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Last Christmas I re-gifted you my heart

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
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Every designer's process works differently. One of the most common bits of conventional wisdom is "get your new idea playable and get it on the table, immediately!" which is basically the "fail fast" mentality. And Cole has talked about how in several of his highly-regarded games, they went live on KS with significant aspects of the game still incomplete; the implication, I guess, being that working under pressure to deliver the game that you've funded may be an important part of his creative process.

To my mind, both of these approaches miss the important benefit of waiting. Game ideas are like fine steaks, sometimes they need to marinate a bit. But even more than this, we insufficiently appreciate (and maybe even insufficiently understand) the role of the subconscious mind in working on stuff in the background. A common test-taking strategy that leverages this is to read the test in full before you even pick up your pen and start working on any of the questions. This lets your subconscious mind start formulating the answers to later questions so that, by the time you reach them, you've already done some of the work without even thinking about it.

bluetaj:

Last year, I tossed out a half-formed idea for a game about re-gifting. We had some fun talking about the idea in the comments, I scribbled down a few notes, and then I promptly forgot all about it, until this past Saturday. In anticipation of Tuesday playtest night, I wondered if the game could be hammered into a playable form to have something "seasonal" to bring along.

And the answer is, of course, yes, or I wouldn't be posting this. A year of marinating enabled me to declutter the original idea and get it into something playable in fairly short order. Would I have arrived at these same solutions had I simply charged ahead last year, and struck while the iron was hot? I'm not sure, but I don't think so.

We played it this week, and it worked reasonably well, and everyone had fun. It's playful to pretend to give gifts to one another and to role-play the reactions that they elicit, and we all have prior knowledge about the idea of giving gifts and re-gifting so the gameplay is quite intuitive.

bluetaj:

Here's how it works, briefly.

There are 40 gift cards: 8 categories ("toys", "tools", "clothing", etc), and 5 colors in each category. You start the game with a personal draw pile of 10 cards.

From gallery of jwarrend


Each of the game's four rounds, you may draw cards from your pile ("go shopping"), and then must lay out ("wrap") one gift card for each opponent. Then we take turns giving our chosen gifts. The recipient of a gift may make it public or not, and then must react.

"Thanks" -- No points awarded
"I like it!" -- 1 VP to giver and recipient
"I love it!" -- 2 VP to giver and recipient

During setup, you're dealt 3 "interest" cards, each having either a category or a color. You may only "like" a gift if it matches at least 1 of your interest cards, and "love" if it matches 2.

If someone regifts a gift you previously gave them, you can accuse them, which incurs a penalty for that person.

At game's end, you get 1 VP for each card in your hand that matches one of your interests. The person with the most cards that don't match an interest gets -3 VP. And the person with the most cards in their draw pile (cheapskate!) gets 5 VP.

bluetaj:

The game forces you to regift at least a bit but puts you in a bit of tension as to whether you want to do it a little (reduced risk of penalty) or a lot (better likelihood of the cheapskate bonus). In our game, scores were 23/22/21/10 (I was the 10), with players pursuing different approaches, so there's at least some strategic diversity.

It's not terribly hard to recognize when a gift has been regifted, and even to remember who gave it to whom. Sometimes there are chains where the gift has been regifted a couple of times, which is funny.

I think in light of all of this, the game wants to be less a deduction/memory game and more a social decorum game. You say "thank you" even when you don't like something; accusing someone creates a big scene, are you really sure you want to do that?; and so on.

So, a bit more work ahead, but if the idea interests you, subscribe to this post, as I'll post links to PnP files and the rule set if anyone wants to add this to their holiday celebrations!


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Wed Dec 1, 2021 11:25 am
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They like to get you in a compromising position

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
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It's worth amending our conversation from a few posts back, in which we observed the flaws in the argument that that which emulates tends to improve on that which it emulates, and note that it does happen from time to time. One of the most inexplicable cases is when John Mellencamp set pen to paper or fingers to guitar or whatever the case may be, trying to write his own "I Fought the Law", and managed to compose the most underappreciated rock anthem and paean to the American spirit, "Authority Song".

There's more to say about this singular song but that's for another day. Today's post is actually about producing a game. I posted this in a thread documenting the unfolding story of my game The Acts of the Evangelists, but I think it has some points that might interest designers more generally.

When you run a million dollar Kickstarter, you can put whatever you want into the box: life-sized player pieces, an espresso machine, a trained seal, there are no constraints! But when you're on a more limited budget, and when you're committing to certain self-imposed constraints (e.g. in my case, "nothing from China"), this necessitates compromises.

There are six things you can adjust, which are interdependent:
1 The game design itself
2 Print run size
3 Component quality
4 Component appearance (art & design)
5 Price
6 Profit or loss

For 1, if you're at an early point in the design, you can make changes to the game around what you realistically think the component manifest can be. Indeed, there's another game I'm considering possibly doing for Belltower that would be cost-prohibitive with my publishing model, but what if we redesigned it a bit around the components that we actually could put into a box at its target price (5)? But often you won't want to do that.

2 depends entirely on your assessment of the demand for the game, and relatedly on how long you can wait for that demand to show up. If you think you can sell 2000 copies of the game but that it might take a year for word-of-mouth to spread enough that you'll get all those copies sold, that's a long time to tie up a big chunk of money, can you afford that? Can you come up with enough capital to print those 2000 copies in the first place, or is a smaller number safer?

Once the game is done 1, and we have a target print run size 2, a few other things lock into place, because quite a few things you'll need are based on quantity. The only way you can get a better price on cubes is to buy more cubes. So 1 and 2 fix your costs.

bluetaj:

With those two things locked, you find that you must, you must compromise on something else. Either you have to use cheaper materials, or use less art and graphic design, or charge the buyer more, or lose some money, or some combination of those.

5 is usually somewhat set for you by the market. A light card game can't really sell for $50, a game selling for $75 has to have a really compelling value proposition, and so on. Then you decide where you are content to break even or whether you hope to turn a small profit, and these together lock in 5 and 6.

So, what looked like a potentially broad trade-space has already narrowed considerably!

bluetaj:

Now, there's a wide range of what you can pay for art and graphic design (4), but the bigger compromise that's available on 4 is the quantity. You can get a nice illustration for $100, it's just a question of how many such pieces you can get for your budget. A full KS production of Evangelists might have used more art, but the overall constraints on the budget wouldn't allow it.

Next we consider component quality, 3. There are ways to save money on cards by going to lower quality, but DriveThru's cards are already quite cheap in addition to being the top echelon of quality. Wooden bits kind of cost what they cost, there aren't really "discount cubes" that are crappy but cheap. And in my case, printed components like the rules and the score pad are already pretty cheap, only about $1 each at my quantity, so saving a few pennies on each copy doesn't matter much at these low quantities.

bluetaj:

So that really just leaves 3, the box and the board. Which do you compromise on?

If you're willing to go with a cheaper box (which means, either flimsier stock or only printing the "lid", not the "tray"), you can save enough money that you could afford to do a mounted board...almost. And so that seems like the obvious way to go, right? Who cares about the box, it's what's in the box that matters.

Except...the box is the first contact the user has with the game, the first part of their experience when the game arrives in the mail. And if the box looks cheap and flimsy, and not like a game box, it makes the user think you cut corners, makes them wonder what other corners you've cut, lowers their overall expectations for the product, lowers their overall impression of you as a publisher who can deliver a quality product. You're creating a negative confirmation bias for the game before they've even opened the lid to see what's inside. That feels incredibly dangerous to me.

So, for these reasons I have elected to compromise on the board rather than the box, and will use a cloth board instead of a mounted cardboard board. I think the cloth board will still deliver an excellent gameplay experience and look great.

Other publishers might make different decisions, and again, if you don't have to lock in 1 or 2 but can tweak the game design or generate more demand and do a bigger run, some of these compromises can be avoided. At 100 copies, compromises are not avoidable, at least not for a game with a fair number of pieces like Evangelists. A simpler game, e.g. one with just a deck of cards and some tokens, probably would entail fewer compromises.

Which brings us back around to 1, if you're going to self-publish a small run, choose your game judiciously!

==================================

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Sat Nov 27, 2021 12:11 pm
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Let's talk about text

Jeff Warrender
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As a game designer, I've always assumed that user interface considerations were beyond the scope of what I'm responsible for, more of a problem for the graphic designer to work out. But, what I've found both in The Sands of Time and now in working on The Acts of the Evangelists is that graphic designers aren't necessarily looking to concoct and optimize a UI for your game, they're mostly going to cue off of your existing design. This is all the more reason to spend some effort playing around with the UI and trying to present information in the most useful and intuitive way. It turns out UI is actually part of the game design.

One aspect of this is how much information to include in the game in the form of text.

Text is, at best, a necessary evil, because including text in the UI of the game has quite a few negative properties:

thumbsdown It mars the aesthetic appeal of the game. Look at a lovely game like Chess or Go, or a German game like Through the Desert or Carcassonne, and contrast that with this:

Board Game: Black Orchestra


Yegads, what a clutter!

thumbsdown Text is directional, which makes the game more of a pain to play for players on one side of the table.

thumbsdown Text is size-constrained; if the text isn't huge, it's not so easy to read from across the table.

thumbsdown Text is language-specific

thumbsdown Providing text as an aid to learning can actually become a sort of crutch that impedes internalization.

sugar

This last point is the controversial one and is what I want to focus on.

In the past year I've learned several games via their online implementation, but I find that, because the game enforces all the rules for you, I actually understand the game less well than if I had learned the game directly from the rulebook and then played it on a table. By not having to expend any effort to learn the game, the net result is that I haven't actually learned the game, which is unsurprising in light of our whirlwind tour through the science of learning.

Most designers have probably had similar experiences, for similar reasons, with player aids. Your players ask for player aids, so you spend a bunch of time making them and you bring them to the next playtest, and then no one looks at them, because it's just easier to ask you questions rather than look the information up. So, in a similar vein, you, the teacher, can actually be an impediment to the players learning the game!

It can be similar with text on components. In the name of putting the rules onto the components to make them easy to remember, we actually make the game harder for them to learn. You're better off having to work a bit to internalize the rules, because this increases the likelihood that you'll be able to play the game right out of the box when it next hits the table in a few weeks.

bluetaj:

Here's an example from Evangelists. When you interview a witness, you take the corresponding Witness Card, which has two ramifications. (1) You may not interview that witness again. (2) When another player interviews that witness, you may use the "follow" action to gain two tally marks.

And so, here are three options of how these cards could look (these aren't graphic-designed, this is just to illustrate the point):

From gallery of jwarrend


The rightmost image tells you all the rules for the card so you don't have to remember them, which is useful if you remember to look at it to remind you of the rules you're not obligated to remember! But internalizing the rules is better still, and the leftmost option leaves you with no choice but to do that. The middle one is something of a compromise solution, a reminder but not a full explanation of the rule.

My personal preference is actually for the leftmost image. People will surely complain about this (and wait till those people see the board!), but I think it's the solution that requires them to expend the most effort to learn the game.

bluetaj:

Now, of course, there are some games that you couldn't really play without text. In a game where every card has a special effect, like Everdell or Wingspan, you could never remember the effects of each card, and having to go to the rulebook over and over would be tedious. And even in games where there are few enough unique effects that you could learn them all, e.g. Love Letter or the tiles in Puerto Rico, it takes several plays before you can do it.

One interesting edge case is the situation where expanding a game for replayability reduces its ease of learning. For example, Citadels has 8 roles and you can learn what they do quickly enough. But in Citadels (2016), there are 27 unique role cards, and you'll use 8-9 each game, so internalizing the rules of all of the cards, even the ones you're not using, wouldn't be worth the effort it would require. It's easier to just learn the set of roles in use in the present game, and the text on the cards is an aid to this.

The other advantage, in this case and in the case of power cards, is that we don't have to trust a player's memory to know what that card does. "You can't do that with that card!" "Oh yes I can!" "Well let's look at the rules." The rule printed on the card averts this time-wasting exchange.

bluetaj:

The mediating position between text and no-text is, of course, substituting icons for text, and inevitably Race for the Galaxy's icon language comes up. All of that is a bit beyond the scope of this thread, though, but of course in cases where a well-chosen icon can convey a similar amount of information as a line of text, can be more readable, and can be less obtrusive, and can serve as a helpful reminder, that's certainly a preferable solution.

The danger for designers, I think, is the problem we've discussed whereby the expert overestimates the ease with which the novice can acquire knowledge. And so to you, the icons you've chosen make perfect sense, but if they're not intuitive or if there are a lot of them, you've just given your players a whole new language that they have to learn.

It's helpful to group icons with like functionality with similar colors or similar surrounding shapes (e.g. put all "resource" icons in a circle, put all "building" icons in a square), or to use icon size and placement strategically to make sure that different icon meanings don't bleed over into one another.

Overall, text and icons can be either helpful or unhelpful at making the game difficult enough to learn that the learning will stick, and yet easy enough to learn that players will want to expend the effort to learn it. This is a challenging balance to strike, but one that's well worth struggling with!


==================================

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28 Comments
Sun Nov 21, 2021 12:29 pm
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Post hoc ergo melius hoc

Jeff Warrender
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"Post hoc" reasoning is a logical fallacy whose common name is more of a mouthful, "post hoc ergo propter hoc", or "after this, therefore because of this." The post hoc fallacy entails claiming that A caused B because A happened before B. I trust it's obvious why this is a fallacy even if you're not trained in formal logic.

There is a common variation of this that's propounded at BGG, most recently in this very nice piece by Eric Martin, though Eric doesn't himself entirely endorse it.


The argument is used as an explanation for why the BGG top-ranked games are all so new, and it goes like this: "The rankings are dominated by newer games because games are better now. And the reason they're better is that game designers have learned from games of the past, and can't help but make better games because they have so many more influences to draw on than the games of yore had."

Essentially, "after this, therefore better than this."

bluetaj:

Like its parent fallacy, this argument has a few logical problems.

sugar That which comes after does not necessarily emulate that which came before, and the dependency is often indirect or incidental.

Disco music came after folk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock&roll, soul, and other styles; does that mean disco is the successor to those styles of music, or that it shares very much in common with any of them? For some artists maybe yes, for some maybe no.

What I think the assertion misses is the existence of epicycles and movements and sub-genres. Sometimes what is popular influences what is made, but that doesn't mean that what is made emulates everything that came before it. I can mostly convince myself that there's a causal chain that connects Verräter to Agricola, but it's somewhat indirect, and so it would be a stretch to say that because (in my view) Puerto Rico's action selection system led in some way to worker placement mechanics, that therefore every worker placement games are emulating Puerto Rico, consciously or unconsciously. Most likely, worker placement game designers are emulating other worker placement games, perhaps completely unaware of early games like Bus or Aladdin's Dragons that may have influenced the development. And more importantly...

sugar That which emulates does not necessarily improve on that which came before it.

Borrowing and copying don't always lead to improvement. Look at the raft of sci-fi movies that followed Star Wars. The Ice Pirates, The Black Hole, etc, perhaps not all of these were terrible, but it's debatable whether any of them were better than the original.

Another example is the successors to the hard rock sound of the late 60's and early 70's: progressive rock like King Crimson and Pink Floyd, "cheese-rock" like R.E.O. Speedwagon and Styx, and then, infamously, glam rock and "hair metal".

Now as a kid in the 80s of course I listened to Warrant and Poison and all those other cheesy bands, and, sure, their music is fun, but better than Led Zeppelin and the Doors and Cream? Come on man.

Of course this doesn't mean that what comes after can never equal or exceed that which preceded it, it is simply to say that the post hoc ergo melius hoc argument offers plenty of counterexamples.

And in some ways it comes back around to our conversation about genius. Just emulating the work of a great creator doesn't necessarily enable me to come up with great works myself. I recall a 60 Minutes or Dateline episode years ago about the then-controversial idea that some of the Dutch and Italian masters may have used a camera obscura to do their paintings, and the scholar said that this was (in his view) certainly true, and not in any way to the diminishment of their skill. He offered this thought experiment: "Here, I will give you a camera obscura. Now go and paint the Caravaggio. Absurd!"

bluetaj:

Someone argued to me that former BGG #1 game Tigris & Euphrates had 24 years to make its case, but in that time only accumulated 26k ratings, compared to Gloomhaven's higher rating from 46k ratings, and in only 4 years no less, so it's clear that Gloomhaven is the superior game. Well.

Citizen Kane was the #1 film in the original and updated versions of the American Film Institute 100 great films, and is generally agreed among cinephiles to be one of the greatest films of all time. At IMDB, it has an 8.3 rating from 425k reviews. By comparison, Avengers: Endgame has an average rating of 8.4 from 960k reviews. Is Avengers:Endgame a better movie, and is it better because it emulates the cinematic lessons of great films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, or maybe just maybe is there some other explanation for why it's more highly-rated and by more people? I leave this as a thought exercise for the reader.

Meanwhile, as a slightly bright note to this tour of a new logical fallacy, here is the BGG top 15 as it looked 15 years ago yesterday. I'd say all of these games have stood the test of time and would be a great starting point for someone looking to play some "serious" games (whatever that means)!

From gallery of jwarrend


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Tue Nov 16, 2021 3:03 pm
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The purpose of playtesting

Jeff Warrender
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In a tweet of mine that went semi-viral (that's about 30 likes for me!), I said that playtesting isn't for finding problems, it's for identifying strengths.

This advice especially applies to playtesters. The other night we had a playtest get-together, and one of us had a new game, and, sure enough, it had some problems: a bidding game where the cards on offer were all samey, a strategic arc that didn't quite take flight. So as soon as the game ended we were all quick to pounce on the problems the designer should address, and maybe some possible things he could do differently. This is fairly typical of how our group approaches playtesting, and is consistent with the conventional wisdom advice about playtesting: "the playtester's job is to identify problems, the designer's job is to identify solutions."

But increasingly I think that's wrong. If I'm a skilled designer, I can see my game's problems well enough. Now, of course, newer designers sometimes need help seeing a problem and sometimes need help articulating the problem, e.g. they might think "oh this one card is OP" but actually the problem is deeper and structural, and putting your finger on it can help them.

But better than that, I think, is the critical role we can play in identifying what is good about a game. I talked in another post about how it's easy to have rose-colored glasses for your own game, and elsewhere how publication by an established publisher can feel like it conveys a perceivedsense of legitimacy on a game. As playtesters, we can provide independent confirmation that, yes, [this] element of the game is really great and exciting and is absolutely worth building a game around.

bluetaj:

[This] is often not the direction the designer thinks that they're going. They might not have thought of [this], and might not want to. This is why it's important, as a designer, to be a good listener: you've given playtesters permission to speak, now listen to what they have to say. "Ooh what if you tried..." is my favorite kind of feedback to receive (and give), because it shows engagement with the game and shows that the playtester sees potential in at least some aspect of the game.

bluetaj:

Because, here's the thing. Ultimately, design advice that's problem-centric can only get a game so far. If a game is imbalanced, we can balance it. If a game has too much latency, we can make the turns shorter. If the game has a kingmaker problem, we can move the end game around to make it harder to kingmake. Is the game "good" after we have fixed these problems? Or were these problems not actually the real problem? Was the actual underlying problem that the game is just not very exciting?

Most designers can always come up with a new idea easily enough, but we as playtesters don't treat each other's ideas that way. In the name of being supportive we treat every game idea as precious, and focus our feedback on how to fix the game's problems, but we never actually get around to saying whether or not the game is worth working on in the first place. If it's not, we should just say so, so the designer can move on to more productive things (or ignore us, if he/she thinks we're wrong, of course!). If it is, we should say that, so the designer keeps going and doesn't give up even if problems with the game seem like they'll be challenging to solve.

So, when you have occasion to playtest a game, I suggest starting your feedback with positive affirmations about what is good about the game and what its potential might be. This is not merely to be nice or polite to the designer, it's to fulfill the actual purpose of playtesting, which is to filter out bad game ideas and only let good ones through.

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Sun Nov 14, 2021 1:00 pm
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For your future consideration

Jeff Warrender
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I've had a chance recently to playtest the forthcoming expansion to Sidereal Confluence. It's really good, which is no surprise, as Tau is an extremely skilled and imaginative designer. I've noticed in playing Sidereal, and my own game Collusion, and a few others, that there are essentially two play styles in negotiation games.

corn says "I want to iron out all of the particulars, to squeeze every possible drop out of every single deal."

indigo says "I am content to get a deal in the right ballpark, snap the line, and say "good enough" and move on."

Neither of these is right or wrong, and it's important not to see corn as "stingy" and indigo as "free-wheeling"; rather, corn is optimization-driven and indigo is fluidity-of-play driven. The problem of corn is when those deep-dive negotiations become bilateral; the rest of the table must wait for the participants to hash out the deal.

And when that happens, there's an intangible currency that sometimes comes out, but which I've found is more closely associated with the indigo posture, namely, future consideration.

bluetaj:

You and I have reached the point where this deal is approximately favorable to both of us, but it's a little more favorable to you than to me. Rather than belabor the negotiation by trying to come up with something you can offer to balance the scales (which isn't always possible), I will call it a deal in exchange for "future consideration". Basically, you are giving me an I.O.U.

As is probably obvious, the reason this currency isn't much used by corn enthusiasts is that they will also try to hash out exactly what you're going to do with the future consideration!

bluetaj:

The ambiguity of what I'm committing to is fundamentally a question of trust between us, which usually lives beyond what game rules can explicitly litigate. Future consideration in an indigo group is to embrace a reliance on trust, corn is to express a fundamental discomfort or dissatisfaction with this ambiguity. But trust, it must be conceded, is a product of the group in which one plays. In some groups, welching on a deal will earn you scorn and derision, and your friends will let you know that your victory was hollow. But maybe you're in a group where everyone knows that no one should trust anyone else, and if I was relying on you to actually follow through on what you promised, I am foolish and deserve to have been welched upon.

And separate from the question of follow-through is the amorphous value of future consideration. What did you think you were buying with your request for future consideration from me? Does it mean you'll give me slightly better terms next time around, does it mean you'll give me the nod over Sally if we're both offering you a deal, even if Sally's offer is preferable to mine?

We've talked about how the leverage cubes in John Company make future consideration explicit. A cube of yours I'm holding late in the game gives you a point, so I'd better find a way to give it back to you, but you have to decide what constitutes a point's worth of value. This strikes a nice balance between the amorphousness of future consideration and the ability for players to have some creative control over what the deal looks like.

bluetaj:

I've been thinking about future consideration concepts as a driver of behavior, in the context of Evangelists. Evangelists is not a negotiation game, but the turn mechanic lets you follow another player's action on their turn by handing them a follow token, if you have one.

This was originally introduced as a way to reduce latency, and it also works reasonably well as a thematic element in that game, since there's strong textual evidence that the gospel writers cribbed off of one another. But what's been interesting to watch is the way that the game's energy state is impacted by how much those follow tokens are used. You get six turns with three actions each, for 18 total actions. So if you could get one follow token to spend each round, that's 33% more total actions you get to take.

Essentially the use of the tokens is a bit like the concept of the velocity of money, i.e., how many transactions does the average unit of currency facilitate? If the group takes a fairly liberal posture with respect to spending tokens, we actually get a more corn-like outcome; as a group: our play is more optimal and there's more as a whole that we can accomplish. On the other hand, though, these tokens introduce a trust-like element characteristic of indigo, since I have no control over how you use the token I give you, which means both that (a) I don't know when or whether I'll get the token back, and (b) I don't know whether you'll get more value out of the token later than I'm getting out of using it now.

The tokens have no intrinsic value and so it's better for me to spend them than hoard them, but the psychology also leads me to perhaps feel (irrationally?) stingy. It's interesting to watch and I'm looking forward to hearing how different groups explore this element of the game and perhaps where they find their own group's equilibrium to reside.

But overall this makes me think that introducing future consideration ... err, considerations into non-negotiation games could open up interesting design possibilities. I haven't worked it in to any of my other designs yet, but am tucking it away as a, well, future consideration.

==================================

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Sat Nov 6, 2021 1:51 pm
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I was walking with a ghost

Jeff Warrender
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The first time I heard Tegan and Sara's song (not that one, this one), I heard the line in the verse as:

"I was walking with a ghost/I said please please don't exist",

and I was like, hot dang that's one of the best song lines I've ever heard. But it turns out the line is:

"I was walking with a ghost/I said please please don't insist".

I'm less sure what that means, but whatever it means, it's not nearly so cool as what I had thought the line was. The "wrong" lyric, to me, flirts with that essential quality that the ghostly realm possesses, namely that it is numinous. That's a 50-cent word you probably don't know, but it conveys a sense of that which is uncanny, eerie, especially that which is divine, that inspires awe or dread. Being in the presence of a ghost is to be in the presence of that which should not be, that which would inescapably alter one's perspective on the nature of reality, that would demand one reconsider truths, perhaps deeply held truths, the reconsideration of which might shake one to the core. The fundamental contradiction of asking a ghost not to exist is to grapple with the fundamental contradiction that the very existence of the ghost would appear to imply.

In contrast, "please don't insist", combined with the chorus "no matter which way you go...you're out of my mind", implies to me that the song is using 'ghost' in the sense of a memory, a person one once knew, a relic from a former time in one's life, and that the singer does not wish to revisit that particular chapter. That is...fine, just not as fraught with existential bite, we might say.

bluetaj:

Apparently "ghosting" is a popular-parlance term for "not replying to someone who contacted you". Game designers may not know this term but we certainly know the phenomenon to which it refers! I've been ghosted by lots and lots of publishers, as I suspect many of us have.

I understand that publishers have limited time and can't be pen pals with everyone, but I would respectfully suggest that publishers should always, always reply to designers who submit a game to them and always give a specific reason why you're not going to move forward with the game. This is more than just common courtesy, although that's a good enough reason on its own. Rather, feedback helps the designer decide what to do next.

First, it helps them understand how to structure future interactions with you. If this just isn't your type of game, telling them what you're actually looking for helps them to know whether and what to submit to you in the future.

Second, it helps them to understand the perceived market potential for the game. If you say "this is too complex for our typical customer", that's helpful, and maybe a different publisher with different customers would be a better fit, then. In contrast, "there are a zillion train games on the market, I don't think another one will sell" tells the designer that their game's problem may be a problem with the market as a whole and not just with your niche in that market.

Now, you might be wrong! Which is all the more reason to provide your reasoning; if the designer hears the same thing from a number of publishers, it may tell them that this is going to be an uphill climb, or at least that a consensus of publishers think that it will be.

Third, it helps them to understand how the game is perceived. "We can't figure out how the game works" obviously means the rules or pitch aren't coming through. "This seems really cluttered" or "there's way too much going on" or "there's so much luck in [this system]" all point to possible structural flaws with the game that the designer should address, and again, the more they hear it, the more likely they are to act on it.

I'll offer an example. I talked a while back about my game "Greetings from Terra", a party game about making top 5 lists for aliens. We've had fun every time we've playtested it, but when I had a chance to speed-pitch it last summer, a few publishers said "it feels like it needs something more". I don't know what that something more should be, and none of them offered any concrete suggestions, but if you hear it enough times there's a good chance it's true.

The fourth reason all of this is beneficial to the designer is that it helps inform a designer's decision to potentially publish the game themselves. Evangelists was rejected by quite a few publishers. Several "ghosted" the game, a few said "religion game, not our thing", a few playtested it, and of those that playtested, two in particular gave really helpful and constructive feedback: Foxtrot Games and Chara Games. They both said that it wasn't a good fit for their respective company at the present time, but they felt the game was good, and would be even better if I changed [these things] (which I have since done).

This has ultimately been very helpful to my decision to go forward with the game. It may not have a huge market potential, but then I'm not trying to market it to a huge audience; I just need to find a small number of buyers, and knowing that the game isn't "defective", it's just "niche", served as a useful check and an encouragement to move forward.

So, publishers who are reading this, please don't "ghost" designers who submit to you!


==================================

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Fri Oct 29, 2021 1:27 pm
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Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
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Kid amnesia is a funny thing. You wish you could remember important stuff, but there isn't much actual rhyme or reason to what you do remember. I'm always impressed by, and maybe a bit skeptical of, people who can remember and articulate really detailed stories from their early childhood because all I have are a random hodge podge.

One of my few memories of going to Disney as a young kid (5 I think) was the Haunted Mansion. And specifically, getting into the entryway, seeing the spooky portraits of the people that age before your eyes, screaming in terror, and then being carried at swift speed through some weird back hallway and out through a side exit to the attraction. I think my parents might have tried to calm me with assurances that "it's supposed to be funny, it's supposed to be funny" but the corpse-like appearance of the "old" versions of the portraits didn't seem funny to five year old me. But it is an impressive trick, one must admit!

bluetaj:

In a previous post I mentioned that I ran cross country in high school. Our arch-rival was Ichabod Crane High School, located in the next town over, Valatie. I'll give a free copy of my book to anyone who can guess how to pronounce "Valatie". No cheating by looking it up, and if you already know that doesn't count either. Suffice to say, it's not what you'd expect.

Anyway, Ichabod Crane's mascot was "the riders". We're a fair distance from Sleepy Hollow (which is down in Tarrytown, in Westchester County), so I don't really know why Valatie's high school is named for Washington Irving's famous tale; maybe Irving spent some time in Valatie for some reason or something like that. But, whatever the origin, it does seem that "Ichabod Crane" is a weird name for a high school, isn't it? I mean, Ichabod is a biblical name, but it means "the glory has departed", and I can only imagine Irving named his main character ironically, so, an odd choice to commemorate with a high school, even setting aside the weird geographical clang.

indigo

It's surprising to me that there isn't, to my knowledge, a game about Sleepy Hollow. What might such a game entail?

The obvious thing would be a 2p game about the tale's climactic scene, with Crane frantically riding to reach the bridge with the headless horseman in hot pursuit.

But what interests me more is the possibility of a kissing-cousin of the genre of political games we just discussed, namely the social deduction game.

Crane is an outsider, deeply superstitious, and one thinks of the mood of the barn dance where the ghost stories are in the air and Crane is fascinated by them, but then they seem to haunt his every turn on his ride. This makes me think of a game like Scape Goat or Spyfall or maybe even Mao, where everyone is in on something except one person, but that one person doesn't entirely realize they're not in on it (or in the case of Spyfall, they are the only one who knows). The misdirection that plays out in these games recalls Balderdash, where we're trying to come up with the most plausible-sounding [whatever] to hoodwink our fellow players. Applied to a ghost-story game, these ideas could perhaps make for a fun experience, perhaps with the players' rides home from the session mirroring Crane's ride home from the dance! In fact maybe that's the very point of the game, that it's a metagame setup for the game's real intended experience, the bit where we walk out to dark cars and drive down dark streets and walk into a dark house, and the chilling impression the game will have left us with and that will haunt our thoughts for that whole ride!

bluetaj:

The other scene in the story that interests me is the ending, where no one knows what happened to Crane but it's implied that Brom Bones not only knows but is the responsible party. I feel like there's possibly a game in here as well, a game of hidden actions, maybe a bit like The Resistance, where it seems highly likely that someone is messing with this guy but none of us quite know which of us it is, and maybe just maybe there's the possibility that it's none of us. In such a game, I guess Crane would be an NPC and the game might involve a series of social events like the barn dance where there's some interaction, then "the ride home" where it's possible to get up to some mischief, but if we lay it on too thick or go overboard there are consequences to that as well. The somewhat rare instance where the spectral apparitions troubling Crane are not attributable to any of our actions should produce a pretty fun moment of surprise!

(Not specifically about Sleepy Hollow, but a related idea might apply to a game about Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Something is picking us off one by one but there's no one else on the island, so it must be one of us, and so in the end when it's down to Vera and Phillip, process of elimination leads to, well...)

The best thing (but probably the hardest) would be to go beyond a veneer of mere plausible deniability into the achievement of acts that don't appear to be possible for a player to have accomplished. As an example, something like rolling double-sixes five times in a row, surely that can't happen naturally, something must be up to account for such an occurrence. So in game terms, Crane was haunted on the Tarrytown road, but the party happened all the way across town at the farm, and you were seen at the farm, surely you couldn't have been the one to have harassed Crane, that's not possible, right? So the idea would be for players to have at least the possibility of possessing secret means to pull off extremely unlikely things, but players should, after each event, mostly be left scratching their head as to how it was accomplished and/or trying to avoid a knowing expression breaking out across their faces.

bluetaj:

Anyway, just a few random impressionistic thoughts, no actual game mechanics yet but maybe something that someone will pick up and run with one day...

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Sun Oct 24, 2021 12:00 pm
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Good news about good news

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
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Ok, here we go!

From gallery of jwarrend


Yes, I'm taking the plunge with a small print run of my game Evangelists.

I've long believed that getting a game signed by a publisher was practically an imperative as a quality-control filter, but I no longer hold this view. I still hope that some of my games will be picked up, but for many designs/designers the choice isn't "publisher or self-publish?", it's "self-publish or nothing". For a game like Evangelists, a number of publishers have said "not interested" without ever testing it. Of course I understand publishers have to choose wisely where they invest time and money, but I think the view that only a publisher can confer legitimacy on a game is basically to say that a publisher's snap judgment (in a lot of cases) becomes the arbiter of the quality of the game, which is absurd.

Anyway this project is an experiment to prove or disprove this philosophy, so if you're inclined to participate in the experiment, come along for the ride, it will hopefully be a fun one!

bluetaj:

I'm new to publishing and will document this journey a bit along the way, both as a peek behind the curtain and maybe as a motivation that, if I can do this, anyone can. Here is the general flow of how (I think) this process is going and will go; current status is corn (not yet begun), indigo (some progress) or sugar (complete).

sugar Design the game
sugar Playtest the game a bunch, convince yourself it's excellent
sugar Solicit the services of an illustrator, graphic designer, and rules layer-outer (some of these may be the same person), henceforth the "art team"
sugar Agree to the terms and timeline of the art team and sign contracts [*]
indigo Nail down the rules text
sugar Source wooden bits (for me, spielmaterial.de)
sugar Find a card supplier; pass their requirements along to art team (for me, DriveThru, thanks P.D.!)
sugar Find a board supplier; pass requirements along (for me, Spoonflower)
indigo Find a box maker; you get the drill (TBD) [**]
indigo Find a rulebook printer (TBD, but leaning toward printingcenterusa)
sugar Set up a mailing list and/or website (www.belltowergames.com, a big time WIP at the moment!)
sugar Add the game to BGG
indigo Figure out a shipping solution
indigo Figure out an e-commerce solution, which includes shipping and taxes, and ideally that integrates with your website (for me, I'm leaning toward WooCommerce, since my website is a WordPress site)
indigo Line up reviewers
corn Approve preliminary sketches/design, green-light detailed design
corn Approve final design
corn Transfer files to printers
corn Receive shipments of components, printed matter
corn Assemble games, perform QA to assure all copies are complete
corn Launch!
corn Pack games for shipment, print shipping labels, ship games to buyers
corn Stop shipping when game sells out; start the process again?


[*] My contracts involve a partial payment up front, some preliminary approval of initial sketches/layout, and then full payment upon delivery of the final assets. The contracts provide me unlimited rights to use the art/design for this game, but the transferability of those rights varies depending on the artist and should be spelled out in the contract.

[**] Actually this step is more important than you think, not just because the box is the most expensive component, but also because its dimensions determine everything: how you're going to ship the game (and at what cost), what the size of the board will be, what size the rulebook will be, etc. And, sure, you can say "just make the box whatever size it needs to be to fit everything", but the main point is that you have to weigh all of these factors simultaneously, it's a bit tricky.

If you're inclined to help, I would certainly not turn down anyone who was willing to read-through of the rule set and comment on its clarity and effectiveness: rules link. A few readers here have already read and commented, which I greatly appreciate.

Note that this is just the text, the graphic designer will convert this into a designed document with layout and arrangement and all that kind of thing, so the main question is whether the chunks of text are the right ones, if that makes sense.

----------------------------

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Wed Oct 20, 2021 2:57 pm
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Friday night in the lonesome October

Jeff Warrender
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"Everyone has heard people arguing." So begins Mere Christianity, Lewis's seminal volume on the Christian faith. To Lewis, arguments reveal something about human nature, but if you expect that this will be something like "people are petty, people can't get along", Lewis surprises you by going in a completely different direction. Namely, he concludes that the form that arguments take reveals something about the underlying assumptions that humans make, which he judges to be fairly well universal, and which point to the existence of a divine lawgiver lurking behind the moral law.

I was quite surprised, when I had the occasion to hear Francis Collins (head of the Human Genome Project) lecture on faith, to hear how he had been a lifelong atheist but committed himself as a young adult to learning about the religious faiths of the world. He described Mere Christianity as the book that changed his life and began his journey toward Christian faith.

bluetaj:

Arguments provide a good context for games as well, and particularly political games, where the players have to hold personal self-interest in tension against the good, or at least the will, of the collective. Political games often involve horse-trading, suppression of self, going along to get along. Negotiation games allow you to do this on a micro scale, but there's more adroitness required when you have to bend a plurality to your way of seeing things.

We have in view games like The Republic of Rome (best of the bunch), Founding Fathers, Credo, others. I had always wanted to do a game based on the story of William Wilberforce and the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Or how about a game about the Council of Elrond -- will we use the ring, hide it, or unmake it?
Surely there are lots of great stories and historical episodes that political games could explore.

bluetaj:

In October one inescapably thinks of Zelazny's wonderful little book, and as games about councils and arguments go, well, the climactic scene looks, in a way, like a council adjudicating a contentious issue by force of will (and arms). The actions of Jack and his friends and rivals surely provides a riveting context that sadly has not yet been explored in a game. Moreover, since the story is told through the perspective of animal familiars, this is the ideal moment for such a game to exist, when games about cats and dogs and woodland creatures are ascendant.

What interests me in particular about a game based on the Lonesome October is the way it naturally funnels to a conclusion in a way that can build narrative momentum into the game. There's a preparation phase where players in "the game" are acquiring supplies, trying to feel out their opponents, trying to feel out who their opponents even are, maybe taking a swing at an opponent or two. Then the ceremony begins, and those preparations pay off, or not. And of course the possibility of outside interference can't be entirely ruled out!

bluetaj:

Another kind of fall ritual plays out in every small town in America on Friday night: the high school football game. The narrative logic is similar: spend the week preparing for the game, figuring out the opponent (watching game film), and then Friday comes and the preparation is put to the test. Nearly every tabletop sports game in existence is about the game, but if we viewed the game as the culmination of a phase of preparation, we could exploit a similar kind of narrative drama that a fictitious game like that of Lonesome October provides.

bluetaj:

As we previously discussed, the purpose of the "Grand Auction Unification" theory wasn't so much a bit of taxonomic pedantry ("everything is an auction game!"), but rather an invitation to consider what would happen if we approached certain kinds of game with the gameplay concepts familiar to another kind; could we get something new?

A similar opportunity perhaps suggests itself here: if we looked at a council or convocation or ritual through the lens of a political game, and with an eye toward a two-phase gameplay structure (preparation and resolution), there might be some design opportunities.

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Sun Oct 17, 2021 12:21 pm
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