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Links: The History of Unique Games, Gaming in the Amazon, and Pop-Up Publishing

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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As often happens at the end of a year, I discover all sorts of interesting game-related articles in my inbox that I had forwarded to myself and meant to read but didn't. Here's a sampling of them:

• In October 2018, Nathan Beeler and Jonathan Franklin posted a pair of articles on Opinionated Gamers about an Amazon game day that they had attended, with this being an event hosted by Amazon in the giant greenhouse spheres they'd built in Seattle, with game demonstrations courtesy of Asmodee representatives.

They write that the purpose of the event seemed unclear as surely Amazon wasn't providing this space as a mere courtesy to Asmodee and surely Asmodee hadn't rented this massive space in order to demo a half-dozen upcoming releases for a dozen-ish media people. Part two details the games played, while part one speculates on why this event was held in the first place and what it might indicate for Amazon's future place in the game industry.

• Also in Oct. 2018, Fantasy Flight Games founder Christian T. Petersen posted a long article about the "Unique Game" concept seen in recent releases KeyForge and Discover: Lands Unknown. As with the invention of calculus, the concept of unique games has two independent creators: Eric M. Lang and Richard Garfield. Garfield is understandable given that he's the designer of KeyForge, but how does Lang fit in the picture? An excerpt from Petersen's article, starting with a conversation in early 2015:

[Lang had] been contemplating on whether it would be possible to create a booster-pack of cards or, even better, some physical component by which each instance of the product would be completely distinct (that is, one-of-a-kind in the world). It would be something that a player could claim only he/she owned. Eric felt this would bring about a sense of product engagement and wonder to games that had never been seen before. Wow....

I suggested perhaps we were thinking too small. Perhaps we could create an entire game that was unique, not just a component. If the design was built from the ground up with such a concept in mind, we should be able to craft a completely unique product by clever assortment of different (traditionally produced) components.

Eric immediately took this variation of his idea and began to run with it. Perhaps each game represented a unique planet in a galaxy that would be colonized by players? Perhaps we could augment with a digital interface?

Petersen committed to figuring out the production difficulties of creating such a game could be overcome by FFG and parent company Asmodee, while Lang developed his concept — only for Lang to be hired full-time and on an exclusive basis by CMON Limited in 2017 before finalizing that idea. The unique game concept would then be incorporated into a Corey Konieczka design that eventually became Discover.

Independent of this, in 2015 Garfield approached Days of Wonder with a head-to-head card game called "Technic", and the DoW rep suggested Garfield approach FFG since Days could not do justice to what he had in mind:

Technic was a head-to-head game involving a single random deck for each player, with a fun, if early, game design. But here’s the kicker: each deck was envisioned to have a completely unique collation (from a fixed pool of cards). The contents of each deck were not to be customized by players whatsoever, not before, not during, not after, play.

What more, Richard's prototype included random name generation and procedural illustration of card backs for each deck. In other words, each deck would have its own unique name, its own unique art, and its own unique play personality!

While KeyForge was developed by Garfield and an internal FFG team over a two-year period, it's amazing to see how much of Garfield's original concept survived to publication. The article features lots of fascinating details about the production of these games, the details of which are unlike anything else ever released. Oh, and Lang shared this article on Facebook in Oct. 2018 with this note: "For anyone wondering whatever happened to that secret 'Project Pandora' from years ago, here's an excellent article from FFG's own Chris Petersen. (Aside: I'm still working on Project Pandora)"

Image from Fantasy Flight Games

• In September 2018, Rick Lane at PC Gamer published a long article titled "The Making of Pandemic Legacy", with lots of background detail from designers Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau.

• Designer David Smith, best known for the 1980 abstract strategy game Trax, died in July 2018. BGG user Mike Fogus posted this appreciation at the time.

• In April 2018, designer Grant Rodiek posted an overview of three models for bring a game design to market — licensing it to a publisher, publishing it yourself on a large scale, and publishing it yourself as a "pop-up" product — and explained why the pop-up model works best for what he's trying to do:

Bottom Line: This is the model when you desire control, but want to minimize risk. I love overseeing art direction, finalizing a game's design and rules, and I'm willing to handle shipping and some of the more menial tasks like customer service. But, I don't want to lose thousands shipping games to distributors, or take time off work to hopefully convince retailers my game is worth signing. This is the model for having control, focusing on design, but also, being willing to break even, or earn a small profit at best. This is low risk/low reward/high satisfaction.

Ideally I would have read this post before his deck-building game SPQF hit Kickstarter in mid-2018 since he apparently has no copies for general sale right now (based on listings at his website), but perhaps he'll make another run of the game available down the road. Sorry to tease you with a game that might be difficult to find! I love designers who take the self-publishing model to heart to create something that would be unlikely to appear from a larger, more traditional publisher.

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