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Archive for Daniel Skjold Pedersen

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Designer Diary: Panic Mansion, or Waiter, There's a Rolling Eye in My Haunted House

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
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Panic Mansion — a big box design from me, Asger, and Blue Orange Games — is debuting at SPIEL in October 2017. We are very proud of it and hope you will have as much fun with the game as we do.

Panic Mansion is a shaky dexterity game for families and kids ages 6 and up in which you want to place your adventurer into the room with all the gold crates while not letting in ghosts, snakes, or the odd rolling eye. The twist is that you cannot touch the game pieces, so you must shake and tilt that haunted house.

No Pictures, Please?

When I sit down to write designer diaries, one of the first things I do is go through old pictures of prototypes. It gives me a sense of accomplishment looking back at the early and very rough stages of what is now a published game, and to be honest it also serves to refresh my memory. It is not uncommon that my game design work is completed 12 to 24 months before a game hits the shelves, sometimes even longer. That is just the nature of this industry.

So I started scrolling through old pictures to look for Panic Mansion almost in vain. This is very unusual. I have dozens of pictures of A Tale of Pirates, Gold Fever, Frogriders, and most of my other published and upcoming titles. Why the sudden lack of pictures? Well, Panic Mansion is fast and furious. It is easy to get carried away and forget to take pictures. Also, this is not the type of game in which I could analyze a picture of the mid-play game state afterwards for any great benefit. Finally, the development cycle was actually very short before Blue Orange Games signed and took over. I think we managed to demonstrate the fun gameplay and our vision with a basic prototype. To our luck, Blue Orange saw the potential.

The prototype we pitched at the Spielwarenmesse Toy Fair in Nürnberg in early 2016...

...and what it looks like now in Panic Mansion

A Vision for Two

When Asger and I look for a publisher for our games, we take a lot of factors into consideration. I don't want to derail this diary too much with boring business talk, so let me just boil all those factors down to the bare bones. Essentially we are looking for publishers who share our vision for the game and who are able to deliver a quality product.

I like to believe we have been fortunate so far, and Panic Mansion provides an excellent case in point for why such care matters. Let's turn the box over and look at the back:

You can take the box from the shelf, turn it over, and play to see whether this is something you'd enjoy

The Blue Orange team did a wonderful job of tuning our prototype and the vision we shared into what I believe is an amazing game and product. The ability to play the game while still in shrink is a wonderful gimmick for which I can take absolutely no credit. However, the crawling spider and all the other pieces inside the box is anything but a gimmick, but now I am getting ahead of myself.

Components Matter — and Not Just for Bling Bling

Components matter. Some of you will probably read that statement and disagree; others will say it is obvious. As a gamer, I have been back and forth on this subject myself over the years. I like nice aesthetics but not at the expense of functionality. As a game designer, I have learned that components really matter but not just for the toy factor or for the ability to set up games on a table so they look like pieces of art.

In Panic Mansion, components matter. They are, in fact, a large part of the core gameplay. It is a dexterity game, after all. As you shake and tilt the haunted house to move your adventurer through the maze, you will see that the adventurer, ghost, snake, and all the other pieces serve a purpose. They support the setting of a mysterious and haunted house AND they all have interesting shapes, sizes, weights, and even textures that add to the challenge.

The twisty snake blocks the door. The eyes roll around frantically messing up your plans. And the ghost — my archnemesis when playing this game — is a nightmare to get rid of. If this is all nonsense in your ears, I will just say that you will know what I'm talking about when you try the game.

Comparison of game pieces: published game (top) and prototype; if the adventurer looks like a certain fictional character,
it might be that the Blue Orange team was tired of all my talk about how great that IP would be...

Thinking Inside the Box

I do not recall the exact origin of the idea that became Panic Mansion, and unfortunately the lack of photos doesn't help me here, but I do know the idea came sometime in the autumn of 2015. At that time, we explored different ways to create games around the game box. After all, in most board games, you take out the contents, then put the box away, which is a shame. The box is an interesting component that rises above the table, and aside from that, it's one of the most expensive parts of producing a board game, so why not integrate it? Our prototype used both the box lid and bottom as haunted houses.

Ironically in the published version of the game, you now take the contents out of the box, then put the box away. That was the small price we needed to pay to reduce set-up time and allow for up to four players in the game.

Panic Mansion is the first game to be released that was born out of that period of thinking inside the box, and there will be more chapters to write in the next years. For now, Asger and I will demo and sign Panic Mansion at SPIEL '17 on Thursday and Saturday 12:00-13:00 at the Blue Orange Games booth (3: M107). Come by and say hi!

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
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Tue Oct 10, 2017 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: 250+ Plays of Iron Curtain, or How to Measure Replayability

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
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Iron Curtain is a short and brutal microgame cramped with tough decisions in a 20- to 30-minute time frame. You play as the U.S. or the Soviet Union, map out the Iron Curtain to your advantage, and control the most countries and regions on your side of the curtain.

Playing Iron Curtain well is no easy ride. We have made an effort to include as many interesting and tricky decision points as possible in the slight twenty-card framework. You will play cards that aid you greatly, but also open new opportunities for your opponent to take.

The Journey that Began 13 Days Ago

Before I continue, let's pause for a minute. I feel this is the time to thank all of you who played 13 Days, our first Cold War game, and shared the love and wonderful stories. I can positively say that Iron Curtain (and 13 Minutes) would not have existed today had 13 Days not been so well received. We are immensely grateful. This is why we design games, so thank you all.

The Third Cold War Game

When 13 Days came out, it was branded the Twilight Struggle filler game. I used that moniker myself, not knowing if it would come back to haunt me one day. I still don't know.

13 Minutes, which was released in early 2017, is the 13 Days microgame. It boils down the experience of brinkmanship in a box.

Following this line of thinking, Iron Curtain could be said to be the Twilight Struggle microgame. I may be going out on a limb here...again. Time will tell. Iron Curtain shares some game concepts with the 13 Days/Minutes titles, but it very much has an identity of its own.

Different Game, Same Cold War

I asked on social media for topics to discuss in this diary, and the question that came up the most was how we decided to make Iron Curtain different from previous Cold War games. Three games in fairly short succession will beget that question.

The short answer is that there is no "13" in the title.

The artistic answer is that Iron Curtain by intent has a distinct look with more vibrant colors and layout. The message we are trying to convey is that this is not 13 Days II…or III…or whatever! We hope Iron Curtain will stand on its own legs and be judged on its own merits, good as well as bad.

The game design answer is that Iron Curtain offers a different core experience from the other games. I will highlight two key experiences below that were design goals of ours from the outset. There are more, but I will leave that for you to explore.

First Design Goal: Building the Iron Curtain

Iron Curtain has a proper in-game geography, something that wasn't present in 13 Days/Minutes.

Cards double as actions and as key countries during the superpower struggle. When you play a card, it immediately goes to the table next to countries of the same region. As the game progresses, the world map is built one country at a time.

How you build the world now matters a great deal. When you want to expand your influence later, you are limited by your current presence on the table. Except for certain events, you may move only into adjacent countries, so some countries are within easy grasp, while others will take much greater effort to reach.

This is a feature you may — no, let me rephrase — this is a feature you should use to your advantage. How so? Be the first to drop two or more cubes onto a country to control it and create a temporary safe haven behind that line where you can drop cards. Play the first card of a new region so that you have the freedom to place that card where you have easy access to it and your opponent does not.

I love how the "map" looks different each time you play

Second Design Goal: Adding Doses of Suspension and Agony

Iron Curtain has no scoring cards of the type with which you might be familiar in Twilight Struggle and no hidden agendas as used in 13 Days. In fact, every card is a potential scoring card.

A region scores when all cards of that region are played to the table. So should you play early to jump ahead in that region, or wait to control when the scoring will happen? Or perhaps abandon the region entirely, discarding the card at the end of the round? Managing and sequencing your hand of cards is the single greatest challenge you will face in this game.

What all this means is that you will see scoring approach all over the table — at the same time. You are constantly trying to pre-empt your opponent's moves in, say, Africa and Europe, yet you also want to put pressure on them in the Middle East and Asia. The card you want to play allows the use of only two cubes, so what do you prioritize?!

Asia scores when Japan, Vietnam and Pakistan are all on the table, then again at the end of the game

250 Plays and Counting — A Playtester's Perspective

We always intended Iron Curtain to be a highly replayable microgame with layers of depth, a game you can play over and over and still learn new tricks.

The question is: How do you measure replayability? How do you know when you've succeeded? This would be the perfect moment for me to derail the designer diary and go on an analytical rant, but I won't. Instead I sat down to talk to Sagad Al-Serjawi, a most dedicated playtester who has played an insane number of games of Iron Curtain.

You could say I am turning this designers' diary into a playtester's diary.

Daniel: Hi, Sagad. Thank you for joining this designer diary. So tell me, how many games of Iron Curtain have you played?
Sagad: I don't know! I stopped counting after 250 games. I played with everyone from friends to family to strangers at a bar one time. You can say I got addicted...

D: Why do you think you went on to play such a huge number of games?
S: It's a fun game, and no turns are the same. There is always a new challenge to figure out. The game takes place during the Cold War, and you can really feel the pressure from your enemy; whether you play the USSR or the U.S. you will always find new ways of winning (or losing).

D: Do you prefer to play a particular side?
S: Hmm, I'd say U.S. for no particular reason. Both feel balanced.

D: Do you recall a cool move you made during a game?
S: Well, my friend had taken Cuba and invested a lot of energy in holding it. I was playing USSR and got the Brazil card at the right moment so that I could use the ability to remove his cubes from there, thereby making it possible to enter.

The evolution of the Algeria and Poland cards from early prototype to finished cards

D: With all those plays did the experience change over time?
S: It sure did. To be honest, the first time I heard about Iron Curtain I did not believe it would be something for me, but to my surprise it is now one of my favorite games. The first time you play Iron Curtain everything will be a surprise. You don't know what the different cards do and what tactics to use, so the first game is usually quite slow. Then you get the flow.

D: How many games had you played at that point?
S: After around five games I understood how the game is built. I began planning bluffs like placing some cubes in Asia while my sole objective was to conquer Europe. At this point I also planned which cards to throw away in the Aftermath, and where to invest influence cubes. I personally loved this state since there were still room for mistakes. The best way to learn is through mistakes. That changed at a later point.

D: How did it change?
S: Once I hit the point of mastering the game, everything turned from kids play into hardcore thinking. It was fifty or so plays in. At this point I started thinking several moves ahead and I knew all cards in and out. I had no room for mistakes — any little mistake could cost me the game. The tactics changed as well. You start building scenarios in your head and learn when to drop off the opponent's cards.

D: Thank you, Sagad, and thanks to everyone reading all the way to the bottom of this diary. Have fun with the game.

Daniel Skjold Pedersen

P.S.: If you are at SPIEL '17, swing by the Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games booth as Asger and I will be there to say hi and demo/sign games on Friday, October 27 at 13:00-14:00 and on Sunday, October 29 at 12:00-13:00.

It feels kind of crazy that we now have three Cold War games
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Thu Sep 28, 2017 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Scratch That 13 Days Itch in 13 Minutes, or How Far Can We Push It?

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
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13 Minutes: The Cuban Missile Crisis is a two-player microgame with tough decisions released in early 2017 by Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games.

When the big brother to 13 Minutes13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis — was released in 2016, Asger and I wrote a 13-chapter long designer diary. In that spirit, this piece will be 13 short, almost anecdotal stories of what 13 Minutes is and how it came to be.

1. What is 13 Minutes?

The 13-second pitch is that 13 Minutes is Love Letter meets 13 Days.

2. No, really, what is 13 Minutes?

The slightly longer story is that it is a two-player microgame set at the height of the Cold War during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In the game, you want to flex your superpower muscle and dominate battlegrounds, but — and there is a but — if you push your agenda too far you may trigger nuclear war, so be careful.

And did I say that you play only five cards per game, so each decision matters a lot?

3. Sitting by a pool

When 13 Days was funded on Kickstarter back in July 2015, I was vacationing in Italy. I celebrated by the poolside, but not with a glass of red wine as you would expect. In my hand I had 13 blank cards and 13 red and blue cubes and a pen.

Half an hour later, I had figured out how to translate the 13 Days experience into a microgame setting and sketched the basic cards for the first prototype of 13 Minutes.

Designing the easy 80 percent

4. Why 13 Minutes?

The idea of making a microgame version of a political card-driven game had been buzzing in the heads of both Asger and I for some time back then. We like to push game genres into new territories. 13 Days did just that as a 45-minute distillation of some of the nail-biting and tense moments from epic political games like Twilight Struggle.

13 Minutes is pushing that genre quite a bit more. We wanted to see whether it would float.

5. Brinkmanship

Stakes are high in 13 Minutes, which is no different from in 13 Days. The game is all about brinkmanship. It is a balancing act of cunning play and a tug-of-war of brute force.

You want to dominate battlegrounds to gain prestige, but each time you add influence to a battleground, you draw that card closer to your side of the table. Doing so is great because at the end of the game cards on your side will be all yours if no one dominates — but then again it is not great at all because all cards have a colored DEFCON symbol. If you end the game with three of the same color, you have triggered nuclear war and lost the game.

6. First origin

I use my notes app on the phone all the time, and a lot of that is for game-related stuff. For me it is a useful tool to get thoughts out of my head, but coincidentally it also allows me to track the first note I have for 13 Minutes. It goes:

13 Days with only 13 cards (and cubes). 5 US, 5 USSR and 3 neutral.
Played cards become battlegrounds.
Command: Add influence — move card closer to your zone. Remove influence — move card away from your zone.
Suspense: Endgame reveal — you may trigger nuclear war!

And then some more stuff that didn't end up in the game.

An early prototype when events were all symbols

7. Why so obsessed with the number 13?

As any designer can tell you, working under constraints often brings creativity. We set up constraints for ourselves all the time. Sometimes arbitrary ones (e.g., what if you couldn't talk?), but most often from experience (e.g., is that rule necessary?) or production concerns (e.g., we need to limit the components to one deck of cards).

With 13 Minutes, the framework was integral to the core idea. How could a microgame in the world of 13 Days ever have anything other than 13 cards as well as 13 cubes for each player?

8. Building a political world map

The "map" in 13 Minutes is an abstraction, but an important one that serves two main purposes.

First, it underlines the global nature of the crisis. In the beginning there is only Cuba — one battleground on the table. As you play cards and take actions, those cards become new battlegrounds. Though Cuba is still the most important battleground (as it's worth double prestige points), you learn that your resources are limited and will have to pick your fights with care.

9. A living DEFCON track

Second, the "map" is an evolving DEFCON track. Controlling cards left and right is not a problem until you consider the implications.

You are walking a tightrope. Too strong actions in one area may tip you over and be the final push to nuclear war.

10. How Cuba was born

Looking at the game now, one would think that the Cuba card — the sole face-down card — was introduced to the game by flipping a card to hide information. Actually, what happened was the reverse.

In the beginning, all cards were played face down to hide their DEFCON color. It was sort of a memory game inside the game that was totally unnecessary. Losses due to nuclear war would come at a higher rate in those early playtests, and players did not appreciate the lack of control. The obvious solution was to play cards face up, and thus Cuba was born to retain some uncertainty.

Note all the face-down cards on the table; Cuba is everywhere and nowhere

11. The devil is in the detail

What I am most proud about in the game are two details that enhance the core experience of brinkmanship.

I) The player who dominates the most military (orange) DEFCON cards at the end of the game gains 1 extra prestige. It is a little reward worth going for — but the deck contains one extra orange card, so the odds of going broke on DEFCON is considerably higher. Value and risk go hand in hand.

II) The Cuba battleground awards you 2 prestige, making it another reward you should fight for — but then Cuba will likely go into your sphere of influence and push you to play a more cautious game. Here again, value and risk go hand in hand.

12. So did we push it too far?

The first reviews suggest no. This is both pleasing and upsetting:

• Pleasing obviously because we want to make games for an audience that is larger than two.
• Upsetting because a part of me wanted to cross over that threshold. At least all this has sparked a new project that used to be a standing joke with us: 13 Seconds.

13. How to play

Are you tired of reading rulebooks? Dan King, also known as the Game Boy Geek, has done a most excellent "Rules School" video. I point all new players towards his instructions.

Have fun with the game!

Daniel Skjold Pedersen

The evolution of a cover; I am responsible only for the leftmost one...
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Thu Aug 10, 2017 4:32 am
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