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 third-world 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 [photo].

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.

2016 Retrospective

Twenty Sixteen, everyone’s favorite year to hate in modern memory. I’m not really going to address any of the globally bad shit that went down here, I’m just going to talk about myself. That’s healthy, right?

2016 was a pretty big year of change for me — so a lot of the targets that I set last January… were no longer on the firing range, so I had to roll with the punches a bit. My position at Rapt Media was eliminated, so all the objectives I had for my organization there were summarily discarded in early May 🙂 From there, I shifted into consulting work; I’m incredibly grateful for my professional network here Boulder — as soon as word got out that I’d been laid off, contract work materialized within days. I entertained a few full time opportunities, interviewed with some great teams I would have been incredibly fortunate to join, but after reflection, I realized that I could take the opportunity to go full time with FlightlessCo.

Given that, I found re-opening the yearly OKRs a little bit demoralizing, but I did get to look at what I did accomplish.

I had a bit of a severance period from the layoff, during which, I sat down and wrote a first-draft manuscript of book that I’d been rolling around in my head for a while; a “Tech for Non-techs” type thing meant to grease the skids of communication between departments in business organizations. Editing is a grinding, horrible process, so a second draft is ongoing.

Addressing a few “Objectives” from the original 2016 post:

Objective: Personal Brand

  • I replaced a few items around my personal brand, before deciding that I’d fixed some of the weakest links and that money could be spent better elsewhere.
  • Smiling is hard to measure, but in February, I attended a personal growth training called the “Landmark Forum”, which takes a view of separating the way things have been before and the way you can approach things now. Coming out of that, I feel like I smile more.
  • Totally failed to learn German. It seemed so fun in the afterglow of the trip, but I dropped the ball here. Even in the run-up to this year’s trip to Stockholm, I pretty much brushed up on zero Swedish.
  • The money target changed, with the end of a monthly salaried position to self-employment. Now I just take disbursements that match my monthly spending target.

Rapt Objectives… no longer in the picture.

Objective: Launch games with Flightless

  • Short Story RPG: The Wackiest Race came out this year! Sales have been slow, and feedback on the final product has been instrumental in continuing the brand. Growth here is a slow burn, but it’s a project I believe in, so more are coming out soon, and I expect a cumulative snowballing effect as there are more adventures in the ecosystem.
  • Valour has been in front of a number of publishers now — some are still actively reviewing, some have said “No”, and some are waiting to review until the first group are done. Through taking an active stance on this in ’16, I’ve made contacts at over a dozen publishers, who will be great connections moving forward with this and other designs. I’ve also begun a collaboration with a game designer friend on a project I’m quite excited about as well.
  • Playtesting continues for Terraformist; I’ve previously only referred to this as Project T, and it is … this close to launching; our third round of player testing is currently underway, and signaling among these early players is quite strong that the game will be popular when launched. Email me if you’re interested in checking it out before launch.

Objective: Beach Bod 2016

Made some sick progress on this early on, but in the career shuffle, and then the time commitments involved getting a business of the ground, the goalpost moved from “become Adonis lookalike” to “make sure I don’t get fat again”. So far mostly successful.

Objective: Mobility on Demand

Mobility on Demand took a bit of a backseat, as the business came together, but now there’s chance for it to possibly crank.

I also put down a few contingent objectives, “just in case” I accomplished any of the main objectives. I hit some of these by accident, or something. I guess they were somewhere in the back of my mind. Here they are, since I’ve never published them anywhere else:

Objective : Write novel

I completed NaNoWriMo this year, writing a light sci-fi (somewhere between Dune and ‘steampunk’, I suppose). I spent a few times during 750 words throughout the year jotting down plot outlines and character backstories, plus notes on the science research I was doing. Then in November, I cranked it out.

Objective: Travel more.

The change from full-time to self employed/freelance certainly facilitated a time freedom to do this. Here’s a list of places I visited during 2016 (without counting the last holiday Europe trip, since the 2016 part of that was mostly just scrambling to return NYE costumes and sitting on planes):

Andrea and I are slowly practicing and improving our discipline at the Workcation, a term we didn’t make up, but we do plan on perfecting in 2017. I’ll be writing more about that for sure.

Objective: Turn into a force

This blog had its own ups and downs — I hired a project manager partway through 2016 in the move to full-time Flightless, and after a month or so, she suggested that I get shit done instead of stressing about not getting posts up. It was good advice, though I definitely don’t want things to go too cold, because when the momentum is up, there are great discussions in the comments, and there’s always a positive reaction to posts on reddit and elsewhere.

NaNoWriMo 2016 “Winner”!

NaNoWriMo graph to 70k words.

In another version of this post, I used mortal_kombat_flawless_victory.gif here.

I successfully “wrote” a “novel” in the month of November — at least per the rules of NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month): Written word-count of 50k in thirty days, which averages to at least 1,667 words per day. Since I was a little nervous about being able to consistently put out that quantity amount beyond my standard 750 target; I set myself a mental target to clear 2000 words a day, at least for the first days or week, to ensure I had a little buffer. Seemed reasonable enough given late-month distractions such as Thanksgiving break and all that, plus what if I just… ran out of shit to write about?

I ought to have known myself better — that “private stretch goal” became the goal in my mind, and I felt bound to clear that 2k mark every day. I ended up managing to succeed at that as well, finally landing just over 70k for the month. The whole premise of this novel (more details to come a little later on, maybe once I’ve had a chance to read the thing myself…) was based on a few scenes intended as a short story I started a while ago, and there’s a gap I left open in the novel where most of that original story can slip right into the exposition. The short story was drafted as part of a back-burner project I call Thirty Vignettes, though as of this writing, I haven’t yet published this short story draft over there. Continue reading

Yearly Goals 2015 Roundup

A few folks have been harassing me about the open loop I left from last year’s goals, and want to know where things landed. Seems appropriate that this should come out in February, given that the original post didn’t make it out until February either :).

I sent 9 monthly Valour updates, out of 12 months. Oh, were you not signed up to get them? Start here:

I did not sign with a publisher, but got really promising feedback from one, and I learned what that process looks like, so now I know how to move on that.

Production delays in Q4 for SSRPG meant that we didn’t hit the holiday launch window I was hoping for, nor did it launch with two stories, but a focus on building the process while publishing the first story, and getting authors queued proved more efficient, and now the process is practiced and more stories are coming.

  • Mobility on Demand
    • Sell out our first run of inventory.
    • Get our second product underway.

Mobility on Demand sales were slower than anticipated during the beginning and middle of the year, owing to a lot of factors. But I think we’ve learned that we have a product people want, and that each of several parts of the marketing machine each work at an effective level, and it’s a matter of connecting dots.

Most of the Ignite Boulder events in 2015 didn’t sell out until the very last minute, so the secondhand market didn’t necessarily need a ton of facilitation, making the value prop for optimizing ITS’s user flow wasn’t totally there.

  • Travel to Sweden
    • For years I’ve been fantasizing about a really unique trip to Sweden, and this year it’s finally going to happen.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that the Sweden trip I’ve been planning in my head might be more of a …something I want to do mainly because I decided long ago rather than something I genuinely still want to do… I bet the Germans have a word for that. With Andrea’s help, I did, however, make it to Europe for the longest vacation I’ve taken as an adult.

  • blog (here!)
    • Weekly posts.

I missed posting on thirteen weeks out of fifty two in 2015, (includes two the two weeks I was on vacation). Which means I posted thirty-nine of those weeks. 75%

  • Crossfit
    • Sub-7 minute “Annie (Nailed it Jan 13!)
    • Clean & Jerk 225# (Gotta clean up the clean form a little and I’m sure it’s there.)
    • Muscle Ups (Need to speed up the transition.)
    • Pistols (Ankle flexibility is the pits.)

I hit my Annie goal in January before the post even went up, and I’ve since repeated, so I know it wasn’t just a fluke or mis-counting Annie’s 300 reps :).

I Clean & Jerked 225# during workout 15.1 of the Crossfit Open, nailing my goal. I later repeated that weight from the hang (which I’m told is occasionally easier? :-]) while prepping for the 2015 Highland Games.

I also hit seven muscle ups during 15.3, though I haven’t been able to repeat anything like thae since :-[ But Coach Dave saw it, so I know I wasn’t dreaming :).

Pistols remain elusive as ever.

  • Financial
    • Eradicate the last of my debts.
    • Rescue my Michigan house from the piece of shit bank that owns the mortgage on it.

Credit cards balances and loan debts from my startup founder days are all history. There are still some back taxes from the same timeframe, but those are almost gone as well. The default payment plans the IRS makes up are ridiculously slow.

House is SOLD, so is definitely free of any sort of tomfuckery from the assholes at Ocwen and Greentree, who long ago acquired the loan from my original mortgage company. With all that shit out of the way, money is an awesome topic :-$.

Not a bad year, all-in-all. A few things didn’t make it across the finish line, but with a focus the future rather than mistakes, I think things landed in a good place. I have some equally challenging 2016 objectives lined up, but I’m excited about them.

Refactoring the Casual Gaming Revolution Con List

Casual Gaming Revolution posted a great list of all the major American gaming conventions happening in 2016. You should go check out their original post here. Looking at the spreadsheet, I had trouble parsing out some of the information I wanted to glean — which cons were closest to me? Which ones would dovetail best with my schedule this year? Could I take a list of the websites and try and run it through some of the data gathering tools leftover from my failed startup to find more information than what’s in the list?

Answering these questions was tough, because the data were spread across several sheets tabs, one for each month, plus a summary sheet. I can understand why they did it — the most common question is probably “Hey I wonder what’s going on in June, anything interesting?”, and I guess I could see this format being slightly easier for the public to add new items to the list (slightly). As I was digging, I felt like this issue was something akin to a premise I’ve held for a long time “be strict when sending, and tolerant when receiving”, in this case, having a rigorous, complete dataset, and presenting 12 separate ‘Views’ into that dataset would accomplish the same job of showing Cons by month, while simultaneously open the full data set up to more interesting queries and manipulation.

I spent an hour or so copying/aggregating/refactoring a copy of the original spreadsheet, and then another few minutes cleaning up some of the data that didn’t fit exactly fit my new ‘schema’.

Here’s the refactored spreadsheet.

After that, I was off to the races. I popped over to FusionTables, an oft-overlooked but quite awesome sidealong product to Google Drive Sheets. I imported the sheet from Drive, and plotted the new aggregate “Location” column to a map, which gave a really cool view:

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 5.50.01 PM

Interactive Fusion Table Map of 2016 Gaming Conventions

Discoving immediately only two cons in my home state of Colorado :(. The fusion table can do more cool shit as well; The map can be filtered by the start date of the convention, so if you know you’ve got some vacation coming up, and want to see what’s close and convenient timing-wise, you can do that.

Moral of the story is, when you’re organizing data (and this includes building a card or component list for a prototype), the most important thing is to consider what’s going to provide the most flexibility in answering questions. Most likely, that’s going to be served best by a full data set, with each individual data element stored in their most granular form, and then fields aggregated together via functions, and records split by criteria, rather than trying to merge post-data entry.

I reached out to Casual Gaming Revolution and I’m currently working with them on a way to get these refactors merged back upstream into their primary document. Look for an update there real soon!

Back Up Yo’ Shit

question disk

“Do you have a copy of that file?” is not a question you really ever want to be asking.

Mini post as I get ready for vacation next week! Between transatlantic flights and lots of trains, I should have plenty of time to keep the hopper full, but for this week, just a quick reminder that we all need to hear periodically! — jw

While on my “Hack retreat” detailed last week, I got derailed after a simple text message ended up spiraling into the realization that a bunch of assets for the first Short Story RPG adventure had been lost.

I texted my friend Charles who does the incredible illustrations you frequently find attached to my projects “Hey can you re-send those Wackiest Race illustrations when you get a chance?” I also included the (404-ing!) DropBox link he had originally shared to deliver them. Turns out he’d switched computers this summer, without migrating everything and had also hit his storage cap in DropBox, so he “cleared up some space” if you catch my meaning.

Now, I’m real big on running ‘blameless organizations’, so I never point fingers when things go wrong. Never point them outward, at least: Why the actual fuck didn’t I just download them when he sent over the finals? Why didn’t I attach the folder to my own DropBox for redundancy? Why didn’t I ask for the delivery in a different format, like zipped over email? I really screwed the pooch on this one. Continue reading

RPG One-Shot Guest Post Series

In the run-up to the release of Short Story RPG, I wanted insights from a few experienced game masters on what’s important to consider when running single-sitting adventures. So I put out a call for guest posts. There was a pretty great response, so over the next few weeks, we’ll have a short series of posts to get a variety of perspectives.

  1. Ian F White: Anatomy of a One-Shot
  2. Justin Helmer: One-Shots v. The Long Game
  3. Jarin Dnd: Effective Preparation for a One-Shot
  4. Stay tuned…!

Game Balance: Solving the Brigadier Problem

5 Galaxy MapOnce upon a time, I built a web-based MMO called Galactic Impact. This was intended to be an async-multiplayer game in the spirit of such classic computer hits as “Master of Orion” and “Pax Imperia”. Build out your home planet, construct colony and war ships, dispatch them to neighboring planets, and respectively, colonize or obliterate them. Essentially 4X in a browser, with 3 hour turns, the ability to queue commands if you weren’t going to be around, and a modest tech ladder (the minimum-viable feature of a tech “tree” :))

Because this was multiplayer, and these games tend to have an exponential growth curve, there were some balance issues with first player advantage, and since it was meant to be an MMO with players signing up any time, this was a major issue. Solving this is what has, in the interim, stymied development on the project. However, during the game’s first small-scale playtest (25 active players), a really interesting situation arose which I think about often while developing and balancing board games. I’ve termed this the “Brigadier Problem”. Here’s what it was, and how I solved it.

Continue reading

Announcing Mobility on Demand!

Over the last year, Andrea and I have been hard at work building a project which has been a dream of mine for a while, but she has really pushed it to fruition.


Mobility… outside the box.

We’re thrilled to announce “Mobility on Demand” — a set of well-organized cards for optimizing your mobility work either during Open Shop at your local box, or on the go while on a trip. Unlike a smart phone, they’re immune to dropping, and not scared of falling kettlebells or barbells. Also unlike a smartphone app, you can shuffle and sort according to the body parts you need to work on the most or …coming soon!… the equipment you have available. (Our initial offering includes only exercises which can be performed with no equipment.) Continue reading

Quote: Charles Babbage

On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

—Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher