Daviau Dishes Decent Design Dirt

I figure something I can do with this blog is to make notes of useful or interesting advice I see around the place, so here's something...

I've just been watching Shut Up & Sit Down's Gen Con special, which includes a very interesting (hung over) interview with Rob Daviau, creator of Risk Legacy, amongst a decent list of other games.  One of the things Rob was talking about was really interesting.  It was basically a technique he uses to develop a theme for a game.

I'm sure the coffee is helping.
So the trick is to come up with a basic idea, his throw-away example was pig farming.  He then writes down a list of assumptions about that idea, including really fundamental and trivial things (spotting these, I would say, would be the real skill to practice), so in his pig farming example, this could include things like the farmers are trying to fatten up the pigs, the pigs are stupid, and that the farmers know that they are farmers.

What you can then do is tweak one of those assumptions, so perhaps it turns out that the pigs are actually intelligent, and then you can explore that idea and see where it takes you.

I am sure this is something that they would teach on day 1 of a creative writing class and that just about everyone in the world out there but me knew this already.  Actually, after hearing someone say this and writing it down for myself, the whole thing seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but I'm a bear of little brain and have difficulty thinking of this sort of stuff for myself.  So, something learnt today, which makes it a good day, I reckon.


Experiments with the Decktet

I was having a think and was wondering about a game that played a little like Coloretto, with rows of cards being built up and claimed before being put into rummy-style melds for scoring, and where, unlike Coloretto, the game keeps flowing as players claim cards, so the rows are constantly shifting and changing.

This developed into a thought about the Decktet which, in case you didn't know, is a beautifully illustrated deck of playing cards with six suits, but with the twist that most of the cards have more than one suit.  So, for example, you can have the "7 of Suns and Knots" or the "3 of Leaves and Wyrms".  There are heaps of games already designed using this deck; S and I often play "Bharg", which is a version of gin rummy, adapted for the Decktet.  Anyway, the idea of multiple suits combined with the previous thought got me to work...
Pretty Decktet cards, hard at work being experimented on.
So I figured that the main flow of the game would be that a player would add two cards from the deck to central rows of cards, with the rule that each row had to have one suit in common for all its cards, and that you had to add a card to a row instead of starting a new one if possible.  After placing two cards, you take all the cards from one row to add to your collection.  We would seed the table by dealing four starter cards.  Scoring at the end was uncertain.  I initially figured that you could arrange your cards in sets sharing a suit, and use Fibonacci numbers (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...) to score the sets.

S agreed to have a go at this with me.

Within a few minutes we agreed that this was not working.  We were running out of cards in the middle, and it felt like the only decision was to always take the largest amount of cards possible.  Of course, if we could come up with a more subtle scoring system (like Coloretto's capping and penalties for too many suits), this could make things more interesting.  But even so, the basic game play just wasn't working.

After abandoning that play, S came up with a couple of suggestions, which we discussed and then restarted.  This time, the plan was that instead of drawing two cards, you drew cards one at a time, adding them to rows if possible, but not adding more than one card to any given row in a single turn.  When a card was drawn that couldn't be added to a row, it started a new row and the player claimed a row.  In this way, every turn involved adding one row and removing another.

Within a couple of turns we could tell this was a far better game.  The flow of play was good and it felt like there were actual decisions to make at each turn of a new card.  The problem came at the end when we scored up: Fibonacci numbers work great for a while, but S had a 12-long suit and I had a 10, which left her overall score being twice mine.

So, overall, if I can come up with a good scoring system, this could be a workable game.  I'll spend some thought on this.  It also occurred to me that instead of having 6 suits with 12 cards in each, 12 suits with 6 cards in each might work better for this structure.  I'd have to generate some cards to try that out, but that would be something that nanDECK is very good at, so maybe I'll give that a try.


Book Club: The Game Inventor's Guidebook

Part of my plan for creating games is to learn new stuff.  I figure that there is a lot to be learnt by doing, but an increasing amount is being written on game design, so I am reading books on the subject too.  So, first up I give you...

"The Game Inventor's Guidebook: How to Invent and Sell Board Games, Card Games, Role-Playing Games, & Everything in Between!" by Brian Tinsman.

I picked up this book in Kindle format, largely as a bit of light holiday reading (the last few years I seem to have mostly stopped reading fiction).  Tinsman has a fairly long and definitely successful career as a game designer, mostly related to Magic: The Gathering, but also including assorted other tabletop and digital games, and at the time of the book's publication, was in charge of acquisition of new game designs at Wizards of the Coast, so he certainly should know his stuff.

The book flows fairly well, being largely built around anecdotes about various figures within the industry, which grounds the book's advice in a collection of case studies.  There isn't really very much about working at the rock face and crafting games, but that is because the book is essentially an overview of how various parts of the tabletop games industry operate, and is intended  to help a wannabe game designer progress all the way to getting a game onto shelves in actual shops, and this aim is supported by extensive appendices, including samples of the sort of contracts a designer might expect to see coming from a publisher.

Given that my focus for the foreseeable future is on learning to make better games rather than trying to get published, The Game Inventor's Guidebook is really more entertainment for me (yeah, I know, I have a weird idea of entertainment), but the descriptions of the workings of the games industry (and particularly the larger parts of it like Hasbro and Mattel) were fascinating.

Probably the biggest take-away for a would-be game inventor tallies with discussions I have read elsewhere on blogs and in forums: do your research and know the market.  A big chunk of this book is taken up with profiles of companies and games that any game designer should know about (yeah, Monopoly, but also Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Taboo, Warhammer, Axis & Allies, a bunch of Euro games, etc.).  The book is a few years old, so there are a load that would be added if it was written today, but it's a good section.  And to drive the point home, there is a chilling story of a guy who was trying to pitch a clone of Pokemon to Wizards of the Coast and who didn't seem to know that this is what he was doing.

Anyway, I am reading/have read a few other books on the general subject of game design, so I may well add further posts like this one as time goes by.


Prepare to weigh anchor, me hearties!

I've been making very slow progress lately, but at last, the Scurvy Crew is ready to sail.  More or less.

My lovely wife, S, volunteered to try the game out with me, making for a reasonably successful two-player experience, after which she gave me a list of feedback as long as my arm, but also a qualified thumbs-up, suggesting that the game is, at least, not awful.
Choose the right subject matter and it's great what artwork you can find in the public domain.  This is from an old edition of Treasure Island.
Some of S's thoughts were...
  • It is not obvious when it is best to switch between Acts.  (I'm bearing this in mind, but am not sure this is a big problem as it is a quick game and future plays should be more clued up.)
  • The optional actions in Act 3 (at sea) are a bit confusing at first.  (We agreed that a player aid card/sheet would make a big difference here.)
  • The number and balance of treasure cards doesn't seem quite right. (I agree and will be working on this later. We discussed possibly having some uncertainty as to the exact cards in the treasure deck, which sounds a good plan.)
  • Some cards have 3 icons on them, does this make those cards too good?  (My hunch is that it is probably OK to have some "better" cards -- apart from anything else, they are usually gained by a form of draft pick, which reduces the luck of the draw. I'll need to keep an eye on this though.)
  • The presentation of icons on the ship cards is confusing.  (I agree, I need to improve on that and have some ideas that shouldn't be too hard.)
  • The differentiation between Act 1 and Act 2 is not great.  Perhaps in Act 2 you should be able to, say, draw no cards but play 3 as an option.  (Maybe.  I'll definitely bear this in mind as a potential solution if this becomes a problem.)
The next step was to get the rules written up, and this is the part that has taken far too long.  As they stand, I think the written rules should work to get people started, but I'm not sure if they are structured in the best way, and there are bound to be details missing.

However, if you are interested, there are links below to PDF files on DropBox for the rules and print & play cards, so please help yourself.  If you have any comments, whether on playing the game or just a quick glance over the rules, my contact details are in the rules document, or you could comment on this post.

I'll leave this as a short update this time, but will list a few things that are on my immediate to-do list for the game...
  • Make player aid cards to remind what actions are available.
  • Make more ships, treasure and crew cards.
  • Playtest a lot with various player counts if possible.


My crew is getting scurvier

Wow, applying a reasonably coherent theme has made a huge difference.  Over the last couple of weeks my drafting game has mutated into something barely recognisable from its original form.  So, here are some of the key changes and an outline of how the game works now...
  • As I mentioned last time I wrote about the game, I have stopped using persona cards for scoring and instead, each player has a ship card which gives their objectives for the game.  Essentially, each ship has a set of requirements (icons -- which represent crew skills -- which must be collected in order to allow the ship to leave port), and possibly some other bonuses or abilities.  The ship card is initially kept face down and secret from other players.
  • Instead of my original idea of passing hands of cards around as a packet draft (like in 7 Wonders or Fairy Tale), crew are recruited from "taverns", which are rows of face-up card in the middle of the table.  If a player visits a tavern, only players with more "fighting" icons revealed can visit the same tavern, allowing a small degree of blocking.
    • The game runs in three phases -- I'm tempted to call them "acts":
      • Act 1 is recruiting the bulk of your crew (building a hand of cards and putting some of them into play).  In practice this means that you can draw two cards from a tavern and add one card from your hand to your tableau.
      • Act 2 is making ready to sail (mostly putting cards into play, but also still gaining a few new cards).  At this stage you can draw one card from a tavern each turn and play two to your tableau.  Entering Act 2 involves revealing your ship card, enabling its abilities, but also letting other players know what your objectives are.
      • Act 3 is setting sail and gaining treasure.  This partly involves drawing cards from a treasure deck, but can also involve attacking other pirates who are also at sea.
      • Players will probably enter the different acts at different times.
    • It is the gaining of treasure in act 3 that wins the game, so the first to set sail may be at an advantage, but anyone not too far behind may be able to catch up with attacks.
    Two players, both of them me, one of whom has just entered Act 2.  The beer, by the way, is Fuller's Bengal Lancer.  :)
    So, that is actually quite a big change to the game, from the mechanism for gaining cards to the treasure grab and potential take-that battle in Act 3.  I have in my mind that moving the game through three distinct stages should give the game a clear shape which could form some sort of a narrative arc and end with a bit of a climax.

    I can see a number of potential problems with this which I will have to address, including:
    • If one player hits Act 3 a long time before anyone else, they will just sit there picking up treasure for a few dull turns and nobody else will have a chance of catching them.
    • On the other hand, if Act 3 allows too much swing, then it could render the earlier part of the game irrelevant as everything is resolved by a take-that slugfest. 
    • Either way, though, getting the right level of activity in Act 3 may be a bit of a challenge.
    • I suspect we will see a significant first player advantage.  Only playtesting (a lot) will really tell if this is the case, or how much of a problem it is, but it is very likely I'll have to come up with some form of mitigation for this.
    As we stand right now I have a deck of cards for the game which will at least work, and have played a solo game against myself.  I only have partially written rules, but this test play has revealed that I hadn't really thought Act 3 through properly, so I have made a few notes about what needs to change.  The plan now is to get the rules as they stand written up and play a couple more times (ideally with someone else if I can persuade a victim/volunteer), revise the rules, and then post the current state online to see if anyone is interested in taking a look.


    A Scurvy Draft

    In an earlier post I talked about a game I had been working using a card drafting mechanic to build a point scoring tableau, but which was struggling to find a theme and name.  Well, the testing I have been able to do with the game has shown me that it needs quite a lot of work to get into a good shape and I have begun to think that I started from the wrong place.

    So, I thought, maybe if I strip the game back a bit and apply a different theme -- or any theme, really! -- I might start to make some progress.  I think that sometimes it is important to step back from an idea and be willing to either bin it or  make drastic changes that may involve dropping significant parts of what I was working on.

    Something I am beginning to learn is the importance of having a theme.  I am much more interested in games for their mechanics than their dressing, but if there is a setting and thematic idea for a game, it means that when you come to a decision point in the design, the theme can act as a guiding hand to help you choose which way to go.

    In this case, I decided that maybe the game could be about pirate captains trying to recruit a new crew for their ship.  Instead of collecting influence in different factions like in The City, players are now collecting crew skills like sailing, navigation and fighting.  Instead of having persona cards with different requirements, each player has a ship which has specific skill requirements in order to set sail (and this could be different for each player).  The aim of the game would then be to collect all the necessary skills and be the first to set sail.
    Thanks to a little nanDECK magic it is easy to throw together prototype cards.

    Of course, all that would be rather dry, so many cards will have effects that change things about.  Being a game about recruiting a pirate crew, having effects that involve punching other crew and doing other nasty tricks would be completely on-theme, so having a bit of a take-that aspect to play would seem to work out just fine.

    As an aside, for prototyping purposes there are an awful lot of pictures of pirates out on the Internet that are free to use (Project Gutenberg has some great ones in some of their books), so with very little expenditure of time and effort I can include some appropriate artwork on the cards.

    So, the situation now is that I am throwing together a bunch of prototype cards for the next run at testing.  I could probably have made a few modifications to my existing city cards, but I think it is worth reworking more-or-less from the ground up, and it gives me the excuse to play with pictures of pirates.


    El Tiddly starts here

    So here's a really stupid idea that got stuck in my head and I'm just going to have to try out in case it turns out to be fun.

    The other day there was a comment on BoardGameGeek which mentioned grabbing a couple of game mechanics to mash together in a game.  If I remember correctly, there was a flippant comment about maybe combining area control with dexterity.  Over the next couple of days my brain started thinking of various things...

    One of my all-time favourite games is El Grande, a game from the mid-90's by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich that set the standard for area control games and still stands up (in my mind, at least) as one of the best games out there.  Or it is when you have four or five players -- fewer and it doesn't really work as well.  Anyway, the game involves sticking cubes on a map, bidding for use of action cards, and periodically scoring points for the players with the most cubes in each region on the map.  It probably doesn't sound it from that description, but this game is great!
    Mashing up one of the best games there is with a bunch of tiddlywink flipping... What could possibly go wrong?

    I have also recently been thinking of dexterity games.  You know, games that involve flicking, throwing, rolling, stacking and other skills as major elements of play.  Games like Pitch Car, Tiddlywinks, or Jenga.  I can have fun with many of these games, but they are outside of my comfort zone and I have certainly never designed anything of this type, so I have taken it as a personal challenge that I should design and play one as an exercise.

    So that's two very different things: a game (and style of game) that I very much enjoy, and another that isn't really my "thing", but which I want to explore.

    Right now I am picturing a game of El Grande, but instead of placing cubes on the board in the normal way (each turn you can place a number of cubes dictated by your action card on regions adjacent to the King's location), there is a dexterity challenge to place them.

    At first I thought of some sort of catapult arrangement (see Coconuts).  This would be fun at first, but I was quickly picturing spending half of the play time spent picking cubes up off the floor or out of people's drinks if the launchers weren't calibrated exactly right.

    A second thought was to use tiddlywinks instead of cubes and hop them on from the edge of the board.  I like this idea: it is using a skill that many children develop fairly early in their game playing career, the counters have limited range, and skill plays a definite part but it is always possible to play a bad (or good) shot by accident.

    And then I had a more refined idea, of rolling discs (initially I thought of coins, but coloured wooden discs may be better) onto the board, probably using a ramp to roll them down.  This really appeals to me from the aiming point of view and the fact that it can be easy to control direction, but not distance of travel.  Plus wooden discs can look really nice.  One problem with wooden discs could be that they are quite likely to stay stood on their edge when they complete rolling, making their final position unstable, though there would be no such problem with coins.  Tiddlywink counters would probably be too light to roll properly.  One additional thought would be poker chips, but I think they would be far too large for the game.

    If I wanted to stick with cubes, the natural approach would be to flick them.  This could make for an interesting snooker-like game where you could knock other players' pieces out of the way, but on balance I feel that controlling the flicking of cubes (particularly small ones, which I think would be necessary) could be too difficult, especially to start with.  Plus there are quite a few flicking games that are currently popular.

    Of course, another way to get things onto the board, whether cubes, coins, discs, or whatever, would be simply to drop them.  This would have to be from a reasonable height (but not too high) to provide the right level of unpredictability.  My instinct says that I wouldn't want that to be the main part of a game, but perhaps it could be an option that comes in to play from time to time.

    Thinking of that, El Grande has the action cards which allow you to place cubes in the "normal" way, alongside the special action. Some of those actions allow different ways of getting cubes onto (and off of) the board.  Working from that as a starting point for our new game, maybe the standard placements are by doing a tiddlywinks flip onto the board, but there are actions that allow you to drop additional counters on.  That could do it.

    Now, with counters being dropped or flipped onto the board, some of them will inevitably land touching the lines between regions, so I need to consider what happens then.  I can think of a few options:
    • Counters touching lines are dead and removed from the board.  This seems a bit harsh and potentially unfun.
    • Counters touching lines can be moved by the owning player to sit wholly on one side or the other.  Or perhaps moved by an opponent for additional lulz.
    • Counters touching lines are considered to be in all adjoining regions, so counting towards multiple tallies, making the borders very valuable.
    • The lines are made into wide border zones, sufficiently wide that a counter cannot simultaneously touch the regions on both sides.
    Anyway, all this is very theoretical.  I wanted to play.  Luckily, with this idea it is very easy to start testing.  I pulled out my El Grande board and a heap of tiddlywinks and got...  what's the correct word here?... tiddling.  I didn't try playing a game as such, just flipped counters about onto the board to see what it was like.

    Some thoughts and discoveries...

    • Wheee!  Yep, this is actually quite fun.
    • It was also a bit frustrating at first as tiddling (!) on the board itself means that the counters don't get much off the surface, so they generally scoot across the board and fall off the table.
    • I tried launching off a quilted dinner mat, which made the counters fly off in all sorts of random directions.
    • Next off, I switched to a small towel for the launch surface, and this worked well.  I could get a little height and felt I had some control over the counters.  I suspect a piece of felt would do quite well too.
    • Once I had a decent launch surface I ended up having so much fun that I shot off all the rest of the counters that I had.
    • As it turns out, the El Grande board and the regions marked on it are a really good size for flipping these counters (which are about 22mm diameter).
    • I definitely want to progress this.
    So what now?

    I am planning to make some action cards to use with this as I think the original cards are probably too tricky to adapt to fit this new game, and I think that El Grande's bidding and action selection mechanics might not be right for us here, so I'll think about alternate ways of handling the actions.  Scoring will have to be handled separately as the score track around the board is bound to come to grief with all the flicking going on.  I like the idea of keeping El Grande's king and Grande pieces in somehow, so I'll also work on that.

    Somewhere down the line, the game should get its own board (and maybe a theme), but for now we have something that works well.  I will report back again when something has happened.


    Space Station 7 almost gets off the ground

    I am pleased to report a little progress.

    Over the last few weeks I have been slowly tinkering and, while I still don't quite have a game, I have actually managed to construct enough of a game to stumble through a couple of turns to see the basic mechanics starting to work.  A bit.
    A few meeples, cubes and bits of card and you too can have a gorgeous looking prototype just like this.
    So, what I have at the moment is a dozen or so cards, each of which nominally has two available actions, but in practice are about half way there.  I have prepared these using a basic template in the nanDECK software, so now if I want to add a new card, or add/change an action on an existing card, I can quickly edit a text file and then print off the new cards with almost no effort.  Apart from that I have player mats for a couple of players, which allow for agents to be placed on either a homeworld or a colony, a central board with four key locations onboard the space station itself, and a score board allowing scores to be tracked in Prestige, Political Support, Economy and Military strength.  Several of the actions I have prepared manipulate these four scores in assorted ways.

    I just spent a little while placing agents, playing cards, and so on for a dummy two-player game.  The basics seem to work OK but, of course, there is a long way to go here.

    Some observations...

    • Some of the actions that look most interesting to me are the ones that require you to affect multiple players (e.g. giving a bonus to two players, likely to be you and another player).
    • I don't think this game will work well with two players (I want politics and negotiation to be a major feature), so future tests should take this into account.  
    • Aside from negotiation, etc., I think this game should play fairly quickly, which is something I very much want.
    • Some actions get played covertly (i.e. face down) and can use further actions to boost their effect before they are revealed at an appropriate time.  This looks like it should work well, as it can allow some bluffing and misdirection (we can see this guy is up to something -- should we worry).
    • A very useful action would be to look at face-down cards, but it will take some thought (and playtesting) to figure out how much information should be gained for how much effort.
    • The game desperately needs events to happen.  I envisaged having an external threat that players need to interact with (and this is what the C&C location on the space station is about), and without this the game looks like it would be a bit dull.
    So... So far, so good -- if rather slow.  I need to fill out more of the cards (if necessary I can expand the game at this stage by just printing two of each card, but I still need to get rid of the gaps) and set up a small deck of event cards.  Then I need to do some form of test with at least three players -- probably just me pretending to be three people at first.

    More on this later...


    Trying to learn from clever people at UK Games Expo

    This weekend we had a family day trip to the UK Games Expo, and had a grand old day of it, trying out a few games, buying a few, and generally nosing around the place.  I was planning to spend a little time in the playtest area and try out some of the games other folk are working on, but unfortunately other things got in the way.

    One of the things that got in the way, however, was a great seminar entitled "The Science of Board Games", with prolific game designer, Reiner Knizia, science journalist and Radio 4 presenter, Quentin Cooper, and mathematician, Andrew Brooke-Taylor.  Quentin presented his gaming bona fides (I think playing Battle Line with his 9-month-pregnant wife counts for both of them), before setting Reiner off on an interesting talk on his approach to game design, and then rounding off with a decent Q&A session which brought Andrew nicely into the mix.
    More of my trademark terrible photography, but there's Dr Knizia explaining something or other.
    The main points I took away from Reiner's talk were:
    • He talked about restricting degrees of freedom for players.  Effectively a game that allows too much leeway for player action is probably a poor one.  The game should constrain what can be done at any given point, thus forcing interesting decisions.
    • Something that came up a few times was the concept of a "magic point" for a game, that spark that makes the game from a mathematical exercise into a fun, interesting game.  This is, I think, where my own work is somewhat lacking.  I think this is probably a similar concept to the "core engagement" that game designers often talk about.
    • The other key thing that interested me was discussion of auction games.  Specifically that auctions are related to a mathematical area of "election theory", which is something I will look into.  He also discussed one particular type of auction where both the first and second placed bidders have to pay; this has interesting implications in that there can be strange bidding patterns like, for example, a £10 being sold at auction for more that £10 as bidders try to minimise their losses.
    Aside from this talk, there was some interesting discussion, but I was particularly pleased to hear Andrew giving a shout out to Dobble from a mathematical point of view.  The game is effectively a supercharged version of snap, where there are many cards, each bearing a few symbols, but the point is that any two cards has exactly one symbol in common, and the game is in trying to spot the match as quickly as possible, which can be very hard.  Simple as the game is to play, the mathematics of getting the cards set up just right is a thing of beauty that I would never have either thought of or been able to execute on, and it's great to see someone acknowledging this stroke of genius in game design.

    Later in the afternoon there was another seminar entitled "Gaming With Children".  Most of this was actually just talking about games that people would recommend for playing with youngsters, but it did touch on some interesting discussion about some points of game design in the context of child-friendly games.  I think this might have developed into something really good, but the session was very squeezed for time due to the previous seminar overrunning quite significantly.

    For me the most interesting points came from Nigel Scarfe from Imagination Gaming, which is the group who run the Family Zone at the Expo and who, as their main work, bring boardgames into schools to play with the kids.  I know a lot about playing games with my daughter, but Nigel knows an awful lot about what works with children in general.  He said he has three key rules for games that he would start children off with:
    1. The rules need to be explainable in 30 seconds.
    2. A game should be playable inside about 15 minutes.
    3. Forgive me on this one, but I got a bit mixed up and can't remember if this is the third point, but I think what he said was that the game must make the kids laugh.  It may have been something different, but this is a good rule anyway.
    I think that as a gateway game, rule 2 is a very good one.  It's great to have a game that is over quickly and leaves the players saying either, "Let's go again!" or, "What can we play next?" rather than being worn out.

    Rule 3 is one I like too.  Not all games need to be funny, but most of the memorable gaming moments in my life are ones which involve a lot of laughter (often, actually, due to someone -- often me -- suffering some crushing calamity).  Games don't need to be designed for comedy but when there is the space for surprises, glorious successes and epic fails, there is great potential for laughter.

    My favourite of these, however, is rule 1.  It's not something I have really consciously thought about, but I really should have.  While you don't need to be able to explain everything about the game in 30 seconds, you should at least be able to ground the players so that they know what is coming and, preferably, are able to start playing.  Some games, clearly, will be such that none of this is actually possible, and I'd hate for the bigger, more complicated games to not be around, but I would like to propose a rule that I intend to work by.

    Rob's game design rule number 1: The core of the rules should be explainable in 30 seconds. If this is not possible, there should be a damned good reason.  I'll try to stick to that.  I don't imagine I'll make many games with actual 30 second rule explanations, but I will aim to end up with games that have a 30 second summary that, even if there's still a lot to explain, will at least have players about ready to go.

    Something that occurred to me at the time, but there wasn't the space to bring up, is that game components can make a huge difference to how easy it is to explain rules.  Carcassonne, for instance, needs almost no explanation for how you can place tiles: you just put them down so they look right. Most games won't have this sort of mechanism available, but the more components that give you solid clues as to their use, the better.


    Kingdom building, of sorts

    A friend was talking to me about wanting to find a game that, and I can't remember his exact words, was a lightish, quickish kingdom building, strategy game, and he liked the idea of having elements interacting with each other by proximity to each other.  Actually, his words were quite a lot different from that as I am pretty sure I am conflating a couple of things that we were talking about, but let's run with this as a starting point anyway.  There are almost certainly some other games out there that would fit this, but I'm wanting to design things, right?
    A bunch of stuff scribbled onto little squares of card, all put on a chessboard with some cubes.  All the glamour of game prototyping.

    My first thought on this was to do a tableau building card game.  As you build up the tableau and activate cards for special abilities, the effects are influenced by how far away certain other cards are in the display.  I can see a couple of potential problems here right away: firstly that card tableaux can easily take up a lot of table and I would prefer light games to take up controllable amounts of space in general, and secondly this might result in little direct player interaction and I think we were really looking for a game that allows you to attack your rivals.  That said, I quite like the idea of attacking players adjacent to you around the table, but not further away, which can have some interesting repercussions in games with four or more players.

    I next thought of tile laying.  I very much like tile-laying games, whether open ones like Carcassonne, where a map is built which can sprawl over the table in unpredictable ways (though see my earlier comments about table space) or ones that restrict themselves to a finite grid, like in Kingdoms.  Tiles as a game component don't really do anything that cards don't, but can have a wonderful tactility and would generally allow for a more compact play area than cards would allow.  I like the rapid flow of both of those games where each turn is not much more than draw a tile and place it somewhere.

    Another game that comes to mind at this point is Tigris & Euphrates, which is a kind of kingdom building game which I haven't played for some years, which has players building up blocks of tiles, though the blocks don't necessarily correspond with player-controlled kingdoms.

    I think this time I'll try going with tiles.  Here are some of the thoughts I noted down to try to develop the idea...
    • Tiles contain locations like farms, markets, forts, castles, etc. 
    • A row of tiles equal to one more tile than the number of players is on display.
    • Each player on turn chooses one tile from the row, then places it on the board.
    • If there are no tiles available at the start of a player's turn, then that player draws replacement tiles (1 + number of players).
    • Most tiles provide some sort of resource (food, gold, military strength...).  That resource is projected over a number of spaces (-1 per space).
    • Most tiles require a certain number of resources to allow their placement (projected a number of spaces as above).  Resources can contribute to placing a tile if they are either controlled by the active player, or are neutral (no control marker on them).  So, for example, a Market might project 2 gold, meaning that 2 gold is available to tiles on adjacent spaces, and 1 gold to tiles two spaces away.
    • When placed, a player places one of their control markers onto the new tile.  If they have no control marker available, they move it from another tile.
    • Conflict: a control marker can be removed from a rival controlled tile or added to a neutral tile, subject to influence projected by castles and forts (work out  the details) plus a card play (I envisage something like having cards numbered 1 to 6, allowing you to play one card to add to combat strength, and having to cycle through all cards before restarting).  Details to be figured out.
    • Victory: no idea as yet, but having something that pretty much requires conflict to take place would be good.
    • Also... I think this is likely to be pretty dry as is, so some sort of wackifying influence is required. This could be event cards, special abilities, secret victory conditions, etc.  This needs more thought, but I think only really needs to be worried about if the basic mechanics are solid.
    So, I thought, let's try some of this out.  I figured that I would start off with the very basics and made a couple of dozen "tiles", each with a title, a requirement for building and something that it provides.  For instance, a market requires 1 food and provides 2 food, while a fort requires 1 food and 1 gold, and provides 1 military.  Adding a couple of starter tiles and a few cubes in two colours, I was able to try playing this at its most basic level, using a chess board to provide the playing area.

    Some thoughts on this experience...
    • The "game" such as it is plays pretty smoothly, even though it is boring.
    • Without a scoring or victory system in place there is nothing to do here... but I knew that when I started trying this out, so this isn't a problem.
    • Even using just half a chessboard, it took several turns for player moves to even look like they were going to affect each other.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be noted.
    • I had basic production tiles producing 1 of either gold or food, but that seems to be too limiting.  Making the base production 2 would allow a lot more flexibility.
    • I had a few "advanced" tiles (like a castle, which is an upgrade for a fort), which are utterly useless if they turn up in the first couple of rounds.
    • Related, there should be a way to allow a player to discard a tile instead of drawing one.
    • A "flat" board is dull.  Having some sort of terrain would be good, and could restrict placement of certain tiles (e.g. mines on mountains, farms on... not mountains).
    • Maybe some strategic locations added to the board could help things along.
    • As it stands, production and supply only affects placement of tiles.  There is not really a "machine" to build.  This isn't necessarily a problem (driving a machine can be fiddly) but may limit depth.
    So, some things to think about here.  I think my next step has to be to provide some sort of objective, turn the board into some sort of a map (maybe as simple at first as black squares are mountains, white are not), and maybe have a setup phase where players have an initial hand of basic tiles to play before we get into drafting tiles that may be more advanced.



    From the archives: Quick Quack Quo

    Here's something that I was working on about a year ago, pretty much at the start of my current bout of interest in game design.  It was inspired by a list of game challenges that someone posted on BoardGameGeek, one of which was to create a game using nine cards.

    I don't remember all the processes that I went through while working on this, but I ended up thinking about combining a worker placement mechanic with a tic-tac-toe game, where the nine cards were used to form the three-by-three board (different configurations make for different games) and each had some different effect in game.  I found some cute wooden duck meeples, which worked nicely with the idea of trying to get your ducks in a row, and I introduced a couple of resources to swap about: bread, because ducks like bread  (though it's not good for them, kids!) and little bread bits were also available, and... umm... coins because I ran out of inspiration.  Incidentally, the rules linked below don't specify how many resources to use.  I found that 5 each of bread and coins seems about right.
    Yes, it's a game all about getting your ducks in a row.  Maybe I should do one about singing from the same hymn sheet.

    This game also gave me an introduction to nanDECK for creating the cards.  My graphic design skills are, of course, terrible, but at least the software allowed me to produce passable prototype components reasonably easily.

    After some playing and revision I ended up with a version that isn't awful.  It is what it is, a little, not-completely-trivial, but lightweight two-player game.  Sometimes, however, the cards end up laid out in such a way that the first player gets a huge advantage, so if I was to do more work on this game I would certainly have to look into that, but for now I think I will leave it as a good little exercise that got me going.

    Incidentally, I can't remember where I got the images I used on the cards, and I didn't make a note at the time (something I do now), but I'm pretty sure I used stuff that was freely reusable.  Apologies for the lack of credits.

    Rules on DropBox
    Cards on DropBox


    Snakes and Ladders redux... with added groundhogs

    Inspiration can come in strange places.  I was reading an interesting post about a forthcoming time travel game which basically allows players to repeatedly play through the same scenario, a la Groundhog Day, in order to finally solve The Problem or defeat the Big Bad.  This got me thinking about similar ideas where you played through a relatively simple game multiple times, which allowed you to modify your actions a little on each run in order to gradually improve your moves based on what  you see others doing.

    My first thought was of something like Robo Rally, where the whole game was preprogrammed (it would have to be a lot shorter than a typical game of Robo Rally!) and on each run of the race each player could switch out a small number of their program cards.

    Pondering on this some more, I figured it would be good to explore the mechanic by dropping it into a game that's about as simple as they come.  So, Snakes & Ladders...

    The problem with Snakes & Ladders, if you worry about this sort of thing, is that there are no choices to be made: you just roll the die, move the pawn, and then go up if you hit the foot of a ladder, or down if you hit the head of a snake.  The game essentially plays itself.

    Now, if instead of dice we had a deck of cards with the numbers 1 to 6 on them (each number represented, say, 3 or 4 times), and just flipped over the cards one at a time you would have the same effect, though the distribution of cards within the deck would shape the outcome, whereas a true die would give proper randomness.  The die could (though is very unlikely to) always roll a 6, while the cards couldn't unless every card in the deck was a 6.

    If, for one player, we now dealt out ten cards, face down in a row, we have now predetermined the first ten moves in the game.  So far we still have a completely random game.

    Now, if the player draws a hand of, say, four cards, these cards can be used to substitute for the predetermined cards.  Each time a card is turned over, the player has the opportunity to discard that card and replace it with one from his hand.  Then the card that is chosen is used to move the pawn, obeying the usual rules of the original game.

    At the end of the ten cards, the player will have progressed some way along the board, but probably not to the end.  So, flip the cards back over, keeping them in the same order, draw a fresh hand of cards, put the pawn back on the start space and try again.  Over a few plays the player should be able to get further and maybe even (depending on the board layout) get to the end.
    It's a basic prototype, but it's all that's needed.

    To make this into a multi-player game, each player has their own deck of cards, colour coded on the faces.  Each of the ten moves has a pile of cards, one for each player, and for each of these moves one player acts as MC, picks up the pile of cards, gives them a shuffle and then turns them over one at a time.  I thought about trying to maintain the order of the cards to add some predictability, but decided that the chaos of each move being shuffled should add to the fun.  Each player decides whether to switch the card as it is turned over, and then moves his pawn.  If a pawn ends its move on another pawn at any time, then the one that has been landed on moves back one space.

    The ten-turn game is repeated up to five times (an arbitrary number that seems about right).  If someone reaches (or passes -- exact numbers are not requires) the last space on the board at any time, they instantly win.  Otherwise, whoever has got the furthest at the end of the fifth race is the winner.

    So, to test...  As it turns out, we didn't actually have a snakes and ladder board in the house, so I found a printable board on t'internet and made do with that.  I also marked up two sets of cards on flashcards that I keep around for this purpose and then kicked myself for not thinking of using the cards from Ave Caesar, which would have been just the job.  Rookie mistake.

    Then I played through a couple of two-player games, playing both sides myself...

    The problem is that on the board I had, there was a good chance of hitting a ladder that took you to two spaces from the finish within a couple of turns, and that was what happened both times.  I didn't even get through the ten cards for the first time.

    Thinking all this through I realise a couple of things.  Firstly the design of the board is absolutely critical to the game and can't be thrown together in a random way as most Snakes & Ladders boards seem to be.  Secondly, this set up pretty much means that the game can be all but over in the first couple of turns, given a lucky draw.

    I think that perhaps with more players and possibly restricting further the number of cards that can be played in a race (plus, of course, a better designed board) we could have something OK.  I'm not sure if I'll do another round of this particular experiment (maybe I will), but I expect I will have another go at this whole "Groundhog Day" concept.


    In which treasure is found

    Today was my daughter, Miss B's school May Fayre.  Rooting through the white elephant stall, we found an intact-looking copy of Labyrinth, a great little game of chasing around a maze that keeps on changing, making navigation difficult to predict.  Unfortunately, getting the game home I discovered that one of the map tiles was missing.  Whereas a missing tile in, say, Carcassonne is unfortunate but ultimately no big deal, in Labyrinth this makes the game unplayable by its intended rules.
    Cute wizard minis.  Gotta love cute wizard minis.

    My immediate reaction was, shame, but look at all these new components to add to my bits box.  I mean, I still have a bunch of map tiles that'll be useful for something, and this edition of the game has some really cool wizard miniatures, each having its own sculpt.  All that will find its way into some game or another at some point.  Heck, I've been thinking about working on some sort of dungeon crawl game...


    Space Station 7, more words, still nothing playable

    Moving on from my previous post on Space Station 7, I got to work on solidifying some ideas so I could actually have some sort of prototype to play around with. I still have some way to go on that front, but I have a lot more ideas thought through and written down.
    Awesome though it is to post pictures of the ISS I really must put some effort in to provide pictures of my own. Picture from NASA, obtained via commons.wikimedia.org.

    So the idea for the game is a combination of card play and worker placement or action selection. I envisage the game involving play passing round the table with each player taking a short turn which essentially involves placing an agent somewhere and resolving the result, and continuing until everyone passes, after which agents are recovered, time moves on, and we go through the whole thing again.

     The main spots to place agents would be either a main board, representing SS7 itself, which provides a few opportunities for action, or a player's own mini-board representing their homeworld and colonies, providing other actions, some of which might be specific to the race/species that the player is controlling. Tying in to this, cards would have multiple uses, and be playable in a couple of these locations to allow one of the card effects to take place. For instance, a card might allow for use in building up military strength if played with an agent on a homeworld, or for calling for another player to suffer economic sanctions if played with an agent on the council chamber on the station itself.

    I feel that about four locations on the station should work out about right (this could easily change later) and so far I have thought of using:
    • Command & Control for actions about resolving event cards (oh, I haven't mentioned that yet -- better do that soon).
    • The Council Chamber for political actions that would basically be votes that could advantage or disadvantage one or more players.
    • The Forum, a "mingling" area where players could build influence with non-player factions.
    • Down Below, where actions can be used to interact with the black market, use espionage actions, and so on.
    I envisage most of the main action cards including one action available for one of the SS7 locations and one for a homeworld or colony location.  I may make it three actions on each card, but suspect that getting enough information onto the cards for that (while keeping them manageable) could be a struggle.

    A final use for the cards (for now) would be to discard them to supplement something else.  A discarded card could add one (possibly more -- that's a matter for testing and balancing) vote in the council chamber, for instance.  Or you can discard a card to move an agent, effectively getting an extra action (this could be huge -- maybe you need to discard more than one card in this case).  In fact, there could be a value printed on the cards to specify its strength when used in this sort of way.

    To balance all this, players need to receive a set number of new cards each turn, so the choice is to save or spend.  If hands got replenished to a certain size each turn, the "correct" thing to do would almost always be to use all your cards every time.

    With all these goings-on, I think we will need to have some resources that need tracking.  Resources is probably not the right name for them, but it'll do for now.  Whether these get tracked by moving a marker along a racetrack, by collecting counters, or something else, is not relevant at the moment.  For now I think we probably need something to represent political support (which could translate to votes in the council chamber), an economy, and military strength.  All of these are massive abstractions, but they seem about right.

    Of course, something I haven't really got into at this point is victory conditions, but it would be nice if everyone had their own (possibly secret) victory conditions, some or all of which could be related to the resources being tracked.

    I'll just mention events now, even though I'm not planning on using them in the first prototype.  I figured that it would be nice to have some sort of external stimuli for the players to give them something extra to think about each turn.  If done right, this should help develop a narrative for the game and add an extra layer of interest.  This could be along the lines of an attack by space pirates, the arrival of mysterious "other" aliens, or discovery of an ancient ghost ship.  Players would then be able to commit resources to resolving the challenges presented and may gain something useful as a result.  I am not entirely sure how to handle this, but it would be nice if there could be scenarios set by different decks of event cards.  I've seen this done well in the game Rune Age.

    Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I still don't have a prototype, but what I do have is a much clearer idea of where I am going.  Of course, that is bound to change, but you have to start somewhere, right?

    My plan right now is to make a list of a bunch of actions that could be on cards and then construct enough cards to play through a turn or two with two players, just to see if the basic mechanics look okay.  When that is done I'll write up another post and we'll see where we can go from there.


    Introducing Space Station 7

    Here's a game that I have actually come up with a working title for. And please note that this game has absolutely nothing to do with any TV shows that might have been based on space stations with numbers, and any similarity to any such shows is purely coincidental. Right, now we have that out of the way...
    An actual space station which is probably not home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Picture from NASA, obtained via commons.wikimedia.org.

    The idea was inspired by seeing a review of Among The Stars, which commented that it was really quite cool that the game was based around building space stations and wouldn't it be great if more games were about space stations rather than building galactic empires and the usual stuff along those lines.  That sounded like a good sentiment to me, but I thought what I'd like to do would be something a bit political based on the sort of space station where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully, but often had different agendas that might make that lofty aim a little tricky.

    I pondered on this for a while and had one mechanic that I thought could be interesting (I'm sure there was something that inspired this, but can't remember what it was): using cards for events and actions, but selecting some of the cards that will be available to you for each turn right at the beginning of the game.  So you get the opportunity to lay the skeleton of a strategy early on by, for example, ensuring that you will have the card that allows you to launch a military attack on turn 4, or an assassination on turn 2.  With cards like this, incidentally, I wanted to make sure that any card had multiple possible uses, so you will have some flexibility, plus there should be additional cards available each round which would give more options than those that have been pre-scripted.

    So we are looking at a game that is at least partly card driven, but I also liked the idea of using a form of action selection or worker placement.  I would actually hesitate to use the term worker placement as among many gamers that seems to evoke a game where placing a worker is as much to deny your opponents an opportunity as it is to gain something yourself, and I don't think I'll be going strongly down that path, but I do like the idea that you control an ambassador, an attaché, and maybe a couple of other agents and each round you select what each of them will be doing.  You could have a central board representing the space station, with areas for choosing assorted actions, and perhaps some of the cards that get played would require an agent to be placed on them to activate.

    With this sort of stuff in mind I got out my supplies of blank cards and got started on knocking together a first prototype with some guesses at what could be on the cards for actions.

    That was probably my first mistake.  A little while later I had a small pile of cards with a load of incoherent writing and scribbling on them, much of it crossed out and none of it really making any sense.  When someone tells you to prototype early, they probably mean you to have at least a bit of an idea of what should go on the cards, tokens or whatever.

    This is starting to ramble on a bit, so I will pause here and continue soon with something about my next steps.


    It's drafty out here

    The game I have worked on most over the last couple of months is a game which doesn't even have a working title.  This is a horrible omission and one which I must rectify soon.  But for now it is mostly known as "My Drafting Game".
    Cards from V0.3 (third prototype). It's a staged picture, but building a tableau looks a bit like this.

    The general idea was to try creating a card game with virtually no downtime (that time when you are waiting for somebody else to take their turn) that wouldn't take up too much space on a table and could be played easily within an hour-long lunch break, including teaching folk how to play.  I liked the idea of using a drafting mechanic, where players all choose a card to keep for themselves from a selection dealt to them before passing the remainder to the next player.  This method of play is probably most famously implemented by the award winning game 7 Wonders, which is really something to aspire to.

    This game was really mechanics-led from the start, which is the root of my struggling to give it a name.  Nevertheless, I decided on a pasted-on theme of shadowy factions vying with each other to have the most influence in a medieval/fantasy city.  Pasting a bit of theme on at the beginning of the process has actually guided some decisions as I went along, so hopefully the theme will end up being a bit more integrated by the time I am done.

    With all this in mind, I figured there would be two main types of card.  One, which I have dubbed "city cards" represent the people and places within our city and which provide resources in the shape of influence.  The influence would be over one of four different power bases within the city: the church, the military, the guilds and the people.  Some cards would provide influence of more than one type.

    The second type of card is "personage cards" and these are the figurehead characters within the city who really sway things.  In essence, personages yield victory points depending on the influence you have acquired.  So, for instance, "The Mayor" gives you one victory point for each point of influence you have with the people, and another point for each influence with the guilds.

    My first prototype was just a small number of cards like this, which I tried out a couple of times with my daughter.  The game was incredibly dull but basically worked.  You needed to collect a combination of personage and city cards, and that was about it.

    At this point I already had plans of what to do next: I wanted to have some special effects that mixed things up a little when certain cards went into play.  So I added a bit of text to the personage cards, ran off a new set of cards (I'm using a piece of software called nanDECK for this, about which I expect I will post another time) and had another try.

    I had a few plays of the second prototype with a few different people, including a really useful session with a couple of guys at work.  While the game basically worked, some of the effects I had added in had the tendency to just destroy any strategy that someone might be developing.  A bad run of play could basically turn the game into a big ball of Not Fun for one of the players.  This is definitely something to be avoided if possible, although it is possibly less of a problem in a short game like this.

    Armed with this feedback, and some comments from elsewhere, I expanded the size of the deck (we now have 54 cards) and tweaked a lot of the effects to, hopefully, make them (at least mostly) more fun even if you are on the wrong side of them.

    And that is where we have got to now.  I have only managed to play the latest version once so far, but have some feedback from that and from another friend who has read over the materials.  Hopefully we'll get a few more test plays done soon, but already I am getting the feeling that there may be too many personages in the deck.

    Thread on BoardGameGeek
    Game files on DropBox


    A Statement of Intent

    My name is Rob and I am, amongst other things, a gamer. Mostly a board gamer. Over the last couple of years I have been developing a growing urge to design my own board games. I have made a couple in the past that weren't very good, but haven't really focussed on learning the art and the craft.
    One of the game shelves.  For some reason I feel the need to make more. Games, that is, not shelves.
    So, over the last couple of months or so I have actually started to really work on my game design skills, and have started to assemble prototypes and test them, and am learning just how far I have to go before I can consider myself even slightly competent at this.

    As part of the process, I have decided to keep this blog as a sort of journal and record of my progress. I plan to post plans and musings, works-in-progress, and resources that I find to help me on my way. We'll see how this goes...