Thingvalley Designer Diary #1

I’m working on a game I came up with on a trip to Iceland (it’s getting to the point that I can’t even leave Boulder without coming up with some kind of game concept. If you need some ideas, hmu), after visiting the Þingvellir — a valley between the two moving continental plates — where Vikings conducted trade, enacted laws, and settled scores among each other.

Scribbles in the notebook, made from the back seat of a rental car.

I love games with a strong economic component; Wealth of Nations and its flexible markets were one of the first things that drew me into the tabletop hobby in adulthood, so I’ve always wanted to work a mechanism like that into a design, and I’ve had a note about doing so in my Catch Sheet for a while. I’d also just come off of a stop at Geekway to the West, where I played a game of Sidereal Confluence, where open trading among players figures prominently, so that was fresh in my head. Scribbling some notes in my notebook, on a fresh page I titled “All thing / Between the plates” and wrote out a list of possible resources that might be interesting, along with a central “market” like the one I’d fallen in love with in WoN, with the intent that it could be a good ‘release valve’ in case a player got stymied and couldn’t trade with anyone.

When I got home, I analyzed the markets from Wealth of Nations, because it seemed important to understand how those worked, since they always “felt” right during that game, so I entered each of the buy/sell/trade values from the markets into a spreadsheet. (Here’s an example if you’re not familiar) I plotted the supply/demand curves, and compared the gap in the discrimination between buy and sell price. All this would later turn out to be irrelevant, but I needed to know this data to proceed.

I picked a few resource types (six), enough to give some diversity in holdings, but not so many that players might end up with some resource no one else needed. Then I made up price curves for each. It turned out to be pretty hard, since the quantities I wanted for Thingvalley (3–15) were much smaller than the quantities in WoN (roughly 40 on average), so the markets are short, stumpy, and quite drastic in price change.

High level, gameplay boiled down to this: You and your tribe show up to the annual Allthing with some resources (which are dealt via “supply” cards as the game starts) and you attempt to collect sets of resources based on “need” cards (like “route” cards from Ticket to Ride), or, as they’ve been nicknamed by players… your “shopping list”.

Another thing I had in mind from the beginning was a clear vision of how I wanted this game to look on the table. One specific element I thought would look cool: (which later turned out to be an incredibly lucky inclusion) larger tarot-sized cards on the table to represent the “Lands” your tribe controls — these lands would be fungible for trade, and perhaps be included on shopping list cards… Our population is growing! We need additional lands on which to live!

First playtests were lukewarm to average; the game had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there were one or two interesting decisions for players in between, but not a whole lot else. Then, at Protospiel, I playtested twice in two days. The first day, Alex Yeager — formerly of Mayfair — said “There’s absolutely nothing new here… and you’re going to be compared against every other resource exchange game, including Bohnanza, the literal Spiel de Jahres winner which set the tone for resource trading games.” The next day, I changed a few things, and Andrew Stackhouse, who played both days, quipped “This was more fun yesterday.”

Yikes. Harsh but both very fair. So the game needs work.

Stay tuned for how I may have found an interesting game in some of Alex’s feedback about those “Lands” cards I’d included on a lark.

Origins Game Fair: A first-timer’s strategy guide

Origins Game Fair is a really great convention, especially for designers and aspiring designers — nearly every publisher you can think of has a presence there, and many (most!) are willing to talk to just about anyone about their publishing process, what kind of things they are looking for, and occasionally able to set up ad-hoc meetings for pitching or socializing. I’ve made a ton of industry friends there: gamers, designers, media people, and publishers alike. Relationships are the lifeblood of the tabletop industry and I’m really grateful for all the ones I’ve been able to cultivate. And Origins has been one of the best ways to meet people.

I’ve been talking to some of the folks in my local designers meetup that they should get out to Columbus this summer if they can (Oh god, it burns even typing that… #GoBlue). It’s taken me a few years to really feel like I’ve got my legs under me going into ‘con season’, and all the questions they have are the same ones I had my first year, so I suspect others jumping into the game design game may have a similar experience. So here’s a little strategy guide for the run-up to Origins. Maybe I’ll do another one for how to make the most of your days there, but we’ll call that one a “survival guide” or something.

The Site…

Man oh man, the websites for some of these venerable conventions are a trip. Getting registered for Origins is only the most confusing thing you’ve ever had to figure out… until you try and get a badge for GenCon. Continue reading

FarkleBot: An experiment in tabletop game AI

Six six-sided dice

(Photo credit: Flickr user philtoselli cc-by-nd)

A favorite activity for my partner and I is visiting brewery taprooms; often, we’ll combine a trip with some kind of casual game, (usually Odin’s Ravens 2e) but we don’t always haul that out with us. A few years ago we grabbed a game off the shelf at Denver Beer Company called Farkle, and we gave it a try.

It’s quite straightforward: Components are only 6d6, and players take turns rolling all of them, then drafting dice out of the most recent roll which meet scoring criteria, then either rolling again or banking their points and passing to the next player. There’s a cool press-your-luck angle, because if there are no score-able dice in a throw, the player has encountered the titular “Farkle”, and their turn ends with zero points[1].

A conversation I encounter with some regularity in the board game space (and rightly so) is the notion of automated testing — codifying all the rules to a design into software, and running repeated simulations to try and ferret out mathematical edge-cases that playtesters might miss. In fact, from a certain viewpoint, it sometimes feels absurd that this isn’t a more common practice.

On the other hand, something has always made me skeptical of the utility of doing so — correct, working code isn’t exactly easy to write, plus, in-progress board game rules are usually in a continuous state of flux during testing. Not to mention, playing games requires a lot of abstract thought, so a simulation which plays well is even harder. And, this type of stochastic simulation reveals nothing to a designer about the actual fun, so its overall utility is limited to finding math issues.

With all this in my head, during our most recent Farkle throwdown, I realized that this game could be an easy way to try it out — each turn is discrete, so there’s no interaction between players, and in fact, within a turn, each roll of the dice is discrete, because drafted scoring dice don’t combine with previously-drafted scoring dice[1]. Continue reading

Potemkin Empire Designer Dairy #3

I assure you this building is thoroughly and completely real. *ahem*

I finished a round of edits and cleanup on the Potemkin Empire rules last night — it’s still testing really well; every group to play it ends up getting into the sarcastic tone, and preposterousness of the theme, though I must say, when I first put pen to paper for this, it wasn’t intended to look so timely with current geopolitics. Hopefully that won’t be a turnoff when pitching, or selling to customers, if there’s a feeling that it’s just chasing some soon-to-pass cultural zeitgeist. But! The theme is too strongly baked into the mechanics to worry much about that now.

One test group at Protospiel was made up of several hardcore “card game”-type players; folks who seek out “drafting” games as a genre, or have committed to memory their entire Magic:TG and Shadowfist decks because they play those games competitively. This group was unanimous in suggesting that Potemkin Empire needed a little more ‘meat’ to the strategy; suggesting that instead of only having cards which caused buildings to be “fake” or “real”, giving those cards alternative unique non-standard actions to make the Drafting Phase more interesting. I was nervous this might be too many moving pieces for a more casual audience (I think a big swath of my target audience for this has never encountered “drafting” as a mechanic), plus… if I’m honest, designing and implementing something like that scared me. It seemed like a lot of work to make sure I had created “balance” among them, and how would I decide whether an action like “Recover a killed spy” should be attached to a card that, if used to build, would be a fake building, or a real building? Continue reading

“Award Winning” Game Designer

Once, in a group of other game designers working to get our first designs signed by publishers (i.e.: unpublished designers), someone asked “what do you all call yourselves, since you’re not published? I’m struggling with what to call myself when people ask.”

Ever the smartass, I quipped “I think all of us who design games should go with ‘Game Designer’. But once I’m published, I’ll transition to ‘Published Game Designer’, and hopefully soon after to ‘Prolific Game Designer’ ;)”

In that vein, I’m excited to belatedly announce, with tongue firmly in cheek, that I’m officially an “Award Winning Game Designer”

A while back, Atlas Games ran a design contest for games that used their Letter Head deck. It’s a quite clever deck of alphabet cards, with a cryptographic (English) frequency distribution of letter counts of cards and their point values. The effect of this is that almost any 5- or 7- card hand is almost guaranteed to have an English word in it. It’s a pretty fun effect when dealing out test hands. So I did some brainstorming and threw my hat in the ring.

I came up with a little ditty about Shakespearean wordplay, which I called Draw! Beat Down Their Weapons! And it turns out the contest judges liked it! I was one of the winners, and D! BDTW! is included in the downloadable content for customers who have bought Letter Head decks!

Cool!

You can read about the contest, Letter Head, and access the PDF with all the winning designs here!

“Hidden Mechanics” in Video Games — and in Tabletop Games?

Last week, a video game designer I’ve been following on Twitter for a while now, Jennifer Scheurle posted asking game developers to post tricks they use to optimize for fun, versus coding a perfect simulation of an environment:

The responses were great, and the thread is being picked up by all kinds of video game press. Kinda makes me wish I’d chimed in when I saw the tweet come by amidst the political dumpster fire I generally consume on Twitter, though I don’t specifically have my of my own inventions to post about, so maybe just as well I didn’t. Though I have written about a couple related topics here previously.

The thread kicked off a discussion in a FlightlessCo Slack channel as well — my Terraformist collaborator who is taking the lead on game design for that project found it on Polygon and wanted to discuss; this being his first foray into this type of design.

I love these tricks, both as a designer and a player, but I think it’s telling that many of the responses are about single-player games; in a multiplayer PvP situation there are humans trying to have fun on both ends of the equation — and in a direct head-to-head, thumbing the scale for one of them might have a negative impact on the other. For instance, in Terraformist, a player sending a swarm of combat units against another can’t necessarily just result in warning shots ‘across the bow’ to get their attention, because then the attacking player may feel disadvantaged. Continue reading

Potemkin Empire Designer Diary #2

Opening gambit of an unassailable lead.

Potemkin Empire was one of the designs I took with me to Protospiel Ann Arbor earlier this summer; one of my newer designs. It’s been on the table a few times in a previous iteration that crashed and burned spectacularly. After rebuilding essentially from the ground up, I felt it was good-to-go for Ann Arbor. I’m trying the Joshua Buergel / Grant Rodiek method of iterating in public on this design; in case you missed rules google doc come through my Twitter feed, here it is.

The suits remain the same as the first iteration: Government, Espionage, Science, Culture, and Industry, and their relative impacts on the in-game economy also remain largely similar; government is for ‘first player’ and final points, espionage is for attacking, science is for advantaging building, culture is for protection from attack, and industry is a secondary avenue to victory.

The first tabling at Protospiel revealed a large “runaway leader” problem involving combos with the Culture suit. Shannon McDowell identified the value of Culture’s unlimited protection from spying, and built an unassailable lead in that suit. This also proved that “exceed the current leader by 1” is too drastic a hurdle for a second-ranked player to ever overcome a current leader in any suit. With the shield firmly in place, she bluffed her way into an Science lead as well (for an additional card draw / building opportunity each round!), then went on a building spree of point-scoring Government buildings with total impunity as the other players spied each other to death. Continue reading

Bandwidth

What’s the ideal number of designs to be working on at a time? There’s a lot of wisdom in focusing on one single thing at a time, making it amazing, completing it, then using the completed project as a pillar to step to the next thing. Creative pursuits though, don’t always progress cleanly in a straight line from start to conclusion, so it often (for me) feels valuable to have additional ‘active’ projects waiting in the wings so if I ever run into designer’s block, or get frustrated trying to work through an issue, there’s something else to context switch to and at least make some progress, even when the primary project is in a bit of a furlough.

Splitting focus comes with all sorts of disadvantages — there’s an additional cognitive load even choosing which design to work on, given a free block of design time. Then each design is only progressing at 1/n the pace that could be possible with only one design as a focus. The marketing side also becomes more challenging — which do you talk about? Which do you blog, and send people updates about? The complexity compounds like a network effect with each added design in flight.

For many years, knowing my inclination to scattershot on a thousand different shiny things, I made a deliberate choice and clung tightly to the first approach — I only worked on Valour, anything else was a distraction, and went directly into the catch sheet, not into the brain cycles. It largely went well, though with some periods of extreme productivity, and others of frustration. And once I started shopping it around to publishers, I found myself in a strange spot; I would make new contacts at other publishers, and I didn’t have anything to pitch them, since I didn’t want to double-dip with the evaluations and risk burning bridges if one ended up signing it out from someone else reviewing.

So in one of these lulls, I started grabbing some other (smaller!) designs and making bits of progress on them as well, eventually getting one and then a second working prototype together. An awesome thing started happening, where I always had a prototype ready for a test when in an opportunity arose, and there was something to pitch while waiting on word about Valour.

Do these advantages counteract the negatives of a split focus?

I’m not sure, but I’m starting to feel like 3-4 is a good number of designs for me to have actively circling. How many designs do you have in flight? Do you find yourself more productive with more or fewer? Have you experimented to find an optimum? I’m really interested to hear the process other designers follow in this regard.

Protospiel Ann Arbor 2017

Take out that Storm Generator at all costs!

Protospiel Ann Arbor, the testing event that launched a thousand other testing events, is an easy stop on the annual circuit for me, (though I sometimes end up missing the anniversary party for one of my favorite Colorado breweries 😟), since I can combine with a visit to my hometown and the fam.

I’ve written about it before (maybe thrice), and got in a great set of tests this year as well — I got Valour tested, got a not-yet-public project I’m working on with Josh Sprung beat to hell, and got my new card drafting/bluffing game Potemkin Empire to the table twice: the second test was a great opportunity to shore up some issues that presented strongly in the first test. Fixed a runaway leader problem, and doubled down on the parts of the game players said were the most fun.

It really feels like Valour is rounding a final corner; the game only overstayed it’s welcome by one single Gaul turn this time, and a two hour playtest (Yay! Hit my target duration!) prompted a full hour of discussion among the players. Felt really good.

Josh and I also got some good news about an externality we were waiting on for our not-yet-public project, which I’ll either be talking about soon, or continuing not to talk about… So cloak & dagger🕵🗡!

Now that we’re over a hundred words into this post, what I really wanted to discuss was the Protospiel “Karma” system, which, as you might imagine from a gathering of game designers, is a set of casual game mechanics governing how the event itself run. How meta!

The crux of the system (the primary resource, if you will…) is time; The economy of time is how it’s spent on your designs, and how your time is spent on others’ designs. Since that’s zero-sum on its own, there’s a little bit of give in the system, and it’s overall purpose is to prevent people from being total moochers, rather than landing in an exactly perfect balance by the end of the weekend.

An all-truthful build strategy in Potemkin Empire v2 is no match for a wildly imbalanced protection mechanic.

If you test a one hour, five player game first thing in the morning, (a total of five person-hours) you ought to sit in on other players’ games for the next five hours. Pretty rad system. And if you’re doing the math on  above and wondering how I possibly got all that in in a three-day event, and still came anywhere close to achieving a karmic balance, a secondary part of designer registration is that you can bring along free “tester” attendees — one day my dad came by to check it out, and play a few games, so his time in-game helps push the needle to balance out my scale.

It’s pretty cool, and seems quite equitable if everyone is honoring the rules. I’m working on gathering a critical mass of designers for a playtesting ring in Boulder, and if I get a group together, I’ll definitely be using a system like this to keep it fair.

Designer Diary: Potemkin Empire

As I continue to grind Valour down into a polished gem ready for publishing, I’m occasionally working in some time on a few smaller designs; it’s nice to have a distraction that feels productive. One of these new designs, I’m calling Potemkin Empire; named after a concept we see around the world, especially in tinpot dictatorships like North Korea, called Potemkin villages, where a country is desperate to seem more powerful than they really are. They build buildings with façades facing outward that look to be real, and occupied, near the border, in order to give the impression of wealth and strength. They’re so-named for a Russian General who was the first recorded perpetrator of the tactic. The story is hilarious, but well outside the scope of this entry. This game is about doing the same, but on a national level.

Strong government, good culture, and a little bit of industry and spycraft. Looks like a great little country!

I’ve had the name in my catch sheet for a while now, and after a few conversations with other designers about how easy it is to fall into a “design comfort zone”, plus a conversation with Curt from Smirk & Dagger — whose favorite mechanic is ‘take that’. Other than the occasional game of Werewolf (where I usually try and moderate, rather than play), “deception” is not a mechanic I tend to gravitate toward as a player, so I’ve definitely shied away as a Designer.

Potemkin Empire’s first tabling… it only survived one playtest in this original form. 😆

So, as I was choosing designs to fill in the gaps this year, Potemkin Empire felt like a good place to really lean into designing a game I would likely be terrible at.

Stepping outside the comfort zone with deception and bluffing , it seemed fitting to go after a few other things I don’t often gravitate toward. I hate making tons of cards (I feel like a caveman banging rocks together every time I try and put multiple cards on a page InDesign), and I never really consider card drafting, (a la Bloodrage, though I quite enjoy that game).

Thus Potemkin Empire was born. The first iteration hit the table with some friends a few weeks before Origins, just to see if it would be worth trying to get it tabled there; it was okay, but the player’s objectives felt lacking, and the incentives for players take that-ing each other fell flat, and weren’t as fun as I’d pictured.

The basic premise is, your kingdom is in some sort of rough and tumble part of a pseudo-modern fantasy world, described with great hand-waving in the rules; An opportunity to join a lucrative alliance of wealthier countries has arisen, but only one kingdom will be allowed in, each player is attempting to impress the visiting diplomat who is arriving after a number of turns. Each turn, there’s a card draft, from a deck of cards that are either “working” or “duds”. After the draft, there’s a phase where players build with cards they drafted. If they drafted duds, they can still build a building with it, but if their bluff gets called later, they lose the building, and are penalized. Buildings come in some various suits (your standard kingdom-building fare: Government, Culture, Industry, Espionage, Science), each of which has a positive impact on your kingdom. By placing the “built” cards into little standees (binder clips, for now), it gives a really cool ‘table presence'[1] of all these cities facing each other.

I spent a day over the holiday weekend building the revised prototype and getting the dozens of (ugh…) cards ready, using Squib, which was quite pleasant. I’ll be writing a tutorial on getting started with Squib soon. I found the results to be far more satisfying than I’ve gotten from Paperize, and found it far easier to handle than InDesign.

So! Potemkin Empire is coming with me to Protospiel Ann Arbor this week. I’m excited to have the other designers there punch holes in it, and figure out how it’s broken this time around; I feel good that there’s likely something here, but I’ll find out!

Lies! Only one of this city’s government buildings is functional, and their intelligence network is a sham!

[1] Does anyone have a really great, succinct word for that? When a game just has a really striking presence on the table… like a quality that  garners rubbernecking at a Con or meetup; I’d love to have a word for this.