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Designer Diary: Deep Blue, or Into the Deep End

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
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I was never much of a swimmer as a child. My parents were adamant that I learn to swim at least half-decently, so for a couple of years I spent every Tuesday afternoon in swimming class in-between all the other sport activities that I found much more to my liking: soccer, badminton, and tennis.

Slowly I got the hang of it to a point where I didn't actively loathe those Tuesday afternoons, but I was more than happy when my parents told me that I didn't have to turn in for swimming class next year. I had learned the basics, but one thing I never got the hang of was diving into the deep end. Toss me a couple of meters below surface, and my entire body screams "Get out of the water, now!"

So what is more natural than making a game about diving for hidden treasures on the bottom of the sea?

It All Began with a Book — 2013

Fast forward a couple of decades. It was early 2013, and I was reading a novel about a Danish prospector who had taken part in major gold rushes around the world in the second half of the 19th century. I thought this setting was perfect for my first big-box board game. I had been dipping my toes into game design on and off for six months creating a couple of small card games but nothing like what I imagined this game would be like.

The book that inspired the game;
as a game designer I like to dig into myths and nostalgia of times past

I sketched a rough and ugly prototype, named it "The Prospectors", and brought it to the local playtest event on the next opportunity.

My idea for the game was this: You were a family of prospectors arriving at the California shore to join in on the 1849 Gold Rush. The game was one big gold rush divided into smaller rushes as mines opened and closed around the countryside. On your turn, you could:

• Pick up cards to prepare for the digs or gain abilities when you travelled around.
• Move your family members into the mine areas.
• Start digging for gold by flipping cards off the top of a treasure deck, thus discovering pockets of gold or dangers to be wary of.

In other words, a press-your-luck game. The core idea that made the game click (in my head at least) was that players were allowed to join in on another player's treasure hunting if they met certain conditions, such as being present at the mine site. My hope was that the tactical positioning on the map and timing when to dig for gold would add another gameplay layer to classic press-your-luck games that I had played and loved like Incan Gold and Can't Stop.

The early version featured a time-track system in which players have both a meeple and a disc to track scores and time spent; I have no idea which one is which, but I remember thinking I was clever at the time that one of them could not stack, so it made a difference

It kind of worked. It was a mess, mind you, but not a terrible mess. More importantly, there was a fun core activity in play that even I, novice game designer that I was, could identify. I saw that players liked to explore the unknown and appreciated the anticipation building as they prepared for big digs; I felt the strong emotions when a player pressed not only their luck, but the luck of everyone around the table. These three core features are still integral to Deep Blue today. Little did I know that this game would be the main push for plunging me into the big blue unknown of becoming a game designer.

I modified "The Prospectors" and brought it back two weeks later, then again and again over the next couple of months. Those iterations saw much streamlining and a lot of changes. I introduced a bag of gems because it is more exciting to pull stuff out of a bag than flip random cards. I removed the time track system à la Thebes that I felt limited the freedom of the players, though some playtesters kept asking me to bring it back. (Sorry, Troels.)

At this point "The Prospectors" started looking like a proper game. Finding pretty art for my prototypes has never been my strong suit, but I have always pushed to make them functional and not let players down. I think I did a half-decent job here.

By the summer, I was pretty happy with the game and decided that between this and my card games, I had a decent portfolio to bring to the SPIEL fair in Essen that I was attending for the first time that autumn. Now, the question I was asking myself: Who should I show the game to?

Enter Days of Wonder — 2013

When I began my journey as a novice game designer, I foresaw myself making family-friendly style games, and in my mind no one did this better than Days of Wonder (DoW). I even set myself some lofty goals, not thinking too much about the slim odds. One was to get a nomination for the Spiel des Jahres. Another was to sign a game with DoW. I was naive, I know, but coming from a pro-sports background (not swimming), giving myself challenges like this has always felt intuitive.

Nobody told me how to pitch a game, let alone to DoW, so one day in the fall of 2012 I saw myself walk up to Eric Hautemont, then-owner and CEO, who was in town as keynote for the Danish Game of the Year Awards. I had been working on a sports-themed game and why not start from the top and ask my favorite publisher (i.e. naive)? Eric was very friendly and generous with his time, and he gave me some good advice while also letting me know that a sports game was not in the cards for DoW. I remember that I told him that next time I had a game that was a better fit for DoW, I'd let him know. I am sure he didn't think too much of it, and why should he?

Now, ten months on I had "The Prospectors" designed with DoW on my mind. A few months before SPIEL '13, I wrote Eric again and gave him a short overview of my new game. His reply was surprisingly fast, saying it did indeed sound like a DoW style game and asking me to make an appointment with Adrien Martinot (current CEO), who was at the show.

I was amazed by how uncomplicated that had been, and I carried that feeling with me throughout my first SPIEL experience later that year. I had eight or nine meetings with various publishers and gave out prototypes of all my games. I remember that I was surprised how little those meetings resembled proper sales meetings and felt more like a chat between like-minded people who are passionate about games. Getting a game from idea to prototype, through pitch and development into a final product is sometimes a long and arduous process — but looking back, I reckon that had it not been for the ease by which I got to sit down with decision-makers from rather big publishers, I am sure I would not be designing games today. All my games had issues or at least rough edges, but I always felt encouraged to continue out into the deep end of game design.

A blurry picture shot as I anxiously waited for my meeting with Days of Wonder

Saturday morning at SPIEL, I walked into the DoW booth, sat down with Adrien, put the game on the table, and talked him through what you did and why it mattered, moving a few pieces around on the map as I explained. His reaction was that it did indeed look like a DoW-style game, so I left him a prototype and walked out the door, much energized only ten minutes after I had entered. The following months saw a lot of back and forth of emails discussing rules questions, issues they had seen, and potential ways to fix it. Also, it was mentioned in passing that we might need to find another adventurous setting for the game rather than the Old West. Though I knew nothing was certain, I must admit that I had a hard time not getting my hopes too high those weeks.

In the first version, a deck of mine cards determined where gold was newly discovered (here at the Jack Pot mine), which created frenzied rushes criss-crossing the map, but betting on where these rushes appeared was not the fun of the game

One morning in late December 2013, I was at my local café having a morning coffee as the latest email from Adrien came in. He thanked me for allowing him to play the game extensively, but told me that in the end they had decided against publishing it. It was all very considerate, but I was devastated — and proud. It was a weird mixture of feelings: devastated because I felt I was close to achieving a dream, and proud because I had come this far with one of my very first games designed. A few weeks later, I decided to stuff the game away in the drawer as a good learning experience, move on to new games, and thought that was the end of "The Prospectors".

Gold Fever — 2014

All right, so this is actually not completely true. While I moved on to new games, I did find inspiration in "The Prospectors" to create Gold Fever.

As a child, I spent countless summer holidays with my younger brother and grandparents driving around the Danish countryside looking for campsites by the beach to park their caravan. While my grandfather was at the driver's wheel, my grandmother would entertain us with all sorts of games. I treasured those holidays. A lot of the fun I get out of games today can be traced back to those childhood memories.

This summer I came across this old and beat-up camper that was the exact model my grandparents had. (I called my grandmother so that she could confirm.)

Now I was the one driving the car home from a summer vacation with my brother and our girlfriends. It was a warm afternoon, and everyone in the car was asleep so my mind wandered back to those childhood memories and the games we played. What would a travel version of "The Prospectors" look like that I would have loved to play as a child? The bags and the gems were a given, as was the press-your-luck gameplay.

The simple breakthrough ideas were 1. to allow each player to have their own bag and 2. to create more emotional highs by allowing players to ditch unwanted stones into other players' bags. By the time my passengers all woke up, I was done designing the travel version in my head that published in 2017 as Gold Fever, with the game being carried in the U.S. by Stronghold Games. I am still very proud of this silly little game because it keeps reminding me why I love designing and playing games.

An Unexpected Email — 2016

In August 2016, I was in a summer lodge with my family, now the father of two, and I received a most unexpected email from Adrien. He basically said the time might be right for publishing "The Prospectors" and asked me whether I would be up for making a new and improved version?

That was an opportunity I couldn't turn down, so I picked the game out of the drawer and started thinking. I cannot thank Adrien enough for believing in both the game and my ability to develop it to its full potential. Later that year in Essen, we discussed the new direction to take the game. I began to question every corner of the design to make sure I didn't stick to old decisions for sentimental reasons. I even remember suggesting to Adrien that we get rid of the game board, but I could tell by the look on his face that he definitely saw this as a game with a pretty map as a centerpiece. (He was right, of course.)

I saw work-in-progress art assets over six months, but I must admit that seeing this image of the entire package genuinely blew me away

Back to Work — 2016/17

I worked all winter on the new version before I shared it with the DoW team in early 2017. I was pretty confident everything was moving in the right direction, but I did have a few nagging concerns. One thing I did not want was to just wait for DoW to potentially turn down the game again, so I kept testing, collecting feedback, and refining my thoughts.

The new version introduced a lot of changes:

Development #1 — The earlier prototype had players move back and forth between the same six boom towns. Now I wanted some forward movement, a progression towards an end goal. It was much better in the new version but also felt a bit too scripted.

The theme offered a strong west-to-east movement as prospectors searched inland, but it didn't matter too much where you were as long as you stayed centrally located.

Development #2 — I wasn't content that the game was "just" about positioning to take part in digs at various mine sites. I wanted more asymmetries in play. My first solution was to have players gain certain advantages as they entered a mine. Some would be drawing extra cards, others would allow you to gamble on surviving the treasure hunt to score more points. I liked the idea of scouting spots, but it was a bit all over the place, and I felt I was setting myself up to re-invent the core game, which was not the point.

The Can't Stop mine is a good example: You could gamble on 8 or 12 points if you stayed in the mine, or you could pick up cards or gain extra movement

Development #3 — I wanted to inject the asymmetries into the core gameplay of drawing stuff out of a bag as you started a gold rush. In the 2013 version, you played cards from your hand only to defend against incoming dangers, but you never played cards to gain advantages from the good stuff you drew. I introduced new cards that allowed you to score more points just for yourself if you joined a dig where somebody drew specific gems (such as two gold or four silver). This felt like a major breakthrough. Now I just needed to figure out how to reinforce that specific experience. It would take a new version.

Some of the early attempts at cards that would give points during a gold rush

It's All About the Bag, Stupid — 2017

I was June 2017, the con season was about to begin, and I wanted to hand in a new version of "The Prospectors" to DoW so that they could bring it along for tests during summer shows. That left me with only six weeks to put my thoughts into a new and improved version of the game.

Oh, and I had added a fourth bullet to the development list above:

Development #4 — From numerous playtests, I had observed how players were excited to gamble on triggering their personal cards when certain gems were drawn out of the bag, but also their frustration when this rarely happened because those cards would not be on their hand at the right moments of the game. I knew I needed to find the right system to allow players some control over the card flow. It would require a major overhaul, so I asked Asger to join.

Diving Deep
by Asger Harding Granerud

Unlike Daniel's childhood memories avoiding the deepest parts, I from an early age looked for the deepest places. I also remember that the 4m deep pool often had coins lying at the bottom, which for a ten-year-old meant candy was basically lying around. In other words, I went diving for gold in my pre-teens...

As an adult, I also hold an Advanced Padi license and the 4 meters have been changed to 40 meters. I haven't found any gold, though.

Back to Ugly — 2017

During the spring of 2017, Daniel had been going back and forth with DoW on this design again. There was clearly an interest from the publisher, but it was also apparent that something was amiss. The design was Daniel's from before we started co-designing games together, and we had agreed on a clear split just there. Nonetheless, I offered to step in and co-design if Daniel would accept me, and eventually he did.

We knew we wanted to send a prototype to Adrien and his team before we hit our summer holidays. This gave us about six weeks to get the basics right, but of course we were already working off an existing scaffold and years of experience from Daniel.

Nevertheless, we immediately started taking the game apart, and it was obvious that the defining characteristic was the bag. As so often happens when we end up designing games, we find that core, then we stick to it, designing everything else to mesh with it. In Deep Blue, everything you do relates to that bag of gems, and I do mean everything!

Should you choose to sail on your turn, the benefits you will get is either access to diving spots or benefits to future dives. Cards you buy either help protect you during future dives, or cash in on them. You literally can't take an action in Deep Blue without it relating to the bag.

With this focus, we quickly zoomed in on what became the game you're seeing in shops today. When we are in one of our sprints, we rarely end up making pretty prototypes. On the contrary, the first ones here were drawn in two minutes on an A4. Though we did improve the quality, the actual prototype we ended up sending to Days of Wonder was hand drawn!

We managed to ship it off before going on holiday, then I came back to work in August and eventually told my board that I was going to quit and dedicate myself full time to game design. To validate that decision, already in September we got word that DoW was going to pick up the game.

The new prototypes in all their hand-drawn glory; it had to be ugly before it was pretty...

A Development Tour de Force — 2018/19

As happens in fairy tales, this is where Days of Wonder stepped in, took over the project, and ironed out all the kinks of the game for us. Or not. Not at all really. In fact, they were quite annoying, constantly putting a finger on the sorest parts of the design and asking "What about this...?"

The biggest design challenges at this point were the hand management and the endgame triggers. Throughout the process, there were numerous other more balance-related issues, and cards plus scouting spots were inflated and deflated at regular intervals. Big Excel sheets were built to track the data, which is probably worth an article in and of itself. Initially we had most cards being double use, which DoW then asked us to streamline into single-use cards, then half a year after that change back into dual use cards. This is quite typical for our process, though, and while a few years ago I may have been more inclined to insist and assume, now we test. Even if we believe the idea isn't great, it is better to know (test) than assume.

For months we tracked results through images and collected all of it in a good old spreadsheet — which is a game designer's kind of fun

I don't quite know why the hand management dogged us for so long. We eventually nailed it down in November 2018, and I think it took us that long because we also fretted about the "shuffle small decks" issue that can happen in the final version.

Along the way, we also tested a version in which you redraw all used cards upon a rest, but it had a number of issues. First, it gave certainty of which cards were in hand, which wasn't as interesting as not knowing. Drawing from that bag is more exciting for everyone involved if you can't tell for sure what your opponents' options are. Second, for some reason the full redraw resting somehow also got stuck in cycles in which everyone tended to rest at the same time.

The "redraw three random cards" rest fixed both of those issues, but it also introduced a number of secondary effects. There is the gamer efficient brain, which will try to redraw when precisely three cards sit in your discard pile. Redrawing at two cards reduces efficiency, and redrawing at four risks you missing out on the card you most wanted. This again puts pressure on when you should play which cards as a card that might be "correct" to play when you already have 0-2 cards in your discard pile might not be so with three discards.

Fixing the endgame trigger was tougher and wasn't fully solved until around SPIEL '18. For a looong time, we kept wanting to force an epic ending on the game — the final scene of the movie that would tie it all together. We made a special endgame dive in which everyone could join with their full crew available, along with a couple of other special rules. The trouble was that this caused extra rules, and the game could still end without a climax. The game lives off iterated experiences, and every single instance can either be a total bust or a complete boom. We can't control that, and once player expectations for the final dive were sufficiently elevated due to all the extra rules, if it fell flat, then that would be how the game was remembered.

We tested a lot of rules for the special dives, including some that did not end up in the game; maybe you can tell which...

We had already landed on the solution with the four hidden dive wrecks, and the most straightforward solution was simply to end the game once the fourth of those dives was completed. We still have the unknown ending as the four dives need to be discovered, and there is still some control because even once revealed you still have to actually anticipate when that last dive will happen. More importantly, this approach adds few extra rules and feels like a natural extension of the existing gameplay.

We still wanted to spice up the ending and provide extra replayability, so we added special rules to the four final dive wrecks. (The base came is quite variable, though, and as you never get through the entire deck of crew cards, the bag composition also varies from game to game.) Initially my gut reaction was to add four different special rules to the four different tiles, then later to add two rules to a pair of tiles. My reasoning was to create more variance and constellations for the set-up, but what was the cost I was paying. Daniel correctly dragged me back on track, and we ended up with seven variants that can't be mixed, but which are applied to all four wrecks for any specific game.

Why was I wrong? The shuffling of the variants caused confusion in players, and it provided no strategic guidance. Sure, one variant might cause a specific card to increase in value, but only for one-fourth of the endgame tiles — and you might not even see it. Focusing the endgame on one experience at a time made it easier for players to remember what's going on, made it easier for players to strategize around that situation, and as a result created more focused and memorable experiences. This allowed us to design the seven variants specifically with the experiences in mind that we wanted to emphasize. Try a game where you stock up on cards? Or rush ahead? Or relearn basic positioning? We have those ready for you, hopefully also guiding you organically toward some of the basic strategies.

An epic ending is never guaranteed, but you can't say we haven't tried to provide the means. Now it is in your hands...

Long Story Short

Deep Blue represents my deepest dive into nitty-gritty development work so far. (Perhaps save for a 2020 title that has already overtaken it.) I do think there has been a big payoff, and I am very happy with where Deep Blue has landed. It is a press-your-luck game in which you aren't sitting and maximizing your own odds in isolation, but are constantly part of a communal press-your-luck effort. Positioning, cards, and deck status all add up and ensure that even when you are participating in the same dives, you are doing so from an asymmetric point of view. That next cube could be a huge boon to you, yet completely irrelevant (or worse!) to someone else. This asymmetry, coupled with some specific design choices for cards, means we have hit that balance in which you're very often lured to draw "just one more cube".

Asger seems happy...

Naturally Deep Blue is a press-your-luck game, considering everything in the game relates to the bag, and engaging with the bag is the only means of gaining victory points. This will also cause a LOT of gamers to immediately disregard the game as luck is a factor. However, there are many elements you can manipulate to improve those odds, and you also have a say in whether or not you want to go for high payoff or low risk as a strategy. I know full well that none of this will stop people reacting to the perceived injustice, but one can only hope!

Happy diving!

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Asger Harding Granerud
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Mon Oct 7, 2019 1:00 pm
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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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