The Making of Galactic Emperor
A. B. West
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Beech Grove
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Herein is the tale of a board game called Galactic Emperor. From its humble, unassuming beginning to its final delivery. From concept through play testing. From prototype to polished plastic parts. It's an exciting tale filled with fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, and miracles!

Of course, this could also be called "Why is Daddy in the basement again?" My eldest daughter said, "Dad, if you make a million dollars, can I have an iPod?" And I said, "Well, you could have an iPod right now if you'd just CLEAN UP YOUR ROOM!"

Priorities. Remember your priorities. That's my best advice of all. Fortunately, I have a wonderful, loving and supportive wife and 3 terrific kids who do indeed like playing games with Dad. Most of what you read below was performed evenings, weekends and holidays.
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1. Board Game: Puerto Rico [Average Rating:8.06 Overall Rank:15]
A. B. West
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As all proper tales about board games, this one begins with other board games. In my case, Puerto Rico. You know - when I first tried to play this one, I completely boffed the rules. I was confused and befuddled. And also transgressed the unwritten law: trying to learn the game while playing it! To put it trite and simple: I was stunned by it, I hated the game and so did everyone at the table. And I wondered what the heck BGG was talking about and was I now off in the woods where no one could hear me scream. But herein is the most important lesson of gaming these days: give it another go. I only break this rule occasionally - and only when I'm really sure there's no reason to try again. But I digress. I went back and re-read the rules. And you know what? There's an amazing game in there. I then proceeded to play the heck out of it. I studied the strategies. Played the Excel AI. Taught it to loads and loads of other players. Still love it and still play it - it's my top ranked game. And it was inspiring.
 
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2. Board Game: Twilight Imperium [Average Rating:6.67 Overall Rank:2459]
A. B. West
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The other great influence is Twilight Imperium. Not the third edition nor the second edition. The first edition was the one that grabbed my interest! I longed to play this game. I loved researching it on FF's web site. I loved the idea of an epic galaxy spanner. I loved the lion guy on the cover. And I ordered that baby at the release of second edition (and moaned at trying to get those dang ships neatly off the spurs). Of course, nobody was around to play it - but I did manage to get in a game at GenCon. The game spun on for a very long time - and I didn't mind. It was filled with all things gigantic - including time - as any epic game should. But how could I get a game in more than once a year at a con? It wasn't going to happen.
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3. Board Game: The Voyage of the Mayflower [Average Rating:4.30 Unranked]
A. B. West
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So now we come to Thanksgiving break, Saturday March 25, 2006 at 10:00 AM. Here's how my notebook begins: "Galactic Emperor (working title). Conquer the galaxy in 120 minutes. 3-6 players. Goal of the game is to conquer the most planets through military or political means. To start, place the galaxy board in the center of the table. Place the center system tile (omega) in the marked spot on the galaxy board and the four starting space tiles (alpha, beta, gama and delta). Each player chooses a color and takes all control markers, ships, and empire tokens of that color. All players start with an empire token, n-1 credits and a fighter...." After that are pages upon pages. A few more excerpts: "For a period of time, there will be more planets than players - plenty of room for peaceful growth. However, as Explorer is played, the choice planets will be revealed, wormholes will be positioned and suns will be displayed. Generally, there's no reason for conflict until the galaxy is filled and Explorer is out of play. So the player who plays Explorer will gain the most planets since they get a planet every time. However, this ends quickly. Each time Explorer is played, *every* player places a space tile. There's only room for approximately 16-18 space tiles. With 4 players, that means you'll only be doing this 4 times. And 4 planets will not win the game."

You get the idea. I didn't just write up some rules either. I had notes about how to prevent simple strategies like a fighter rush, policical rush and loads more. None of the original ideas made it untouched into the final game. But it was a start and journeys have to start somewhere.
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4. Board Game: Miscellaneous Game Book [Average Rating:6.62 Overall Rank:9303]
A. B. West
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Beech Grove
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I've made many board games in the past but not recently. Prior to GE, I was wrapped up in making computer games which I've been doing since around 1986. I've learned alot about marketing and managing a game in the wild - although I must say that the retail space around board games is completely different than computer games. Mainly board games are far more risky and difficult to produce. Computer games take alot longer to develop! Board games - you can toss one together quickly with spare parts and cardboard. Board games as a market place are far closer to books than anything else. It's a tight community. Folks know each other. Friends talk to each other. There are great designers like there are great writers. Brand matters as it does with computer games - but they really share very little else. Which is a shame - because computer games and console games could really learn alot about design from board games.
 
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5. Board Game: Unpublished Prototype [Average Rating:6.96 Overall Rank:2240]
A. B. West
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Beech Grove
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Then I pasted up my first prototype! It was an ugly sucker. Black and white on poster board. Pilfered wooden cubes from another game. Pasted up some laser printed space ships glued on plastic chips. Grabed a handful of dice. I got to the hex tiles at this point by the way - and it was with reluctance because alot of games use hexes. I knew that simply by using that shape I would be compared as just a rip-off of other games. Still I conceded it's a fine, useful shape and it made for a better board. The first play test soon followed. I don't recall playing this game by myself at all before trying it out with some family members in town for Christmas. That's not normal, by the way. I usually play games alot by myself before showing them to anyone. Anyhow, the family members really liked it. They gave some great feedback, instantly improving the game. I was cautiously optimistic. I know family members are not your prime play test group. But it was handy and they were helpful.
 
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6. Board Game: Psychologizer [Average Rating:6.28 Unranked]
A. B. West
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What followed after that is a bit blurry. I'm sure I played again with friends a few times, but in general, I went back to the drawing board and started in earnest with my next prototype. This time, I played *alot* by myself. Many, many play tests where I recorded each and every move and studied them. Some notes: "It wasn't clear to me who was winning along the way although Blue was clearly in last. Impact of 'null' system was clear - taking away a double score system and nice resources. The game ebbed and flowed very nicely. Military was played out in force. Politician changed the universe. And Merchant really was used to advantage. I've noticed now that following Emperor Turn Order is fiddly too.... Miner was only used once and then only because there was 6 credits on it - too much to pass up. Industrialist is still fiddly. Merchant is too. But not too bad. The game isn't slowed terribly as a result. I do wish I could fix Industrialist somehow." Lots of notes of me playing me.
 
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7. Board Game: Viktory II [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:2668]
A. B. West
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Beech Grove
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Prototype 2 looked more like a board game and took several evenings to put together. This time I worked up a design on my computer, stealing some graphics from here and there, but in general, hand crafting the thing bit by bit. I printed it all up at Kinkos for about $60-$70 dollars. Then I pasted it up with 3M spray glue (great stuff!). I was at this time visiting Peter Morrison's web site. Now if you don't know Peter (I've only exchanged e-mails with him), and you aspire to be a game designer, you need to know him. He's done what few have and he's done it well: designed, built and *published* a game all by himself. It's a hurculean tale that won't fit here - see his web site for hours of reading pleasure.
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8. Board Game: Miscellaneous Game Accessory [Average Rating:6.96 Overall Rank:3754] [Average Rating:6.96 Overall Rank:71]
A. B. West
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I researched publishing myself - thinking I might crank out 50 copies or so. I was thinking very small and cautious - more as a hoot than anything full blown. I priced things all over the US and beyond - how much it would cost to produce a board, could you produce in small quantity (100? 200?), could you get game bits too? The answer to all this was calculated in a spreadsheet. And I collected places for parts from all over. Here's a sample focusing on space ships and other bits:

http://www.boardgamedesign.com - pricey, but small quantities ($3.50 10 units)
http://www.rolcogames.com/ - too pricey and only in large bulk ($118 1000 units)
http://www.plasticsforgames.co.uk/ - too pricey and only in large bulk
http://www.mathlearningcenter.org/ - nice pricing, geometric shapes ($25 - 100 units)
3/4" uncolored wooden cubes ($8.50 - 100 units)
http://www.meeplepeople.com/ - $20 - 100 units, mixed colors
Ships! Here we go: http://www.iowatelecom.net/~colsten/index.html
Check this out. You can get 15 fighters $4.50.
Or here is the master list of scifi minis: http://www.star-ranger.com/Minis.htm

You get the idea. As one started to add up costs, it was quickly becoming apparent it wouldn't be cheap. And the thought of me sitting in the basement, cutting out hex tiles and pasting up cards - it was just overwhelming. I figured there was no way I could produce even a realatively small quantity and survive the effort. So I turned to look at full publishing houses. Could that be done?
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9. Board Game: Crossed Wires [Average Rating:4.97 Overall Rank:13524]
A. B. West
United States
Beech Grove
Indiana
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MEANWHILE, I was play testing - slowly widening my effort to broader game groups. I came upon Board Game Designers Forum some time before this - and really admired the group. I met a few of them at GenCon prior to the inception of GE and found them sparkling with inventiveness. Some ideas were wild, colorful, whacky things, crawling up wires, filled with wooden bits and others were approaching a real game experience with modular boards and pretty bits. I was a member of BGDF (still am) and thought I'd throw my GE rule book - a very early version - up for review in the Workshop forum on-line. That was a very good move in hindsight - those guys are maniacs and professionals all rolled into one. They had incredible insight into the mechanics just by reading the rules - found flaws, made suggestions, encouraged, discouraged - it was fantastic and motivating. And I found my first blind play tester. He was kind enough to create his own prototype (!) and volunteer to play with his own group. He sent along great feedback too! At every step here, I was being encouraged to continue. Not that the game was already great - it wasn't. But I was encouraged to always take one more step.
 
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10. Board Game: TOM: The Origins Metagame [Average Rating:4.00 Unranked]
A. B. West
United States
Beech Grove
Indiana
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I began to envison a third prototype, upping the graphics a bit more. And began to hit some conventions - really giving the game a go at Origins. That was also my first Origins - which is ridiculous when I think about it now. I'm only 2-3 hours away by car and had never gone prior to 2007. And also ridiculous: I didn't get a Boardgame Ribbon, a mistake I won't make again. But anyhow, the game continued to change somewhat dramatically in form - some steps felt backwards, others were clearly great. Around this point, I became much sharper at recording feedback in a systematic way, with a fast form. And I could take notes better - brutal comments were welcomed. For more details on the rules evolution, see the Director's Commentary.
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11. Board Game: Zooloretto [Average Rating:6.86 Overall Rank:606] [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
A. B. West
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It was also at Origins that I met my future manufacturer face to face: Panda Game Manufacturing. I originally hooked up with them through BGG by the way. Panda is pretty new to board game printing, but isn't new at all to the printing business. And their quality in plastics is incredible - reasonably priced, and really well sculpted. Manufacturing is a tricky, lengthy, risky business. Electronic files fly across the world, versions of course change and just keeping track of all of it is a monsterous task. Lots of checking and double checking. I *highly* recommend getting a copy of Adobe InDesign. You truly need to work in the same package as your manufacturer so you can easily communicate. Getting the colors right is a complex process - and I'm only hoping it all turns out as well as the proofs indicate. This is where you need to have some trust in the folks you're working with. That's something you don't get with just a hand shake (although face to face is definitely recommended). You have to build it up over time, piece by piece. For me, Panda is perfect for my needs. If GE comes out well (and I'm confident it will), I'm a loyal kinda guy. I'll stick with Panda.
 
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12. Board Game: Dexter's Laboratory: Race to the Brainergizer! [Average Rating:3.00 Unranked]
A. B. West
United States
Beech Grove
Indiana
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And play testing continued. It was really kinda non-stop for a year with as large a variety as I could reach. Every play test was important. Every play test said something about the game. And every play tester to me represented hundreds of possible players. Not everyone loved the game - that was expected. Not every bit of feedback should be incorporated - in fact, you can't because often the feedback is in direct contradiction - e.g. "Too much combat" and "not enough combat." So you have to get tough, be direct and honest and clarify your vision for the game. What is this game *supposed* to be? What is the core of the game? For GE, it was playing in a certain amount of time, keeping the game streamlined and not adding any more components (after the inital set was established). Adding exceptions in the rules is terribly tempting - a small change to accomodate some niggly part that doesn't work quite right. But adding those tiny fixes really complicates a game. Small things in isolation actually make the rules more difficult to understand and remember while playing and confounds strategy and play - favoring those who know the rules.
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13. Board Game: Genius Rules [Average Rating:6.06 Overall Rank:10229]
A. B. West
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Beech Grove
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Dan Schnake is a super genius. He's a writer at heart and is my long time collaborator in game design. And he spells really well too. He's the reason the rules look and read the way they do today. He also is fastidious. Sure, he's great to bounce ideas around with - we racked up zillions of minutes on the cells talking about the right way to deal with the economy in GE - just how many wooden cubes would we need? And how many times did we try to work in some kinda bidding scheme (and never did). So he designs too. But my favorite call was around how he was certain there wasn't enough space between two paragraphs in the PDF version. I went home and measured and sure enough, it was off by like 3 pixels. That's just plain crazy precise. But needed. The rules are really well written.
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14. Board Game: Hey, That's My Fish! [Average Rating:6.75 Overall Rank:670]
A. B. West
United States
Beech Grove
Indiana
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And play testing continued. We played several games as Origins and Gencon last year (and will again this year). I remember playing at Gencon and my friends bringing me a sandwich because I couldn't leave the games. I was taking notes, and folks were having a jolly good time. Complete strangers enjoying your game - that's really pretty cool. It's also probably what I like most. I do like the mechanics and figuring out how to make it all work together. But what I really like is the smiles and the laughs - the enjoyment of a good game. Nothing like it anywhere. Play testing - as you can probably see now - is all-important in game development. There is a time to call it 'done' - you have to get there eventually. The place is difficult to see. I just felt in my gut it was time to freeze it all. And that's when the real work begins.
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15. Board Game: Galactic Emperor [Average Rating:6.63 Overall Rank:1633]
A. B. West
United States
Beech Grove
Indiana
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You pick a manufacturer, you sign a contract, you pay a bit of cash up front and then you do alot of e-mail exchange with files, and upload stuff to FTP sites - and talk and fix and re-fix and re-fix and tweak. You send stuff around, you get stuff in the mail - it just takes months to get it all figured out. You take a look at proofs and you make corrections (be honest! be detailed!) and you enjoy working with pro's. It's all alot of work, but sometimes it's pretty cool. For example, the space ships were really fun to do. If you've been following GE on BGG, you might have seen my thread about 'wooden' or 'plastic' ships. I did get some wooden space ship prototypes built and they were really awful. Not just the wood itself, but the design - it just didn't work at all. So I knew plastic was the solution. I began by googling around to find some 3D model I could buy, but nothing really fit the theme. Everything is so dark and nihilistic in sci-fi out there on the 'net. So I decided to just build a 3D model myself. I own Lightwave - a professional 3D package, but wickedly hard to use. I think it was someone at work who recommended Google's Sketch-Up. This package is awesome - and free! Amazing. So after about a week, I had my ships made! Sort of.

As it turns out, you can dream up stuff in 3D that you really can't mold in plastic. Panda said they were going with clamshell molds so the ships had to lift cleanly out. That meant you can't have any interesting shelves or whatnot under wings. Or holes. Or gun ports. Or cool exhaust tubes. So I trimed out as much as I thought I could and sent off the images to Panda. Later they sent back some demo shots from their plastic guy and they were awful. I mean - just blocky stuff that didn't look much like my designs. I wrote back and they replied that these were just initial designs - to see size and amount of plastic. I was concerned, but we moved a few more steps along the road. I got back some initial photos of the scuplts and wow - they were really cool. They shipped me the sculpts for approval, I picked them up at the post office, unwrapped them in my car on a chilly winter night - it was magic. It was a miracle. There in my hand was my 3D picture in plastic. Very, very cool.
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16. Board Game: Berserker Halflings from the Dungeon of Dragons [Average Rating:5.79 Overall Rank:9723]
A. B. West
United States
Beech Grove
Indiana
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All of this is only half the story. The rest of the story - well, I'm going to put that in a subsequent Geek List. Because it will take alot to explain my strange journey through marketing and distribution - a bit about how BGG responds to certain things, how competition is good, and all about contracts and negotiations. I'm still learning how that part of the story will turn out - I'm living it right now! But a huge thanks is due to you, my fellow BGGer. If you've read the rules to GE you know I explicitly thank this wonderful web of whacky game enthusiasts without whom GE would never be. The thanks is not just in passing. BGG is essential to the warp and woof of board gaming today.
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