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Designer Diary: Rolling Out CUBIST

Alf Seegert
United States
Salt Lake City
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Board Game: Cubist
By Steven Poelzing and Alf Seegert

Steve: When my non-gamer co-workers discover that I design games — and I've finally been fortunate enough to have one published with my good friend Alf — they ask, "So what's the game about?" I'm sure you can easily envision that strange, skeptical, half-afraid look folks unfamiliar with Eurogames give you.

Well, here's roughly what I tell them:

* In CUBIST, you're a sculptor who is building art installations out of cubes.
* These cubes happen to be dice.
* The rules for building installations are very simple: Dice with identical values can be stacked, and dice with adjacent numbers can be played next to each other.
* You're competing with your friends to be the first person to build a particular installation.

But what good is an art installation if no one ever gets to see it? When you complete a sculpture, you gain some recognition, and you can use the fame associated with your installation to build one brick of a Museum of Modern Art. Not only is the museum huge, colorful, and a technical wonder, each die in the final museum gives you additional points at the end of the game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Cubist — two-player set-up

You can also use your dice to recruit help from influential cubist artists, like Juan Gris. These artists allow you to modify the die you roll, or directly obtain that elusive "3" you're always hoping to roll.

And now that you've read that, you know that I rarely make it through such a speech without interruption or a non-sequitur.

Board Game: Cubist
CUBIST dice have squared corners to making stacking stable and easy

Steve: If you are curious how Alf and I know each other, here is the background. Alf and I have been friends for over nine years. I met him serendipitously while demoing one of my prototypes at Game Night Games, a great game store in Salt Lake City. He was playtesting one of his prototypes that very day. Bear in mind that the likelihood of our meeting like this is close to zero since neither of us really like to go out and do the hustling required to get strangers to play our games. We've been good friends since then. We always thought it would be fun to design a game together, but nothing ever came up that we both felt resonated with our different game design styles — but while we were eating lunch one day, Alf brought up a mechanism he was playing around with that was very loosely based off a game mechanism from one of my prototypes.

Alf: I thought that Steve's prototype was very smart, but I found the gameplay a little bit more involved than is my taste. My mantra is simplify, simplify, simplify, so "when in doubt, cut it out". In Steve's game your goal was to build mounds on a board that matched pre-given patterns on cards, but the actual process of placing these mounds felt a bit indirect and labor-intensive to me.

Steve: I have to interject that Alf has a great eye for streamlined game play. If you ever want to design a game with someone, look for a co-designer that can kindly but clearly communicate their opinions of what works and doesn't work.

Alf: Thanks, Steve. I had been playing with a handful of dice one day back in 2011 and thought it might be fun to treat the dice as something more than random number generators. What might be gained by harnessing the actual materiality of the dice themselves as a game mechanism? Before I knew it, I had the basic mechanisms: Roll two dice and combine them with earlier-played dice to build structures, following the simple rule of "identical numbers stack, adjacent numbers go side-by-side". I realized that patterns for these structures were needed and immediately thought of Steve's game and proposed a new hybrid game based on a combination of his game's pattern-matching and my own forays into "dice-building".

Steve: Alf and I met for lunch fairly regularly, and he brought a bag of dice, told me the mechanisms, and asked whether I wanted to co-design. I thought he was being overly generous with the offer because I didn't think the pattern-building mechanism I proposed was either proprietary, or warranted such a gesture. It turns out that I've always wanted to make a game with Alf to simplify my designs and hopefully add a little of the complexity I enjoy to his designs. It was actually easy to say yes after I told him that I would attempt the co-design with no strings attached.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
A game in progress, with installation cards at the bottom of the image;
players build dice sculptures on individual boards and collectively construct the Modern Art Museum at center

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Close up of the installations in progress

Alf: I've had a half-dozen games published so far. CUBIST turned out to be my first published co-design and I couldn't be happier about it. I think the combined elements turned into a tasty Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Steve: To my recollection, the first rendition of the game was building castles in the clouds. It had a whimsical feeling, and the majority of the action occurred in front of a single player. I think in those early days, we had three agenda items for the game.

1. Seek balance in a dice-based game and make sure that meaningful choices could still occur.
2. Figure out how to make the game more interactive.
3. Find a consistent theme for all parts of the game.

Balance is tough in a dice-driven game, so we looked at all the dice games on the market and realized that we needed the elements that allow a player to either re-roll or modify dice.

Next, we had to decide what happens when one player completes a structure (later called an installation). The issue was that when an installation is completed, everyone else working on the installations would have works in progress that couldn't be used. To prevent run-away leaders, we thought that the game required a central playing board on which a player could donate dice from dismantled structures for actions to modify die rolls. We used this a long time and changed it only when we settled on our theme. As it turns out, this additional mechanism spiced up the game in unexpected ways.

Alf: I liked the hard decisions that arise this way since I could donate dice at any time, not just when my opponent completed an installation. Should I use these dice for further building, or for purchasing special actions?

Steve: I think we struggled with how to make the game interactive. The central playing board was semi-interactive when we decided that other players should be able to bump you off of spaces. Neither of us liked dice just occupying an action for a nebulous future play.

Alf: The decision that your dice could be bumped off the special actions if another player had equal or greater dice values added some tension, but it still didn't feel complete.

Steve: We tried a bunch of cool ideas that fit the theme of castles in the sky, but Alf's axiom of keeping the rules simple, the choices important, and the theme integrated allowed us to cycle through these mechanisms quickly. We had visited the idea of using dice to build a common structure a couple of times, but it never seemed to click, and we couldn't figure out an elegant way to allow a player to build in the central structure.

Alf: Although it was tricky to work out at first, Steve was super smart for insisting on this "final tier" for this design, the central structure. As designer Mike Compton once pointed out to me, Eurogames often have three tiers in which you first "do A" (perform actions) in order to "collect B" (gather resources) with the goal being to "claim C" (victory points). Tiers A and B for CUBIST were pretty clear from the outset, and originally tier B was combined with C, but Steve was right to insist on an independent C aspect of the game. As it turned out, you now A) roll and place dice to B) create sculptures (and score some points). However, these sculptures also C) reward players with special dice used to collectively build a central structure (the Modern Art Museum), which awards further victory points and creates interesting tensions with other players.

Board Game: Cubist
Museum cards: Each die a player contributes to building the Museum scores 2 points

Steve: Originally, dice in the central structure were one point each. Our publisher, Rick Soued from Gryphon Games, proposed that these dice should be worth two points. I've played it both ways many times, and what appears to be a minor point adjustment completely changes player motivations in a positive way.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
CUBIST co-designer Steve Poelzing (l) playing with Michael Entz and Tara Poelzing

Alf: The central structure also offered a timer for the game. When the Museum is completed, the game ends. It's a fun and rewarding mechanism for multiple reasons. (A secondary end-game finish is when a player completes five sculptures.)

Steve: The two endgame conditions creates a nice tension. Should I complete this really complicated structure worth a lot of points, or a simple structure to complete the museum? I think it works in CUBIST because the points collected from installations are hidden after the installation has been claimed and used. Instead of focusing on who has the most points all the time, you really only know whether a player is in a position to end the game.

Alf: The catch for us this whole time was theme. As a rule, I begin with a theme, and the mechanisms emerge organically from that – or I encounter something material like a painting, rock cairn, story, etc., and go "there's a game there! as I did with Fantastiqa, Trollhalla, and The Road to Canterbury respectively. In the case of CUBIST, the mechanisms all came first, and I'm just not used to thinking in that direction!

Steve: I, too, prefer theme to mechanisms, and this was a very different experience. We were sitting in the University's cafeteria playtesting as usual, and I don't know who said it first, but we started making puns on cubes, and I think that's when I flippantly suggested that we should make the game a cubism game.

Alf: Both of us are university professors, but neither of us are art historians or experts in visual art. (Steve is in biomedical engineering, and I teach literature, film, and video games.) But we both find cubism fascinating. It also seemed to work well for a game made of cubes! In case it's useful, here’s a definition of cubism from Wikipedia:
Cubism is an early-20th-century avant-garde art movement pioneered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, joined by Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris that revolutionized European painting and sculpture, and inspired related movements in music, literature and architecture. Cubism has been considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century. The term is broadly used in association with a wide variety of art produced in Paris (Montmartre, Montparnasse and Puteaux) during the 1910s and extending through the 1920s. Variants such as Futurism and Constructivism developed in other countries.

A primary influence that led to Cubism was the representation of three-dimensional form in the late works of Paul Cézanne, which were displayed in a retrospective at the 1907 Salon d'Automne. In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.
Board Game: Cubist
A handful of artist cards: Kazimir Malevich, Franz Marc, Olga Rozanova, and Roger de La Fresnaye

Steve: A cubist theme for the game resonated with us for a few reasons. First, all the elements came immediately into focus. The central playing board was broken up into randomized cards for the artists. I think this increases replay value and offers another non-die based chance element. The things we were competing to build became cubist installations, and we decided that the central edifice should be a museum of modern art because who doesn't like having a building named after them?

Also, the installations gave us a clean way of awarding points and giving some choices of getting dice either into the central Museum, or using the dice to complete another installation for even more points. Last but not least, both Alf and I hold our friend and publisher Rick Soued of Eagle/Gryphon Games in high esteem. We both knew of Sean MacDonald's well-deserved success with Gryphon Games' Pastiche, and we thought that another art-based game might be attractive to Rick. So we decided to keep the cubist theme, but we didn't approach Rick yet, because we still had a lot of work to do to balance the game.

Alf: I'd had wonderful experiences with Gryphon Games with my games The Road to Canterbury and Fantastiqa, so I hoped Rick would say yes to our co-design. We were both happy when he wrote us back saying that he liked CUBIST very much!

Steve: Once we had the theme, balance was pretty easy. We came up with many formulas for assigning points to each installation. In the end, I think we played it enough that we had a sense of what each structure should be worth and how many "museum dice" it should have. Even for the cards that don't strictly follow any known formula anymore, I feel good about the oddly scored cards because it makes player choices even more difficult. Do I compete for this oddly valuable card knowing that it's really easy to build and I might not get it, or do I focus on this other card to speed up my production?

Alf: Yeah. The web series Extra Credits did an episode on this principle called "Perfect Imbalance". If games are too well balanced, then sometimes it can feel like it doesn't really matter what you do or (just as bad) static strategies emerge. As I see it, one of the biggest signifiers of success in a game design is player desire. Does a card come up that makes players all go "Ooooh! I want that!!!"? If so, prepare for heavy player engagement and competition. Perfect balance might sometimes undermine that.

Steve: When we were happy with the game, and since we both knew Rick professionally, we sent the game off. The work didn't stop there, though. Rick playtested the game with single-minded purpose. He and his team found the rough spots and made excellent suggestions for smoothing them out. We already mentioned changes to final scoring. He also indicated which artist cards he thought were excellent and "not paying their way". What I thought was equally important was his feedback concerning the parameters for actually printing a board game. How many cards fit on a sheet? How much does all this art cost? When we had specific parameters to work with, such as the number of cards on a print sheet, it became fairly obvious which cards to keep and discard.

Alf: I thought we'd cut everything that could be cut, but there was still one rule that playtesters occasionally growled about — and they were right to do so! We took it out, leaving a cleaner game. (Thank you, playtesters!) In the finalizing stages we were also fortunate to have the excellent graphic design skills of Han Zou combine with the first-rate logo design of Adam McIver to make the boards and box look brilliant and cohesive with a cubist theme. And of course, we have the gracious backers on Kickstarter to thank for making this game possible in the first place!

Most of all, big thanks to Steve – one of the most creative, funny, intelligent, and wonderful human beings I know – for our working on this game together. It's an honor!

Steve: I had the opportunity to meet our game for the first time at Origins 2014. Many of the great people I played with told me how much they liked the final look of the game, the components, and the gameplay. It's satisfying to see gamers cheer when they roll the one number they've waited two rounds for. Even better was watching the "aha" moment when one player asked me, "Can I do this, then this, and this to complete two installations in one round?" Watching emergent play is perhaps one of the most satisfying experiences for me as a designer.

I have to say, I'm rather proud of this team effort. It was a joy working with Alf on a game because I've always admired his game design skills. More importantly, I think he's one of those rare quality individuals who can speak intelligently and with great tact. Rick and the rest of the crew at Gryphon Games have been tremendous assets in this endeavor. It's a joy to work with professionals who know their industry and can concisely and considerately make a case for changing something. Thank you all!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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