We'll be posting regular designer diary updates here and at the Penny Press page (www.PennyPressGames.com). Here's our inaugural entry:
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 0: Answering the Five Ws
In journalism school, aspiring reporters are taught to answer the five Ws -- Who, What, Where, When and Why -- in any news article they write. As Robert and I begin this designer’s diary about our upcoming board game, Penny Press, tackling the five Ws seemed a perfectly appropriate place to start.
WHO: Robert Dijkman Dulkes works as a computer programmer by day, but by night (and weekends, too) he’s an avid gamer and board member of the Green Mountain Gamers. Robert’s background in art education has proved valuable as he and Matt have begun designing games together, and he has two last names, which is kind of fancy.
Matt Golec (www.mattgolec.com) only has one last name, but he pulls his weight in game design all the same. Matt’s background in newspapers and his flexible schedule as a stay-at-home dad have helped move Penny Press forward, and he’s the ‘I’ in most of these designer diary entries.
WHAT: Penny Press is a Euro-style board game about newspaper barons competing for readers in late 19th century New York City. Penny Press was a finalist in the Cards Against Humanity's Tabletop Deathmatch at Gen Con 2013, and was selected to participate in the 2013 Boston Festival of Indie games.
Penny Press is being published by Asmadi Games.
WHERE: While Robert and I live and play games in the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire, we’ll be posting these designer diary entries for world-wide consumption at Facebook and the ‘news’ forum of the game’s BoardGameGeek page.
WHEN: We’ll be posting entries about once per week, with a higher frequency possible as we get closer to publication and the video series that came out of the Tabletop Deathmatch.
WHY: We’ll cover the ‘Why’ of why we designed a game in the next entry, but as to why this designer’s diary? We’re hoping to tease out the planning, philosophy and choices that went into making Penny Press, both for ourselves and for anyone else interested in the game design process.
Thanks for reading. If you find these entries of interest, please help us by sharing them on Facebook, Twitter or other social media so people can learn about our game in the runup to its publication (and likely Kickstarter). We can’t succeed without you!
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 1: In the Beginning, There Were DrinksIt all started, as these things are wont to do, in a bar.
Robert and I had finished up a game night at Triple Play, our local friendly gaming store, but it was a nice night and we weren’t ready to go home. So we settled in at the Seven Barrel Brewery, ordered a few drinks, and began to talk about games.
How we like games. Things we like in games. What we might do differently if we made a game. And finally, that maybe we should make a game ourselves.
At the time, it didn’t feel like that big a leap from players to designers, though I’m not sure we would have made it without a little social time away from the gaming table (and perhaps a drink or two). I do know that we never expected to take our game design as far as we did, and that process is what we hope to detail in this designer’s diary.
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 2: An Idea with a Side of Core(Oops, this entry got out of order -- apologies!)
Ideas are easy, it’s said, but execution is hard. That’s certainly true, but coming up with the right idea for a game is important, too.
We kicked a few of the usual tropes around the table -- outer space, sports, etc. -- but Robert and I settled pretty quickly on an idea I’d been messing around with: Penny Press news barons duking it out for readers in old New York City.
We liked the Penny Press idea for several reasons. It covered an interesting historical era we hadn’t seen in too many other games. The theme lent itself to some interesting ‘reporting’ mechanics. And with my background in journalism and Robert’s interest in history, we had a pre-existing foundation to build the game upon.
That last thing turned out to be pretty important. Whenever we ran into trouble with the game play (and we would, a hundred times over), Robert and I could fall back on what we’d eventually call the game’s ‘core’ -- the very essence of Penny Press, in terms of gameplay mechanics, theme and our life experiences -- to keep the game’s development on track.
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer's Diary, Part 3: Producing the PrototypeSo now that we had an idea for a game -- an historical newspaper game, tentatively called Penny Press -- it was time to make a prototype.
I’d been thinking about Penny Press for a while, slowing building the mechanics in my head, but there’s only so much you can do before committing your game to the real world. Without a prototype, it’s really hard to see what parts work -- and more importantly, which ones don’t.
In building the first prototype, I kept things simple, using materials I had on hand, such as index cards, printer paper and parts I salvaged from thrift-store games. I drew some things by hand and used clip-art for the rest.
This accomplished two things: it kept costs down, and it made the emotional barrier to making changes quite low. Because we didn’t have that much time or effort invested in the first prototype, it was easy to adjust cards and parts after playing it a couple of times (and there was plenty to adjust!).
Later, we’d spend more time and money updating Penny Press, but in those early days when so much of the game remained in flux, the fast and cheap prototype was our friend.
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 4: The Good Old Days Weren’t Always GoodThe first time Robert and I played Penny Press, things didn’t go well. We didn’t even make it through a couple of turns before realizing that the mechanics -- as we’d set them up back then -- were fundamentally flawed.
The game play was cumbersome, and the rules were hard to keep in our heads. We had reporters filling specific slots on game locations to pick up stories or activate powers, but the flow of powers and story availability slowed the game down to a confusing crawl.
Not everything was broken. We liked sending out reporters to lay claim to stories, and we liked bringing those stories back and assembling them onto a newspaper front. So when we changed things, we kept this core gameplay -- at first by accident, but later by design.
That didn’t mean we wouldn’t tinker with our core gameplay. We reduced the number of story shapes; we cut back on the size of our front page; and we changed how the reporters go out and grab their stories. But that core gameplay of sending out reporters, taking stories and laying them out on the front page became our rock when making design decisions.
When we ran into problems, or when we were tempted to add or subtract mechanics, we’d ask ourselves: How would this affect the core gameplay? And that was important, especially in the early days of Penny Press when the game could have gone in so many different directions.
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 5: Solving the End Game for Epic(Note: Robert steps in to add his perspective!)Robert(RobertDD)United States
New HampshirePlay Penny Press!
Matt and I gave a lot of thought as to what a Penny Press end game should be like. We wanted it to be exciting, building to a climax, but it should also be fair to all players. It shouldn't be the only part of the game that matters (because why else would anyone need to play the rest of the game?), but it should matter a little more than the first part of the game because players do have experience with what is going on at this point. Most importantly, it should leave players with a feeling that they just played a really great game of Penny Press.
In Penny Press, players choose to score points whenever they feel it is most advantageous, which they do by publishing a newspaper. There are no game rounds, and it is up to the players themselves to make sure they keep pace and get enough scoring opportunities during the game. The game ends when the fastest player publishes his final newspaper, but to keep things fair, we decided that all other players would get one more chance to publish.
This worked well enough, but there was an issue. Publishing is the most time consuming thing in the game. Player turns go really fast, but when someone publishes and scores there are all kinds of things that need to happen. In our end game, every player published, which slowed things down considerably. We wrestled with this for a long while, but we couldn't really come up with something better and we finally decided that good was good enough.
Fast forward a few months, to when we got to sit down with Mike Selinker (of "Pathfinder Adventure Card Game" fame) and Rodney Thompson (of "Lords of Waterdeep" fame) for a play test session. This was a great game of Penny Press with lots of backstabbing and nastiness going on. Afterwards, Rodney told us that he was excited, ready to go again, and then he got to the end game and things started to drag, and he wasn't as excited and ready to go again anymore.
Shoot! Fail. We knew the end game needed more.
And then Mike Selinker said something that made all the difference. I don't remember his exact words, so I will have to paraphrase, but it came down to this: "If you have played a great game and have had a great experience, just get out. Finish up the game as quick as you can, and get people ready to play again."
This was a huge eye opener. Just get out? Finish up as quick as you can? Don't strive for epicness? We went back to the drawing board and devised a way to get the game over with quick, and it all came together. It probably took us less than 30 minutes to come up with all the rules. When we play tested the new end game, which we called the “Final Edition,” we discovered that because it is now so quick, and because players have some really interesting decisions to make, the epic climax we had sought so hard for got thrown in as a bonus.
- [+] Dice rolls
Re: Penny Press Designer's Diary, Part 6: When Less is MoreWe had problems with Penny Press. Lots and lots of problems.
And each time we had a problem, our first instinct was to whip up a game mechanic or new rule in an attempt to iron out said problem. But problems (and their solutions) can beget more problems in game design, increasing complexity while making it harder for the core gameplay to shine through.
Take ‘blank’ stories, for instance. When headline cards come out in Penny Press, story pieces get added to the board. If there’s a green square story on the card, you put a green square story on the board’s green news beat (the colors represent the different news beats of the day such as War or Crime, but for now we’ll just call them colors).
The problem as we saw it was that news beats could empty and then, depending on the card draw, not be filled. We didn’t want empty news beats, so we came up with ‘blank’ stories that, when they showed up on a headline card, would fill an empty news beat with that size story.
But there were lots of exceptions: if there were two empty news beats, you did one thing, and if there were multiple blank stories during the set-up phase, you did something else. Players had to wade through a sea of ‘if, then’ statements in the rules just to manage this one small part of the game.
We played this way for the better part of a year, and for the most part, things worked okay. It wasn’t until we began writing up the final rules that the blank stories jumped out at us because of how much text it took to explain them.
So we took a step back to examine why we were using blank stories in the first place. We discovered that we were actually concerned about an even distribution of stories with sufficient ‘coverage’ to fill a player’s newspaper. We cut the blank stories, making sure we had a fair distribution of stories on the headline cards, and were delighted to find that the game was better as a result.
This wasn’t the first time we’d cut something out of the game only to find the act of cutting had improved game play. It’s still a bit counterintuitive; how can adding be less, while subtracting is more? Still, we’ve learned the hard way that when problems arise, it’s not a bad idea to step back, look at the game as a whole, and see if some mechanism or rule doesn’t need pruning.
- [+] Dice rolls
Re: Penny Press Designer's Diary, Part 7: Destination Deathmatch and BFIGWhen the email came in saying Penny Press has been chosen as a finalist in Cards Against Humanity’s Tabletop Deathmatch, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I read the email twice, then three times, looking for the ‘thanks but no thanks’ wording, but all I could find was an invitation to pitch our game at Gen Con.
Which didn’t give us much time. Robert and I had entered the Deathmatch -- not on a whim, but without real expectations of making it to the final round. We’d also entered Penny Press in the Boston Festival of Indie Games, a fantastic local game development expo that we figured we had a better shot at. In the end, we got into both, and those experiences really helped propel Penny Press toward its finished form.
With Gen Con a few months away, and Boston FIG soon after that, we suddenly had a deadline to to whip our game into shape. That proved to be critical, as the time pressure forced us to make some decisions about the game that we’d been dithering on, to write down a full set of rules, and to put the game in front of a bunch of strangers.
That last one was perhaps the most important. We’d playtested Penny Press with local folks, but most of them had been friends who were inclined to support our design efforts rather than point out the game’s shortcomings. And we were always there to play the game with them, which allowed us to smooth over some of the rule ambiguities or mechanical problems.
For the Deathmatch, we were pitching the game to a panel of industry heavyweights who could see through weak mechanics and papered-over problems like they were glass. Penny Press would be judged as it is, and not how we’d wish it to be.
For Boston FIG, we sent the game off to be ‘blind’ playtested -- testers would have to read our rules and learn the game on their own, without any guidance from us. The game would stand or stumble on its own.
Fortunately, Penny Press -- and its designers -- came through both experiences all the better for them. The judges and the testers brought up some issues, but they also found a lot of strengths. That gave us the confidence to push on with fine-tuning Penny Press and diving further into art design.
It’s a scary thing to push your creation out into the world for strangers to poke, prod and critique. But at some point you have to discover if your ideas have legs outside of your circle of friends. The answer might not always be one you want to hear, but it’ll usually be the answer that moves your design in a productive direction.
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 8: The Special Question“What’s special about your game?”
That’s one of the questions on the Cards Against Humanity Tabletop Deathmatch entry form. Here’s how we answered it:
“We think Penny Press does a great job of blending fun mechanics with a cool, historical theme in a game that plays in less than an hour. It’s easy to learn, yet players have interesting decisions to make each turn.”
That’s a decent answer -- it covers a lot of ground without overstaying its welcome -- and it was good enough to get us into the final round of the Tabletop Deathmatch. But as CAH’s Max Temkin points out here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwOao2UvscE#t=221 at 3:36), this is as challenging and important a question any game designer will have to face.
Here’s why it’s important: There are tons of games out there, and it’s critical to know what sets your game apart from those that came before. In addition, it’s nice to be able to say it succinctly, because ‘what’s special about your game’ is a question you’ll get asked (in one form or another) many times over.
Here’s why it’s challenging: You can get lost in your game’s cool graphics and nifty mechanics and pretty player pieces. But those things aren’t what makes your game special. To give a good answer to the ‘special’ question, you really need to drill down to your game’s core to remember what makes it fun, interesting and worth coming back to.
If we were to apply again for this year’s Tabletop Deathmatch (we aren’t, but you can at www.tabletopdeathmatch.com), we’d probably tweak our answer to include what I’ve come to realize really does make our game special -- the feel of sending out reporters and putting together a newspaper in a historical setting.
It’s a work in progress, but this kind of question always is.
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 9: Building the MetaphorBoard games are simple constructs: cardboard and paper sprinkled with rules and colored bits. Yet the best games evoke feelings of driving race cars, delving into dungeons, or exploring mysterious landscapes. How do they accomplish this? By building the metaphor.
‘Building the metaphor’ isn’t something we came up with -- we learned it from game designer-slash-maestro Mike Selinker (Lords of Vegas, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game) when he was advising us on some final development decisions for Penny Press. Basically, it means making the game feel like the reality (or fantasy reality, as the case may be) that the game is attempting to replicate.
For example, in Formula D, a Formula 1 racing game, players move their cars around a race track and change gears -- the dice they roll -- with a shift stick in a tiny dashboard. In Descent, players have to stop their hero figures to open doors, and they can’t stroll through monsters blocking their path. Finally, in Tikal, players spend time uncovering new tiles that are adjacent to their explorers and not all the way across the board.
Building the metaphor into a game not only enables players to connect with a theme, it also helps players remember the rules. All games have some level of abstraction, of course -- when your X-Wing ‘crashes’ into an asteroid, you don’t really crash anything -- but in general, having the pieces do what your theme says they should do makes games come alive.
We had a few mechanics that were having trouble fitting into the newspaper theme. Also, we had a few things that did fit, but we weren’t calling them by their newspaper names. After our visit with Maestro Mike, we took a hard look at the parts of our game to make sure they were building the metaphor -- which was a good thing, because we really like our metaphor.
In Penny Press, players send out reporters (meeples) to bring back stories (cardboard cut-out story shapes) to build the front page of their newspaper (a cluttered desk illustration with a grid where players can assemble their story pieces). The board where the stories are located represents New York City. If you take a story from another player before they can go to press, you’ve scooped them. And so on.
I think a lot of designers ‘build the metaphor’ instinctively when creating their games, but it was helpful for us to hear it said out loud as we put the finishing touches on Penny Press.
Hey, check back here or at www.PennyPressGames.com for a big announcement on June 10, the end of the Tabletop Deathmatch!
- [+] Dice rolls
Penny Press Designer’s Diary, Part 10: Mechanics in DisguisePenny Press received a lot of high praise during our Tabletop Deathmatch pitch. But the judges also had some questions about how Penny Press played -- specifically a ‘worker placement’ mechanic that didn’t seem quite right.
Penny Press still won the Deathmatch, thankfully, but after we were notified of our win (and after Robert and I had come down off the ceiling!), Cards Against Humanity flew us out to Seattle so we could spend the day with Mike Selinker, one of the TTDM judges. Rodney Thompson, another TTDM judge and Seattle-based designer, sat in on a game towards the end of the day and graciously offered his feedback as well. The goal of the meeting was to make sure Penny Press worked well mechanically.
We played the game several times, and the verdict was interesting and unexpected: Penny Press doesn't have a worker placement mechanic as much as a bidding mechanic, and that bidding mechanic works just fine!
In a typical worker placement game, players take turns choosing actions. Those actions are often claimed using ‘workers,’ or game pieces, of which players have a limited amount. In Penny Press, players assign their reporters to stories, which looks like worker placement, but there’s no action associated with the placement. When players go to press, whomever has the most reporters on the story takes it for their newspaper.
Mike and Rodney were right -- assigning reporters was a form of bidding, and not worker placement.
It was easy to get confused. Bidding is usually done with money or resources, not workers. And the way reporters can be assigned and reassigned to stories sure makes it feel like worker placement. When Robert and I applied to be part of the Tabletop Deathmatch, we even listed ‘worker placement’ as one of our game’s mechanics, and while some earlier iterations of Penny Press had locations where reporters would active powers, we’d left that needlessly-cumbersome aspect of the game far behind. Thank goodness we had Mike and Rodney around to set us straight.
Having game gurus like Mike and Rodney play Penny Press at that stage was incredibly helpful, and it gave us the confidence to push on with development. In the end, Penny Press's mechanics proved solid, even if they weren't what they first appeared.
Hey, we won the Tabletop Deathmatch! Our Kickstarter is live -- take a look at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/asmadigames/penny-press...
- [+] Dice rolls