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Designer Diary: Bug — Perceptual Binding, Identity, and Meaning in a New Sort of Polyomino Game

Mon, 12/11/2017 - 09:00

by Nick Bentley

This post is about a game I've invented called Bug, a two-player game on a hexagonal board in which you build shapes that then eat each other. The shapes that survive grow into different, larger shapes until one player runs out of space to grow (and thus wins).

You can find the rules toward the bottom of this post, but first I'll discuss the game's origin. It involves concepts I've not seen connected with game design, so maybe I have something new to say. Here goes:

Perceptual Binding, Identity, and Meaning in a New Sort of Polyomino Game

Bug was birthed from my belief that a class of polyomino games is waiting to be invented. There's no shortage of polyomino games already — here are more than one hundred — for at least two good reasons:

First, due to the variable way they fill space, polyominoes are champs at creating tactics.

Second, our brains handle polyominoes well. One key way we process spatial information is by dividing it into localized chunks and memorizing/operating on the chunks, e.g., Joseki in Go or Hex Templates or words in sentences.

Joseki — a local pattern in Go constituting a balanced position between the players

Polyominoes are particularly easy for us to handle this way, thanks to a phenomenon called perceptual binding. We automatically perceive certain spatial patterns, including polyominoes, as unified objects. When we perceive a pattern as an object, we can more easily remember it, distinguish it from others, and manipulate it in imagination. Try closing your eyes and rotating a polyomino in your mind, then try rotating some random, non-contiguous speckling of cells in your mind. Most people find rotating the speckling harder:

Thanks to perceptual binding, it's easier to mentally rotate the contiguous group of same-color cells (left) than the non-contiguous group (right)

Perceptual binding is a key reason polyominoes feel friendly to many people. Tetris would be harder if it were played with spackle-patterns instead of polyominoes.

Why Are Polyominoes Subject to Perceptual Binding?

The condition allowing the brain to bind a polyomino into a perceptual object is spatial contiguity of color. In life, regions of contiguous color in the visual field have a statistical tendency to be part of the same object, so our brains evolved to assume such regions belong to the same object. (Visual perception is Bayesian! — which is why camouflage is an effective defense.)

An owl and a tree, perceptually bound

Polyominoes are composed of contiguous, like-colored cells, so we see them as objects, in contrast to joseki, Hex templates, and other spatial patterns that appear in games.

That's probably why most polyomino games come with pre-built polyominoes. We perceive polyominoes as objects, so we create polyomino game pieces which ARE objects. Hence Blokus and Tetris.


A Missed Opportunity

Here's where I think the opportunity has been missed. I can imagine a class of games in which players build and modify polyominoes as they go, and the collective interplay of their changing shapes define the terms of a board-spanning geometrical conflict.

Go-Moku (above) and its many descendants (like Renju, Connect Four, Pente, Pentago, and Connect6) are indeed polyomino-building games, but they focus on trying to build one pre-chosen polyomino: a line segment. These games feel strategically limited to me, and considering how big the universe of polyominoes is, tactically limited, too. What if we could create a strategic game in which a wide range of polyominoes matter and interact (and different polyominoes matter depending on context)?

I think that would be swell, not only because the idea itself is cool (according to me, arbiter of cool), but because, thanks to perceptual binding, it offers a path to solving a sticky design problem.

Specified vs. Natural Powers

Consider Chess, Magic: The Gathering, and Go — three hall-of-fame games. Chess and Magic are generally more accessible than Go, but the reason isn't obvious. Go has the simplest rules of the three, after all.

Here's where I think the difference lies: Chess and Magic have rules that specify units of play with differing powers, while Go's rules don't. I'm referring to Chess' piece-powers and Magic's card-powers here. The pieces and cards have specified identities (the rules tell us what they are), and specified meanings (the rules tell us what they do). Because they're explicit, they act like big flashing arrows, pointing players toward tactics and strategy.

Go also has units of play with differing powers, such as the aforementioned joseki or the opening patterns called fuseki, but they're not explicit. These powers aren't in the rules; instead they're a natural property of gameplay. I call these natural powers. All good strategy games have them; they're just heuristics, but I'm calling them natural powers to highlight that their role in gameplay shares a key function with specified powers: They comprise a collection of tools, and figuring out how to use those tools offers a bunch of interacting puzzles that drive gameplay.

However, natural powers don't offer the guidance Chess' piece-powers or Magic's card-powers do because you must discover them before you can use them. You have to train yourself to see them, and after you do, they can be harder to remember because you perceive them as situations rather than things.

Does that mean game designers should always specify some powers? I hope not. Specified powers have their own problems: They add rules, they feel inelegant and often arbitrary (to me), and they tend to make a game feel opaque before you've memorized them.

Contemplating this, I've wondered whether I could create naturalish powers that needn't be specified individually, but which are nonetheless recognizable and thing-ish like specified powers are. Here's where polyominoes come in: Because they're perceptually bound, we see them as distinct things, which could have, with the right rules, distinct meanings.

So my goal is to create a polyomino-building game in which building a polyomino grants you a power particular to that polyomino, but I don't have to spell out the powers individually. I now have several designs that approach this idea from different angles, with varying success. Below I discuss three.

:star: The first, Papagra, sort of embodies the idea, but not really.
:star: The second, Carnivores, is one of my favorite games, but it has specified powers and doesn't meet the objective.
:star: The third, Bug, which I'm presenting for the first time here, seems to succeed.

First, Papagra

Papagra was my first polyomino game. The goal is to create pairs of groups of empty spaces with identical shapes – sort of negative polyominoes. (In Papagra the polyominoes are hexagonal, so they're called polyhexes.) The player who constructs the biggest pair first wins.

When you see a polyhex has formed or will form, it gives you a goal and a lens through which to see the rest of the board. The power of a polyhex is it gives you an opportunity to win by making a matching polyhex.

However, groups of empty spaces don't feel like "things" and they aren't as perceptually bound as normal polyhexes, so your brain can't handle them well. That defeats the purpose. Plus the "power" you get from building a polyhex doesn't feel much like one, not in the least because you don't own it and the other player can use it, too. In sum: blah.

Then, Carnivores

After a long polyomino vacation, a notion rekindled my interest. I dreamt of adjacent polyominoes capturing each other. It was simple and intuitive, and it embodied a cool metaphor: The polyominoes would be like an ecosystem of creatures, eating each other and struggling for survival.

So I started building polyomino-capture games and hit on Carnivores, which the abstract games community on BoardGameGeek voted Best Combinatorial Game of 2015. In Carnivores, differently-shaped polyhexes eat each other according to a diagram around the board, called the Circle of Life, which includes all polyhexes size 4 or smaller:

Each polyhex can eat only one other polyhex, as indicated by the arrows in the Circle of Life; if an arrow points from polyhex A to polyhex B, then A can eat B when A and B are adjacent on the board.

Obviously, these powers are specified, but they're not arbitrary. The Carnivores are arranged on the Circle of Life according to how difficult they are to build. If I could say in the rules "Each Carnivore eats the Carnivore that's the next-easiest to build (and the easiest of all eats the hardest)", then the powers would be closer to what I'm looking for — but no one can "see" how hard it is to build a polyhex. It took major ergs just to figure out how to do the "hardness" calculations, which required constructing this nutty diagram:

As specified powers go, Carnivores' are cool: They're naturally ordered, they're a complete set, and the Circle of Life conveys them in a compact, easy-to-reference, pictorial way. Carnivores has twice the specified powers as Chess, but you don't have to look up the rules or puzzle over what they do because you just look and see as you play.

They're about as natural as specified powers get, and Carnivores remains one of my favorite games, but it didn't meet the objective, so I kept thinking.

Now, Bug

I thought for two more years. Then one day I got stoned and Bug came to me. It's like Carnivores but with more natural powers: Each polyhex's power is to eat polyhexes of the same shape, so the shape implies the power.

Why didn't I just do this in the first place? Well, if nothing else happens after a polyhex eats an identically-shaped one, you can easily get infinite tit-for-tat eating cycles, including from the first turn when single stones eat each other recursively forever. I didn't know how to fix that in a way that felt right, but eventually I saw the way: After a polyhex eats, it should grow. Growth eliminates cycles and ensures the game will end. Bug fell right into place after that.

It has a chance to be my favorite of all my abstract games. It has the spark, and other features I like:

:star: A natural win condition that doesn't require counting or calculation.

:star: It's fundamentally strategic (you can't win locally), but there are lots of tactics and lots of signposts along the way (like securing an uncapturable shape or forcing your opponent to clear a bunch of your stones at once so that you have the placement freedom to make a strong counterattack).

:star: It's finite (as each game is guaranteed to end).

:star: Game-length is variable, which creates tension and variety.

:star: Ties are impossible, but…

:star: It's hard to prove which side has the theoretical win, and the game seems quite balanced for the two sides.

:star: Thanks to some piece-cycling, you can play interesting games on small boards, but…

:star: It scales well to larger boards as you gain experience.

:star: It doesn't play like other games I know. (Carnivores is closest, but there are big differences and Carnivores itself is fairly unique.)

After much ado but without any further, the rules:


Bug is for two players and is played with white and black stones on any hexagonal tiling. I strongly recommend starting with the board pictured in the images below. (Here's a PDF – it prints on a regular sheet of paper, for full-size Go stones.) Once you've grown skilled, try this larger board.


1) A bug is a group of connected, same-color stones on the board. A single stone is also a bug.

2) The size of a bug is the number of stones it contains.


The board starts empty. Black begins the game by placing one black stone on any empty space. Then, starting with White, the players take turns. Each turn has three steps, taken in order: 1) Place, 2) Eat, 3) Grow

1) Place: You must place one stone of your color on an empty space such that the resulting bug isn't larger than the largest bug on the board (regardless of color) prior to placement. Example:

The placement on the far right is illegal as it would create a size-4 bug, larger than the largest bug on the board (size-3) prior to placement

2) Eat: All your bugs that are adjacent to one or more enemy bugs of the same shape (but not necessarily the same orientation) must eat (capture) those enemy bugs. Return eaten bugs to your opponent. Example:

Black's bug in the lower-left is adjacent to an identically shaped white bug; therefore, the black bug eats the white bug

Note that mirror-image bugs count as the same shape. For example, the black bug eats the white bug here (assuming it's Black's turn, which is the case in all examples here):

3) Grow: Increase the size of each of your bugs that ate by exactly 1 by placing a stone of your color on any empty space adjacent to each such bug. Example:

In this example, the black bug in the lower-left eats the white bug in the lower-right, then grows by 1 stone

If eating would unavoidably force a bug to grow by more than 1 through a merger with another bug of the same color, no eating occurs. Example:

Normally, the size-1 black bug would eat the size-1 white bug adjacent to it, but the black bug cannot grow without merging with another black bug after eating, so instead it doesn't eat

If, after growing, a bug is adjacent to an identically-shaped enemy bug, it must eat the enemy bug (and grow again) if possible, and so on. Example:

In this example, a size-1 black bug eats a size-1 white bug, then grows to size-2, then eats a size-2 white bug, then grows to size-3, all in one turn

End of the Game

The first player who CANNOT place a stone in the placement step WINS. That is, you win if you've filled the ecosystem with so many of your bugs that you can no longer expand.

Final Remarks

In a former life I was a neurobiologist. A key lesson I carry from that life is that we don't see reality; we see whatever is evolutionarily useful for us to see. Consequently our "reality" is sculpted and contorted in a thousand ways of which we're mostly unaware.

Perceptual binding is one of those contortions, and knowing about it offers fruitful avenues for thinking about game design, but this is just one example among many. I invite game designers to learn about the quirks of perception and to exploit them to make better games. I'm certain game design would improve if such knowledge was more widely dispersed.

Since this post is about spatial strategy games, I recommend this book about the quirks of visual perception to start — and since our biases aren't limited to spatial vision, I also recommend a study of more general cognitive biases. Here's a good starter list of such biases on Wikipedia. Behavioral economists have discovered a load of valuation and prediction biases waiting to be exploited in economic games.

In any case I hope you got something from this. I'm in love, resolutely, endlessly, pointlessly in love with combinatorial games. I've adored being witness to their quiet renaissance, and it's been the signal thrill of my intellectual life to take part in it. I'm greedy to contribute more. I'd be overjoyed if someone stumbled into this post and it helped them see a little of the beauty I see in these games.

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Frosted Games Teases Uwe Rosenberg's Reykholt for SPIEL '18

Sun, 12/10/2017 - 14:23

by W. Eric Martin

SPIEL '17 ended six weeks ago, so it's time to start looking ahead to what's debuting at SPIEL '18, right? Nusfjord is old news, yes? So let's move on to what's next from designer Uwe Rosenberg, specifically Reykholt from German publisher Frosted Games.

The game description is meager for now, but we have a few months ahead of the game's release to find out more. For now, we have this:

In Reykholt, players run vegetable farmhouses on an island while trying to attract the most tourists.
Let the speculation begin!

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Remember SPIEL '17? We're Still Posting Videos From That Show

Sun, 12/10/2017 - 09:00

by W. Eric Martin

Yes, six weeks after SPIEL '17 ended, we're still posting game demonstration videos that we recorded during that convention. Our SPIEL '17 playlist on YouTube boasts more than 170 videos so far, and I still have at least sixty more to post.

In 2015 and 2016, we ended up with more than three hundred videos in each SPIEL playlist, so we probably have even more than sixty in the pipeline. I have several on my camcorder, for example, and someone else is processing all the day-long feeds that we recorded at SPIEL '17 and chopping them into individual game segments, feeding the parts to me bit by bit on our YouTube channel so that I can add thumbnails and publish them. We ran into a slight delay ahead of BGG.CON due to hard drive backup issues that made it tough to pull off files, but now we're hobbled only by the massive quantity of videos.

I'm still not sure whether this publication schedule makes more sense than dumping a few hundred videos on BGG and YouTube all at once, but in any case ideally we'll finish everything before Christmas to give us (and you) a break before we head to the Spielwarenmesse fair in Nürnberg, Germany at the end of January 2018 to start the convention cycle all over again...
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Links: Tokyo Game Market Attendance, Games in the Media, and a Neurosis-Inducing Neural Network

Sat, 12/09/2017 - 09:00

by W. Eric Martin

• Tokyo Game Market took place on Dec. 2-3, 2017, and this was the first time that the event lasted two days. Some exhibitors rented booth space on both days, and some were present only on one day and not the other, which isn't surprising given that many exhibitors come with a small quantity of games and sell out within hours of the show opening.

Arclight, the Japanese publisher that owns Game Market, reports a visitor count of 10,000 on Sat. Dec. 2 and 8,500 on Sun. Dec. 3. To put those numbers in context, Japanese publisher Kocchiya has posted the following summary of attendance numbers from 2012 to present:


The fourth column from left shows the attendance figure for each show. The light green highlights the early year shows in Osaka or Kobe, the pink highlights the spring shows in May, and the blue highlights the autumn shows in November or December. The column at right shows the percentage increase over the same show from the previous year.

The third column from left shows the total number of exhibitors at a show: 572 on the first day of the most recent Game Market, and 497 on the second day. Each Game Market day lasts only seven hours, so seeing even a small percentage of games on hand is tough to do in that time. Nevertheless, I plan to return to TGM in 2018, with the next Tokyo show taking place on May 5-6, 2018.

1843 is a bimonthly magazine about ideas, culture, and lifestyle published by The Economist, and in November 2017 it featured "Table-Top Generals", an article by Tim Cross that serves as an excellent introduction to modern games. An excerpt:

One reason for the tabletop-gaming boom is simply that the products have improved. The best modern games are sociable, engaging and easy to learn, but also cerebral, intriguing and difficult to master. The slow triumph of what used to be called "nerd culture" – think smartphone gaming and "Game of Thrones" on television – has given adults permission to engage openly in pastimes that were previously looked down on as juvenile. And the increasing ubiquity of screens has, paradoxically, fuelled a demand for in-person socialising. Board gaming is another example of an old-style, analogue pastime that, far from being killed by technology, has been reinvigorated by it.

The revival began in the 1990s, says Matt Leacock, an American game designer responsible for Pandemic, as the internet began spreading into people's homes. Leacock was a programmer at Yahoo! at the time. Germany, he says, is the spiritual home of board-gaming. "For whatever reason there has always been a culture there of playing these things, of families sitting around the table at a weekend," he says. The internet helped that culture spread: "I remember we used to rely on these little hobbyist websites that would do amateur translations into English of all the new German games that were coming out," says Leacock. As with everything from Japanese cartoons to Jane Austen fandom, the internet helped bring together like-minded people all over the world.

• In October 2017, The New Yorker published an article by Neima Jahromi titled "The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons" that summarizes the forty-year history of the game and its 5th Edition rebirth in a way that is 100% New Yorker. An excerpt:

When mainstream American culture was largely about standing in a factory line, or crowding into smoke-stained boardrooms for meetings, or even dropping acid and collapsing in a field for your hundred-person "be-in," the idea of retiring to a dimly lit table to make up stories with three or four friends seemed fruitless and antisocial. Now that being American often means being alone or interacting distantly—fidgeting with Instagram in a crosswalk, or lying prone beneath the heat of a laptop with Netflix streaming over you—three or four people gathering in the flesh to look each other in the eye and sketch out a world without pixels can feel slightly rebellious, or at least pleasantly out of place.

Thirty or forty years ago, people reached through the dice-rolling mathematics of Dungeons & Dragons for a thrilling order that video games, and the world at large, couldn't yet provide. Today, the chaos of physical dice is reassuringly clunky and slow compared to the speed with which you nervously tally the likes under a Facebook post. Rejecting your feed for an evening isn't like rejecting the God-fearing community that reared you, but something heretical lingers in this lo-fi entertainment.

• Marcus Beard at UK site Best Play fed more than 80,000 games in the BoardGameGeek database into a neural network, then shared the results in an article illustrated with images seemingly shot through a Monopoly filter. An excerpt:

[A neural network] takes a huge chunk of text and then attempts to figure out what the next character should probably be. It can then infinitely generate text that looks a lot like huge chunk you gave it — but completely original.

Of course, the ground-breaking technology was crying out to be used on the ground-breaking medium of board games. We've combed through the database many times before, so we've got a bank of over 80,000 board game titles, ratings, details and release dates to feed into the neural network.

After six hours of training on this 4mb text file (!), here's what the brain-simulating model was able to generate:

Park Glorie (2000) 2-4 players Rating:6
Onth & Gean (1981) 2-2 players Rating:7
Minos's Brin-Mini (2006) 2-4 players Rating:6
Munchkin Park Kings (2008) 2-4 players Rating:6
Flip' El Gays (1964) 1-7 players Rating:4
Power Grid: Fordia (2010) 2-4 players Rating:8
The Besterin Landing: Sentinels of the Alest Tente in the Dark 2 (2001) 4-10 players Rating:5
Secrets! Hall (1988) 2-4 players Rating:6

And another:

We can make the output even more boring if we want. When the randomness is turned down all the way, the neural network chooses only the most probable set of characters to insert in the title.

Star Wars Miniatures (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
Carcassonne: The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Game of Heroes: The Card Game The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
Carcassonne: The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
Star Wars Miniatures (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6

…and the list goes on and on in this manner. I like to imagine a world where there are only three games to choose from: The Game, The Card Card and Star Wars Miniatures. All are mechanically identical and decidedly mediocre.

#1 on the charts, baby!
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

New Game Round-up: Steal Buttons, Assemble Cats, Compile Pages, and Color Pyramids

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 09:00

by W. Eric Martin

• In addition to the Viking-themed game Raids, which I covered in mid-November 2017, designers Brett J. Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan have a second title coming in 2018 from IELLO: the tile-laying game Fairy Tile, which id due out in February 2018. Focusing on the tile-placement is somewhat secondary to your goal, though, as this description makes clear:

Welcome to Fairy Tile, a kingdom of magical lands where a daring Princess, a devoted Knight, and a dreadful Dragon roam looking for adventure. They need your help to discover the kingdom! Help them move further and further to fulfill their destiny and tell their story, page after page.

Develop the kingdom of Fairy Tile by putting new land tiles in play and moving the Princess, Knight, and Dragon across different places such as mountains, forests, and plains. Help them have extraordinary adventures by accomplishing objectives written on the pages of your book. As soon as you complete an objective, develop your story and read the page of your book aloud.

Be the first to read all the pages of your book to win the game.

• Two other titles coming from IELLO in 2018 are Sentai Cats, a 15-minute game for 3-6 players from Antoine Bauza, Corentin Lebrat, Ludovic Maublanc, Nicolas Oury, and Théo Rivière due out March 2018 in which you need to transform your kittens into a team of Sentai Cats to defeat Meka Dog and save the world. Silliness in a small box from the "Tokyo Boys", as they are dubbed on the box.

• The other IELLO title is 8-Bit Box, a 2-6 player game that bears this meager description:

8-Bit Box is a board game that will remind you the golden age of video games as each player has a gamepad to program their actions, using three wheels: direction, symbol, and value.

The base game contains three different games influenced by classic old-school video games.

Something to look forward to seeing more of at the Spielwarenmesse fair in Nürnberg, Germany in February 2018...

War of the Buttons, due out from ADC Blackfire Entertainment in March 2018, is the first published design from Andreas Steding since The Staufer Dynasty in 2014. The game was inspired by the 1912 novel La Guerre des Boutons by Louis Pergaud, in which gangs from rival villages compete with one another to collect as many buttons as possible from the clothing of the opposing gang members. Strip them of their buttons and laces, then send them home to face punishment from their parents!

The game has only a short description for now: "In War of the Buttons, 2-4 players lead a 'gang' of kids who try to build their own hut. To do this, they use both their own dice and "neutral" dice, while hoping for help from their 'big brother' and for no one to tattle on them at school."

• I know that CAPcolor: Les Pyramides d'Émeraude (The Emerald Pyramids) from Charles Chevallier, Laurent Escoffier, and ilinx éditions is a combination coloring book+game of some sort, but beyond that, I know nothing. Perhaps you score points by doing your best Vincent Dutrait impersonation on the interior pages...

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Zombie Slam, or Two Brains Are Better Than None

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 09:05

by Sen-Foong Lim

Welcome to the Bamboozle Brothers' designer diary for their latest release Zombie Slam, published by Mercury Games. What terrifying twists and turns did this ghoulish game of quick reaction take before reaching its final, frightening form? Read on, dear gamer...if you dare!

Zombie Slam actually started off as a children's game, if you can believe that! Originally, we called it "Bertolt's Jungle Jam". For over twenty years, I've been performing my own children's show called "The Adventures of Bertolt". When Sen and I started to make games, I thought it would be neat to have a game set in the world of Bertolt that I could sell along with other merchandise at my shows, so we started with a quick reaction game as that mechanism seemed to match my audience and my character.

The brain fart that started it all

Jay as Bertolt!Sen:
We wanted to add something new to this genre as there were already a few notable quick reaction games out when we first started designing "Jungle Jam" about ten years ago. Our twist was that we added audio cues. We wanted to take hand-eye coordination to the next level. Players would have to first hear the clue, process what that meant, locate the correct target visually, then quickly and accurately SLAM the target item! In the case of "Jungle Jam", we were calling out numbers, colors, and types of fruits, with players trying to squash the right things to make delicious jellied preserves!

When we first pitched the game to publishers, we had this grandiose idea that it would come with this big plastic Bertolt-shaped head. Players would press his trademark pith helmet to receive the next request! I distinctly remember our original sales sheet pointing out that this game would be easily transferred to another character or IP! As a proof-of-concept, we had our university roommate, Errol Elumir, make us a simple Flash-based program that would read out lines of random dialogue that formed the requests. We had to retitle the game to "Jam Slam" to avoid confusion with another quick reaction game that had come out around the same time we were pitching this one…

Original logo designSen:
Oddly enough, Jay also had to change the name of his show from "Bertolt the Explorer" to "The Adventures of Bertolt" for similar reasons…

"Jam Slam" was a finalist in the Canadian Game Design Award in 2011. Maybe it was because we included these hilarious hand-shaped swatters we had people use to smack the target cards with? That wasn't enough, however, to get the game signed. While many enjoyed it and several took it for evaluation, the end result was a no. The key piece of feedback we received was that publishers felt that, though the game was good, it was too difficult for the proposed audience. Thus, we were left with a game that worked better for an older audience mixed with a family-friendly theme, suited to a younger audience. It was time to go back to the proverbial drawing board.

While mulling over our collective failure as game designers, Sen took to the forum we use to communicate and keep track of all our ideas and jokingly wrote, after seeing the success of titles like CMON's Zombicide, "Well, why don't we just make the game for adults and make it about zombies?" He was being flippant, but I felt like Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day:

"Pops, you're a genius!"

We busied ourselves converting the once kid-friendly game into an undead-friendly game and, quicker than you can say "Night of the Living Dead", "Jam Slam" became Zombie Slam. The best part of the conversion process is that we came up with new mechanisms due to the thematic switch!

The new, zombie-fied logoSen:
Some of the conversion was simple: the different fruit became different pieces of survival gear; the jam jars you once filled with fruit became backpacks you hauled around with all the stuff you claimed. Easy-peasy. No big deal. Where the magic happened was when we started to let ourselves really play with this theme. What would you really need to do to survive the zombie apocalypse? What might make this world even deadlier than a jungle filled with fruit?

Well, first, we added hazards. At the start of each round, you are dealt out a hazard that you have to resolve by the end of the round. Hazards force you to use up some of your supplies to survive another day. But what if you failed to resolve the hazard? We didn't want player elimination, so we toyed with giving players health points — but that just led to the question of what happens when you eventually run out of health points?

This is yet another example of a lesson we seem to still be learning: Sometimes you just have to do the opposite of what you think you should do. We couldn't seem to design our way out of player elimination in this case, so...what exactly would happen not if, but when, a player died?

One of these players looks less dead than the other...

The key to the game's final design was understanding the goal for players who had now "died". If you were the only human living, then that was pretty simple — you won! But if everyone was a zombie, then there would need to be a way to grade just how zealous a zombie you were in your afterlife.

We developed the concept of human stragglers. You know, like Newt in Aliens? Those characters who are typically plot devices to make the main characters take needless risks and look heroic while doing it? These stragglers would be "attached" to a specific card on the table. If you slammed that card, you would also gain that straggler. As a human player, you would reduce your supply of cards by one for every straggler you had following you — and they persisted from round to round!

Save the stragglers! Or eat them...your choice

As a zombie player, you WANT to slam those cards, absorbing each straggler into your very own zombie horde! The zombie player with the biggest horde at the end of the game wins — but only if all players have become zombies. This worked, and we pushed towards more players becoming zombies by enforcing a simple rule: If you can't have a full backpack (four unique cards) at the end of a round, you turn into a zombie!

Everything was working, but still lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. Zombie players were relegated to slamming cards that had stragglers attached to them. Our playtesters wanted to be able to actively turn the human players into zombies! Being good designers, we listened to our playtesters and came up with the idea that when a zombie player makes a backpack, they immediately shout "Zombie Slam!" and give an additional hazard card to a human player of their choice. This turned out to be the secret sauce!

Players now had more control as they could go for points by slamming cards with stragglers or they could go for cards that filled backpacks to try to make life harder for a human player. Everything seemed to be lurching along nicely now!

We paid homage to some of our favorite zombie films

We started pitching the game again and got immediate interest. We eventually signed with Mercury Games because they were committed to making Zombie Slam an app-assisted game, something we knew would be critical for the best possible play experience. To help with this, we suggested Eric Raue who is not only a seasoned app developer, but a fellow member of the Game Artisans of Canada. We had a strong working relationship with Eric and communicated well with him. It was great to be able to have someone programming the app who understands game design and who's played the game as well! Together with Mercury, we brainstormed ways to really utilize the power of the app.

In its original incarnation, there were only twelve lines of dialogue, repeated in different ways. We wanted to make the game world come alive with interesting characters and settings — more cinematic! To do that, we developed four locations for the game — the hospital, the store, the house, and the gas station — which lead to us designing in unique benefits to each location when using the app. The whole world was becoming more and more cohesive with each addition!

We then asked ourselves who the players really were. Now that we had access to an app with visuals, it felt odd to add another character who just barked instructions to the players, especially if that character could never turn into a zombie. After talking it over with Eric, we figured out how to give each player a character within the app, then have only those characters talk during the game if they're still human. This was all well and good, except it meant we were now creating dialogue for six characters instead of one and in four locations instead of none. Multiply these changes by the new play modes, and those paltry twelve lines of dialogue ballooned into over one thousand unique pieces of dialogue!

And to add to the confusion, there was the possibility that all the players could be zombies for a round or two. Who would then be making requests? Certainly not a zombie! Instead, we created a news reporter who takes over the storyline, narrating everything while making the requests.

We also paid homage to one of our favorite animated shows of all time

So while Jay was recording the dialogue in Vancouver, I was in my studio in London, composing the soundtrack and curating the sound effects. Not only is the dialogue for each location different, but the sound effects vary as well. For example, there are sounds of wheelchairs rolling and scalpels clattering in the hospital that you won't hear in the gas station. It's those little atmospheric touches that give players an enhanced experience that only the app can provide!

Eric was working to plug this all into the app while Paola Tuazon was providing the bulk of the art assets. Every day, something new was popping up from one of them or the publishers as we pushed towards the finish line. After that, we playtested the game with the app build before it was pushed to Google Play and the App Store. Add one last minute rule tweak to the game, and we could finally hit print on this one!

All in all, Zombie Slam was an amazing project to work on. We got to do a lot of cool stuff with dialogue and music, we got to work closely with Eric on creating a meaningful app, and we got to pay homage to some of our favorite zombie shows in that app. Jay and I learned a ton about game design and app integration on this one. You could almost say that we got more...braaaaiiiiinnnssssssss!!!

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

In 2018, Bruno Cathala Brings Giants to Kingdomino, Leviathans to Abyss, and Sweet Dreams to Imaginarium

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 09:00

by W. Eric Martin

Not the cover!You will likely see Bruno Cathala's welcoming smile at many conventions and on many videos in 2018 as he once again has a huge number of releases in the pipeline from multiple publishers. It's almost like he's a professional game designer or something. While I don't know the entirety of his release schedule, I can preview six(!) titles coming from Cathala in 2018.

• Let's start with Kingdomino: Age of Giants, which publisher Blue Orange Games dubs the first expansion for the 2017 Spiel des Jahres-winning Kingdomino. No release date is given beyond 2018, but I'm sure we'll find out more details once the early year conventions (Spielwarenmesse, NY Toy Fair) take place. For now, we have this short description:

You might fear the giants who will crush your precious buildings, or you could make them move smartly on your opponent's kingdoms.

In Kingdomino: Age of Giants, new royal challenge tiles allow you to score more victory points in many different ways. This expansion also includes a tile dispenser tower as well as a castle and king for a fifth player.

• I've already talked about Micropolis from Matagot, so let's move from tiny to tremendous on the scale of living bodies and present Jurassic Snack, a two-player title from French publisher The Flying Games that smacks of the two-player Cathala titles of old. An overview:

Young Diplodocuses (Diplos) are fond of the tasty leaves offered by the neighboring pastures. To win, your Diplo team has to eat more leaves than your opponent's team…unless one of you decides to call the ferocious T. Rex to get rid of all his opponent's Diplos!

To set up Jurassic Snack, create a square at random with the four playing boards, place four Diplos of your color on the matching egg spaces, then shuffle the grass tokens and place them face down on the 28 empty spaces. Two actions are available on a turn: moving a Diplo of your color or moving a T. Rex. The players take turns performing two actions each, which can be the same or different, and which can involve the same Dino or T. Rex, or not.

A Diplo has one single goal: eating grass tokens. It moves in a straight line as many spaces as it wishes until it's blocked by another Diplo, a T. Rex, the edge of the playing area, or a grass token. In this last case, the Diplo takes the grass token to eat it and immediately applies one of the six effects: birth, T. Rex appearance, Diplo move, etc.

The T. Rex has one single goal: scaring the Diplos away. The movement rules for the T. Rex are the same as for the Diplos'. When it meets a Diplo, the T. Rex is placed on the Diplo's space, and the Diplo is placed back into its owner's pool.

The game ends when no grass tokens remain in the playing area. The player who has eaten the most grass wins. A game can also end when a player has no Diplo of their color in the playing area.

• Speaking of old-school Cathala games, French publisher Ôz Editions is releasing a new edition of Drôles de Zèbres under the name Kiwara, with the title likely to debut during the fair in Cannes in late February 2018. In the game, players take turns placing animal tokens in six territories on the 6x5 board. Lions eat zebras and chase away gazelles, while elephants stand around taking up space and crocodiles sneak across rivers to change places with gazelles. You can place a token only in the row or column indicated by the opponent. When the game ends, whoever has the most tokens in a territory scores points equal to the value of all animals in that territory, whether yours or the opponent's.

Kiwara includes a double-sided game board that lets you create your own territories before play begins, thereby giving you new spaces in which to fight. The game also now includes ten reinforcement cards to give bonus powers to less experienced players.

Purple Brain Creations debuted Oliver Twist, co-designed by Cathala and Sébastien Pauchon, at SPIEL '17, but only in a French edition. PBC's Benoît Forget says that he'll have info on distribution of the English-language edition at the start of 2018, with the game likely to be available in the U.S. in mid-2018. For now, you can enjoy this presentation of the game by Cathala and Pauchon in the BGG booth during SPIEL '17:

Youtube Video

• In mid-November 2017, Bombyx published this teaser image on Facebook:

Clearly something new is coming for Abyss, which Cathala co-designed with Charles Chevallier. More searching revealed this in my inbox of all places:

I send myself notes all the time, but many of them end up buried due to the huge number of games I see that could be researched. Thus, I overlooked news of Abyss: Leviathan, which Bombyx says will be released in French in March 2018 and in English sometime during 2018. Here's an overview of what changes in the base game thanks to this expansion:

News from the outpost is worrying. The Leviathans, these terrifying sea monsters, are converging towards the border and threatening the Kingdom. Will the Allies and the conscripts, mandated by each of the Guilds, contain them? Exploring is now dangerous: fighting is not easy, and fleeing can be even more dangerous — but the opportunity is unique to prove your worth and use this influence to gain access to the throne.

In Abyss: Leviathan, the threat track is replaced by the border board on which Leviathan cards will be placed. When you explore the depths, if the revealed card is a monster, you can fight a Leviathan on the border. Some new lords and some allies will help you fight, using their power. The player who has killed the greatest number of sea monsters takes the statue and wins 5 extra points at the end of the game — and if you do not fight, you may get injured...

• Finally — for now — we have Imaginarium, a co-design with Florian Sirieix that Bombyx first demoed at the Cannes game fair in Feb. 2017. At that time, I filmed an overview of the game, which then bore the unfortunate title of "Steamers", but the final look of the game wasn't yet in place, a look for which I want to give thanks to Felideus Bubastis:

Holy smokes, this game is gorgeous! And the miniatures!

I'm not a minis guy normally, but these are incredibly detailed and rich with personality. They're like the figure pieces in Eric Solomon's Conspiracy but one thousand times more interesting.

As for the gameplay, you're assembling machines to create dreams, with you needing to pick the right machines to make things happen for you in terms of producing goods, working in harmony with the rest of your factory, and shooting you toward the long-term goals that you're racing against other players to claim. For more detail, here's an updated overview video that we recorded at SPIEL '17:

Youtube Video
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

New Game Round-up: Contests, Capers, Civilizations, and Crooks

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 09:00

by W. Eric Martin

Upper Deck Entertainment has already released two games that make use of the myriad characters in the Marvel Comics universe, and come mid-2018 that number will increase by one thanks to the debut of Carmen Bellaire's Marvel Contest of Champions: Battlerealms, a 3-6 player game that bears this description:

Marvel Contest of Champions: Battlerealms is a brand new, unique game set in the "Contest of Champions" universe. In Battlerealms, players take control of a character, roll dice to activate powers, and zoom across different locations to gain points or take points from other players.
I guess that description refers to the 2014 mobile game Marvel: Contest of Champions, but it could mean the comic series that started in 2015 or even the Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions trilogy from 1982 that I still regret buying, although it led to me discovering non-superhero comics, so that was a plus.

• Also due out in mid-2018 is The Mansky Caper from Ken Franklin and Calliope Games, with this being a Prohibition-era game in which 2-6 player gangsters are ransacking the home of mob boss Al Mansky. You might have to split the take several ways as you break into safes throughout the house, but you might also run into traps that can blow your hopes sky-high. Whatever happens, the player who makes it out of the house with the most money wins.

• Little has been made public right now about CIV: Carta Impera Victoria from newcomer Rémi Amy and French publisher Ludonaute other than that it's a deck-building game bearing this brief description:

Carta Impera Victoria is a game of CIVilization and diplomacy in which you develop your own nation. Be the first to reach hegemony in one domain to make history, but keep an eye on your opponents. Forming a temporary alliance might be the best way to prevent a player to triumph…and remember that offense is sometimes the best defense!
CIV is due out in February 2018, most likely debuting at the FIJ fair in Cannes, which BGG plans to attend.

Hassan Lopez's Infamous from Eagle-Gryphon Games, due out in late 2018, challenges 2-5 players to be good at being bad, specifically by choosing a role as one of five supervillains, building a secret lair from the seventy rooms included in the game, recruiting henchmen attracted by your lair, then trying to complete contracts of evil actions around the world.
Categories: Gaming News and Notes