 that my friends rightly gave me grief for. Somehow, it's the only photo of High Rise I can find on my social media — but it was also at SPIEL where I made an awful discovery.

From gallery of IngredientX

You remember those plastic stands I was worried about? The most critical part of this whole enterprise was ensuring those stands didn't chew up the bottoms of the building tiles, but every sample that the manufacturer sent seemed to be too thin. Finally, I gave the go-ahead when I tried a set and it worked.

However, when I tried that set again at SPIEL, it didn't! Oh, no! What happened? I frantically begged my manufacturer to stop and take a look. Thankfully, I work with Panda Games Manufacturing, and they are absolutely amazing. They wound up custom-molding bases for me that fit the buildings perfectly.

Several months later, Tom Vasel did an unboxing video of High Rise. He punched out a building and put it into a plastic stand. I held my breath.

The building fit perfectly in the stand.

It may go unnoticed by most people, but that was my proudest moment of the year.

The Butterfly Finally Soars

Three years after Jon encouraged me to adapt my auction mechanism into a new game, High Rise is now available in stores.

I'm incredibly satisfied with the end product. It's the best game I've designed so far, and I'm so grateful for all the people who helped pick me up every time I got knocked down during this whole journey.

Will I ever go back to this auction mechanism? I doubt it. I think High Rise's one-way track nails the feeling I wanted to evoke with the auction. You can go fast and pick up bonuses, but not get as many turns as others. You can go slow and be precise, but miss the bonuses. I think that's as close to the original mechanism idea as I will ever get, and I'm more than satisfied with the end result.

This print run won't be available for long, I think. There's a lot of positive buzz about the game, but because of the Kickstarter's modest success, the print run had to be pretty tiny. It will sell out very quickly, but thankfully, I have this idea for a new Kickstarter for High Rise with stackable plastic pieces...

(Thanks to Karen C. for the inspiration for this post's title.)

Gil Hova

From gallery of IngredientX
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Wed Jul 1, 2020 7:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The Networks, or Plugging at MacGuffins

Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Microbadge: LudologistMicrobadge: Battle Merchants fan - AxeMicrobadge: The Networks fanMicrobadge: NYC Board Game Designer's Group memberMicrobadge: Spielbany
Board Game: The Networks
What follows is the long, sordid design history of The Networks. It's been a wild journey over the past six years, starting with me fumbling around in the dark as a part-time hobbyist game designer and ending with me running my own publishing company.

Within, I'll reveal three shocking truths. I'm not very good at clickbait, so here are two right off the bat.

-----• I've heard a few reviewers guess that this game was theme-first. I can see why they feel that way, but it was actually mechanism-first.
-----• The mechanism on which this game is based is no longer in the game.

The third shocking truth is...well, you'll have to keep reading to the end of the article.

In the Beginning, There Was MacGuffin Market

Let's rewind ten years to 2006. I had a game called "Wag the Wolf" that the prestigious Hippodice game design competition put on its recommended list, but the game made it no further than that. It was rejected by several publishers, and after a good amount of playtesting, I realized that the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

I had a lot to learn as a designer. I thought that if I combined a cool theme and a cool mechanism, I'd end up with a cool game.

This cool mechanism was an auction in which players could bid slightly less than the high bid to stay in the auction. In a four-player game, there were two underbid slots, so one player would always be left out. That player could raise the high bid, though, which would make the previous high bid an underbid, and force a mad scramble to the new underbid slots.

From gallery of IngredientX
An illustration of the auction from Wag the Wolf's rulebook;
maybe I'll get this game on the table someday to see how it holds up!

It really was a nifty mechanism. I wanted to salvage it, so I decided to design a new game around it. That game turned out to be Battle Merchants, which Minion Games eventually released in 2014.

If you've played Battle Merchants, you'll notice that it has no auction. That's because playtesters realized that the auction, while fun and interesting in its own right, didn't fit with all the stuff I built around the auction. Sure enough, when I removed the auction from Battle Merchants way back then, the game worked great.

Designers, never hesitate to kill your darlings. It might just make your game better.

So now it's 2010. I had this auction mechanism recently sliced out of Battle Merchants, and I still wanted to make another game around it. I didn't want to fall into the same trap as before, so I figured that I'd design the game completely around the auction. Stripped down, no theme.

The new game was called "MacGuffin Market". It had no theme — or more specifically, its theme was that it had no theme. The players were bidding money on a "Wag the Wolf"-style auction that would give them turn order and gems. They could spend gems or money on MacGuffins, pick up power cards, or end their rounds by getting income, with players who dropped early receiving more income.

MacGuffins were the big objects in the game that everyone wanted to get, named for the film trope of an object that every character wants, without its actual function ever being explained to the audience. It doesn't matter what the MacGuffin is or what it does; it just matters that everyone wants it.

From gallery of IngredientX
Sample MacGuffins from MacGuffin Market, with each giving you money or gems & the A, B, and C being a set collection bonus, I think

So in this protoplasmic version of the game, you can already see the seeds of The Networks: Buy big things that give you points, pick up power cards, end your round by getting income.

If only it were that easy!

From MacGuffins to TV

My identity is just as important to this designer diary as the game, so keep in mind who I saw myself as when I began this process. I had a day job that was slowly transitioning into computer programming. I was putting a lot of time into my work, and my career came first. I saw myself as a hobbyist game designer. I'd heard of people who started their own game companies, and I knew with all my heart that I would never self-publish my games.

Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahaha.

Anyway. At the time, I was playtesting about twice a month, maybe three times if I was lucky. It was a decent amount of testing, although I envied my game designer friends who tested once per week. Progress on my game was rather slow.

Still, I'm lucky to playtest with some amazing designers. Eric Zimmerman gave one of the game's most vital early suggestions: the theme (or lack thereof) just wasn't working.

I realized he was right. Teaching the game wasn't easy. You had MacGuffins, gems, and money, but nothing really made intuitive sense because nothing mapped into anything a player would recognize.

It was a lesson that took me years to learn, but one I preach any time I can. It's not enough to have a cool theme. It's not enough to have cool mechanisms. Your game lives at the intersection of its theme and its mechanism. One is not more important than the other, and it's not more important to start with one over the other. You have to find the best possible way to join them, then make that join as tight as you can.

The problem with "Wag the Wolf", and now with "MacGuffin Market", was that there was no theme/mechanism join to speak of in either game. Nothing tied together. It wasn't even a matter of "pasted-on" because there was no paste. The theme and mechanism were like an estranged couple, sitting at opposite ends of the room and refusing to talk to each other.

Kill your darlings, again. The game needed a theme. We discussed possible candidates. Secret agents? City building? Making movies?

I thought about the last one. Making movies was done beautifully in Traumfabrik, but what about making television shows? No games about making TV shows were available at the time.

Board Game: Dream Factory
Board Game: Dream Factory
Board Game: Dream Factory
Three different covers, three different names, one fine game

We talked about the various ways we could reskin the game. MacGuffins would become the shows. Gems could become stars. Everything else would pretty much remain the same. Simple, huh?

Not Ready for Prime Time

I renamed the prototype "Prime Time" and started testing. Viewers were points; that was in from the start. When you got a show, you immediately got money or Viewers; that was grandfathered in from "MacGuffin Market".

A few new mechanisms quickly fell into place. First, you were limited to three time slots, so your fourth show would mean you'd have to cancel one of your existing shows and send it to reruns. The player with the most Rerun Viewers got a bonus.

Second, instead of always scoring a flat value like the MacGuffins, your shows would score you a different number of Viewers every round. They would constantly age. I have to give credit for this mechanism to the brilliant, underrated auction game BasketBoss, which deserves a lot more love than it got.

Board Game: BasketBoss
Board Game: BasketBoss
Seriously, play this game!

Third, the Gems became Stars. I felt they needed some differentiation, so I made Male and Female Stars and put requirements on the Shows for the different genders of Stars.

From gallery of IngredientX
Nine shows from the first draft of Prime Time. Some shows took up to four stars. The shows with clapboards also require a director, which you had to get by winning an auction. These cards were from before I put in the aging mechanism, so they all scored a flat bonus when you picked them up.

Things seemed to be going well until BGG.CON 2011. I had a fateful playtest in Dallas that year. I thought the game was in great shape, but I got a bunch of feedback that pushed me right back down into the hole again. The feedback I got was familiar: The testers realized that the auction, while cool, didn't fit in with all the stuff I built around the auction. Just like what happened in Battle Merchants, it was time to drop the auction.

Kill your darlings.

I wasn't ready. I was going through a tough time. I had an abusive boss at work at the time, I was suffering through a move and the after-effects of a divorce, and I was working on getting Battle Merchants ready to pitch to publishers. (It would get picked up the following year.) So I shelved "Prime Time".

From gallery of IngredientX
Yes, the board looked like this at one point. No, I'm not a graphic designer, why do you ask?

In the next twelve months, I brought the game out for testing only once. It was a halfhearted test, without any different Seasons. Just one continuous flow in which you chose a new Show, immediately scored it, then a new Show came out.

It was terrible. It was boring. Back on the shelf it went.

At some point in 2012, I realized that if I didn't replenish cards as they were taken, and if I split the game back into discrete Seasons, that might add much-needed tension. I finally tested it late that year and was stunned to find that it felt good. There was something there.

At some point, I set the game in the 1980s and 1990s, during the dawn of cable. I made up a bunch of silly show parody names and pasted in the pictures of various 1980s Stars. Sure enough, that became a great part of the experience. People loved putting, say, Ricardo Montalban on Knight Rider.

From gallery of IngredientX
From gallery of IngredientX
If only

I was heartened again. "Prime Time" was back on its feet!

80% Is Halfway Done

Let's fast-forward to 2014. This was a huge year for me and a huge year for the game.

I'd been testing the game steadily at my twice-a-month intervals. It was feeling close to done. I'd balanced the Male and Female Stars, I had a great set of Network Cards, and I had this brilliant mechanism where, at the start of each Season, you reached into a bag and pulled out these Drop and Budget chips. They varied in value from $2 to $20, and you pulled out only as many as the number of players. Some Seasons, you'd get a ton of money; other Seasons, you'd get almost nothing.

From gallery of IngredientX
Another old rulebook excerpt. In a three-player game, you'd draw five chips, sort them, and remove the second and fourth. Why did I keep this fiddly mechanism so long? Some questions have no answers.

But things were beginning to change. Battle Merchants was close to coming out; I'd been hard at work on writing and editing the rulebook, helping guide the art and graphic design, and handling final playtesting. My day job was starting to feel distant from me. I was rebuilding my social life from my divorce. I tried my hand at sketch comedy and improv. This pulled me away from game design, but gave me some nice perspective, good times, and a few good friends.

Who was I? Was I a computer programmer? Was I a comic? Was I a game designer?

From gallery of IngredientX
A newer board, with help from a graphic designer friend, who I had asked to make it look "Eighties"

About this time, lightning struck. I'd been trying to get into The Gathering of Friends, Alan Moon's invite-only convention, for a few years. Somehow, I lucked into an invite.

To say the convention changed everything is an understatement. First off, I ran 13.5 playtests of "Prime Time" in ten days. I did a lot of tinkering with the game's economy. One interesting phenomenon was when I once accidentally made the economy too loose. Playtesters didn't tell me that they had too much money; instead, they started suggesting adding all these mechanisms that would be ways they could spend their money.

A few years before, I would have listened to them. Thankfully, I'd learned enough as a designer by then to understand that they were trying to solve a problem that had a different root cause. I re-tightened the economy, and the players no longer suggested extra money sinks.

From gallery of IngredientX
The old prototype in action!

I showed "Prime Time" to three different publishers: two rejected it, and one was intrigued, but wanted a different, more interactive scoring system.

I looked for more publishers to pitch to and realized just how many more designers there were in the room than publishers. I was fighting a losing battle, and none of these publishers had the passion for my game that I did.

I didn't know it then, but the seeds of change had been planted at that fateful convention, surrounded by people who made games for a living. A few weeks after I came back from the convention and after an especially troubling day at work, I thought to myself: How much better at game design would I be if I did it every day?

I backed away from comedy. I started pushing my playtest group to meet every week instead of every month. I had already had some experience with this through running my annual 4P challenge every January, but I was amazed at how much more progress my games made with more frequent playtesting.

From gallery of IngredientX
An old show from when the game was set in the 1980s and 1990s

One day at work during a meeting, a co-worker criticized the job I'd done on a project and I realized I felt nothing inside. I spent a difficult month not telling anyone but family and friends, making sure my mind was set. It was.

In November 2014, I quit my full-time job to freelance part-time as a sound editor and open up more time for me to run Kickstarter campaigns and attend conventions as a game publisher.

My mind was made up. I was going to self-publish "Prime Time".

The Last Throes of Design

After The Gathering of Friends in 2014, I realized there was a lot I needed to change about the game. Having Male and Female Stars bugged me; why did gender matter? I had show genres on the cards, but they were just flavor, with no accompanying mechanisms. Players who started a Season with little money had to drop out early. I had that "brilliant" Drop and Budget mechanism. And most of the twenty-somethings I played with humored me with my 1980s and 1990s references, but really had no idea what any of the Shows and Stars were referring to.

These problems resolved with thunderous effect in the game. One tester was surprised there were no ads in the game, and I smacked my forehead. Of course! Get rid of the genders of Stars. Instead of Male Stars and Female Stars, you have Stars and Ads. It's incredible how late in the process the Ads entered, and how right they felt once they made it in.

At first, you paid for Ads, just like you paid for Stars. The always-clever Paul Incao, who develops Vital Lacerta's games, tried "Prime Time" and suggested that players should earn money from Ads instead. Not only was it thematic, it solved the problem of poor players dropping out too early. He also suggested the Attach Star/Ad action, which I fought because I didn't want to complicate the game, but the suggestion turned out to work perfectly if I made some Stars and Ads optional on Shows.

From gallery of IngredientX
An old Ad with the same information as what's on the current ad cards, only more confusing!

I also reluctantly changed the time setting of the game. No more 1980s and 1990s references that confused millennials. Once I switched to modern shows and stars, everyone seemed to get a huge kick out of the experience, regardless of age.

It was about here that the "rotation" mechanism entered, which has become one of the most defining features of the game. I could finally play off of Show genres, with some Stars preferring to be on certain kinds of Shows, like Dramas or Sitcoms. They seemed to work with Ads to, although it took quite a few frustrating playtests to get income and upkeep working properly!

Finally, after months of begging from my playtesters, I relaxed my iron grip on my "brilliant" pet mechanism in the game: the variable chips that decided the Drop and Budget values. I went with a flat track of values instead, with a number of spaces equal to the number of players, and amazingly no one missed my weird, ingenious system.

Kill your darlings.

From gallery of IngredientX
From gallery of IngredientX
For a long time, I had separate Set-up Cards reminding you of how to set up each Season

That left two problems. First, the Genres still didn't feel like they were pulling their weight. Second, the game felt like a tactical grind. It lacked an arc. Each Season really didn't feel different from the next, and no one was working towards anything; it felt like a rinse, later, and repeat exercise.

Then came BGG.CON 2014, and the final huge piece in the puzzle. I had one test with three players, and I nervously introduced a new mechanism: If you got three Shows of the same Genre, you could draw Stars from the Star deck, or Ads from the Ad deck (along with some money).

I was flabbergasted to see what the change did. Suddenly, the game had strategy. You were working to a goal. You wanted to become Comedy Central, or Syfy, or ESPN. It was thematic, and it was strategic, and it worked perfectly.

Even better, it was no longer a grind. Getting the Genre Bonus injected your network with new resources, and you could jump right back into the thick of things without having to tediously pick up new Stars and Ads.

Up until then, testers had mildly enjoyed the game. They'd found it, y'know, fun, they liked it, it was good. From this point on, they loved the game — as in, they asked me when it was going on Kickstarter, and they enthusiastically signed up for my mailing list.

There was still some buttoning-up to do. The three-player game took a lot of massaging, but I realized that removing a Genre would make things much smoother. I made a solo version of the game that had a new mechanism of card burning, and after a bunch of boring two-player tests, I realized that the two-player game needed card burning as well. The solo game was logistically easiest to test, of course, and went from good to great once I figured out how to put in an immediate-loss condition and midgame feedback that let the player know if they were doing well or not, score-wise.

But it was time to put on the publisher hat.


Board Game: Prime Time
There was a storm cloud on the horizon. I found out that there were two other games called "Prime Time" in development: One was a deckbuilder that unfortunately didn't fund on Kickstarter, while the other was a heavy strategy game from an established designer/publisher.

I didn't know Elad Goldsteen at the time, and I was pretty sure he would beat me to market. I hated the idea of changing my game's name. "Prime Time" was perfect! But I did what I had to do. I let Elad have "Prime Time", and I renamed my game The Networks.

My next order of business was to find a graphic designer. I thought of all the graphic designers I knew of and who would be a good match.

You've seen pictures of the prototype all throughout this post. It's a lot of cards with a lot of numbers. This game throws a huge amount of information at the players, and I needed a graphic designer who was amazing at distilling a large quantity of information into a streamlined form. I needed someone like Heiko Günther.

I am ashamed to say that I spent a measurable amount of time trying to figure out graphic designers who could a job similar to Heiko, until I realized that I could just, well, email Heiko myself and see what he thought.

Here's what I didn't know: A few years previously, Heiko and a very talented illustrator, Travis Kinchy, worked on Silver Screen, a Knizia-designed card game version of Traumfabrik. It was to be published by Cambridge Games Factory back when Heiko did most of their work. Sadly, CGF encountered financial difficulties and stopped releasing games before Silver Screen could be published.

Heiko and Travis were disappointed; they had come up with a unique visual style for the game, and for a long time, they thought it was just a dead project. But then there I was, with my TV network game. Couldn't they resurrect the visual approach?

I checked it out and realized that it was perfect. I wanted something that was light and funny but not cartoony, yet somehow didn't present itself as a simple take-that filler game. Travis' illustrations somehow perfectly walked the line, and were incredibly funny to boot.

Board Game: Silver Screen
Board Game: Silver Screen
Board Game: Silver Screen
Card images from Silver Screen, done in the same visual style that Travis would adopt for The Networks

Meanwhile, Heiko set about taking my confusing mess of a visual design and putting it in order. He figured out a way to push all the information for the cards to their edges and leave most of the card available for Travis' excellent art.

From gallery of IngredientX
From gallery of IngredientX
It still blows my mind that the thing on the left became the thing on the right

The boards became modular. My system would have been ugly and text-heavy; his system allowed for the clean, elegant presentation of information. Instead of having set-up cards to remind players of how many cards went out each Season, he printed it directly on the rightmost board and had players swap out different boards based on the number of players. This let us put just about everything onto punchboard, using only a single cutting pattern to boot.

Make no mistake, Heiko and Travis were essential to this game's success. There is no The Networks without them.

From gallery of IngredientX
Heiko, on the right, is plotting trouble at Spiel 2015

I had to use my "publisher's hammer" only a couple of times; most notably, I insisted on a scoring track that wrapped at 100 Viewers instead of 50, only because I'd tried that in a previous prototype and my playtesters hated it. I also insisted on testing the graphic design, and I came back to Heiko with quite a few revisions when I saw players were confused by a given graphic design element.

Throughout this process, Heiko was his typical professional, brilliant, and often hilarious self. After a few iterations, we wound up with a graphic design that got raves from just about all my playtesters, especially as Travis' art started to spread across the game.

I started sending the game to reviewers and was heartened to see people like Rahdo and Undead Viking willing to try out the game. Your Moderator Chris from Flip the Table seemed very excited about the game, so I sent him a review copy, making sure he knew I didn't expect a review of my game on his show. I was relieved to see everyone give the game glowing reviews.

Then one beautiful Sunday I was about to go on a day trip with my girlfriend, when I got this email from Rahdo: "Also, I'm curious, since you're going to be directly competing with Prime Time, which is going to be on Kickstarter at almost the exact same time as you..." It turns out that Prime Time was going to launch two weeks before The Networks!

Of course, Elad had no ill intent. In fact, he had no idea my game existed, so Rahdo was kind enough to introduce us over email. I've had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Elad a few times since then, and we've laughed about this crazy coincidence. I mean, we had both worked on our respective TV network games for six years each. We couldn't have timed this better if we tried!

And Kickstarter was kind to both of us; we both overfunded significantly, and we both got our games out. In fact, I picked up Prime Time from Elad at Essen 2015!

From gallery of IngredientX
Elad and me at Spiel 2015; he's the taller guy on the right

Final Thoughts

So in the end, why did The Networks turn into a great game?

Obviously, there's the constant, relentless playtesting and iteration. After my turning point at The Gathering in 2014, I was playtesting at least once a week, usually twice. Iterations went fast and furious, and I was never afraid to try something for fear of failure. I got better at killing my darlings and wound up with a streamlined, well-developed game.

Also, this theme is really hard, and I think I backed into some fortuitous decisions. I've played friends' prototypes with TV themes, and they get hung up on a couple of things.

First, scoring in those designs is usually handled with an output randomness mechanism. For those of you who don't listen to the marvelous Ludology podcast (please start!), output randomness is any random event that happens after a player's decision. For example, when you attack the zombies, then roll a die to see whether you hit them, that's generally output randomness as the die roll dictates the outcome.

Input randomness, on the other hand, is when the random event happens before your turn begins. When you get dealt your hand of cards, that's input randomness; your play happens after the random event.

Most TV prototypes I played had viewer scoring as output randomness. This is understandable because it's realistic. No TV executive can predict how many people will watch their shows! That's just the business.

But it makes the game less fun. The whole interesting experience is in assembling the TV show. Having it be judged by a random mechanism devalues the experience of putting the show on the air. It feels meaningless.

From gallery of IngredientX
One of my favorite stars

Second, remember that publisher who wanted my game to have more "interactive" scoring? That's how most TV games and prototypes I've played try to handle it; the player with the most viewers gets the best ratings, the player with the second most viewers gets the second-best ratings, and so on. Some games even split these into different demographics!

This makes scoring an opaque beast. Logistically, these games are a pain in the neck to score. Worse, it means that a player must evaluate each of their move's potential outcomes on each demographic. This makes for a huge outcome tree and is an invitation to mindbending analysis paralysis.

The Networks gets around both problems by having fixed, deterministic scoring for each show. This would normally be anathemic to the theme, but between the aging mechanism and the extra complexity of the rotate mechanism, there's enough variability in a player's possible score that it feels correct and thematic. Furthermore, if a player's show scores poorly in a given season, the player can easily track that to a specific decision they made. That feels much better than some arbitrary die roll!

Also, the deterministic scoring means that players don't have to study other players' boards and do a ton of math to determine what a good move is. Make no mistake — in The Networks, a player will have to study other players' boards, but what you're looking for is a lot simpler, logistically speaking. Do they need that 8:00 p.m. Drama? Or would they rather go for the 9:00 p.m. Sci-Fi? Or maybe a Star, or a Network Card? There are still decisions to be made and players to watch, but it's not hidden behind an opaque layer of scoring.

That is about it for the huge design history of The Networks. It's been an amazing ride, and it leaves us with one order of business. That is the third and final shocking truth about the game:

-----• I, Gil Hova, barely watch any TV. It's not a hipster I'm-better-than-you thing. It just doesn't fit in with my lifestyle.

I am deeply indebted to my playtesters and my girlfriend for helping me with all the references to modern shows. I couldn't have done it without all of you!

From gallery of IngredientX
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Mon Jul 25, 2016 1:00 pm
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