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New Game Round-up: Gen Con 50 Edition — Clank! In! Space!, Stuffed Fables, Sid Meier's Civilization: A New Dawn, and Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition)

Wed, 08/16/2017 - 12:05

by W. Eric Martin

• Lots of game announcements have been coming forth in the week prior to Gen Con 50. Well, no more than normal actually, but the games being revealed (1) tend to be of higher profile and (2) are being demoed or sold at the convention that opens Thursday, August 17, so they're jumping into the spotlight.

The newest contender for the stage is Clank! In! Space!, a standalone game that uses the same game system as in Paul Dennen's Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure, one of the hits of Gen Con 2016, but with player now trying to escape an alien spaceship instead of an underground dungeon. Makes sense to me — space is a vacuum, so noise wouldn't travel there and you could clankity-clank-clank all you want, but put yourself on a spaceship with, say, a xenomorph-type of thing, and you now have a gaming recipe. Here's the setting of this new title from publisher Renegade Game Studios:

The evil Lord Eradikus has all but conquered the galaxy and is now on a victory lap across the sector in his flagship, Eradikus Prime. He may rule with an iron grip, but his most prized artifacts are about to slip through his cyborg claws. You and your fellow thieves have challenged each other to sneak aboard his ship, hack your way into its command module, and steal from him.

Along the way, you'll recruit allies and snatch up extra loot. But one false step and — Clank! Careless noise draws the attention of Lord Eradikus. Hacking into his command module and stealing his artifacts increases his rage. You'd better hope your friends are louder than you are if you want to make it to an escape pod and get out alive...

Beyond that, we have only a couple of images to share, but soon we'll see a lot more of the game because Renegade is selling "a limited number of copies" of Clank! In! Space! at Gen Con 50, with the game due to hit retail stores in Q4 2017.

• A competitor for the spotlight is Stuffed Fables, a new design from Mice and Mystics' Jerry Hawthorne and publisher Plaid Hat Games. This title will be available for demo games at Gen Con 50, with a release due to happen before the end of 2017. Here's an overview of the game from the publisher:

Stuffed Fables is an unusual adventure game in which players take on the roles of brave stuffies seeking to save the child they love from a scheming, evil mastermind. Make daring melee attacks, leap across conveyor belts, or even steer a racing wagon down a peril-filled hill. The game delivers a thrilling narrative driven by player choices. Players explore a world of wonder and danger, unlocking curious discoveries. The chapters of Stuffed Fables explore the many milestones of a child's life, creating a memorable tale ideal for families, as well as groups of adults who haven't forgotten their childlike sense of wonder.

Stuffed Fables is the first "StoryBoard Game", a new product line from Plaid Hat Games in which all of the action takes place in the unique storybook — a book that acts as your rules reference, story guide, and game board, all in one! Each adventure in the game takes place over several pages of the immersive StoryBook. The book opens flat onto the table to reveal a colorful map or other illustration central to playing the game, with choices, story, and special rules on the opposite page.

On their turn, a player draws five dice from the bag. The colors of the dice drawn determine the types of actions and options available to the player. White dice can re-stuff stuffies injured in battle. Red dice perform melee attacks while green dice perform ranged attacks. Yellow dice search while blue dice are used for special actions and purple dice can be used as any color. Most dice can always find a strategic use, including moving, using items, or contributing to group tasks. Players can store dice for later, combine dice for stronger actions, or use them one-at-a-time for multiple activations. As turns go by, black dice are also drawn, and after enough appear, minions emerge or attack, and the dice bag is reset!

Players can encourage each other by sharing dice or their precious stuffing. In addition to fighting minions, each page of the storybook offers numerous points of interest, charming characters to interact or trade with, as well as many unusual challenges. And each page is but one chapter that folds into a branching, overarching story with a multitude of items and a special discovery deck full of surprises.

• The day before that was announced, Fantasy Flight Games unveiled Sid Meier's Civilization: A New Dawn, a design by James Kniffen for 2-4 players that bears a 60-120 minute playing time — which is half the length of FFG's 2010 title Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, which was from designer Kevin Wilson. Here's a summary of this Q4 2017 release, with far more details in the FFG announcement of the game:

Sid Meier's Civilization: A New Dawn is a strategy board game in which two to four players act as the rulers of history's most memorable empires. Over the course of the game, players will expand their domains, gain new technologies, and build many of humanity's greatest wonders. In the end, one nation will rise above all others to leave its indelible mark upon history.

This new game presents players with an undiscovered country to conquer, built from beautifully illustrated map tiles. These would-be conquerors construct and populate the map with barbarians, natural resources, and city-states, then formulate their plans for how they will shape this world to their vision. Their exact goals, however, change with each game. Agendas are detailed on victory cards, three of which are drawn during set up. Players race to become the first to accomplish one agenda on each of these victory cards, spreading throughout the world and ensuring their civilization’s place as the greatest world power.

• The weekend prior to that saw the announcement of Christian T. Petersen and Fantasy Flight Games' Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition), which is scheduled for a Q4 2017 release, but which (as it turns out) will be for sale at Gen Con 50. Surprise!

The game remains much the same as TI3, which was released in 2005, but with various changes that are summarized halfway down the FFG product page. Here's an overview of the game:

Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition) is a game of galactic conquest in which three to six players take on the role of one of seventeen factions vying for galactic domination through military might, political maneuvering, and economic bargaining. Every faction offers a completely different play experience, from the wormhole-hopping Ghosts of Creuss to the Emirates of Hacan, masters of trade and economics. These seventeen races are offered many paths to victory, but only one may sit upon the throne of Mecatol Rex as the new masters of the galaxy.

No two games of Twilight Imperium are ever identical. At the start of each galactic age, the game a board is uniquely and strategically constructed using 51 galaxy tiles that feature everything from lush new planets and supernovas to asteroid fields and gravity rifts. Players are dealt a hand of these tiles and take turns creating the galaxy around Mecatol Rex, the capital planet seated in the center of the board. An ion storm may block your race from progressing through the galaxy while a fortuitously placed gravity rift may protect you from your closest foes. The galaxy is yours to both craft and dominate.

A round of Twilight Imperium begins with players selecting one of eight strategy cards that both determine player order and give their owner a unique strategic action for that round. These may do anything from providing additional command tokens to allowing a player to control trade throughout the galaxy. After these roles are selected, players take turns moving their fleets from system to system, claiming new planets for their empire, and engaging in warfare and trade with other factions. At the end of a turn, players gather in a grand council to pass new laws and agendas, shaking up the game in unpredictable ways.

After every player has passed their turn, players move up the victory track by checking to see whether they have completed any objectives throughout the turn and scoring them. Objectives are determined by setting up ten public objective cards at the start of each game, then gradually revealing them with every round. Every player also chooses between two random secret objectives at the start of the game, providing victory points achievable only by the holder of that objective. These objectives can be anything from researching new technologies to taking your neighbor's home system. At the end of every turn, a player can claim one public objective and one secret objective. As play continues, more of these objectives are revealed and more secret objectives are dealt out, giving players dynamically changing goals throughout the game. Play continues until a player reaches ten victory points.

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Wasteland Express Delivery Service, or Roaming Across a Post-Apocalyptic World and Trying Not to Die

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 00:18

by Matt Riddle

"Wasteland Express Delivery Service includes an emergent narrative story that takes place interactively over the course of eight games. Alternatively, players can dive in with a randomly generated scenario that will play out over the course of a single story-driven game session for infinite replay possibilities."

Plus, in case it wasn't totally clear there are a bunch of SWEET minis. Like super, awesome ones where you can actually load the goods right in the back. IN THE BACK. Even the goods are minis because why the heck not.

Hi! This is Matt Riddle. I am generally no one of consequence, but I am kicking off this 4,000+ word designer diary because I am one of the three designers. Buckle up.

Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons. At least compared to the sheer talent, will, and stunning good looks of the designers assembled to create Wasteland Express Delivery Service (WEDS), the new hotness coming soon from Pandasauraus Games. Ridbackmour? Gilbackddle? Pinchmouridle? Manbearpig? Whichever celebrity name you prefer for the trio of Jon Gilmour, Ben Pinchback, and Matt Riddle and wherever you intend to get it tattooed on your body doesn't matter so long as you do not forget to check out this game.

I mean, look at that sexy; there is literally SOOO much of it

At some point nearly five years ago, Ben and I started kicking around the idea of doing a train game. We played a lot of Steam, but we wanted to actually pick up and deliver goods, not just build routes. At the time, we had just seen Fleet released to moderate success, so we were totally prepared to take on Martin Wallace and a top 100 game and make it better — also, not really, as Steam and WEDS have almost zero in common beyond the BGG mechanism classification. Still inspiration is just that, inspiration. Ben is the designer notebook guy. He sketches and doodles and jots down ideas. One of those ideas was octagons with different movement patterns that left squares in the middle that could be cities. As it turns out, not completely original since Keythedral did it ten years earlier among others, but it was very underutilized. Let me turn it over to Ben to discuss some of the initial design.

Early octagonal action... in space — SPACE VIKINGS!

Before I get to that, I want to talk about Jon. I'll never forget the day I first met Jon Gilmour. It was a great day for him. Not so much because he met me, but rather because it was Thursday of Gen Con 2014 and well over a hundred people were wrapping around the Plaid Hat Games booth and down the aisle waiting in line to buy his new game, Dead of Winter. And by down the aisle, I mean so many people that it was blocking the entrance to some other pretty major publishers' booths.

(Matt: Like Queen Games, their booth was completely surrounded. How were gamers going to rush to grab Cubo or Orcs Orcs Orcs…)

The Plaid Hat crew was king at this moment. So Matt says to me, "Hey let's see if Jon's around. I want to say hi." I of course had no clue they had ever talked but apparently they had. This is why I keep Matt around, mind you. Sure, he can design games, but he's also not afraid to make friends with absolutely everyone.

So we walk up to Jon and he's sporting quite a grin. He was just standing there soaking it all in. My first thought was, someday I want this feeling he is having right now. We talked some and I walked away telling Matt how genuinely nice I thought Jon seemed and Matt told me that Jon actually lived only about four hours from us. Huh.

Matt did his thing and within a month or so, we were Skyping with Jon and talking about working on something together, which quickly led to day trips and all day Panera sessions with Jon. Matt does what Matt does — but what Matt doesn't do is sit around on his couch sketching shapes while thinking, "You know the octagon is a very under-represented shape in board game maps today. And wow, when you put octagons together, you get squares left in the voids. How is this not a thing everywhere already!?"

(Jon: Even before I laid my hands on it and did awesome Jon Gilmour theme integration and play experience game design magic, this was already one of the best pick-up-and-delivers I had ever played. Okay, this was actually Matt again, but Jon really said that on multiple podcasts and such.)

Back in 2011, Matt and I were prepping for our first ever game design, Fleet, to Kickstart in the spring, and we were already neck deep in a handful of other designs. The bug had bitten us badly, and there wasn't a spare moment when I wasn't thinking about games themselves or, more likely, game design. So as mentioned above, the simple act of randomly sketching shapes on a notepad while watching TV led me down a pretty serious rabbit trail. A 4×4 map of octagons as terrain with cities/outposts/strongholds being the square voids and the edges was a very quick progression for me that night.

By the time I showed this to Matt probably a week later, I had already decided that we were going to do a pick-up-and-deliver train game using this set-up. My paradigm for train games in 2011 was mostly Age of Steam/Steam, and I thought a game in which you actually hump the goods across the board physically seemed like a novel idea.

It turns out this form of goods pick-up and delivery was actually commonplace, but the board wasn't. As I researched it, I did find some games using octs and squares, but not as many as I thought I might. This map with different octs being different terrain, using squares as cities, and the system of moving around these shapes was there on the couch in 2011 and it's still the backbone of Wasteland Express Delivery Service five years later. It's really cool to see an idea like that come to fruition and better yet to realize you never could have done it right on your own. What I was going to do with this system is a thousand times lamer than what came out of working with Matt, Jon, and the eventual greater creative team Pandasaurus assembled.

The other gameplay element that developed over the next five years that would survive countless thematic changes and mechanical iterations was this idea we had of a player action mat.

If you can remember ever counting to ten a thousand times over and over during two hours of Tikal (a game that I love,by the way), then you can understand the desire to come up with an action selection game in which the game held your hand a little bit more and guided you to the actions you could do and even kept track of them.

Eventually Matt and I came up with the idea that each player has an action mat that lists the actions available to them and has boxes next to these actions for activation with action cubes. Each player has the same amount of action cubes to spend over a series of rounds, and the cool thing we found quickly was that this action cube allocation allowed us to not only present the available actions to the player, but also to limit the amount of times players can take a certain action in a certain timeframe organically because the action cubes do not clear and refresh until they're all spent.

One other thing we loved about this system was that it kept the game moving and the downtime was small because a player's turn is to play one cube to their mat and take that action. Turns then become very quick, and the game hums around the table: Move, Buy a good, Attack, Take a job, Deliver, Visit a shop, etc. Now mind you, I could have never imagined the levels of awesomeness our little player mats would be taken to after we met Jon. Safe to say when we met Jon, we had a very solid system that worked well mechanically, but it was far from awesome. Really, really far from awesome as it would turn out.

Side note: Jon has a rule when talking about design direction. The rule is, "Which one is more fun?" That's it. It seems simple, but so often we aren't wired to think this way. We're so worried about balance and all these other things that we miss out on something as important as, "Which one is more fun?" And the coolest thing is balance came even after choosing fun time after time. The lesson here is that you can balance later; make it fun first.

Mechanically there's the backbone. The octagon and square terrain/cities/outposts works amazingly well for trucking around goods, fighting, and performing missions. The player mats/action cube system has given players a nice and easy way to maneuver through our world. What we've done with this system is add an absolute mountain of special missions to accomplish. The three main factions in the game each have unique decks that give agendas to push, tasks to complete, and possible crazies to join your truck riding shotgun. But for a huge thematic game, the turns seem shockingly simple, and that's probably the thing I'm the most proud of from the mechanical side. Often I feel like I'm playing an RPG questing-style video game on the tabletop. The game mechanisms literally get out of the way and let people focus on the adventure at hand.

ZZZZZZZ... Oh, hi! Did Ben just write 2k words on a shape? Exciting stuff. That wall of text is why I have to write all the rulebooks, or if the publisher will spring for it, pay someone awesome like Dustin Schwartz to write them. Writing rules suuuuuuucks.

As designers, Ben and I are pretty quick to proto and even quicker to cut and run on a game if it's a fail bomb. If a proto sucks or is meh or is even just pretty good, we broom it and move on to something else. We do not hack at games endlessly that aren't working. We have plenty of ideas worth pursuing, so why try to polish a turd? WEDS was the exception — not that is was a turd, but that we would shelve it but never fully quit on it. We knew that in the bones of this sprawling pick up and deliver was a great game.

As I mentioned in passing above, WEDS had so many implementations: train game, soul gathering, regular Vikings, then for the longest time… SPACE VIKINGS! (You have to say it with a 1980s rock screech or the ol' 1980s toy commercial announcer guy voice: SPACE VIKINGS!!!!) I mean, it SEEMED like a really good idea with two awesome things mashed together. When we decided on space vikings as the official theme, I even wrote up the following opening story:

As the 9th century dawned on the Baltic Sea, the Viking Era was in full swing. Viking expansion was rampant and, in the way of the forefathers, the great Viking chieftains of the age were increasing their territories and holdings through hard work, pillaging, trading…and more pillaging! Well, most of the chieftains, that is. Clan Forkbeard did not have a chieftain. It had five. Sort of. Each one was more worthless than the last. Things had been going so well for so long that the five sons Forkbeard had been born with the proverbial amber spön in their mouths. The brothers took from the great Baltic Sea with no regard, no respect, and certainly no tribute. This behavior angered Aegir, the god of the sea. After a score of years with naught a monument built nor an offering left, Aegir had enough. Watching Clan Forkbeard move from island to island in the great Scandinavian archipelago with indifference, leaving destruction and waste in their wake, Aegir decided it was time to teach them a lesson. In his righteous indignation, he would restore the glory of his magnificent Baltic Sea and banish Clan Forkbeard…TO SPACE! Space Vikings!

Clan Forkbeard must restore their honor and earn Aegir's favor if they are ever to return to the only home they have ever known. Spread across a small but habitable system of planets deep in Ridback Galaxy, the brave and suddenly motivated Vikings have rallied their clan and are conquering the solar system the only way they know how — as Space Vikings!

Ya, that was a thing. At one point it even had a Quantum Leap joke about trying to get home and righting what once went wrong, dunno where that went. All that to say we had shelved the game but never stopped thinking about it.

Fast forward in time and I am tweeting away looking for anyone willing to print and test a print-and-play of our then-upcoming card game Eggs and Empires. Lo and behold, I get a DM from Jon Gilmour. Now understand this was pre-DoW, so he was just Jon Gilmour, not JON F@#$ING GILMOUR. Hell, thanks to Fleet Ben and I were considerably more "famous" at the time. (Famous in the context of an incredibly small and obscure corner of the internet…so not famous, but whatever the equivalent is for a couple of tier 3 hobby game designers.) Jon plays E&E and likes it. He and I chat a bit, find out we are pseudo local, and become Twitter friends, eventually leading to this collaboration.

As we turned Space Vikings into WEDS, so much stayed the "same": the player mats, the movement, the action system, and the economy. I am proud of the economy. It is not ground-breaking, but it is clever and works very well. Initially it was a very linear chart-y looking thing.

But the idea that the good in demand would set the price has persisted. We did a lot of work to make it simple and non-maintanence-y. I acutally think it was friend of the team, dicehateme himself Chris Kirkman who first suggested the wheel layout that we ultimately ended up with.

Another area we spent a lot of time on was the combat. We went down some major rabbit holes working on different combat systems that were sometimes clever, sometimes fun, sometimes neither. The more we did this, the more we decided it wasn't helping the game. We knew we were designing in the "mid-atlantic" or "Eurotrash" space, and the folks that play those big, sprawling thematic games are completely cool with a full page of conditional combat rules. We tried some systems that we came up with and a few we borrowed, but WEDS is a Euro pick-up-and-deliver at its core, and they just did not feel right. The closest my Eurogamer heart comes to enjoying combat is the displacement system in Hansa Teutonica. The other end of the spectrum is the simple yet effective X-Wing — roll X dice vs Y dice and hope you win! I think we ended up at a simple yet effective middle ground. It was what worked. We have notes for a few combat variances we are going to try in the inevitable expansion.

The biggest change of all that came through the development with Jon and Pandasaurus was getting rid of victory points. In every iteration pre-WEDS, you would play for two hours, roll some dice, have fun…then count to sixty-something. Again, I LOVE counting victory points. LOVE IT. As a designer, I love the granularity you can put into a game giving out points here, points over there, MOAR POINTS IS MOAR BETTER.

But for WEDS, it didn't make sense and it was NOT thematic. As we spent months working on making WEDS as thematic as possible, the points continually got in the way. Another buddy of ours from The Geek All-Stars podcast, Dan Patriss, had played an early version at Unpub 5 and mentioned in passing we should consider a Twilight Imperium-style system of goals. He is my boy, but I totally blew him off. Fast forward to a Panera Bread in Lansing, MI and Jon, Ben, and I are having that exact conversation, so we did it, and Priority First Class Contracts were born. That change, more than anything else, changed the feel and elevated the gameplay to what it is now.

Look at that super boring Euro-y scoring: blah blah blah monuments, set collection, space bucks! 1vp for $5, how original!

First, I want to say that, while we joke about me coming on board and "fixing" WEDS, that is not something I can take credit for. When I first played the game (when it was "Space Vikings"), I was a bit leery about what I could bring to the project. I don't really have great self-confidence, and to think of how I could possibly come on and make this project better, was a bit overwhelming. I took some time to digest it, think about it, and come up with some proposals for Matt and Ben.

I feel that one of my strengths is knowing what I like in a game and trying to further enhance that, so that is what I focused on. How could I help them make the things that were already great in this game better? The biggest was really theme. Some gamers feel that theme doesn't matter. There are great debates between designers about theme-first vs. mechanism-first design. My philosophy is Experience First. I ask myself what experience I want the players to have, and how I can best evoke those emotions.

When I played "Space Vikings", I tried to ask myself what other themes would fit and what kind of experience did I feel the game was already evoking, then I spent time trying to bring that experience further to life. I feel that when I came to Matt and Ben with a rework of the game, it was really only about 15% different. I cut some things, I swapped some things around, and I put a new coat of paint on it — but the heart was there, beating in this gritty post-apocalyptic shell.

Next, I want to talk about collaboration. It's something I love to do. I really think I work best when I'm not in a vacuum. Matt and Ben are not collaborators. They are much more of a symbiosis. They operate as a single unit, and it's amazing to be a part of it. They eat math and crap out great Eurogames unlike anyone else I've ever seen.

So when we started talking, it was easy to form a new rhythm with them. When I first got married, my father-in-law told me about the concept of an "emotional bank". In a relationship, you deposit into the emotional bank, and sometimes you withdraw, but you want to build a bigger and bigger positive balance. I feel like that is the key to good collaboration as well. I apply this concept to everything I do, so working with Matt and Ben was no different. Some days we would go back and forth on things we were passionate about. Some days I would win them over with my cries of "MOAR FUN", and on other days they would drop math bombs unrelentingly. In the end, we were all passionate about the game, so it helped us all stay invested in building a really good emotional bank account, and I feel like the game shows that love.

Finally, I want to talk about failure. Every game sucks at some point. If you don't feel like your game sucks, you are not being honest with yourself. I am a huge proponent of the "fail faster" school of design, and luckily Matt and Ben are fans as well. While hanging at Panera, we would mark on, tear up, and change things with abandon. You have to be willing to try new things with your designs and explore them. Your prototype doesn't need to look pretty. Don't be afraid to mark it up, scribble on it, and try things that dont make you comfortable.

(Matt here again. We are going to let Nathan chime in here. He and his wife Molly are Pandasaurus Games. They are the ones that decided to go all in on WEDS and make it awesome. They rule.)

This, I suppose, is the part where Molly and I (Pandasaurus Games) enter the picture. I was goofing off at my desk back when I still had a day job and saw a Twitter post from either Matt or Ben — it doesn't matter which one as they are a single legal entity — asking who wants to sign their new co-design with Jon Gilmour about delivering goods in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I replied yes, thinking it was a total lark and figuring that some way-cooler-than-me publisher would get the game.

Then I got a message back from one of Ben and Matt asking whether I was heading to Unpub that weekend. I was in fact not heading to Unpub at all, but was probably heading to Brooklyn to have brunch and watch a bad movie with our friends, so I did what any smart person would do and lied. Of course I was going to Unpub! Plans were cancelled, hotels were booked, and a rental car was procured. Molly, our dogs and I then proceeded to drive through the start of a blizzard from Manhattan to Baltimore.

When we got there, the first thing we did was grab Matt, Ben and Jon and a table outside the main hall where they gave us a five-minute elevator pitch of what was at the time called "Wasteland Truckers". (It would keep this name until about six weeks before we announced the game.) We were absolutely floored by the mechanisms and systems of interaction that were being described. Upgrading your vehicle, delivering goods, taking on jobs for factions — we knew all of those systems would present interesting choices for the players. At the time, the game still had a score track attached to it, but the plan was already in place to move them to the contracts.

Molly and I did not play the game there, but we would get our first hands-on with the game a few weeks later when we got a prototype copy of the game. We were already about 70% sold on the concept, but we obviously had to make sure the game was fun and balanced and all of the things that actually matter for a game to be a good game. About ten turns into our first game, we stopped and looked at each other and our grins were clear what we were both thinking: We were playing something super special.

As a publisher, you see a ton of prototypes, and many of them are good. A very few of them make you want to play the game again right away. Very, very, very few of them feel immersive or thematic when they are white foam core with chicken scratch on them. This one did.

Look at that white foam core! This is much later in the process, but still. So white.Also, you can see Jason Kinglsey almost. He did the awesome player mat.

From there we knew we needed to throw the right artwork behind the game. One of my favorite comics from about fifteen years ago was a book called DMZ that was put out by DC's Vertigo imprint and had fantastic edgy artwork. I started out looking for art in that style and wound up getting put in touch with the actual artist from DMZ, Riccardo Burchielli, who was available and excited to work on the board game. Cue cartwheels at Panda HQ. This would be the formation for the rest of the graphic design. We wanted everything in the game to feel cobbled together from the leftover remnants of the world from before. Jason Kingsley nailed that exact aesthetic. We then turned towards making sure the graphic design was clear and easy to read, which meant multiple print-and-play iterations being playtested for absolute clarity and smoothness of the play experience.

It was at this moment we realized we had a real problem on our hands. Set up and tear down of Wasteland Express was taking far too long — like 30-40 minutes. I have games in my collection that I love that have really long set-up times, and I know they never hit the table. I asked the design team what could be done about this. Jon put me in touch with Noah Adleman at Gametrayz, and the rest is, as they say, history. Noah came up with the most insane insert solution I have ever seen for a game — not just something used for storage or quick set-up, but also trays that you actually use during the game that label different cardboard chits for easy location. Set-up is down to about 5-8 minutes now, and the experience is vastly improved for it.

I feel really weird being the guy ending this, but I will say that I think the job of a designer is to see the statue in the block of granite. The publisher's job is to smooth out the rough edges and make sure the statue gets placed somewhere for it to be seen. I hope that the miniatures and the graphic design and the Trayz do justice to what is, I think, our best published game to date.

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Ex Libris, or Books, Brains and Building Things

Sun, 08/13/2017 - 11:00

by Adam P. McIver

OH, HI BGG! I'm Adam P. McIver. You may know me from the art/graphic design work I've done on the smattering of games flashing in my GIF-y little avatar over there on the left, or you may remember my slick little microgame Coin Age, which won a Golden Geek award a while back, or you may have no idea who I am at all, which is totally fine, obviously. No worries, I get it. There's a lot to keep up with these days, it's hard to stay on top of it all. It's way more important to know your next-door neighbor's name than some guy on the internet. Make connections! Build community!

Anywho, you may be asking how I went from designing a microgame that is essentially a single card to creating Ex Libris, a hotly anticipated Gen Con 2017 release with over 150 cards? Well, it certainly wasn't as easy as just adding 149 or so cards, let me tell you. Turns out I actually had to design a COMPLETELY different game!

Just Another Idea in a Notebook

I, like so many other game designers, keep a lot of notebooks. Over the years I've filled probably a dozen or so notebooks with board game ideas, sketches of components, development notes, and more. A common bit of wisdom you hear from game designers is to get your idea into prototype form and on the table as early as possible. This is one of many areas in which I'm not terribly wise. I tend to keep game ideas in my notebook for a long time, making more and more notes, tweaks, sketches, and more sketches. Ex Libris began in the same way, with a few scribbles and notes to outline an idea.

Also pictured above: a couple of the dozens of doodles my wife Kerry sneaks into my notebooks

I love games where you're visibly building something in front of you as you play, games like Best Treehouse Ever, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Suburbia, Sapiens, etc., games where the placement of the components result in your own little creation by the end of the game. Being a bit of a bibliophile, I realized that one of the most aesthetically pleasing things to me is a well-curated, substantial bookshelf filled with hardcover books and old leather-bound tomes. And graphic novels. I'll be honest, about half of my library consists of comics. I decided to design a game about building libraries. And not just any libraries — fantasy libraries.

Why fantasy? Because I really enjoy when something potentially mundane and dry is paired with a magical setting. I prefer Caverna to Agricola, for instance. I bought into Thunderstone instead of Dominion. I'd likely rather play Dungeon Petz than a pet-raising game set in reality...

Actually, a realistic pet shop strategy game sounds pretty cool to me, now that I think about it. Lemme make a note in my notebook real quick...

Oh, yeah, fantasy libraries. With that seed in mind, I began brainstorming the game's connective tissues: fleshing out a basic theme, identifying the experience I wanted the players to have, and working out the game mechanisms that would tie it all together. From the sketches pictured above (and a few other pages of less visually-interesting notes), I let the concept guide me. I narrowed down to six categories of books that would exist in a fantasy world, then imagined what sort of rules would govern the quality of a bookshelf.

Before long, I broke outside of my notebook, created a slew of book cards, and started to play with them. I quickly realized that I didn't want the game to be solely driven by card-drafting since so many games have already done that well, so I expanded the scope and added worker placement to the mix. The action spaces represented locations where players would gain cards and manipulate their bookshelves. Taking it a step further, I included mechanisms that would vary the available locations so that each round would feel and play differently from the one before it. It all began to come together into something promising, and I'll admit I was very excited!

The Slog of Solo Playtests

A bit more honesty for y'all: I am not good at solo playtests. Having to keep track of the unique objectives of each imaginary opponent, simulating decisions without basing them on information that I know, but my fictitious fellow players aren't supposed to know, but also knowing what they know, but they don't REALLY know it, because they're just a figment, after all...

It may come as no surprise at this point in this rambling designer diary that I have ADD. Solo playtesting is a struggle for me. I ran through the earliest iterations of Ex Libris several times by myself, making changes and tweaks in between tries, but each time felt more like work than fun to me. My largest takeaway was, "It's a shame I wasted so much time on this." I placed it in my prototype closet, in the "maybe come back to these some day" pile. I lost a few nights of sleep turning over and over in my head just what had gone wrong and how I could fix it. Did I mention I also suffer from insomnia? I've got a really fun physiology!

(Don't run away just yet — a mid-post turnaround is just about to happen, I promise!)

Getting Encouraged by Encouragement

Fast forward a short while to pre-Unpub 6 preparations. Unpub is one of my absolute favorite conventions of the entire year. For anyone who is unaware of it, Unpub is a convention that exclusively showcases unpublished games. It's the best. Trust me. I was packing up an armload of other prototypes when Kerry asked me, "Are you taking that library game you've been tinkering with?" As an explanation of why I wasn't planning to, I began to describe the gameplay a little bit. This led to teaching her how to play, which led to breaking it out to play a sample round, which led to playing an entire game. And another one. And another one.

Now, Kerry has played a LOT of my prototypes in varying degrees of polish. She's a great sport. I can usually work out pretty quickly when she is suffering through a crummy experience and when she thinks I am onto something. Her demeanor was unlike anything she had exhibited after previous playtests. "This was fun. You have to take this. At least play it with Alex (J. Alex Kevern) and Chris (Chris Bryan) and see what they think, but I really like it."

Here's the strange part: I really liked it, too! The experience was much closer to what I had intended in the first place, and I was able to connect with the gameplay and strategy much better when it was being bounced off a non-fictitious opponent. Turns out that board games tend to work better when you play them with other people! Who would've guessed?

My takeaway was to accept that solo-playtesting just isn't my forte. I have an incredible amount of respect for anyone who is able to do it, but recognizing your own limitations is an important step, I think. With Kerry's encouragement, I decided I would take Ex Libris with me after all.

The first day of Unpub (and every day, really) was a whirlwind. So many fun prototypes and great people. Seriously, go to Unpub. All day, Ex Libris buzzed in the back of my head, scratching at my brain. I had registered my other games in the event program, but Ex Libris sat in my bag, nagging me to be played. Before I knew it, the day was over and our little crew was headed back to the hotel room to crash. At some point on our walk through the streets of Baltimore, I asked whether Alex and Chris would be up for trying Ex Libris before bed, and they obliged.

These were (and are) two of my very good friends, but I went into that playtest with a fair amount of nerves. Teaching any game late at night to worn-out convention goers can be a really rough situation, and both of these guys were beat from a day of playtesting. We pulled a table between the beds of our hotel room, put on our pajamas, and took a crack at it.

In my opinion, observing your playtesters during gameplay is nearly as important as their responses and opinions afterward. If you're observant, you can pick up on the experience they're having. After a round or two of play, I started to notice everyone waking up a bit. I began to catch sly smiles and nodding glances between my opponents. Kerry (who is one of the world's best sleepers) was sitting up straight and poring over the cards in her hand. As we neared the end of the game, everyone cared about who might win.

It was a hit. I can't remember their exact feedback (my night-brain was too tapped to remember to make notes), but Alex and Chris both made it very clear to me that I had created something special. That I should be proud. That Ex Libris was good.

I slept like a baby. No insomnia for the happy game designer.

A Playtest Leads To a Pitch

The day after our late-night library session, Unpub continued as normal. Alex had the table directly behind mine and had an early pitch with Renegade Game Studios for what would end up becoming Sentient. They had shown immediate interest and left his table smiling and energized (which makes sense as I loved Sentient two turns into my first playtest). After congratulating him and talking a little shop, Alex said, "Oh, hey, I also told them they should definitely check out Ex Libris today if they had time."

Within a whirlwind few hours of exchanging phone numbers and coordinating plans, Scott Gaeta and Sara Erickson from Renegade were at my table, and I was nervously fumbling my way through a rules explanation. Playing the game was a blur. Again, I don't remember much from the playtest, other than a few questions were asked and I air-balled a few bad jokes. They were friendly and seemed like they enjoyed themselves, and before I knew it, we had shaken hands and they were gone.

I wasn't really sure how the whole thing went (or how it all happened, really). Publishers often play their interest close to the chest, which I appreciate. There's no point in getting a game designer's hopes up if you can avoid it. By the end of the day, though, Scott and Sara had swung back around my table to ask whether they could take a copy of my prototype home with them. So that's a good thing, right? Right?

Streamlining, Signing, and Special Assistants

After Unpub, I immediately put together another Ex Libris prototype — as I had given Renegade my only copy, whoops — kept playtesting with more and more people, and began streamlining. I took note of which locations were used the most, which were most often ignored, and which seemed cool, but weren't enticing enough or didn't work exactly as intended. Locations were axed and added, nerfed and nitpicked. It was (and still is) vitally important to shelve book cards in Ex Libris, but only a few of the early locations allowed you to do so. The number of cards in a player's hand occasionally slimmed to frustratingly few toward the end of the game. I needed more ways to get cards and more opportunities to shelve them.

The further I developed the game, the more fun I was having with it. It was scratching an itch that no other game in my collection could get to. I've heard game designers say, "Design the game you want to play", and I found myself always wanting to play it. Feedback from playtesters was clear and consistent. They were all having fun, and I was feeling great.

Then one evening as I was wrapping up work, I received an email from Scott Gaeta letting me know that they had been playing Ex Libris with their groups back home, that everyone had really been enjoying it, and that they wanted to offer me a publishing contract. I was ecstatic and let the whole world know via social media as soon as possible. You know, as you do.

Working with Renegade was a treat from the start, surprising no one who is familiar with Scott and Sara. The process was very collaborative, and they were receptive to letting me explore new ideas. The first of which was the addition of special assistants.

A peek at early notes and sketches of the special assistants!

To add further replayability to the game, each player would now have one worker with a unique ability attached to the meeple itself. Thematically, I wanted to tie those abilities to intriguing settings for the libraries. The Fire Imp comes from a volcanic library, for instance. The Gelatinous Cube hails from a dungeon library, of course. I feel like these variable player powers really put the game over the top. Each one adds a nice wrinkle and gives you the opportunity to explore different play styles from game to game. Luckily, Scott and Sara agreed, and special assistants became officially official during a meeting at Gen Con 2016.

You can really see the excitement on Scott Gaeta's face!

During the meeting, Sara pointed out a funny book title I had scribbled on one of the cards.

I responded, "Yeah, it'd be cool if every book had a unique title."

"Do you think you'd be able to come up with a title for every book?" she asked.

"Yeah, I think I probably could." I replied, not really thinking it all the way through.

A Battery of Book Titles

There are 152 book cards in Ex Libris. Across those 152 cards, there are 510 individual books. I got to work throwing all the wordplay and cleverness at the problem I could muster, but I quickly realized that it would be far more difficult than brainstorming a list of funny titles. Those titles had to correspond to the game's six categories, which needed to be equally represented in the deck. And since alphabetical order is important when you're shelving cards, the arrangement of this list of 510 book titles could potentially throw the balance between the categories off, even if they were all equally represented. If the majority of the "Monster Manual" titles clumped together alphabetically, they'd be less likely to be drawn than a category that was dispersed evenly across the entire list.

I'd inadvertently given myself a gigantic logic problem to solve. Luckily I love myself a challenging puzzle! Using a combination of multiple spreadsheets, spare cubes and discs, hundreds of squiggly lines, and the kind of free time you have when your significant other is in Vancouver for fourteen days on business, I somehow cracked it.

The incredible spreadsheet conundrum!

I'm extremely proud of the result. My hope is that players will discover new books every time they play, and that you'll have plenty to read and laugh at when your AP-prone friend's turn is taking way too long.

Enter the Artwork

When the time came to begin production, Scott ran a list of potential illustrators by me, and I jumped at the chance to work with Jacqui Davis. Before long, the oddball world I had imagined for this game was being brought to life by her amazing talent. She populated the locations with a diverse cast of charming townsfolk and captured the perfect mood.

And then there were the books. Jacqui's artwork came together so perfectly with the iconography I created and the typography I used for the book titles that I couldn't be happier.

Seriously, look at these sexy books!

The View From Here

I'm writing this the week before Ex Libris debuts at Gen Con 50 in Indianapolis. This has been such an incredible journey that it's a little overwhelming to approach the end — even moreso considering that if it weren't for my wife and friends, it may never have left the closet. I'm hoping it will connect with an audience that will love it and share it with their friends and family. There's a fair amount of buzz building behind the game, and I'm beyond excited that it is so highly anticipated.

Creating is hard. Brains are weird. Encourage creators.
Marry your best friend. Listen to trusted friends. Work with great people.
Design your dream game and share it with everyone.

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer's Diary: Slide Blast, or A Blast into the Designing World!

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 23:00

by Evan Song

The first time I worked on Slide Blast was when I was designing game projects that were called "games for beginners". These projects were created specifically for people who didn't have experience with board games. To create them, I started by looking at classic games and worked on adapting some of the mechanisms. I really wanted to do a tile-laying game, but I realized that unfortunately a lot of these games were already on the market.

I sought the help of fellow designer Samgoo Seo who was very interested in the project. He came up with a simple game design of tile placement with hexagonal tiles on which he had traced some roads. The game at this stage was too simple, so we didn't have any big expectations — but we liked the game play, so we started the project with this concept in mind.

The first prototype of the tile placement game

We went around board game stores and the BGG website to look out for similar games and took care to point out what issues those types of games had. Our prototype version was too easy to play, and it was hard for us to make it stand out. We tried to add more elements with many tests done over several weeks. There were several tiles which had to be changed and we made lots of scoring adjustments.

The next step was to find the right theme for the game to improve the player's immersions and fun. Among several concepts, we chose two themes: one was roller coasters, the other was waterpark slides. We were more inclined to choose the roller coaster theme at first — I'm a big fan of Rollercoaster Tycoon! — but we finally decided the waterparks were better as there are not a lot of games with that theme!

Scenes in the game similar to what I pictured in my head; the waterpark looked more lively and fun

At this stage, we were feeling confident with the game's development. Alas, we hit a wall that we had not thought of during our first playtests: "What happens if two players collide?" We realized that player collisions were going to be a considerable problem, and we did not find a solution to fix the issue right away. The game then fell down in my priority list and development stopped for a while.

During another playtest, as we were confronted with the issue once again, a friend of mine came up with an idea: "What if one player goes underwater to avoid the collision?" This made me think that players could possibly jump from one tile to another as a way to avoid the problem. The right solution came alive with the "lifeguard" tile that can be used by players to jump from one place to another in the waterpark. Not only did it make the game more balanced, but the theme was improved as well! I couldn't wait to show this game to publishers!

When I showed the game to Kevin Kim of Mandoo Games, he liked it very much and we were ready to get the game developed towards the final product!

The prototype submitted to Mandoo Games

During development, Kevin asked us to add more elements to the game to make it unique. However, we liked our easy set of rules and didn't want to make the game too complex. At this point, we added the big attraction tiles, which are the equivalent of connecting three tiles at the same time. These tiles gave playtesters the impression that they had something more powerful in hand. The artwork could also benefit from bigger tiles to make spectacular attractions! Kevin also suggested we add a tunnel tile similar to the lifeguard tile as this element added uniqueness to the design of the game.

Mandoo then contracted Christophe Swal, a French illustrator, to do the artwork for a great result in the end!

The first Slide Blast sketch by Christophe Swal

As we were getting near the end of the development, playtesters giving us feedback encouraged us to add a strategic element to the game. We carefully thought of a way to satisfy both families and gamers, and we added the bonus token rule: Each time a player helps another player extend their slide, the original player can take a bonus token that is added to their final score!

That's the story that led us to SPIEL in 2016 with more than one hundred copies sold on the second day — and we are just getting started with the game now being available in North America with FoxMind! I would like to thank my co-designer Samgoo, Kevin Kim of Mandoo Games, and Longshore for their support on this project.

Hope you enjoy the game!

Evan Song

One of the characters in Slide Blast; he looks a bit like me!
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Game Preview: Photosynthesis, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Tree

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 00:55

by W. Eric Martin

In January 2017, I received the cover for Photosynthesis from the European branch of Blue Orange Games while preparing for the Spielwarenmesse fair and was stunned: "Whoa, this thing is fire!"

At Spielwarenmesse 2017, designer Hjalmar Hach gave me a runthrough of the game (video here), but a brief runthrough doesn't give you a good feeling of how the game actually plays out. You can understand the gist of things — collect light with your trees in order to plant and grow new trees, eventually harvesting them for points — without understanding how mean this game can be. It's the most pacific mean game I've played in years. Everything about the graphic design is inviting and joyous, yet you're all meant to embody cruel nature, block everyone else from the light, and see them shrivel to nothing in the forest while you reign as the oakest with the mostest.

That's the hope anyway. Sometimes, of course, you're the one doing the shriveling, especially since you can block yourself as easily as others. In some ways, though, you have to block yourself, just as you block yourself in your regular non-tree life as a human, taking on more responsibility than you should or agreeing to a project that you know you'll regret or just wanting to do more than you'll ever have the time for (which is a common refrain in the Martin household come convention time).

If you're going to be at Gen Con 50, you can check out Photosynthesis yourself at the Blue Orange Games booth. I hear that they're offering a discount for those who cosplay as an sycamore, but that might have been something I made up right now.

Youtube Video
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Scratch That 13 Days Itch in 13 Minutes, or How Far Can We Push It?

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 23:33

by Daniel Skjold Pedersen

13 Minutes: The Cuban Missile Crisis is a two-player microgame with tough decisions released in early 2017 by Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games.

When the big brother to 13 Minutes13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis — was released in 2016, Asger and I wrote a 13-chapter long designer diary. In that spirit, this piece will be 13 short, almost anecdotal stories of what 13 Minutes is and how it came to be.

1. What is 13 Minutes?

The 13-second pitch is that 13 Minutes is Love Letter meets 13 Days.

2. No, really, what is 13 Minutes?

The slightly longer story is that it is a two-player microgame set at the height of the Cold War during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In the game, you want to flex your superpower muscle and dominate battlegrounds, but — and there is a but — if you push your agenda too far you may trigger nuclear war, so be careful.

And did I say that you play only five cards per game, so each decision matters a lot?

3. Sitting by a pool

When 13 Days was funded on Kickstarter back in July 2015, I was vacationing in Italy. I celebrated by the poolside, but not with a glass of red wine as you would expect. In my hand I had 13 blank cards and 13 red and blue cubes and a pen.

Half an hour later, I had figured out how to translate the 13 Days experience into a microgame setting and sketched the basic cards for the first prototype of 13 Minutes.

Designing the easy 80 percent

4. Why 13 Minutes?

The idea of making a microgame version of a political card-driven game had been buzzing in the heads of both Asger and I for some time back then. We like to push game genres into new territories. 13 Days did just that as a 45-minute distillation of some of the nail-biting and tense moments from epic political games like Twilight Struggle.

13 Minutes is pushing that genre quite a bit more. We wanted to see whether it would float.

5. Brinkmanship

Stakes are high in 13 Minutes, which is no different from in 13 Days. The game is all about brinkmanship. It is a balancing act of cunning play and a tug-of-war of brute force.

You want to dominate battlegrounds to gain prestige, but each time you add influence to a battleground, you draw that card closer to your side of the table. Doing so is great because at the end of the game cards on your side will be all yours if no one dominates — but then again it is not great at all because all cards have a colored DEFCON symbol. If you end the game with three of the same color, you have triggered nuclear war and lost the game.

6. First origin

I use my notes app on the phone all the time, and a lot of that is for game-related stuff. For me it is a useful tool to get thoughts out of my head, but coincidentally it also allows me to track the first note I have for 13 Minutes. It goes:

13 Days with only 13 cards (and cubes). 5 US, 5 USSR and 3 neutral.
Played cards become battlegrounds.
Command: Add influence — move card closer to your zone. Remove influence — move card away from your zone.
Suspense: Endgame reveal — you may trigger nuclear war!

And then some more stuff that didn't end up in the game.

An early prototype when events were all symbols

7. Why so obsessed with the number 13?

As any designer can tell you, working under constraints often brings creativity. We set up constraints for ourselves all the time. Sometimes arbitrary ones (e.g., what if you couldn't talk?), but most often from experience (e.g., is that rule necessary?) or production concerns (e.g., we need to limit the components to one deck of cards).

With 13 Minutes, the framework was integral to the core idea. How could a microgame in the world of 13 Days ever have anything other than 13 cards as well as 13 cubes for each player?

8. Building a political world map

The "map" in 13 Minutes is an abstraction, but an important one that serves two main purposes.

First, it underlines the global nature of the crisis. In the beginning there is only Cuba — one battleground on the table. As you play cards and take actions, those cards become new battlegrounds. Though Cuba is still the most important battleground (as it's worth double prestige points), you learn that your resources are limited and will have to pick your fights with care.

9. A living DEFCON track

Second, the "map" is an evolving DEFCON track. Controlling cards left and right is not a problem until you consider the implications.

You are walking a tightrope. Too strong actions in one area may tip you over and be the final push to nuclear war.

10. How Cuba was born

Looking at the game now, one would think that the Cuba card — the sole face-down card — was introduced to the game by flipping a card to hide information. Actually, what happened was the reverse.

In the beginning, all cards were played face down to hide their DEFCON color. It was sort of a memory game inside the game that was totally unnecessary. Losses due to nuclear war would come at a higher rate in those early playtests, and players did not appreciate the lack of control. The obvious solution was to play cards face up, and thus Cuba was born to retain some uncertainty.

Note all the face-down cards on the table; Cuba is everywhere and nowhere

11. The devil is in the detail

What I am most proud about in the game are two details that enhance the core experience of brinkmanship.

I) The player who dominates the most military (orange) DEFCON cards at the end of the game gains 1 extra prestige. It is a little reward worth going for — but the deck contains one extra orange card, so the odds of going broke on DEFCON is considerably higher. Value and risk go hand in hand.

II) The Cuba battleground awards you 2 prestige, making it another reward you should fight for — but then Cuba will likely go into your sphere of influence and push you to play a more cautious game. Here again, value and risk go hand in hand.

12. So did we push it too far?

The first reviews suggest no. This is both pleasing and upsetting:

• Pleasing obviously because we want to make games for an audience that is larger than two.
• Upsetting because a part of me wanted to cross over that threshold. At least all this has sparked a new project that used to be a standing joke with us: 13 Seconds.

13. How to play

Are you tired of reading rulebooks? Dan King, also known as the Game Boy Geek, has done a most excellent "Rules School" video. I point all new players towards his instructions.

Have fun with the game!

Daniel Skjold Pedersen

The evolution of a cover; I am responsible only for the leftmost one...
Categories: Gaming News and Notes