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Designer Diary: Building John Company

3 hours 3 min ago

by Cole Wehrle

John Company debuts this week at SPIEL '17, and it looks like copies will be shipping to those who preordered the game in the coming weeks. Given that the design of the game has taken nearly a decade to realize, I thought that I should offer some accounting of the time I've spent on the project.

The Idea

In 2009 I was living with my wife in a ramshackle cottage on the steep southern shores of Lake Monroe in southern Indiana. I had never lived in such a remote place before. It was a solid twenty minute drive to the nearest gas station, and days could go by without seeing a single car drive down our road. In the winter, a big snow could leave us homebound until a neighbor with a plow would bother to dig us out.

We were both newly out of college and working low-paying jobs. Gas was precious, so we spent most of our days out in the country, tending to the garden or reading. I also had a big pile of games. Getting enough friends together for a game was a logistical nightmare, however, so the games mostly sat on their shelf. At some point that autumn, I found myself reading rulebooks of older Avalon Hill games to pass the time. Though my wife and I played plenty of two-player games, my tattered copy of Squad Leader didn't entice her. Thus, I found myself learning games, setting them up, then packing them away after I moved through a few turns to make sure I had the rules right. I could never muster the focus to manage a full solo play of anything, but I liked the exercise of mastering an unfamiliar and erudite book of rules. I must have been missing my undergraduate coursework.

In any case, it wasn't long before I got to my old copy of The Republic of Rome. I believe I had scrounged a copy on eBay for twenty-odd dollars the year before but hadn't had time to fight through the rulebook. Well, I had time now, so I set it up and got learning. It didn't take long before the design overwhelmed me. I had never encountered anything so immersive. It was a perfect combination of a strategy game and a role-playing game. I needed to play it, now. I convinced a bunch of friends from out-of-town to come down for a visit, and that night we put Republic of Rome on the table. The game exceeded every expectation. I loved the game's core tension: the game's winners needed the other players to win. The game was about interdependency and all of its horrible and necessary complications. I wanted more games like it, and before long I stumbled on a host of economic games that were covering similar ground such as Container, Brass, the Winsome train games, and, eventually, 18xx games.

Those games got me thinking: Was it possible to create a historically sensitive and immersive "experience game" like The Republic of Rome that was built around a business rather than a state? As a late November storm rolled in one afternoon, I scribbled a list of possible subjects in my notebook. At the top of the page, I listed my first entry: the British East India Company.

The Problem

In my experience, learning about any subject follows a little cycle from ignorance to mastery, then back to ignorance again. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't understand a particular thing. When I first thought about making a game about the British East India Company, I thought I had a pretty good sense about what it was. I knew it was a ruthless monopoly that was propped up by the British Empire and that ruined India. I had a sense of its internal organization and its behavior. I knew the key figures and that the Battle of Plassey happened in late June of 1757. I could tell you the difference between the Nawab of Bengal and the Nizam of Hyderabad.

But as I attempted to deepen my understanding, I began to lose my footing. India was more nuanced than I had first thought, and the operation of the East India Company stunned me in its complexity. My sense of the Company's behavior and that of its officers moved from clichés about British imperialism to total bewilderment. I lost the narrative thread.

So the idea for the game gathered dust. I didn't have a story I wanted to tell about the East India Company. I also didn't know much about game design, and my early attempts were mostly just loose re-skin built on the bones of The Republic of Rome. Over the next couple of years, I would revisit the design a few times, but nothing ever came together.

But if the central design was proving to be a dud, it was at least generating interesting offshoots. My reading on the cosmopolitan life of British and Mugal families living in the eighteenth century lead me to William Dalrymple's writings and his work on Afghanistan. These books would in turn lead to a serious interest in the Company's policy on the Northwestern frontier, and those ideas eventually became Pax Pamir.

At some point I decided that perhaps the best way to tackle the subject was to look at the end of the monopoly. Now deep in graduate school and desperate for a side project to distract me from my dissertation, I tried to make a game on the Great Rebellion of 1857. After that design failed, I turned my attention to the trade in China and tried to make a game about the end of the Company's monopoly and the Opium Wars. This game, too, seemed destined for failure when while reading about some of the critical figures engaged in the opium trade, I had an insight: These people did not care about selling opium; they cared about respectability.

I'm sure I had been told this before. Certainly, I could have taken that insight from Edward Said or from just about any Victorian novel about business, but for whatever reason, I hadn't thought of it in terms of building a model on which to construct a game. I'm sure my heavy playing of Splotter's Greed helped, too. In any case, I now had the proper lens and the game An Infamous Traffic snapped into complete focus almost immediately.

As I finished An Infamous Traffic, I started thinking about taking that lens and applying it to John Company. Though I was happy with how AIT had turned out, I thought the core idea could work in a bigger format. It was time to take on the East India Company once more.

Production Limitations

From the start, I knew I wanted John Company to be published by Sierra Madre Games. I could not think of a better and more dedicated audience than the one that Phil Eklund has cultivated over the past thirty years, and I knew they would be interested in this design. But publishing with Phil likely meant working once more with a very small form factor. I wanted a game that would give players the entire history of the Company — but could I fit that game in just 60-120 cards and a small box? My production limitations for An Infamous Traffic had brought that game to life. Perhaps the challenge would be just what the game needed...

An early attempt at the cover, back when the game had a very different feelWhile I worked on my geopolitical and economic models of eighteenth century India, I also kept in mind that I would need to fold this game into a very small box. I wasn't sure how to do it until I played Food Chain Magnate. Perhaps the various offices of the company could be captured by cards. Instead of each player having their own company (a là FCM), players instead would temporarily take control of aspects of the Company. I built my first draft on the premise that I would have sixty cards. If the entire company could be done in twenty cards, that left forty to cover prizes, player aids, and events in India.

That brought me to my second problem. With 25 cards likely taken up by player aids and prizes, how in the world was I going to manage with a deck of only 15 event cards? With eight regions in play, that means fewer than two event cards per region. By this point, I had written extensive notes on over one hundred events I wanted in the game.

At that point I did what any self-respecting graduate student would do: I went through my collection and pulled every title with an "event deck" so that I could look for good ideas to steal. This tried-and-true method has saved me more than once, but in this case it just made the problem worse. I discovered that I hated event decks. Even in The Republic of Rome, the universe of the game is so arbitrary and produces more-or-less the same type of game each and every play. In a standard event deck, players can more-or-less bank on certain things happening; they are just unsure when the event will happen.

This works for certain kinds of games like Richard Borg's Commands & Colors line or for Cosmic Encounter, but it did not work in John Company. The chief problem had to do with timing. In John Company, players needed to know a lot more about which events were likely to be drawn that particular turn than an event deck could provide. In effect, I wanted something like an adaptive event queue in which players could see certain events on the horizon and react to them, but where the resolution of an individual event could shift the order and contents of the queue. I didn't want my players to have complete knowledge of what was coming, but I wanted them to be able to make good guesses. Somehow I had to squeeze those ideas into 15 cards.

The old idea of the event table came to the rescue. I decided to make each of the eight regions in the game "players" in a simple game of geopolitics. Each region would have four event tables that would dictate their behavior depending on their status, so Bombay would behave differently when dominated by the Mughals than it would as an independent state. Initial reports for this new system were good, but I needed some way to prioritize certain regions so that they acted more. To this end, I created an initiative system whereby events "move" through India. Here's how it worked: After an event in region two, the next event will be in region three. Then, to stop it from being a fully predictable cycle, I put in a couple of redirects that will accelerate either the expansion of Indian empires or their disintegration.

In testing this system, I wrote a little Python script that would allow me to easily make adjustments to the characteristics of each region, then I ran hundreds of thousands of games. From those runs, I was able to look at a wide range of metrics that helped me get a sense of whether India was behaving in a way that seemed sensitive to historical circumstances. Even when the simulations produced odd results, as long as I felt like I could offer an explanation, then see that explanation operate mechanically, I could let it stand. I was helped in this process greatly by my friend Chas Threlkeld who also served as the game's developer and was kind enough to rewrite my messy script about halfway through playtesting and to help me make my own studies of the game more rigorous.


Before I learned the virtues of outputting to a .csv,I had to sift through pages data that I was just spitting into the console.My training in the humanities had not prepared me for a project like this!

Playtesting

Over the past few years, my development strategy has undergone considerable changes. Originally I opted to put my designs out there for anyone to mess with and provide feedback on. Like many young designers, I had a habit of making my projects available before they were ready. Playtesting was chaotic. There were always too many voices in the room, and too often I pushed design problems onto my playtesters that I could have easily solved myself.

Now, any designer, developer, or publisher will tell you that the process of playtesting is critical for a game to succeed. However, folks tend to say less about the huge differences in development processes and the different ways playtesters are deployed. In my experience, I find playtesters are best at recognizing ergonomic problems in the design. There's no substitute for a second set of eyes on a pair of rules or watching someone who has never played your game attempt to teach it to another new player. I do a lot of playing of my games in spreadsheets and in my head, so having unfamiliar players go through the various phases and procedures gives me a critical window into how a design works in the wild.

I've gradually created a system for organizing a game's development based upon a simple insight: Most playtesters will burn out after about 3-5 sessions. I've seen this in every single project I've ever worked on as a playtester, developer, and designer. The burnout happens for lots of different reasons. Sometimes there's a new game they want to test, sometimes something has shown up on their doorstep, sometimes they just get tired of having to keep up with rules changes. To address this problem, first I figured I should get as much life out of my playtesters as possible. To that end, I try to be abundantly clear about when updates are coming to a game, and I try to limit myself to a big update once a month. I also designed the playtesting kits so that they would be easy to assemble and I always had "patches" to update old kits if a group didn't want to rebuild everything. In short, I did my best to respect my playtesters' time. Far too many designers and publishers just explore a big pile of jpegs for their testers to sort through.

Back when the game was lighter, I had planned on usingillustrations drawn and painted by my wife, CatiSecond, I tried to use my playtesters strategically. Instead of letting everyone in at the start, the testing for John Company was invitation-only until the last phase of testing. Furthermore, I organized my testers into waves, with certain kinds of groups going earlier in the development and others not being deployed until the final stages. Game development is a marathon, and there's no sense in spending all your best blood in the opening sprint. I also tried to have a clear development schedule composed of different cycles. Each cycle had a set of goals that needed to be addressed before we could move on. Sometimes cycles got added if new problems were found, and sometimes they got taken away as problems resolved themselves. I was transparent in this schedule so that my playtesters would always know what they were looking for when they played.

In December 2016, after about six months of local testing in Austin, John Company entered its closed "beta" phase. For this first phase, I knew the game worked, but I wasn't sure whether its presentation needed adjusting. At that point it was a card game, and players had to visualize the Company. I didn't think this was too much of a problem, but my opinion didn't count for much; I had been living with the Company in my head for too long.

To my surprise, my first playtesters didn't have too much trouble with this, but as I brought in new waves of playtesters over the winter, I noticed these new groups were having trouble keeping their games on track. There was clearly a problem with the game's presentation. Early in the design, I had wanted to build something much lighter — even real-time — but as the design grew up, it also grew more procedural. Freeform elements were abandoned in favor of rigid processes. The game was better for it, but despite that shift in design, the physical profile of the game was largely unchanged.

It needed change, though, so following the suggestions of my playtesters, I constructed a game board that we could use for testing and lobbied Phil for an expanded production. The reports on the board were overwhelmingly positive, and the switch to a board game was made. At the time, I was sad to lose the small profile that had informed so much of the game's design, but the fact that the switch to the board required only two small rule changes was a sign that the game had changed dramatically from that earlier vision. At this point, development was mostly about being a good steward of the version of the game before me — not the version I had first imagined.

Another place where the development took me away from my original intentions was in the negotiation rules. In its early iterations, Pax Pamir was dominated by negotiation, but as the design grew up much of the negotiations were baked out. With John Company, I initially had built a system of subtle, implicit negotiations in hopes of recreating the respectability politics and social mores of the time. The whole thing was built around a "letter writing" system which I loved, but found too cumbersome for a design of this scope.

Eventually, I decided to make things explicit, and like any game with explicit negotiations, they had a way of taking over the design. Originally I had planned on having binding agreements between players to represent the advantages of the British legal system and the culture of respectability that characterized upper-class transactions at that time. However, binding negotiations are a nightmare from a design standpoint for all the reasons why you might imagine. Players have to word their agreements very carefully, and even when they do, there's still a good chance that players will look for a way out. I needed some way to adjudicate these agreements. At one point, I even had a lawsuit system in which players could sue each other for damages or contractual infractions. Things were getting out of hand.

Exhausted, I threw up my hands and reverted the game's negotiation format to that old standby of political games: non-binding agreements. Say whatever you want and let the table of players punish you in its own way. Ugh. The design worked fine, but the reversion felt like a serious retreat. I wanted the legal system in the game to be a central mechanism, and the prize system in the game benefited from the ability to make multi-turn agreements.

This was the first game I've designed that Cati enjoyed playing,so it got a lot of two-player testing after the kids were in bedThen the answer came. Through many long conversations with my playtesters, we arrived at something that I'll call the "Promise System". Basically, in addition to offering each other money and promotions as currency in negotiations, players can also give each other cubes. These cubes, called "promise cubes", represent an obligation from one player to another. Let's say Dick really wants the new house, but needs cash. Jane offers him the cash if Dick will give her four promises cubes. When Dick gives her those promise cubes, he loses control of them. He can buy them back for 2 bucks a pop or if he shows her some favoritism through a promotion or any other thing they might agree to, but for every one of Dick's promises that he can't get back by the end of the game, he loses 2 points. In this way players can offer each other loans under a huge range of terms and interest rates. Suddenly multi-turn agreements were possible without derailing the game.

Content with Chaos

With the negotiations solved, the rest of the development went smoothly. My incomparable playtesters provided wonderful feedback throughout the process and stress-tested the game's many systems to a degree far beyond what I had been able to give to Pax Pamir or An Infamous Traffic. By the time I sent the files to the printer, I was about as proud of this design as anything I've ever had a hand it making.

It wasn't until weeks later when I found myself playing the game at summer conventions and with old friends that I began to realize how difficult a game it was. I don't mean difficult in terms of rules. Though the game certainly isn't for everyone, I remain convinced that it is Sierra Madre's most accessible offering since Greenland (at least in terms of the rules). Like Greenland, John Company embraces the vagaries of fate. There are dice, and no how much you spent on an action there is ALWAYS the possibility for catastrophic failure.

What's more, in a world ever more filled with milquetoast event systems and other light points of friction, in John Company the movement of the elephant through India and the roll of an event die could upend the game. I don't use that word lightly. More than once in a post-game discussion we've been able to point to a single chain of events where all of India turned upside down. Fortunes were lost. Empires fell. There were usually warnings, but when the money is rolling in, you tend to feel like the good times are never going to end. John Company, in so many ways, is about that precise myopia. It seemed perfectly natural to reflect that in terms of the game's mechanisms.

However, as I played the game over and over again that summer, it occurred to me that if I was being true to my reading of the history and to the game's core argument, I was also treading through some tricky territory. A lot of folks like An Infamous Traffic, but that game didn't overstay its welcome. If the game could be tricky, it was also short and simple. A lot of folks who are excited for the game would probably want something a little more traditional. Even the venerable Phil Eklund, after a training session with some folks who will be demoing the game at SPIEL '17, suggested that I should soften the endgame a little for the game's living rules. My summer games had prepared me for this suggestion, and I already had some variants prepared that would answer his concerns. I'll be publishing these on BGG in the coming weeks, and soon new players will have a way to adjust the amount of chaos in the game to a more palatable level. There are even ways to play without any explicit negotiations.

While I'm comfortable providing these variants to players, I won't be including them in the core rules of the game. John Company was and is a game from another time. It's my love-letter to the big, open, unforgiving systems of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I don't mean to make apologies for it. It's exactly the game I wanted to make, and it's one that I would have loved to discover during those quiet summer days back in 2009. Taken on those terms, I think it has a lot to offer.

Cole Wehrle

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

SPIEL '17 Preview: Destination X, or Where in the World Is Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Sun, 10/22/2017 - 13:00

by W. Eric Martin

Rarely do you learn about a game and immediately wonder why it doesn't bear the licensing of some well-known IP, but should you bring Destination X to the table, you will undoubtedly share the same thought I did: If this game had a Carmen Sandiego license, it would kill wallets across the U.S. game market.

By chance, Pressman Toy introduced Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Card Game in mid-2017 as a Target-exclusive title, and while that game is a decent deduction design, Destination X — designed by Bård Tuseth and Kristian Amundsen Østby and released by Norwegian publisher Aporta Games — does a far better job of channeling the edutainment experience of Carmen Sandiego and is a more interesting game to boot, at least for most of those playing it.

As with other spy-themed games such as Scotland Yard, in Destination X one player is the spy who is hiding somewhere and the other players are detectives who are trying to find the spy. The game includes 197 destination cards that represent the 193 UN member states and four areas that claim statehood and have some international recognition: Palestine, Taiwan, Kosovo, and The Vatican. The game includes a thick handbook that repeats the information shown on the reverse side of these cards, in addition to other information that isn't listed.




To start a round, the spy lays out six destination cards at random, then chooses one of them to be their secret location. The detectives shuffle a deck of 16 investigative cards, then each take a hand of three. On a turn, the active detective plays an investigative card from hand and draws a new card, then the spy reveals information from the handbook about their destination that relates to the card played. If the detective plays the area card, for example, you give the size of the destination in square meters; if they play the government card, you reveal the nature of that destination's government, typically republic or monarchy; if they play history, you reveal a detail about the destination such as "Former Spanish colony" or "Was part of the Mongol Empire".

After learning this bit of information, the detectives must remove one of the six country cards from play. If they remove the card that matches the spy's location, the spy wins; otherwise the next detective plays a card — perhaps population, language, or GDP per capita — then the spy reveals that detail about their location. At any time, the detectives can guess where they think the spy is, with this guess either winning or losing the round for the detectives.


Seven of the sixteen investigative cards

All of this sounds relatively straightforward and not much more than a trivia game, but the twist comes from the combination of two elements: (1) at the end of a round, whether the spy wins or loses, they lay out six new destination cards, choose a new hiding place, then the next detective in turn order chooses an investigative card to play, and (2) the first side to win three rounds wins the game, yet the detectives have only 16 cards for the entire game. This tiny deck is what puts the screws on the detectives, limiting their ability to pepper the spy for information over and over again until they narrow the choices to a near-certain candidate. Sure, the detectives can play four or five cards in a round before guessing a location, but if they miss one of those guesses, they've put themselves in a hole for the rest of the game.

Destination X rewards detectives for making smart choices. If you look at the destination cards on display – each of which shows the name and flag of the destination, along with a dot on the globe showing where it's located — you can sometimes choose an investigative card that will eliminate one half of the cards in a single go. Sometimes, depending on what the spy chose and what you play, you might have the answer handed to you immediately. In one round, I chose Cuba as my hiding place, and the first investigative card played was "Capital". For this card and a few others, the spy gives only partial answers (e.g., the first letter) because the full answer would give away too much info; even so, my answer of "H" put a flashing beacon on Cuba, and the detectives played only one follow-up card to confirm this choice before selecting it.


Handbook vs. card back, with underlines showing what the spy gives as an answer

Detectives are limited to cards in hand, though, so sometimes they just have to wing it as they won't have any ideal choices, but their need to wing it will also depend on the spy's ability to pick a good hiding place. If five of the destination cards are in Asia and you choose Guatemala to be contrary, then the playing of the Atlantic Ocean investigative card will give you away immediately. You just have to hope the detectives would think it fruitless to play such a card (or the language investigative card, or the history card or the agriculture card — okay, Guatemala is pretty much a terrible choice if you otherwise have five Asian countries in play).

This brings up the odd role in the game, that of the spy. You have to make a good choice at the start of the round, one that will ideally force the detectives to burn at least three cards before having a hint of your location, but you do nothing other than reveal information from the handbook while trying not to reveal other information by staring at the card you chose or letting the detectives see that you're looking at the front of the handbook (because then they'd know the country starts with a letter early in the alphabet) or smiling when a detective says something the reveals they're thinking of the wrong destination. All of your effort in the game is at the start of the round, then you sit and wait and hope the detectives can't detect you.

As I've learned over two games on a review copy, both with three players and both with me as the spy (and different detective teams), listening to the detectives' banter and watching them squirm is enjoyable, but if you're hoping for something more active and Mr. X-y, then you better sit on the other side of the table so that you can be the one asking the questions.

Destination X does contain a few other twists that I haven't experienced yet, partly due to my limited playing time, but mostly due to all of us players not being geography buffs. First, you can simply increase the number of destination cards in play to even the odds against knowledgable detectives. (For young players and, ahem, those who don't know a great deal about different countries, you can give the full answer for the capital or name of the currency instead of only the first letter. Learning might ensue!)




Second, the game includes seven red-starred investigative cards that can replace the starred cards in the normal deck, and these cards provide even less information than normal to the detectives. Instead of simply playing the religion card and getting the religion spit back at you by the spy — in shorthand, mind you, with the spy saying "Christian" instead of "Roman Catholic Christian" — you must instead choose to ask whether Christianity (or Islam or Buddhism) is a major religion in this destination. Instead of asking whether the destination is on the Indian (or Pacific or Atlantic) Coast, you ask simply whether it's on a coast at all. Heck, one of the questions is whether they drive on the left or right side of the road!

Third, the "Mission: Impossible" variant is for those with large tables and encyclopedic knowledge. The players lay out all 197(!) destination cards, then the spy writes down their location. The detective chooses any of the 16 investigative cards and learns the appropriate info, then must eliminate at least ten destination cards from play before playing the next investigative card. If the detective manages the find the right needle in this worldly haystack, they score points equal to the number of unplayed investigative cards, then players can reverse roles to see who does the job better. A true "where in the world" challenge worthy of an absent license!


Where will you hide this time?
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Minute Realms

Sun, 10/22/2017 - 08:05

by Stefano Castelli

Hello! I'm the designer of Minute Realms, and I'd like to share some of the development phases of my new game.

It’s been a while since I decided that I wanted to design a card-drafting game. My goal was to scramble the typical clockwise/counterclockwise draft a bit, replacing it with something more…multi-directional. Thus, I started experimenting in several ways, thinking of new ways to pass cards among players, while trying to give players deep choices and a fair amount of control over the draft.


Set-up for a four-player game

I thought about a typical medieval setting for the game, using the very nice Travian buildings for the prototype! Players would draft buildings with various effects in order to develop their personal realm.

After some attempts, I understood two things. First, secret and simultaneous drafting had to be ditched in favor of a turn-based structure in which each player takes a turn to draft. Second, due to this turn-based structure, I could not allow lots of cards to be displayed at the same time.


The first prototype of the game

This brought me to the point that each player would draft just one card per round. This stands in stark contrast with games like 7 Wonders and Fairy Tale in which players draft entire hands of cards. The result is a game based on what I call asynchronous draft, and I happily discovered that it worked quite well.


Development of the cathedral card, from prototype to production

Most importantly, playtesters liked it a lot — or at least they didn't boo me when I brought the prototype to the table, which is, per se, a very satisfying achievement!

Furthermore, thanks to the idea of placing only two cards in the middle of the table in addition to one in front of each player, I understood that I could trigger specific effects based on the position of cards drafted by players, i.e., there is an important difference if I pick a card from the middle of the table, from in front of another player, or from in front of myself. Is it worth mentioning that of course once a card has been drafted, nobody else can take it away from its owner!


The cards show a specific bonus/penalty — highlighted in yellow — that triggers when a player drafts the card;these triggers have a different impact depending on the position of the card on the table

After a few tests, the two main mechanisms of "Realms" had finally been tuned: the asynchronous drafting (or whatever you want to call it), and the "triggers" on the cards. While continuing to design the game, I added some twists to spice things up:

Coins to balance the strength of the different cards and to introduce some micro-resource-management. The higher the cost, the more the points it would score at the end of the game — provided that you manage to defend it from invaders.


You must pay 2 coins to build the Monastery. At game's end, it's worth 9 victory points minus the number of coins you have

Invaders as an unpredictable threat that menaces the realm of every player. They bring climax, suspense, and more emphasis to the overall experience.


These bad guys march on your lovely realm, so build enough shields to keep them out!

• A defensive bastion on the back of every card in order to give players more choices while drafting by always giving them a chance to defend their realm from invaders and gain coins.


Every card has a defensive bastion with two shields on the back

Bastions are useful for defending yourself from invaders. If you erect a bastion, you immediately gain two coins and two shields. However, you also renounce the chance of building the wonderful building on the front, which would have given you victory points at the end of the game!


Luckily, some buildings provide shields even on the front of the card!

This has been a "one shot-one kill" operation: I went straight to dV Giochi to propose the game, and they were immediately very interested. Since then, the development of the game went quite smoothly, although it required a lot of time to make sure everything was well-balanced.

Regarding the final title, it is not very different from the original. Both the publisher and I wanted to keep the word "Realms" in the title, and in the end we decided to add just an adjective to underline the quickness of the gameplay and the short length of the game. We went from "Small Realms" to "Tiny Realms" (naaah, too many "Tiny" games around) to "Little Realms", then the publisher came and said "Okay, let's add 'Minute' to it." The word fits because it identifies something small — heck, a realm of just eight cards! — and at the same time it reminds you of minutes, which is fitting for a game that literally takes minutes to play.

Stefano Castelli
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Wanted: Rich or Dead

Sat, 10/21/2017 - 08:00

by Dariusz Kułak

Hello! My name is Dariusz Kułak, and I am the designer of Wanted: Rich or Dead, a Western-themed party game scheduled to debut from Galakta at SPIEL '17. I wish to tell you a little about my newest game and how I created it.

Actually, despite being a quick and easy game, Wanted: Rich or Dead (as it came to be known) took a long time to design. Its first version left my drawer over four years ago in 2013! Considering that people like Uwe Rosenberg manage to create, say, A Feast for Odin — a game the size of a giant — in half that time or less, I guess I should be ashamed of myself.

Anyway, the first version of the game was called "Acreage", and it was supposed to be a rather simple strategic game of Small World weight. Different races controlled by players would fight for resources, land, and food. The thing that would make this title stand out was its theme: birds, with tomtits that specialized in quick food collection, combat-oriented grackles, and the sparrows who are builders extraordinaire. Most of the mechanisms were based on action cards being played simultaneously and used to create paths to resources, build nests and storages, or expand to new territories. However, a hexagonal board and units with unique statistics resulted in many similarities with Neuroshima Hex!, and in the end I stopped on an early-prototype level.




Some time later, one of the Polish game publishers proposed that I create a strategic game that would consist of only 55 cards. Although it seemed like a tough task, I returned to the idea of "Acreage" and started making serious cuts. After some time, I was left with a number of areas presented on cards, simultaneous actions, and a deck of items providing certain bonuses.

I also created a more sophisticated background to strengthen the theme; the game was still about birds, but they turned into bird gangs trying to prepare for the coming winter by gathering sunflower seeds. Each bird species became a different organized crime group such as Yakuza or Cosa Nostra. I even drew my own art so that playtesters would be immersed even deeper in this brutal world of bird-eat-bird. (Plus, it's quite hard to find gangster bird artwork...) In this way, "In Your beak!" (more commonly known as "Birdies") was born.





In "Birdies", each player controlled one of five different bird gangs. Five areas were placed on the table, and players simultaneously played one of six action cards to move their pawn to a certain area. If a player was alone, they got their resources. Otherwise, a quarrel had to be settled. It can't be simpler than that, right?

The things that people liked were very quick gameplay, practically no downtime, and a light, amusing theme. One of the unique mechanisms was based on the birds getting "fat" with sunflower seeds; the more a player had, the weaker they became, which is the opposite of a snowball effect. By doing this, players who were short on victory points at the beginning could quickly catch up with the leaders. Effectively, this led to an exciting game finale as everyone had a strong chance to win. The playtesters liked it very much, and I knew the development was going well. At some point I even added a neutral bird, a kind of a swallow "Robin Hood" controlled by the poorest player. That bird could steal seeds from rich birds to give them to the poor, which resulted in even more balance.




Lots of playtesting later, "Birdies" was ready for production. However, at that point serious problems with my publisher started. Not to dwell on the past, but the company that ordered the game chose not to produce it after all, so I had to look for a publisher the usual way — by sending the game wherever I could.

At some point, another company (which also refused to cooperate with me on this project) stated that the bird theme is too narrow and the target group too small and I couldn't hope to publish the game with anyone until I changed it. I had to consider some other ideas for the setting, and after giving it some thought I chose to go for the Old West.

I did not have to change much, to be frank: seeds were replaced by cash, birds with gunslingers… The original mechanisms were perfect for accommodating a game about robbers! But I did not feel like it would be enough, so I changed the statistics to introduce a four-sided die. What's more, instead of using the same set of action cards for all players, I made each player deck unique. As a result, each bandit had a unique feel and strategy. Additionally, I removed the "Robin Hood" part and exchanged "getting fat" with "getting burdened by cash". Then I prepared a nice-looking prototype and got to playtesting. That is how Wanted was created.





The playtesters immediately got to like the game. Some of them even compared it to a better and less random BANG!, which is a great review to hear considering that both games have the same setting and BANG! is a worldwide bestseller.

Anyway, because of the changes, I had to balance the game yet once again hoping that some publishing opportunity would present itself so that my toil would not be wasted. It seems I must have drawn a lucky hand then as Galakta announced its yearly prototype competition. A few weeks later, I was ready to send Wanted to them along with all necessary materials…suddenly realizing that I was meeting the deadline with only one day to spare! I got lucky again as maybe three weeks later I got a call from their lead developer asking for a meeting. I felt that something big was coming! By the way, I won the competition in my category, which tells something.




The meeting was more than fruitful. Aside from some minor changes, we reached a conclusion that the very unintuitive D4 die should be changed to a D3 (which meant more balancing and tackling numbers), then we were ready to send the game to a wider group. The game was scheduled for the 2017 SPIEL game fair in Essen, which meant we had about half a year left to work with it.

While I was perfecting the game, Galakta was working on game components. It came as a great surprise that the game originally based on 55 cards swelled to much bigger dimensions. First, the great comic book artist Rafał Szłapa was hired to prepare the front cover and the characters. Michał Lechowski was responsible for items and the general layout, and together they created a really impressive piece of work. Second, the game attained its 3D aspect with thick cardboard buildings and stagecoach tiles. Finally, the dice were custom made to feature bullets and resemble in color real dice used in the Wild West, while the pawns actually started to look like cowboys!

With some cards left on the printing sheet thanks to various changes, I could design a mini-expansion with a completely new building and action cards. The final touch was the title — Wanted: Rich or Dead — and a short background story to make the characters more believable, then we were ready to go.





As you can see, my game has undergone lots of changes, both its rules and its graphic design. I am more than satisfied with the final result, and I am already thinking of some bigger expansion, perhaps adding new players, new characters, new buildings… Just get the game and experience for yourself how much fun it brings. I hope you will have as much good time playing as I had designing. Visit Galakta's stand during SPIEL '17 at 2:B130 to check it out!

Dariusz Kułak
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

SPIEL '17 Preview: Cuckooo!, or A Blackjack to the Head

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 14:00

by W. Eric Martin

Every day with every play I relearn the folly of thinking that you can play a game once and understand how it works, especially when you make small rule errors that destroy the effect the designer intended to create. Even if you manage to avoid making such errors in the first place, the second play is almost always better than the first simply because you start the game already embedded in the experience.

The latest game to retransmit this lesson is Cuckooo! from József Dorsonczky and Mind Fitness Games, a card game that will debut at SPIEL '17. I've loved Dorsonczky's Six Making and Hack Trick, both two-player-only games that reward heady thinking and outreading your opponent.

Cuckooo! is for 3-5 players, and your goal each round is to come as close to 21 as you can without going over that total — but don't mistake this game for a Blackjack variant as the two games share only that magic number and nothing more. Each round, you'll sum the numbers on one of the two owl cards in front of you, 0-2 sparrow cards that you play from your hand, and possibly a cuckoo tile that you were forced to take from the table. That cuckoo is your nemesis, but if you literally play your cards right, sometimes the cuckoo can turn out to be your savior.

The game uses a unique deck seven-color deck in which one color has sparrow cards numbered 1-8, another 2-8, another 3-8, and so on up to the seventh color with cards 7 and 8. With four players, you strip out the 8s, and with three you also remove the 7s; this ensures that you deal the cards at the start of the round, each player has exactly seven cards, and you know all the sparrow cards in play. You also start with two randomly dealt owl cards, with these going from 7 to 18. A number of cuckoo tiles equal to the number of players are revealed at random, with these tiles being numbered 1-6.

After looking over your hand, you pass three cards of your choice to the player on your right and collect three cards passed to you. What will you want to pass? You'll have no idea until you've played a few rounds, so just roll with it and learn as you go.

Whoever has the highest card in the longest suit places this card in a discard row, then the player to their left takes the first turn, and on your turn you can:

• Discard a sparrow face down in front of you as part of our flock; you can have at most two sparrows in your flock.

• Discard a sparrow card to the discard row as long as it matches the number or color of the most recently discarded card in this row.

• Discard your entire hand, but only if you cannot discard a card into the discard row; place these cards face up by the cuckoo tiles, then add the highest-valued cuckoo tile to your flock.


Components

Once only one player has cards in hand, this player takes one final action, then everyone reveals their hidden sparrows, discards one of their owls, and sums the value of their flock. Why does this matter? Because you then reveal the topmost card of the magpie deck, an eight-card deck in which cards numbered 17-20 appear twice. If you fail to sum higher than the magpie, then you're out of the round and score nothing; sum higher than 21 and you also get the boot. But if you beat the magpie without going over 21, then you get a share of the magpie's loot, which is 5-7 silver coins depending on the number of players. Anyone who hit 21 exactly gets a special gold coin in addition to some (or all) of the loot.

You then reshuffle the sparrow cards and play three more rounds, with each player drafting a new owl before the round begins. After four rounds, anyone who has collected four gold coins — i.e., hit 21 each time — wins the game immediately. If no one has, then you convert gold coins to silver, and whoever has the highest total wins.

Like Dorsonczky's other designs, gameplay in Cuckooo! is easy to understand, but having some idea of what to do is not. You want to pass cards to your right-hand neighbor that might help you discard cards to the central row so that you can avoid taking a cuckoo, or maybe you want to void your hand of a color so that you can't play and can instead grab a cuckoo, or you want to do a little of both to leave yourself options. I've played only twice on a review copy sent by Mind Fitness Games, both times with three players, so I have no idea for sure right now. Your choices will depend on the cards you hold, the owls in front of you, and the cuckoos — in other words, on everything that's present in the game. Take the entirety of the game, evaluate it, then do the right thing. Good luck!


Artwork on the seven suits

One small error on my part nearly destroyed the game. I missed initially that you had to take the highest-valued cuckoo tile when you discarded your hand, so in the first two rounds of our initial game, we were placing down lots of sparrows, then discarding and grabbing the cuckoo tile we wanted, the one that would boost us to 21. Easy-peasy, but also wrong. (I also overlooked the last player rule, giving them the opportunity to play as they wished, which again made things far too easy.)

Once we started playing with the correct rule — a teensy change from what I initially thought was correct — the game improved a hundredfold and all three of us were tense throughout the round. Suddenly you had to balance all of your plays. Which cuckoo will you collect, if you collect one at all? Which owl will you use? Which sparrows in hand might combine with which cuckoos and which owls to get you to the magic total of 21?

Every time you commit a sparrow to your flock, you're boosting your sum on a one-way path, possibly cutting off future discard possibilities since you have only seven cards in hand, which means you're voiding colors and numbers fairly quickly. You want to time the plays so that you can pocket the sparrows you need and grab the cuckoo you want, but you can't discard your hand if you have discardable cards in it, so what did you give the RHO? Which cards have they played, and which do they still have in hand — except they might have played one to their own flock, which means you can't rely on them to play that pink 3 so that you can discard the pink 4 and stay in the round longer to grab the lower-valued cuckoo since you have owls 16 and 18, so now what?!


Optional action tokens

In our second game, which started immediately after the first, we made smarter plays, paying more attention to which numbers are present in each suit so that you can try to finesse your hand exactly as you need, so that you can discard in the central row and try to influence what others do so that you can hit the next play you want to make. Such plans didn't always pan out, but we now knew the game enough to attempt such things, which is a plus.

We also used the optional action tokens in this second game. When you draft an owl, you take a token as well, and these give you options such as picking up cards passed to you before deciding what you'll pass, or swapping two owls (ideally to stick others with high numbers as those seem to give you little leeway), or looking at magpies to see the target number for the next two rounds. These small tweaks don't make a huge difference in the gameplay, which is all about the challenge you face when you stare at those cards and wonder what you're going to do this time...


Your turn — do something
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Space Freaks

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 08:00

by max wikstrom

My name is Max Wikström, and apart from being a game designer in the Toadkings company, for my day job I work as a freelance set- and lighting-designer for the theater. I've found that the creative processes involved in both jobs complement each other.

As a player, I have enjoyed a wide variety of games from Stratego to Diplomacy, from Chess to M:TG. One of my big favorites was Diplomacy, with which I competed in the European Championships during the mid-1990s. I also have a thirty-year history of active game mastering with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (with modified first version rules). I have had the same group of players since the late 1980s.

My latest game is called Space Freaks, and it will be published in Q4 2017 by Lautapelit.fi and Stronghold Games. It is a 2-4 player tactical combat/skirmish-style board game with a strong sci-fi theme mixed with absurdist humor. Thematically, it might be something like the lovechild of Monty Python and Judge Dredd. One game takes around 60-90 minutes of intensive, fast-moving combat.

Space Freaks is a game with lots of possibilities and a huge variety of "right" decisions. One of the best things is that you can really feel the presence of your enemy from the beginning to the end. Good timing is also crucial when it comes to activating the special equipment and weapons supplied by your team sponsor.




In Space Freaks, each player becomes a coach for a team sponsored by one of four galactic mega-corporations. You first design the perfect freak and clone it into a 3-Freak team, then lead them into the Arena of Annihilation for six rounds of thrilling battle. When your freaks die — and they will die — new ones spawn again in the arena. The team that scores the most points by completing missions, occupying landing-zones, or destroying enemy freaks and bases wins. The coach of the winning team becomes a celebrity (or even a living legend) throughout the galaxy.

Aside from me, the core team for Space Freaks' design and development has been my fellow Toadkings: Markku Laine (who also brings his skills as a graphic designer), Saku Tuominen, and Kare Jantunen. Harri Tarkka has been responsible for the characterful illustrations.





How It All Started, and How the Idea Metamorphosed During the Process

From the first ideas to the ready product is a long journey. The original idea was sparked as early as 2014. It is a very important part of a designing process to have your head open for changes and be ready to re-create the game after each test session.

I got the idea for a board game in a science-fiction setting that combined tactical combat with paranoia. Each player would have secretly built a team of three units, comprised of combinations of troopers, defenders, mechanics or medics. Each team (working for a galactic mega-corporation) would have been locked into the closed surroundings of a space station, abandoned mine, or starship, with rooms, corridors and other places of interest. The goal of the game would have been to first escape the compound, and there might have been different ways to succeed in that.

MarkkuThe part involving paranoia would have been the threats secretly given to the players. This idea remained a component for quite some time, but ended up becoming the mission cards in the final version. This would have made interaction — e.g., the act of trading favors, support, or healing — with other players the key element of the game building a level of paranoia or fear.

After two months of imagining the basic mechanisms of the game, I ended up re-locating the action to an alien planet with a hexagonal grid system, with each player starting from one corner of the map. This open field concept took the design in the direction toward a tactical combat game.

In early 2015, I asked my good friend and fellow Toadking Markku Laine to act as both game and graphic designer, and together we made the first prototype map of Space Freaks / Arena of Annihilation…


First proto map from early 2015

SakuThe Power of a Collective Process

After building up ideas for the prototype, e.g., the map, player game-pieces, markers, and a long list of ideas for blank cards/tokens, I assembled the design group of Markku, Saku, and Kare to attend the first testing/development meeting in February 2015.

Saku is a fellow Toadking and godfather to my four-year-old son Edvin. Saku and I had enjoyed drawing fearsome monsters together in our primary school days. Later came designing games and playing in each other's role-play groups (which is still on-going today and entering its fourth decade).

Markku is also a long-time friend (and also in Saku's D&D group) and a game/graphic designer for Toadkings. Markku did a great job upgrading the graphics of our prototypes throughout the entire design process.

Kare and I have played all sorts of games together over the years, from Machiavelli to Magic: The Gathering. Kare took care of the early versions of the game rules. He is also a master player in Go (four dan Europe).


Mega-corporation icons

The first meeting was a real, creative success, and by the end of the day, we had settled on the idea of a unit (what would later become a Freak) being built up from different body parts and cloned into a three-unit team. We decided that quest cards (later mission cards) could also be played to an opponent, forcing them to take actions in your favor. (In this early version, you would have accrued movement penalties for having more than three quests undone.) We looked into action cards (later sponsor cards) providing special equipment and extra powers. Planetary cards that changed the conditions for the duration of a game round later became Arena-Master cards.


Planetary card proto, Arena Master card final

At this early stage of development, a player could build walls and turrets to defend their base, which in itself was also a turret. The base could have been destroyed and resulted in the player dropping from the game. A player had five pieces of wall at their disposal, two of which contained hidden explosives and two turrets. The game designing process can be very rewarding when abstract ideas start to take shape and slowly the first playable version emerges.


Early player board and quest cards

At first there was no working title, but I knew that it would end up being sci-fi themed. Because of the emphasis being placed on the amassing of body parts, I felt that the look should utilize absurdist humor, while still being a game of serious, tactical combat in the skirmish-style.

I often think of sci-fi having a heavy and sombre feeling to it with its black and dark-blue backgrounds, austere faces, and massive warships. I like that world, too, but I wanted to do something different.




At this initial stage of a game's design, when everything is still makeshift models and a huge pile of messy notes, the most important thing for me is that I get an intuitive feeling of how the game should play out and feel as a ready product. This driving force is essential if one is to endure the very long and often nerve-wracking process of seeing the project to its conclusion because there is always ten times more work than you could have imagined.

Testing, Testing, Testing…

Throughout 2015 and early 2016, the team met twice per month. The evening usually started off by playing the latest version and making notes. We would then make quick changes to the prototype and play through again with more note-taking. After the meeting, I would take the prototype home and spend many long nights cultivating the next version, with Markku upgrading the graphics in tandem.

I feel that one really important facet of game-design is to develop the prototype continuously along the rest of the work. It is such an integral and vital part of the game because it serves as a user-interface for the player. The continuous updating can also help you to know which elements to discard. Some ideas just can't be realized.
As a designer, you go deep into the mechanisms and begin to form strong opinions as you work through the game in your mind's eye. You begin to know all the details by heart. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to test every detail, and patiently make notes for improvements because conflicts arise when a change clashes with other existing rules.

Here are some of the ideas that didn't make it to the final cut:

• The map included a 10x10 grid that allowed for rolling two ten-sided dice that produced a random location for vehicle parts, droid parts, weapon upgrades, independent alien marauders, planetary events, wormholes, and so on. This was quite fun for a time, but the random effect was too strong.

• Collecting ancient/alien tech-tokens either dropped by destroyed aliens/droids or generated from planetary cards could temporarily upgrade your unit range, damage, or movement. What's more, combining three tokens of the same type allowed for the creation of an ultimate body part for your units. Reducing the amount of components ended up taking priority.




• For a long time there were two different kinds of armor: AF ("armor far") that was used against all damage originating from over "range 3", and AC ("armor close") that was used against all damage "range 1-3". We opted for a simplified "armor" statistic, which in turn resulted in the re-balancing of nearly all body parts.

• The penalty of losing movement for having more than three quest cards tabled was interesting when players could play cards to each other (adding paranoia). Forcing opponents to take actions in chosen directions worked well, but it also created a "kingmaker" problem.

• There were also independent aliens/droids that spawned in random locations, always attacking or moving toward the closest target, but again this proved too chaotic.

• More complex "major" quests were allotted to each player secretly at the start of the game that rewarded 5 victory points when completed. These gave the game an added secrecy (and to some extent an extra tactical layer), but we already had four different types of cards.

Development

One of the hardest things in game design is to find an overall balance between the gameplay and the conditions for winning. I wanted to make a game that could be won through skillful play, wherein the random events create an element of surprise, enlivening the replay value.

During testing, we pondered different ways to score victory points, and eventually we discovered the Landing Zone in the middle of the game board. This is a simple, "king-of-the-castle" mechanism that I haven't seen in many other board games. We already had the system to score victory points from mission cards, or from destroying another player's units, but now you could also score points by having units standing in the four, central hexagons at end of your turn. This increased the movement in gameplay, giving players a new direction to move and score points by entering the more open areas of the game board. Damaging other players' home bases became the fourth way of scoring victory points, opening up a huge array of choices to develop one's own tactics in Space Freaks. One final (and fifth) way to score in the end of each player's turn was still to come at this point...




As a player, you don't actually have time to build a game engine within the six rounds of Space Freaks, but you do have a vast amount of choices from unit creation, to the timing in which your cards are revealed, and with choosing tactics and opponents.

The Structure of a Player's Turn

During your turn, first put one of your three mission cards into play, then shoot with your turrets (if applicable). Next, activate your freaks one by one, and during each freak's turn, move the number of hexagons indicated on your leg card. (Some head cards and sponsor cards provide even more movement.) During any part of that movement, you can use your right-hand card weapon to launch one attack. You are also able to use a higher quality weapon from your sponsor cards instead and use any number of non-weapon sponsor cards. Always indicate which freak is using which equipment. At the end of your turn, build more structures if so desired, and finally your dead freaks re-spawn to the Home Base zone.




The player turn has been structured in this way pretty much since the outset. This singular mechanism has always worked very well, and I have been particularly happy that it does not require any dice.



Upgrading the prototype in January 2017

For the system of icons and player boards, we fashioned tens of versions. The challenge was to create as clear a player-interface as possible, and it was hard going. The player board needed to hold a lot of information, starting with the freak template, followed by three freak hit-point totals, plus information regarding all icons. It also needed to include the stats for aliens, droids, turrets, bunkers and the effects of laboratories and healing centers. As the concept developed, we also wanted to display the mega-corporations' names and logos together with some adverts, to flesh out Space Freaks' theme in what is otherwise a rather rule-oriented player board.


Sketch of Arena 2 in November 2016

Player Choices

As a player, you have a wide variety of choices to make each turn. There are many different tactics to consider and always room to create new ones. Most important is to follow the moves of your competitors, and to find your own way to hoard as many victory points as possible during your grueling six rounds.

The head card and freak template naturally dictate much of your game tactics, be they via brute force or stealth, but here are some examples of tactics that have been successfully applied during our test games:

The Second Wind: Play passively during the early game and collect resources from your sponsors, then during the last rounds, time your sprint to the finish.

One-eyed: Secure your home base defenses before beginning a full-frontal assault against one, disadvantaged opponent. Score as many points as possible from that direction.

Unleash Chaos: Forgo your home base, then at the appropriate moment, deploy all freaks (equipped with as effective sponsor cards as possible) behind enemy lines on suicide missions.

Ambush: Protect your freaks with bunkers or turrets or behind rocks, then make surprise attacks on wounded opponents.

Space Freaks Illustrated

When the list of corrections regarding the games mechanisms became short enough, it seemed obvious to begin working on the production design in more detail and get the game into its box.

I contacted illustrator Harri Tarkka in March 2016, and we met up for lunch. I wanted to gauge his interest in the sci-fi genre that I had in mind for Space Freaks. Initially, I suspected that he might have been interested, but when I saw his first sketches of the head dards I was totally convinced that he was our man.

Having a good artistic connection with an illustrator is such a vital part of a game's success. When you get installments of great looking artwork, it motivates you to work on the other aspects of the project. A game's visual setting is such a vital part of making its theme strong and believable.


Zapper, Force Field Generator, Jet Pac and Alien Scythe

In Space Freaks the amount of art and graphic design is huge: 18 head cards, 5 right arms, 6 left arms, 6 torsos, 6 legs, 20 equipment and weapon illustrations for sponsor cards, 35 arena master card illustrations, 27 mission card illustrations, comic strip, box cover and lots, lots more…


Comic strip from the rulebook

Cards in Space Freaks

We have many different cards in Space Freaks. Developing the three decks of sponsor cards, mission cards, and arena master cards was a really big part of the whole game-design process. One of the most time-consuming parts was keeping track of the card details, their synergy and the deck sizes.


Sponsor cards

Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the sponsor deck:

Control alien or droid: Gave a player the power to control another player's alien or droid unit. This card was rejected because one couldn't rely on it tactically.

Counter action: Could counter another player's sponsor card equipment. Playing a trump card during another player's turn seemed to go against the game's mechanisms.

Scout droid: Could spy and look through another player's sponsor cards. This was a fun idea but we found it to be too weak in practice.

Stun pistol and stun grenade: Was a mechanism that froze a freak unit (or even multiple units within grenade range), but it ended up being over-powered and boring, while upsetting the game's balance.


Arena master cards

Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the arena master deck:

Time portal and Accelerate time: These cards altered the amount of game rounds.

Energy conflux: Droids and turrets were stunned for one round, and new structures could not be built.

Putrid fog: Vision (and therefore weapon range) dropped to two hexagons. Freaks that were constructed around a melee template gained too high advantage.

Alien virus: Healing centers did not function for one round. Again this was too weak in practice.


Mission cards

Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the mission deck:

Build turrets and bunkers: At some point we wanted more structures on the game board, but when we changed the cost of building it became obsolete.

Use wormhole: Originally there were more wormholes in play, but still this was too situational to function as a mission.

Annihilate mission (version 2): There was a special mission that gave the possibility of acquiring multiple sponsor cards when you killed different opponents' freaks.

Box Cover

Excluding the game itself, perhaps the most important marketing element of a board game is the box. How does one attract your target audience? How do you deliberately attempt to tell a book by its cover?

Harri had already sketched the body parts and many of the card illustrations, so we were already in-sync artistically when it came time to plan the box's design. At this point, we were also getting input from our experienced publisher, which added yet another layer to the process.

It was quite obvious that we would need at least one freak unit on the cover. I wanted to have a neutral (i.e., human) head for the cover-freak because choosing one of the other head designs might have created a false impression (e.g.; a robot head implies a game about robots).




During this time we were also developing the 3D models of the plastic figures, and I came up with the idea of the astronaut helmet to create the generic impression of a freak's head. Eighteen different heads simply wouldn't have been possible. We used the same concept with the box cover, where the broken helmet depicts a concealed head underneath.

One eureka moment for me was when Harri showed me the first color designs containing a beautiful, pink sky together with a warm, brownish landscape. I had decided earlier not to use the classic deep-blue or black surroundings typically associated with sci-fi. I really think Harri did a tremendous job!




3D Design

I was sure from the start that our game would require plastic figures, and that is always an expensive and complex process. First, one has to convince the publisher that figures are the only solution, then one has to create a solid design that works.




HarriWe worked on a lot of retro-space, reference material and designed the freak unit, alien and droid with Harri. Then we got help from our fellow Toadking, Sami Saramäki, who created the 3D models and gave them their finishing touches. I wanted the spirit of the figures to be a combination of both serious and humorous elements at the same time.




Ropecon 2016

As the gameplay of Space Freaks started to become more and more fluent, it became obvious that we needed others to help test our game and give feedback. We had a middle-term goal to present the game at Helsinki's 2016 Ropecon, with which we were familiar, knowing that there would be many eager testers.

We went with prepared leaflets that posed ten questions about Space Freaks gameplay, and we were lucky to get more than fifty completed forms containing valuable feedback. There were questions about overall game mechanisms, game balance and space for comment on particular cards, the game board, and game components. We had had people from outside of our core group trying out the game before Ropecon, but it is always great to make first contact with random players.




It was really a pleasure to again witness the enthusiasm of the gamer community, and how they are ready to take part in somebody else's design process by contributing long answers to questions and imparting their firsthand impressions.

After Ropecon, we had three development rounds to upgrade both the game and all three of the existing prototypes, which we then passed on to blind testers Maja Stanislawska and Jouni Ilola. With a project of this size, it is really a challenge to create an accurate prototype, one in which the rules and components are so clear that strangers are capable of testing the game fully without assistance.

Approaching Our Publisher, Lautapelit

May 2016 was the point when we had our first, boxed version of Space Freaks ready, so I asked Toni Niittymäki from Lautapelit for a meeting and test-play.

It is always exiting to meet with a publisher and present the prototype of your new game — but when is the best time to do that? How ready should one be with the project really?

I don't know if there's a correct answer, but I do believe that if one intuitively has the feeling that the gameplay is fluent, and that one can answer questions off the top of one's head about the game dynamics, then one is practically there. It also helps to have a picture about what kind of features might interest the publisher.

We signed a contract with Lautapelit in late 2016 to release Space Freaks at SPIEL '17, and I am delighted to say that again our co-operation has been most supportive and creative. It is just wonderful to work with a publisher who shares the same love towards our common goal, and it was through Lautapelit that we also secured a respected American publisher, Stronghold Games, to participate with Space Freaks. Awesome!

Blind Testing

Blind testing is a vital part of the game-design process and should be done as often as possible. In hindsight, we could have undertaken even further blind testing, but we nonetheless ended up making important changes from the resulting feedback. I particularly want to give special thanks to Jyrki Castrén for his thorough, fine-combing through all of the game's details and his sharp observations. Here are some corrections that were applied after blind testing:

• Strike icons were added to right-hand weapon cards, and also to sponsor card weapons, in order to clarify that there are two, different damage types.

• The regeneration head card had a +2 hit point per round instead of a +2 heal per round; this would have been a troublesome mistake.

• Alien and droid statistics were slightly different on the player boards than in the rulebook. (Player boards were also missing Strike icons.) This would have created a lot of confusion.




The Space Freaks Universe and the Arena-Master Character

MikkoFleshing out the back story for Space Freaks was interesting. Having so much else on my plate, I was fortunate to receive help from my fellow Toadking, Mikko Punakallio, and good friend Benjamin Vary who is a native, English speaker.

In a matter of weeks in late 2016, we created the background for the mega-corporations and the Arena-Master — a living trophy attached to his body in the form of Myron Musclehead. The Arena-Master is a kind of combined referee come Godfather of the Arena of Annihilation, calling the shots for each unique round while mascot Myron carps away.

Initially, I jotted down some basic ideas for absurdist mega-corporations, purposely choosing lots of cliché elements because they are precisely the ones that lend themselves most easily to humor.

I wanted there to be an independent droid corporation called the Ion Brotherhood, an alien swarm called Zeraxis, and an old, corrupt empire of humans called the Talar Barony. Originally, the fourth faction was a military corporation, but then I was happy to receive an idea from our publisher to use one of the Eclipse races, the Orion Hegemony. Mikko then developed more ideas for the next versions.

For the Orion Hegemony background, it was fun to inject some humorous, personal touches not only about us the game designers, but also relating to our publisher — namely, inside jokes pertaining to aging, fanatical geeks.

I then wanted to make the front side of the player boards a bit lighter graphically, so I created corresponding products for each corporation to be used as adverts. Each corporation also got a team-name:





Chilling at the Publisher

We had the great opportunity to further our test-play at invitation-only game evenings hosted by our publisher. The honest, constructive, and at times tough feedback made for some valuable changes to the game's balance. Here are some of the last improvements made to the Space Freaks rules:

• Adding +1 movement point to each leg card was instrumental in speeding up gameplay.
• Creating "last dash" victory points, awarded for running to opponents' home base zones during your last turn, added another tactical level to the endgame.
• One of the bunkers was omitted from gameplay while the remaining bunker was strengthened, now with the additional possibility for your dead units to spawn inside it.
• Scrapped the rule whereby the X-ray gun wouldn't be affected by retaliation power.
• The overall game-round total was reduced by one, but the game was still long enough to enable a player to win from behind.




Finalizing the Rulebook

Lastly, one crucial component of game design is to create a rulebook that's clear and easy to use. I want to thank our publisher for giving us the opportunity to work with Paul Grogan (Gaming Rules!) who finalized our rules' phrasing and structure. Over a six-week period, there was continuous updating of rules and card texts via email and Skype, resulting in a huge improvement.

Production Design

The production design element of Space Freaks contained more detailed decision-making than could have been imagined. Very often, the publisher handles this stage, but I wanted Toadkings to be involved as much as possible. It could be argued that the last 10% of the project is actually 90% of the work. Ultimately it took a small team: Markku Laine (Toadkings’ graphic designer), Jere Kasanen (Lautapelit), and myself. Here are just some examples of the many elements that fall under production design:

• The layout of the rulebook was a huge undertaking. Innumerable versions spread over different page amounts.
• Examining the available sizes for wooden components, then the Pantone colors for both wooden and plastic components.




• Upon settling on the orange-brown color for the game board, we opted for non-primary colors for the mega-corporations and their accessories.
• Finalizing the graphic design details for all the cards in their different decks. For example, which card printing/cutting techniques might best apply to cards of a particular size.
• Designing an economical layout for the punchboards.
• The design of the back of the box with its various texts and sample pictures/photographs.




Looking back, I can honestly say that despite all of the hard work, the result was immensely satisfying.

It has been a great ride to create this board game, and I'll be spending most of the SPIEL '17 festival at booth number 3:L116 answering your questions and holding test games with my colleagues Kare Jantunen and Saku Tuominen. Illustrator Harri Tarkka will also accompany us some of the time. I look forward to seeing you all!

Let's get to the Arena of Annihilation and freak out!

Max Wikström


There are 19440 possible combinations of a finished freak
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

WizKids Signs Licensing Deal with Games Workshop

Thu, 10/19/2017 - 09:37

by W. Eric Martin

In case the early 2018 release of Warhammer 40,000: Heroes of Black Reach from Devil Pig Games (as detailed here) won't satisfy your desire for games set in a far-flung ultra-violent future, you're in luck as WizKids has announced a multi-year partnership with Games Workshop that will "extend the Warhammer 40,000 universe IP across multiple categories, including Dice Building Games™, board games and more!"

Here's the rest of the press release from WizKids, which indicates that the publisher has a license for more than just Warhammer 40,000:

"We're thrilled to be working with Games Workshop and the Warhammer 40,000 license," said Justin Ziran, president of WizKids. "This beloved franchise is known the world over and our partnership will allow us to create amazing products and experiences for fans everywhere."

The multi-year deal will span numerous categories and include the most iconic Warhammer 40,000 characters and more. WizKids will create two new board games, along with dice games based in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with additional plans to republish classic board games Fury of Dracula and Relic.

WizKids will begin rolling out the new product lines in mid 2018.
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: Boom, Bang, Gold, or From the Spark to the Dynamite!

Thu, 10/19/2017 - 08:00

by Emerit Alexandre

My name is Alex, and I live in France, fifty miles south of Paris. I have been playing board games for more than fifteen years, falling in love back then with gems like Puerto Rico and Euphrat and Tigris, but it is only recently that I took the plunge and started designing my own games. At the end of 2017, it is with a lot of emotion and a bit of fear that I will see the release of my first game in stores: Boom, Bang, Gold. I take advantage of this little diary to tell you more about this wonderful adventure.

Boom was my second prototype. I started it during mid-2015, when it was then called "Gold Fever in Ghost Town". As a beginner in game design, I thought that it was probably wise to start creating with simple concepts and rules as it would be easier to get them out of my head, build the prototype, test to see if they work, and tweak. Well, that approach has a major drawback as you have to find an idea that stands out.

For "Gold Fever", I wanted to make a fast game that can appeal to a large public, a game that has simple rules, and most especially one in which you play with the box. (I love games like Château Roquefort, The Magic Labyrinth, Niagara, and Kayanak to name some classics.) I wondered what I could do differently. My brain grinded for several weeks until this key moment, almost magically (as you never know when, why, or how such ideas happens), when the idea came of shaking and hitting the game box. The spark is this idea of a mechanism: Players would have to hit the bottom of the box with one of their fists to make the tokens inside the box "jump".

All I would need to try it out is a box and a hundred tokens.

With this mechanism came instantly an idea of theme. Players would be in the far west, and hitting the box would mimic the effect of dynamite revealing gold in a mine. The tokens would all have one side with stones and the other side would be more stones or gold or a bonus.

In more detail, at the start of a game, one player throws a handful of gold and bonus tokens in the box, along with tokens that have stones on both sides. Another player takes the game box, shakes it, then opens it — then at the same time all the players try to grab any revealed gold and bonuses. Among these bonuses would be dynamite, and the player who grabs it gets to hold the box with one hand and hit it on the underside with their other hand so that it would reveal more gold that only they can take. Hmm, this sounds fun and looks like a good starting track. I try to put aside this "far west" theme to think of another one, but no, the transplant took too well. It's impossible to find something that would fit better with this mechanism. Even so, for the moment it's all just in my head.


The first ideas for "Gold Fever"

This idea seems promising, but it's only an idea. It's time to get to work and create the first prototype. Hmm, this is one of the most critical moments of game design because it takes a lot to get from an idea to a game you can pitch to a publisher. With this game, for example, it was at least two days of work to have a first prototype (find the visuals, create the material on my computer, print and cut with scissors from the thick cardboard about 160 tokens, etc.) — and nothing says that in the end it will work. But for this prototype, it was worth it. I had my first tests, and "oh joy", the game works right away. It's simple and quick, and my testers are having fun and want to play it more. It also has a little taste of transgression as we players are not accustomed to hitting our game boxes and throwing tokens up to two meters from our gaming table.

Well, the game is not perfect and there are still a few points to review, especially in the game sequences. For example, by placing all the gold tokens at the start, players exhaust all the gold in three rounds and the next rounds are boring. My new idea is to add gold tokens to the box three times, and a player doesn't have to be exact when doing this; they just grab a handful of tokens and throw them in. Thus, three gold veins will be discovered around Ghost Town.

One month after the first spark (and a lot of playtests), I have a game that is worth showing to a wider audience. Even better, I have a nice box cover, thanks to Yann, a person I met through a game design forum on the famous French board game website Tric Trac.


Box cover of the first prototype

My first public presentation of the prototype was done during a board game design contest in October 2015. Thirty prototypes entered this contest, with the public rating the games. That night, I was lucky enough to win. The contest took place on Friday night, the opening day of a board game convention in Angers. As the winner, I had my own table to show the prototype all weekend during the con — and this was a blast. More than a hundred players came to play my game, and some even came back with friends and family. I also had the fortune to meet some publishers.


Demoing at Prélude, the Angers' game design contest

After this weekend, the game is now in the hands of a few publishers. Rather than wait without doing anything — because patience is one of the first qualities that a beginning board game designer must learn — in October 2015, I sent the rules in English to HABA in Germany. And then, just to make a liar out of me, only three weeks later I receive a message from HABA in my inbox: "We have read your rules, the game seems fun, please can you send us a prototype. We need between 20 and 24 weeks to review it." So I sent them a prototype and started to wait again — for real this time.

In the meantime, the first negative responses from other publishers arrived: "The game is fun, but it needs a box too big for our line", and so on. To not lose patience and morale, I started working on other designs. In March 2016, HABA tells me that they still love the game and I am on a short list of sixty(!) games selected for further playtesting and that to bring me good luck, I have to keep my fingers crossed!

Then began a long wait, with the final answer initially planned for June 2016 ("but keep your fingers crossed"), then July 2016 (and I start to cross my toes, too), then August 2016 (and I get a tattoo of crossed fingers on my forearm).




Finally, the positive answer from HABA arrived in October 2016, and for me, it was like the explosion of a stick of dynamite.

Even better, the game would part of their new family line with Karuba, Meduris, and the new Iquazù. What's more, the game was slightly modified by HABA during these months of playtesting. No more shaking or hitting is needed as the box now includes a clever "trampoline" made of cardboard as well as sticks of dynamite to throw directly into the box. Very nice inspiration from HABA's development team!


Final components: the cardboard trampoline allows the dynamite to make the tokens jump

The rest of this story is nothing but pure joy: working on the rules, discovering the first illustrations and components, punching out the components of my first game with my family, meeting the people at HABA France, and going with my family to SPIEL to celebrate the launch of my first game with HABA Germany. Boom, bang, gold!

Alexandre Emerit


Punching out the components with my kids
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

New Game Round-up: Find the Replicant in Blade Runner 2049, Find New Keepers in L5R, and Find Your Wallet to Meet Your Destiny

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 08:00

by W. Eric Martin

Let's take a break from the recent stream of designer diaries to recap some of the non-SPIEL '17 game announcements that have occurred:

Fantasy Flight Games has invited you to sell a kidney or two to keep up-to-date with Star Wars: Destiny, which will see two new starter sets — Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett — released in Q1 2018, along with the Legacies series of 160 cards that will be sold in booster packs.

On top of these items, FFG has Star Wars: Destiny – Rivals Draft Set, a supplemental set of cards and dice that is meant to enable competitive drafting of Star Wars: Destiny. To draft, each player opens three Star Wars: Destiny booster packs of any type, combines the cards, drafts one, passes the pack, drafts one, etc. You repeat this for a second set of three packs, passing cards right. Then you supplement the thirty cards you drafted with the contents of a Rivals Draft Set, which contains an assortment of cards and dice that are meant to fill out a deck and support whatever you were trying to do in the draft.

• In addition to that money vacuum, FFG is following the launch of Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game in early October with a luscious wave of content, specifically one new "Dynasty Pack" a week starting in early November 2017 until all six chapters of the "Imperial Cycle" have been released. If you want to build up a world quickly, I guess that's one way to do it. FFG has lots of preview picks from the packs on its website.




• In a vain attempt to keep up with FFG's output, WizKids has announced four releases for early 2018, starting with a North American version of Johannes Schmidauer-König's Team Play, which Schmidt Spiele debuted in 2015. In this card game for 3-6 people, players try to draft and pass cards with a teammate so that they can individually complete face-up goals on the table and move their team to victory.

• That title is due out in January 2018 along with Blade Runner 2049: Nexus Protocol, which bears this description and no designer name in the solicitation:

In Blade Runner 2049: Nexus Protocol, detectives, citizens, and Rick Deckard compete to figure out who is a replicant posing as a human. They know that one of them is a replicant, but not even the replicant knows who they are.

In this deduction game, you use your influence to meet contacts, gather information, and reveal evidence to identify the replicant. If you discover that you are the replicant, you have to scramble to conceal your identity and avoid early retirement.

Will you find the replicant, or will you be retired?

• February 2018 should see the debut of Richard Yaner's Dark.net, wth the game seemingly inspired by all the sci-fi I read back in the late 1980s:

The tech-future which mankind has been working towards is finally upon us! Sadly, the tech-future is not all we thought it was cracked up to be; technology couldn't save us from ourselves, and there are no hoverboards or floating cars in sight. Contrary to our hopes and dreams, four mega-corporations dominate and dictate every aspect of our lives.

In Dark.net, players intercept transmissions to gain valuable information via their data network. Players use fences to buy and sell information so they can boost their ability to gather even more information, all in the service of acquiring reputation. To boost their reputation, players will accrue credits, extend their network, hire informants, install network boosters, and make contacts. Have more reputation than anyone else at game's end, and you win.

• Also due in February 2018 is a new version of Charlie Price's Kung Fu Zoo, a dice-flicking game that he demoed in the BGG booth during Origins 2016 when he was self-publishing the game. That version had a wood board, while the WizKids production will not in order to keep the MSRP at $40. Here's an overview of the game:

Youtube Video
Categories: Gaming News and Notes

Designer Diary: The Masters' Trials: Wrath of Magmaroth, or Two Designers' Trials to Go from a City to a Dungeon

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 08:05

by Vangelis Bagiartakis

The following was also posted in parts on AEG's website.

In The Beginning

Vangelis Bagiartakis (VB): After designing Dice City, I knew that the "dice-crafting" mechanism it had could find many uses in other games as well. That’s why, even before Dice City was actually released, I began to explore other options to see where I could go with this "system" I had come up with.

At its core, the mechanism in Dice City is about "crafting" your dice. Each die is represented by six cards (one for each side) and by placing new cards on your board, possibly on top of existing cards, you are effectively changing the faces of your die. As a concept, this could theoretically apply to all kinds of games that use dice.

The idea that I initially wanted to explore was that of a dungeon-crawler. Going with that idea would also define the first characteristic of the game: This would be a cooperative game (as opposed to the competitive nature of Dice City). The players would not compete with each other, but would work together instead. In turn, this would allow the core mechanism to be tweaked a bit to give players the option to interact more with each other. For example, you could spend one of your dice to move one of another player's if needed.

Another key characteristic also came from the theme. Since the dice would correspond to various attributes of the characters (like speed, combat, magic, etc.), why have a single board for all of them and not separate ones? If one die, for example, was the race, another one the class, another the weapon, etc., why not allow the possibility of mixing-and-matching? Not only would this increase replayability, it made perfect sense with the theme as each player would be able to create their own character as in a role-playing game, a hero with the attributes they'd want.

I made a rough prototype and started testing the idea. I sketched some rooms with tiles, I came up with rules for their placement, I made a few quick enemies and some simple player abilities and started playing. Although way too early in the process, the experience was fun and I knew this could lead to something good. To check whether I was on the right track, I showed the prototype to some people and explained the concept behind it. EVERYONE loved the idea behind the modular boards. It was really cool and seemed very promising. However, they weren't thrilled with the dungeon board. As one friend put it: "There are actually two games on the table. One here (pointing to the player boards with the dice and the character abilities) and one there (pointing to the board with the mock-up enemies)." There was simply too much stuff going on for the game to be viable. Not only would it be insane production-wise — tons of boards, cards, miniatures, etc. with less than half of the game being more than all of Dice City — it would also ask a lot from the players, especially in their first games.

Thus, a decision was made to make the "dungeon-crawling" a bit simpler. Perhaps just cards that would be drawn or something along those lines in order to keep the focus on the advancement of the character in front of you.

So the goals of the game were more or less set:

• Dungeon-crawling theme
• Cooperative game
• Modular player boards (and as a consequence variable player powers)
• Relatively simple (card-based perhaps?) mechanism for the dungeon/enemies
• Multiple paths to victory

And that's how this journey began…

The Designers' Trials

With the goals in place, I started exploring how the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game would work. Around that time, my friend Tassos (whose full name is Anastasios, but we call him Tassos) got the chance to see the rough prototype in action and loved the idea. He has vast (and when I say vast, I mean vaaaaaaast) experience in role-playing games, so when he expressed interest in helping with the game, I immediately agreed to bring him on board. His experience would prove to be very important while designing the game.

Anastasios Grigoriadis (AG): I've loved the idea of dice-crafting since the beginning. I'm a huge fun of Dice City and I've worked successfully in the past on many projects with Vangelis, so when I actually put into the basket the words "dice-crafting", "RPG" and "Bagiartakis", I knew that this would be an awesome journey!

Attempt 1

VB: For our first attempt, we took the rough version I had initially made and tried to adapt it. Since we were working with cards, the "dungeon" became more abstract. The enemies would be cards that would be placed on rows, simulating enemies coming to you in a dungeon corridor.

The player boards represented the characters and the first problem we had to deal with was what the players' "resources" were going to be. In the first rough prototype I had gone with Strength, Dexterity, Mana, Cunning and Movement. For this version, some changes needed to be made (like the removal of movement as it no longer made sense) and we ended up with Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Mana and Defense. The goal was to have each player be able to specialize in one and pursue a different strategy.

Regarding the enemies, each monster would give you XP after being killed and you would spend those to upgrade your character with new cards (abilities).

AG: Basically we needed to create a board game that would simulate an RPG session in an hour. You live your adventure, you gather experience, and you upgrade your character. Sounds simple, but it is not.




VB: We did some playtests with this version, and while there was some potential in it, there were many things bugging us. The most important one was the resources.

AG: We knew from the beginning that Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Magic and Defense were not working as resources, but we had to start with something to reach our goal. The basic problems were:

• Melee Damage and Ranged Damage were almost the same thing.
• Magic was essentially the only attribute that you could call a resource as it was producing mana, but again only to do damage.
• Defense had the same problem as Damage as it was not a resource to be spent.

In other words the main problem was that there was no economy based on the resources that players gathered and needed to spend in order to achieve goals and upgrade their player boards. In a sense, we had only Damage, which was not enough to build a game around.

VB: Defense was the most awkward of all the attributes. It didn't help you win; it just prevented the damage you would be getting. While it could be important in the game — for example, a character could play the role of the "tank" and absorb damage while the rest of the players would attack the enemies — it wasn't very fun to play with and it also wasn't a viable strategy on its own. You couldn't play solo and win just with a "defender".

This inconsistency in the resources also made creating new abilities problematic. While it was normal to say "I have five mana", it was weird to say "I have five Melee Damage". Damage should be the outcome of your actions, not something you accumulate to spend. What's more, the way mana worked also had a few issues. The spells you had on your character required mana to be used. That meant that not only did you have to land on them, you also had to land on mana-producing spaces with your other dice to cast them — double the work for something that should be much simpler.

We knew we could do better, so we decided to start from scratch and try a different approach.

Attempt 2

VB: For our second attempt, we decided to examine everything from the beginning. The basic goals were still there, but the approach could be anything we wanted; we wouldn't be tied to the previous version. The brainstorming started with what was creating the most problems last time: the resources. They had to be thematic and fit with the dungeon-crawling theme, and they had to allow for different strategies. A fighter and a wizard, for example, would focus on different ones, but they should both be able to defeat enemies and win the game somehow.

AG: When something doesn't work, you go back to basics. The goal now was that each player would chose a different class — basic archetypes: fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue — and all together would fight the big bad boss at the end of the game. We agreed on Combat, Dexterity, Magic, Holy, and Cunning as the resources that would be used based on what the characters could produce and what they would need to defeat the monsters. Those five attributes could create various combos and thus different sets of actions for each class, allowing each player to interact in different ways with the monsters.




VB: For the monsters, we decided to go with a very different approach. Enemy cards would be drawn each round and they would have three options on them: Evade, Push, Defeat. Evade (which would require few resources) would allow the players to prevent the damage the monster would deal. Push (costing slightly more) would be a temporary solution to the problem; you would scare the monster away, but you would have to deal with it later. Finally, Defeat would be a permanent solution; it would get rid of the monster forever but would require the most resources to do it.

The concept behind this approach was that each monster would ask for different "resources" on each level, which in turn would allow each character to deal with them differently. Some of the monsters, for example, would require a lot of Combat in order to be defeated, which the fighter would be able to easily provide. The wizard, on the other hand, would have a hard time defeating them through combat, but would be able to drive them away via Magic or just evade them. Similarly, against monsters like ghosts Combat would be useless but Magic or Holy would be very useful. Depending on how you dealt with each monster, you would draw cards that would be the upgrades for the players' characters.




When the final boss would appear, it would be accompanied by all the monsters the players pushed. It would have to be dealt with differently compared to the monsters, but the players would still be provided with some options (so that each class would have a chance against it).

AG: This implementation was closer to what we wanted and the feeling was much better. Now the players were focusing on how to advance their characters and how to interact with the monsters which was closer to the basic concept of dice-crafting: roll the dice, do something (in our case: fight the monsters), upgrade your character.




VB: We did numerous playtests with this build, but once again the actual game turned out differently compared to what sounded cool in theory. If you made the monsters easy to defeat for one class, the others would struggle too much. If we made monsters meant to be defeated by all classes (containing different combinations of all the resources), then every class would struggle since they wouldn't be able to produce everything. Therefore, there would be enemies that could not be defeated and would have to either be evaded constantly or driven away, only to make it even harder to win at the end.

AG: Welcome to asymmetric balancing! In RPGs, every player usually has a different role that works in different ways from the others. Players should feel important during the game no matter the role they play, and characters must be balanced and (most importantly) feel balanced even when they do totally different things. RPGs usually are played in groups of 4-5 players plus a narrator, and in my groups when someone is missing, we play a board game or do something else because the absence of that player will have a significant impact in our game.

Board games accommodating 2-4 players, on the other hand, must give the same gaming experience whether you play it with two or four players. That means that with two players you are lacking two characters and what they bring to the party. Usually this is not a problem, but when a game wants to be theme-driven and has different roles, then you have issues that need to be addressed.

Another issue was the resources that our characters were producing. Although closer to our goal, the economy of the game was again not solid. Removing a class was weakening a resource. The classes that were played were trying to match up the lack of other classes but not very effectively, and that lead to weaker characters overall, characters that could not interact in a proper way with the game.

VB: Essentially what we had was not necessarily resources but different types of attacks. It still was a bit weird to say "I get five Holy", but if everything else played all right, we would have worked with it. Unfortunately, everything else didn't play like we wanted. Players weren't as excited as we'd like, and it gave the impression that it was lacking something.

Back to the drawing board…

Attempt 3

VB: Once again, we started from scratch and again the brainstorming focused on the resources. We knew that it was the most crucial part of the game, and if we could fix that, the rest would easily follow from the theme. We needed resources that you could gather, resources that made sense having a lot of them, that it was intuitive to say "I have three of X". Up to now, the only one that came close to that description was mana. With that as a basis, we decided to explore the option of having different types of mana. We could go the "elemental warrior" path which would mean four different types of mana: earth, fire, water, air. The players' abilities would then all be spells, each requiring different mana and focusing on different aspects. This also meant a change in the theme. Instead of "sword-and-sorcery" fantasy, we would go to eastern fantasy with a focus on the elements and different types of magic. That was not necessarily a bad thing since sword-and-sorcery has been overused in gaming and something different would look more appealing.

As far as the mechanisms were concerned, we also tried another approach. Dice City had a system with three resources and it worked. You would spend those resources to get new cards on your board (which in turn did not require resources to use them). You could also use those resources to get closer to winning (Trade Ships). The abilities you got would grant you other things (like Army strength or VP) which would also lead you to win through other means. Was there a way this approach could be applied to this game? Why try to re-invent the wheel when you have something that works well?


Fire, Earth, Water, Air: The four types of mana we used

We started with the abilities. Each would cost an amount of mana to "build" on your character just like in Dice City. Some of these abilities would generate damage which would be used against minions, a similar approach to the army strength and the minions of Dice City. This covered one way to win, but there needed to be more. An interesting thought we had was of large spells with a big effect for which you had to spend a big amount of mana in order to cast them. This was something similar to the way Trade Ships in Dice City made use of resources. In the end, we changed it a bit and instead of them being spells, we had the cards represent Magical Seals that granted abilities to the boss, making it uber-powerful. You would be able to break these Seals before reaching the boss, thus weakening it enough to kill it more easily. That added another strategy. Could we do one more?

Dice City also has the cultural strategy, that is, building locations that don't do something when you land on them as they just grant you many victory points. Since we wanted to have a rogue-like character, we combined the two and ended up with another strategy: What if you were able to search the dungeon you were in and come up with magical artifacts? You would add them to your character and they would grant passive abilities (like deal one damage for free wherever you want, get free mana, etc.). It made sense thematically, and if you were to focus on it, you would become powerful enough to overcome even the boss.

So the basis of the game was this:

• Players explore a dungeon, and each round they are in a different area/room.
• They are attacked by minions which they need to destroy.
• They can search the rooms they are in to find artifacts.
• They can break magical seals that make the boss very powerful.
• After a finite amount of time, they come upon the boss and they must destroy it.

AG: Abandoning the classic path of fantasy RPGs was the right call, and it was not the only one. Keeping basic mechanisms from Dice City actually solved most of our problems. This greatly affected the way we designed the game: If we wanted to have different roles, equally important in the game, we needed to create different ways to interact with it.

In the end, we had four different types of resources and three key characteristics that players advanced in to interact with the game: Damage, Insight and Health. Based on that, we instantly knew that we had created four distinctive roles in the game:

The character that would focus on damage — They would deal with the minions and apply a lot of pressure to the final boss, despite it being very powerful.
The character that would focus on gathering mana — They would break the boss' seals and make it much weaker.
The character that would focus on items — They would search each room, getting a lot of magical artifacts that would "work on their own". Effectively that character would become "Robocop" (as Vangelis used to joke) before getting to the boss, dealing damage and generating mana without even needing to roll the dice.
The character that would focus on the group's Health — They wοuld ensure that the party would reach the boss in good-enough shape to have a chance of defeating it.

Although this is almost the classic archetype of fantasy RPG with wizard, fighter, rogue and cleric, our characters were using different types of mana that they needed to produce and spend in different ways to activate their cool powers.




VB: After some tests, it was clear we were on the right path. Going with mana solved all the problems we had with resources, and the different paths to explore made each character unique and interesting to play with. That was obviously the way to go.

Achieving Mastery

VB: With the game's basics in place, it was now time to deal with the difficult part: the details. The first thing to do was define our setting and the exact way the resources would work. Having played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, I was aware of the importance of a "color wheel". Each type of mana should have its own identity. It would be associated with certain things, and the various classes would have different access to it.

For example, fire mana would be used mainly for abilities that caused damage, while water would be used mainly for healing. The earth mana would be associated with mana generation/conversion, while air would be used to stun/disorient the opponent along with searching the rooms.

Since we had shifted to elemental warriors, we spent quite some time examining what the races should be. At some point we realized that in the theme we had chosen, it made more sense to go with monastic Orders instead of races.

AG: Every resource should be used differently inside the game, but at the same time they should all have equal value: Fire=Air=Water=Earth. In the color wheel, no resource is above any other. All are equal, but at the same time they have a different impact on the "world". Also, based on the wheel we could safely say that:

• Fire is the opposite of Water
• Earth is the opposite of Air




VB: What we needed to settle on pretty early was how the "mix-and-match" of the boards was going to work. In other words, what was each part of your board (class/order/weapon) bringing to the table? What abilities would they have?

This was important because we wanted every combination to be viable. However, that was harder than it sounded. We had assigned some characteristics to each type of mana and as a result, each class was focused on one of them (based on the same characteristics). But what about the Orders? If we also focused the Orders on the types of mana, then there would be certain combinations that would be way more advantageous. The other important aspect that we needed to nail down was what exactly their abilities would be. The abilities between all three separate boards needed to be distinct to let them have their own identity. If we were going to focus the damage-related abilities on the fire-class, then what would go on an Order ability? And how would we make them feel different?

After a lot of brainstorming and many playtests, we settled on this: What would define each character would be the class. That's where most of the abilities that would determine each strategy would be. Then the Orders would all have the same abilities but in different quantities. Each Order would be focused on two of the mana types, and it would offer higher quantities of the abilities that required them. It would still have the rest of the abilities (in small quantities) to give access to everyone if they so wanted.

This solution offered some important advantages:

• The Orders had focus but were not limiting the class you could match them with.
• Having the same abilities in all of the Orders made learning the game easier as you had less information to overwhelm you when trying a different combination.
• It gave us more flexibility with the design of the classes' abilities. We didn't have to worry about putting a new ability on an order.
• When combining a class with an order that focused on other types of mana, it allowed you to play the same character differently and do new things. That was exactly what we wanted in the first place!

AG: In RPGs, the races are actually templates that can be used to alter the way classes are played, e.g., Elf Warrior and Half Orc Warrior. This was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the Orders. In our game, our heroes are trained differently in each Monastery Order. They all share a basic training but focus on a different path and obtain a different mastery. In game terms, we needed to create a pool of abilities that would be bound to a certain color, then distributed to each Order based on their focus. It was again harder than we thought because we needed to create four universal (for our game) thematically driven powers. If I remember correctly, all but one changed — some of them more than once!

We also did another cool thing with the Orders. We added a static ("ongoing") ability to each of them, which we called "Masteries". Each Order's mastery is unique, and they give a special ability that actually changes the way a player interacts with the game.

VB: The next problem that we had to solve was that of scaling. Changing the numbers of minions drawn each round or the seals that the players would have to break was the easy part. The biggest problem was elsewhere, rooted in the game's design.

The "threat" in the game consisted of mainly two parts: the minions drawn each round, and the boss at the end. The minions would have to take damage in order to be defeated, which meant having the fighter-class (which we ended up naming "Avenger") was crucial. The boss, on the other hand, was made powerful through the seals that needed mana in order to be broken, which made the mana generating-class (a.k.a., the "Mystic") very important. But what about the other two? What were they adding to the game? Moreover, if the first two classes were that crucial, was there a point into playing the other two races in a two-player game?

We considered various solutions to this problem. One thought we had was to dictate the exact classes that the players would get at each player count. Unfortunately, that was a very bad solution as it meant that certain classes would never be played in a two-player game and it made them feel like lower-class citizens.

What we needed was for the classes to be equal. Each of them should be able to hold its own and be fully playable, offering a different experience/playing style. They should all have equal chances of beating the game, regardless of the players' combinations.




AG: One of the most important things that we try to keep in mind when developing a game is that the number of players must not affect the experience you get from a game. In RPGs, the narrator reveals the challenge of the party following certain rules, e.g., how many are playing and what their current level is, thus keeping the session challenging. In board games, we have plenty of examples where the number of turns, the number of VP that you need to score, or the number of foes and obstacles change based on the number of players. In our case, this was more complex since classes have equal roles in the game but are totally different at the same time:

The Avenger• All classes can do damage but none can be as good as the Avenger.
• All classes can generate mana but none can be as good as the Mystic.
• All classes can heal themselves but none can sustain an entire party as well as the Warden.
• All classes can try to search rooms and improve their characters with artifacts but none is as good as the Loremaster.

We decided that since the class affects the way our players interact with the game, then the challenge rating would be created by two things:

• The minions (in quality and numbers) are generated by the classes that participate in a game.
• The seals (in quality and numbers) are generated by the number of players that are playing.

VB: The main problem in scaling was the minions drawn. If the Avenger was in play, things were easy as he would deal with them and everyone else would be able to advance their character as needed to achieve their own goals: the Mystic would add mana-generating abilities to their board, the Loremaster would generate Insight to search rooms, and the Warden — the healer of the group — would work on those crucial healing spells. However, when the Avenger was not in play, the rest of the classes would have to compensate, but the threat was so big that everyone needed to focus on dealing damage, neglecting their previous focus. Even when they weren't losing horribly, the experience was not fun.

Since the problem was in the minions, the solution that we settled on was based on them. The minion deck would change its contents depending on the classes present in the game. If the Avenger was present, it would include more difficult-to-beat monsters. If the Mystic and the Warden were the only ones playing, it would contain mostly small monsters which would be easier for the players to handle. They would still pose a threat, but not one that would distract them from their main goal.

Although we were a bit skeptical to try this solution, it worked like a charm. It achieved exactly what we needed and helped the different classes to stand out. We were no longer worried about the class combinations. Each and every one of them could stand its own.

The LoremasterWhile the Avenger and the Mystic were quite straightforward, the Loremaster — the character that searched the rooms — was trickier to design. We had settled on having another resource in the game called Insight. Players would gather Insight and that would be used to search the rooms. It would work similarly to damage in that, if unused, it would reset at the end of the round. If a character matched the room's Insight difficulty, then they would draw Artifact cards that would grant them powerful ongoing abilities.

Even though the Loremaster would have no trouble gathering Insight and using it to get more artifacts, the other players would completely ignore it. That wasn't necessarily a problem, but it would get worse due to another factor: After a point, experienced players would become quite powerful and near the final rounds they would generate a lot of Insight, but they would no longer need it as much.

It was clear that we needed to find other uses for Insight as well.

Around the same time, we had another problem to deal with. They way the Seals worked, one player had to generate enough mana to break them. More often than not, that player was the Mystic. However, inexperienced players would have a hard time generating enough mana for the more expensive Seals. Since they were the more powerful ones, not dealing with them usually spelled their doom.

The MysticDuring development, we examined a solution that solved both of these problems. What if you could spend Insight in order to "unlock" the Seals and allow everyone to spend mana on them? That provided another use for Insight (which all of the classes could use on the small seals) and interesting options for the Loremaster (Do I go for another artifact, or do I help the group by unlocking a seal?), while making it less demanding for the Mystic who now didn't have to generate all that mana on their own.

AG: Although this is a dice-rolling game, we love the idea of "tough" decisions. During your play, you will always have to decide whether to spend the resources you gathered to remove an obstacle or to improve your character? With the new approach to Insight, it became the party tool to deal with high level seals. Insight was now an equal answer to threats and was helping the party to interact with the seals more efficiently.

VB: Near the end, most of the issues had been solved and we were happy with how the game was playing. Although it was already quite challenging, we even thought of some additional hurdles to throw to the players who wanted more.

There was now only one thing remaining: the solo game.

With the game being cooperative, we knew that it was suitable for solo play. The problem was that it would be difficult for a single character to deal with everything that was happening in the game. Not only that, but since each class focused on different things, the experience would be different with each of them. If we were to make the game easier, one of the classes would still struggle while another one would find it way too easy. On top of that, we wanted the players to play differently with every class. If only one was present in the game, they would all have to play the same way to defeat the game.

The Warden

That's when it hit me. Why not change the requirements? For each character, the goal would be different. The Avenger (who couldn't easily generate a lot of mana) would focus on killing minions and would have to kill the powerful boss. The Mystic (who could easily generate a lot of mana but had trouble with dealing damage) would not have to worry about killing the minions or the boss, but would have to break numerous Seals in order to win. The Loremaster would need to gather as many artifacts as possible, while the Warden would bring a companion along and would have to make sure they stayed alive.

This way, not only would each character play the way they would in multiplayer, the game would offer four different solo experiences. It felt very different with each class, and we knew the solo gamers would absolutely love it!

AG: Regarding the solo version of the game, I wanted three things:

• To be fun and challenging for all classes
• To be an excellent tutorial for new players who wanted to explore the game before playing with their friends
• To give players the opportunity to explore all aspects of a class

I strongly feel that we addressed all the above.

AG & VB:: All in all, we are very excited with how the game turned out. It went through a lot of rough periods, with many changes and complete overhauls, but in the end we created something that we are really proud of. The work we put into this game is probably more than what we've put in any other game we've worked on, but it was totally worth it.

As soon as you open the box, we are sure you will agree!

Categories: Gaming News and Notes

SPIEL '17 Preview: Origami, or Eric Folds Five Families

Mon, 10/16/2017 - 14:33

by W. Eric Martin

I love card games. I'd be fine with never playing a board game again as long as I had card games available to me. Each time you pick up a hand of cards, it's like opening a present. You have some idea of what might be inside, but the details of the thing are what's important. Which cards do you have in hand this time? What don't you have? What's possible?! The more that you play a card game, the better you get, and as your knowledge of the game increases, you start playing the same hand three times: once when you first look at the cards and imagine what could happen, again when you're actually playing, and a third time when you're assessing how things went and what you might have done instead.

I'm not even close to that level of understanding with Christian Giove's Origami, which dV Giochi will debut at SPIEL '17 in October. I've played three times on a rough preproduction copy from dV Giochi, each time with three players, and I still haven't even seen all the cards in the game.

Origami is for 2-4 players, and the game includes five families of animals with each family being a different color. To set up the game, choose 2-4 families — with that number matching the number of players — shuffle them, then deal each player face-up cards until they have ten or more folds on their visible cards. "Folds" are the currency in the game, and one of the few nods in the game toward the "Origami" name, the other being the origami-like animal images on the cards.




Once everyone takes their cards in hand, you lay out four cards in a face-up market, then start taking turns. On a turn you can:

• Draw cards from the market that sum up to at most four folds. Refill the market to four cards, then add these cards to your hand, discarding at the end of your turn if you have more than eight cards.

• Spend cards from your hand to pay (exactly!) the cost of a single card in your hand. If a card costs 6, for example, you must discard cards that feature exactly six folds. Place this card on one of two collections in front of you, making sure that each collection is no more than one card larger or smaller than the other collection.

• Use the special effect of an animal card on top of one of your collections.

That's it! Rinse and repeat until you've gone through the entire deck twice, shuffling discards as needed to create a new deck, which you will need to do since after the deck runs out a second time, you still complete the current round, then each player takes one final turn, then you count your points on cards played to see who wins, with some cards having special scoring bonuses.


Four savannah animals; the number at the lower-left shows the number of copies in the deck

Gameplay in Origami is simple and straightforward, with most turns presenting you with the best kind of tension in any game: the pull between picking up more cards (i.e., resources) to give you more options in the future vs. playing cards now to put points on the table and possibly give you special powers to use.

With every play, you want to be as efficient as possible. Don't pick up cards with only two or three folds when you're allowed to pick up four. Don't play a card with a scoring bonus if you don't plan to make that bonus worth anything. Don't play a card with an instant effect (which most of them have) if you can't make use of it that turn. The gorilla, a savannah card, lets you pick up all savannah cards on the market when you play it. Should you play it if only one savannah card is available? What if that one card is another gorilla, which gives you four folds in hand (i.e., a free draw action) and the threat of another gorilla action in the future?

Every time you pick up cards, you're putting new cards into the market for the players that follow, something that might affect your choices during play. In one game I managed to play two chicks and pick up a third without yet having a chicken in hand, the chicken being worth 2 extra points per chick you've played. My right-hand opponent couldn't stop drawing cards completely, but he kept taking actions that would reveal several new cards at once, thus giving me greater odds of grabbing a chicken, which I soon did. Bok bok!


On right: Barnyard success, plus a vulture-powered butterfly

A lot of the special actions are conditional. The spider, a lawn card, lets you draw cards from the market that have exactly six folds. If you can't do this, then you must take the boring regular draw action or do something else. The vulture (sky) lets you use the top card on the discard pile to play an origami from your hand, and while free money is nice, sometimes you don't have the cards needed to pay a cost exactly, which leaves you staring at that top card like a $5 bill just out of reach on the other side of the fence.

Each family has their own type of powers and effects, giving Origami a different feel based on the cards in play. The savannah cards are all instant effects, mostly related to drawing cards in some manner. The sea cards give you discounts off the cost of a card or the ability to play a second card immediately (while still paying the cost of it). The lawn cards tend to benefit from other cards of the same family, such as the ant cards that jump from 3 to 5 points if you have at least two of them or the caterpillar that can transform into the far more valuable butterfly. The sky cards interact with other players, the cards they have, and the discard pile. I don't even know what the farm cards do as I haven't played with them yet.

Origami combines the joy of card game randomness with extra variety of play thanks to the five families of cards, of which at most four will be used each time. The only downside is that the graphic design isn't ideal, with a card's cost and fold count being bunched together in the upper left corner and not differentiated enough, with the fold digit being too small for my old eyes. Aside from that, right now Origami is the game I'm most regretful for not having played more times before writing about it, but SPIEL '17 is almost upon us, so I wanted to give a head's up about the game to fellow card game lovers.


Sample critters from the other four families
Categories: Gaming News and Notes