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TC Petty III
XENON PROFITEER 2015!
Remember me? That coffee guy. The cautiously ambitious designer diary writer with a new indie game on Kickstarter. The one with the pageboy haircut. The one that uses his initials as his professional name and ends it with the third. You don't? Well, it's been almost four years, so you should by now.
Because my name is T. C. Petty III, designer of VivaJava and various VivaJava-related products. I am new and improved. I’m totally Twitter-famous. I have my own microbadge!
And today, my newest game — Xenon Profiteer published by Eagle-Gryphon Games — is now available for retail purchase. It's lucky number 17 in the bookshelf series. Don't feel bad about not Kickstarting it. You were probably confused.
The last time we spoke, I was a wanderer. I had just recently quit my terrible job as a daycab truck dispatcher, moved to a new "apartment" (second floor of my old boss's home), and was deciding on the next big evolution for my life. The VivaJava Kickstarter campaign became the number eight most funded game project at the time, and I was driving around the East Coast visiting neglected friends and wondering if there were any real future in this game design thing.
Four years later, I've officially upgraded my current status from wanderer to nomad. I'm still living in that same second floor apartment, still driving a dragon-egg-shaped vehicle, still creating games which now generate more publisher interest than derision, and still wondering if there is any real future in this game design thing. I have a part-time job as a croupier in a rural Pennsylvania casino to pay the bills while I attempt the starving artist/game designer routine. But the big difference is that I spent the last four years analyzing game design, slathering myself in design articles, soaking up all the juicy bits, and luxuriating in my glistening, oily, elitist game design mindset. This caused me to gain twenty five pounds. The only reason.
"Xenon Profiteer". The name just rolls off the tongue. In America, it's pronounced ZEE-nawn Praw-fi-TEER. Everywhere else, it's pronounced ZEH-nawn Praw-fi-TEER. And if you don't like the game, you could call it MEH-non Profiteer.
The first question that comes to mind when one hears the name "Xenon Profiteer" is: "Is this a sci-fi game?" No, it is not. The second question is: "Is this a science game?" Umm, not really. There's no difficult math to do and the science involved is real, but it's an economic, business, engine-building, deck-deconstruction card game. The third question isn't really a question; it's more of a statement. "Okay?"
Xenon Profiteer is a game for 2 to 4 players about the cryogenic distillation of xenon from air. Players are each given control of a new distillation facility and are tasked with improving the facility's modern system to more efficiently distill this valuable xenon and utilize it to complete true-to-life contracts for clients in various sectors. The player that scores the most points from completing contracts, building pipelines, and installing system upgrades is the winner.
Before you swipe left, let me explain the game in a more palatable way, the way I explain it to those that stare at me quizzically. It's like an un-deck-builder.
Distilling is like panning for gold, but in this case you are panning for xenon. The idea: Air goes in. This jumble of separate elements (N, O, Kr, Xe) is what mucks up the player's system, or "deck". Each turn players draw a new hand and must distill out the elements in order of real, systematic priority (N to O to Kr to Xe). When only Xe remains in hand, it can be stored, and the player can use that stored Xe to fulfill real world contracts (entertainment, medical research, etc.). Want more xenon and a little spending cash? You have to add more air, and that means junking up your system.
To help with this puzzle, you have a few upgrades to start with that you can play from your hand to augment the distilling process. And not only can you buy new upgrades from a communal line-up and place them into your deck, you can also install them to your tableau for a higher cost and use them every turn. Contracts, your main source of points, are free to take from the line-up, but require xenon to complete and give you a combination of cash and points for game end. It's all built right in front of you.
I'm not a big deck-building fan. In fact, for the past few years, I've been completely burnt out on deck-building. That's why this game appeals to me. I don't even call it a deck-builder. I call it a "card game". For me, the most funnest part of deck-building is actually the culling or getting rid of cards. I love honing. I love the decision between mitigating luck down to nothing and risking the luck of the draw because there's just not enough time, because in most deck-builders you don't say, "Look, I built this awesome deck" at the end. You either say, "I got 37 points", or "Well, I beat that boss. Game over."
One of the main goals in development was to kill as many deck-building negatives as possible and replace them with awesome stuff that's cool. Bullet list!
• Buying something and not being able to use it before the game is over: Players can INSTALL cards to their tableau and use their abilities every turn. They can also reshuffle their deck by choosing OVERTIME.
• Excessive luck of the draw determining buying power: Money is not printed on the cards. Money is tokens and is kept from turn to turn. It's not solely dependent on your draw!
• Wasted turns: Each turn has a set of three actions that must be taken. Even if one of these actions is inefficient, there are always two more and there's always OVERTIME. The only wasted turn could be the final one and that's if someone else ends the game and you're unprepared.
• (And one specific to certain games like Star Realms and the DC Comics Deck-Builder) Buying a crappy card from the line, only to open an awesome card for the next player to scoop up: Players can take the WIPE action to discard an entire line of cards, then they have the first opportunity to BUY cards from this new line-up. Also, players may place BID tokens on cards that they want, both giving themselves a discount to purchase them later and making the price more expensive for others.
And most importantly, when you're done, instead of just a deck of face-down cards that you will never use again, you can gaze in awe at your beautifully constructed distillation facility and say, "I built this, this STUPID THING THAT LOST ME THE GAME BY THREE POINTS!" And flip the table.
But Xenon Profiteer wasn't always an oddball deck-building alternative for nerds. Before I even came up with the concept for the game, there was an evolution in my game design philosophies, an epiphany that set me on the track towards the navy blues and deep purples, the sexy modern look of this high-concept game of facility management with a really hot logo.
Some of the comments I make within this diary are going to be very personal, and I will cross that line. I tend to do that when something is close to my heart. I will divulge information I probably should silence. I will show you the color of my heart, that cold metal, mathematical thing in my chest that makes me care deeply about something when I shouldn't.
Excursions Into Boredom: The Birthing of Xenon
Why are board games so boring?
Sometime over the last few years, I discovered a weird, but universal truth about my game designs. The more boring the concept of the game, the easier it is to freely design and create a new world to explore. There are fewer preconceived notions about how the game has to work or what mechanisms must be implemented for players to enjoy the game. The more epic and ambitious the idea, the more potential for me to revise inside my head for months and months until the game itself justifies its attachment to the coolness of the theme — which in many cases is never.
There's something deeply humorous (absurdist? dadaist?) about creating a game that transforms an activity that sounds absolutely un-fun into a deeply rewarding experience, and it's apparent that I'm not the only one that agrees. Some of the most popular games on this site have the most boring titles, cover art, and themes that the world has ever known, but against all odds, and with intense focus on the fundamentals that make gameplay truly engaging, they pull even the most skeptical board gamer deep into their worlds of abstract grids and crop farming and transitioning from canals to railroads. Seriously, Brass is a game about the transition from canal systems to railroads. Riveting. How is this not considered ridiculous? How is it not considered art?
For example, here's a list of some of the ideas that I have written notes about during my brainstorming sessions, searching for the truth in boredom. Pirates of the Carbon Copy: The game about being a pirate accountant managing receipts or letters of marque for plundered goods to pass through naval blockades. Watch It Grow!: The game about watching plants grow. Towers: The Game of Building Towers. The Lady with the Dog (based on an Anton Chekhov short story). Copyright And Patent Law: The Game. Scuffles: Minor battles in history that were seen as small tactical maneuvers. Sleeping Well: The Game about the Science Behind a Good Night's Sleep. Reading Is For Everyone: A game literally about reading books.
Why do I do this? Why does any of this work? Because it's funny or historically significant or weird. And it puts a specific focus on the game itself, the interweaving mechanisms and the branching strategic possibilities inspired by real, unexplored systems; it makes the process exciting. Even with the designers who have no idea they are creating something that makes people want to hammer nails into their toes just to remind them that they are still alive, it's hard to argue with results. You make the unbearably cryptic accessible. You make games with names like "Hansa Teutonica" or "Village".
Sorry, I fell asleep writing that last sentence. The freedom to create interesting mechanisms that support the theme without fear of alienating the target market creates intrigue. (Also dismissal, but we'll address that soon.) Because if you name your game "Dragon Rampage" or tack the friggin' word "Legacy" or "Wars" on it, it's an equally uninspired, banal snoozefest of a pandering title.
I've been trying to unlock the key to what makes a board game boring. Is it the drab atmosphere, the browns and grays and silvers of a nondescript renaissance age village? Is it a focus on abstract mechanisms that interweave themselves into a chimeric point salad? Is it another fantasy or sci-fi themed game with a ridiculous theme and focus on rolling dice to hit, when you could be playing a more immersive video game instead? Is it cards with incidental art and a single number in the upper left corner? Is it cards with words? Is it the constant thumbing through dry rulebook pages with ambiguous text blobs? Is it being forced to make everything "family friendly" even though most all dedicated board gamers are way past age 21?
I think what I've discovered is that a game is boring only if the gameplay it has to offer isn't magical, if it doesn't distinguish itself by making you think in a new way or engaging you within its world. Board games have this transformative ability to actually improve a player's life by challenging their brain or bringing them back to emotional normalcy. (See episode 5 of Deep Design included at the 38:00 mark on the Perfect Information Podcast.) They have to power to surprise and delight, but most importantly, the power to challenge your assumptions. It's why changing a theme simply to include something that "sells", like dragons or space battles or both, just shows how abstract the game system actually is. It ends up feeling wrong. Players can tell.
Xenon Profiteer was created due to this Twitter interaction.
I don't know which rulebook Ben Pinchback (one of the Fleet designers) was proofing at the time, but it must have been imperfect because I went on to create Xenon Profiteer within the next few days. In fact, I was able to create the beginnings of what would become Xenon Profiteer as I stood around at a dead table, not dealing cards. I made my first scribblings on a handful of rectangles cut from a single sheet of watercolor paper, and the long road to creating the single greatest game about cryogenic distillation EVER began.
Why the name "Xenon Profiteer"? Well, originally it was entitled "Xenon Profitier" with an extraneous, French-looking "i". This was an homage to two games that I enjoy that have some of the least engaging titles and box covers I have ever seen: Credit Mobilier and Global Mogul. To make it worse, I began to abbreviate the title to "Xe$Pro", something which can still be seen on the old PnP files and was designed to look like the old FoxPro or Quicken business logos from the 1990s.
I had become obsessed with merging gameplay and theme in a way that cannot easily be separated, yet still keeping that strategic, puzzly core of the Euro. It's one of the biggest criticisms of the genre: pasted themes and abstraction. I've been challenging myself to design games that absolutely cannot be transposed into other themes without drastically altering the gameplay. The idea of culling a hierarchy of items to get down to the one you want was alluring to me.
I won't mention the specific details about the revision process, or how I came to create the connection system or the permanent tableau of a facility. These all progressed naturally as solutions to problems early in the design process, but I will mention that I stepped far from my comfort zone with this one.
Designer Chevee Dodd is always adamant about relaying the same advice for all new designers: Make a prototype as soon as possible and as cheaply as possible. I rarely take this advice. I spend months planning a prototype and writing notes in my journal until all the pieces come together perfectly and I make the first game. But since I had never made a card game before, and I knew that card games generally require hundreds of iterations and plays before all the interweaving powers and mechanisms hash themselves out, I took his advice.
I made a prototype in fifteen minutes. It sucked. I fixed a piece. It sucked. I fixed another few things and made another. It sucked less. Within three nights of playing the game by myself time after time, I had created seven different iterations with pen and paper. Sleeves just got in the way of revisions. In one month, October 2013, Xenon Profiteer went from not existing to beta form and received at least fifty playtests, both solo and with my loyal playtesting group whom I love to death. I guess I have to admit that Chevee wasn't wrong about at least one thing!
Creating a deck-destruction game, or a reverse deck-builder, isn't necessarily a unique idea. Just about everyone has decided to put a spin on deck-builders in every conceivable way possible and it's generally very annoying, but I think this is what intrigues me about a game about isolating the element xenon. The mechanism isn't being forced into the fray; it literally makes perfect sense. There's no artificial "elevation through theme". It's a boring concept that is fueled by mechanisms that work and that are fun.
Convincing others that a game like this could be fun, that would be a challenge, I assumed. Who wants to play a game about cryogenic distillation? Show of hands!
Enter The Ion Award
"5/10: I could see this being more appealing to the hobby games market with a sci fi graphic design added." —anonymous judge feedback from Ion Award competition
I didn't think any publishers would want my game. I wasn't being histrionic. I assumed, rightly so, that the esoteric theme about cryogenic distillation would confuse them and a lot of potential players.
During the brisk, wintry months of 2013, I played the game with Chris Kirkman from Dice Hate Me Games to get his personal opinion. We both agreed that it was a good game, but it just wasn't something that fit into the Dice Hate Me Americana Boutique brand. It was at that time that we entertained the idea and started the initial consultation process for me to self-publish the game. I wanted to give it a little time and send some feelers to publishers, just in case. Maybe someone could figure out a way to add dragons, plaster a new theme onto it, and make a viable product.
A few days later, I found out about a little contest called the Ion Award through some errant Twitter posts and made a quick decision to submit my game for consideration. At that point, I had already posted a PnP beta version to my Tumblr blog and had a few playtesters respond, so I knew that the rules were functional. I sighed a little inwardly as I Paypaled over the entry fee, knowing full well that the Ion Award ceremony took place in Salt Lake City at SaltCON and that it was long shot.
But now that the contest is over and it's been two years, I get to start a little drama! I found out that I had won the contest well in advance of the actual announcement date. Okay, I didn't "know", but unless I didn't screw something up, I was in the final four entries and had a very very good chance. My first indication that I may have a good chance at winning the competition was when one of the judges of the contest contacted me through Twitter and stated how cool it looked, confiding in me that he had rated it highly and that he heard through the channels that other publishers had as well. Other publishers? I won't rat on my informant. Let's just call him P. Nickell. No, wait, that's too obvious, let's call him Patrick N. instead.
So, yes, the startling secret I discovered that same week was that several West Coast publishers were actually judges for the contest and used it as a casual game-farming tool. Cue the next day, when a second publisher contacted me by email. And then a few days later another by Twitter. And then another by email. And then another by email. I was reminded of the old Lending Tree commercial tag-line: "When publishers fight for you, you win!" Suddenly, my completely oddball little card game had several intrigued parties.
I was scouted at Unpub 3 by Ralph Anderson for Eagle-Gryphon, who was waiting patiently at my blue table when I arrived that morning. That was back before Unpub 5, when on Saturday morning the entire convention hall wasn't standing room only. I rounded up two other designers to play, and we ruined the plastic tablecloth with my sleeved grayscale prototype. Shortly afterwards, I sent out two prototypes to them for testing. I paid my "real entry fee" which turned out to be a four-hundred dollar plane ticket to Salt Lake City, and suddenly, my unmarketable, unairing, un-deck-building game was no longer going to be unpublished!
Here is me, humbly accepting my award. (Just to be clear, there are at least four different fonts on this award. And the game title is not in "comic sans". It's clearly a more dignified "marker felt". Much classier!)
Also, here is me sending my mom a selfie from outside the original Utah Mormon temple. I took a convenient rail downtown before my flight home from SaltCON and spent a few hours walking around. In our last episode of T. C. Petty III designer diary, I stated that I was brought up Mormon. I felt somewhat obligated, somewhat excited to make my pilgrimage. It was strange to see so many taller, modern buildings surrounding it, blocking it out. There was a cool mall nearby sandwiched into the buildings over multiple blocks. I had a cheesesteak. It was a weird feeling.
Luckily, I was able to repair my relationships with all the publishers that I regrettably shirked during the competition, and Michael Mindes from Tasty Minstrel Games even got revenge by holding one of my other games hostage for five months, so now he owes me a published game.
At SaltCON, I met for the first time with the Eagle-Gryphon team and shook Rick Soued's hand (the owner), met Toby and Joanne, and everyone was very warm to me. They had even been talking during the show and stated that they were thinking of running the Kickstarter in July! I think I briefly made a face somewhere between surprise and disbelief where all the folds in my cheeks went in different directions, but nodded politely. It was April. Three month turnaround would've been awesome, but I realized that there was no way that was happening.
It totally didn't happen. Sometime around August, after talking to Matt Riddle (the other Fleet designer), I sent a follow-up email, curious about the status of everything. I'm a pretty laid-back individual, so even though we spoke briefly at Origins 2014 (VivaJava Dice was releasing then), that was my first official check-up since April. I think the response was something like, "Well, what ideas did YOU have?" As you can probably expect, it wasn't a response that thrilled me.
Luckily, I had done a little research of my own, had a few outside conversations with other designers in the Eagle-Gryphon queue, so I was prepared for what was going to happen next. I was about to be offered a budget and a timeline. Full control.
One of the positives about having full creative control over a project is that your "vision" is rarely compromised; one of the negatives about having full creative control is that you have full control. You do nearly all the work. You don't always get paid.
Full disclosure: Xenon Profiteer as presented in the box was made on a shoestring budget. I was given the task of art director/project manager for Xenon Profiteer after a few months and I gotta be honest — I didn't want it. I'm not an art director.
But I was in a difficult position at that point. There was the option of saying no. However that wasn't really a good option. Either I could assume full control over the art direction and attempt to ensure a quality game at standards consistent with my own aesthetical tolerance as a game consumer, or I could roll the dice, refuse to do the work, and possibly end up with no game at all or a Wizard's Brew. Shudder. I chose to do the work.
Luckily, Daniel Solis, a graphic designer and game designer I highly respect, was very generous with his pricing and the timing was right. I also happen to create spreadsheets for my games in the exact same format that he does. His work was speedy and solid, and without too many revisions together we were able to create a shared vision that makes me very proud.
To Eagle-Gryphon's credit, they had originally expressed interest in a possible theme change which I was ambivalent about, but they decided to allow the quirky theme to remain. When I started adding thematic flavor text to cards, changed the size of the cards to bridge, and added a fourth deck of cards to the game during further testing just to make sure that it was extremely unlikely for a pile of element cards to run out during the game, they did not balk. In fact, with the exception of the thirteen-card expansion that was noticeably absent from the final game box, even though I proofed the cards (the rules for which are included inside the game box), the entire game was produced at a high level of quality with all my specifications. Very awesome. And when I didn't catch that the player count icon stated 2-5 players (while the game is for only 2-4 players), they were nice enough to add a sticker to the box.
Yes, somehow, after months of work and proofing three times electronically and physically, I didn't notice that the game box stated 2-5 players and nothing in the rules or anywhere else contradicted this. It wasn't until after I created a final prototype using the box for Looting London and gluing the digital proof to the outside that my dad casually mentioned at a family dinner, "Oh, 2-5 players, that's pretty good". And I casually replied, "No, it's only...fffffuuuuuuUUUUUUU..."
At times I was frustrated by the experience. I actually sent a final production PDF file for the rulebook using an Indesign save file with the name "xenonrulebookrevisedbfuckyou", unaware that when InDesign creates PDFs for print, they actually put the file name in the margin. When I received an email from someone, luckily not Rick, stating that there was a problem with the margin, I saw the filename. My face went pale and I freaked out and immediately changed it before re-sending the revised file. I'm not sure whether Rick ever saw it, but I apologized profusely and crossed my fingers and never mentioned it again. Lesson learned: Don't name your files while angry after being up for twenty-four hours working.
On that note, even though I hated having to do it, I created the entire rulebook myself from scratch. I did. It was out of necessity, but in the end, the experience was amazing. Case in point, if you like the rulebook to Xenon Profiteer, feel free to hire me to do your rulebook's layout. My rates are reasonable.
Here's why it was awesome: During the Kickstarter campaign, the near-complete rulebook was uploaded to the Eagle-Gryphon website and backers could peruse it. Well, it just so happens that Heiko Gunther, the graphic designer responsible for several Artana titles and the Glory to Rome Black Box edition, likes VivaJava Dice, so he read the rules to Xenon and came onto the BGG game forum page with a question.
I have always struggled with rulebooks. Rulebooks are hard. Ever backed a Kickstarter project? There's a ninety percent chance its rulebook sucks. It's one of the big reasons why people use the phrase "typical Kickstarter". Awesome art. Awesome components. Hopefully awesome gameplay. Rulebook sucks. Typical Kickstarter.
Heiko critiqued my rulebook by stating that even though it said words, it didn't actually state anything definitively. His brief corrections were absolutely spot-on, and I thanked him thoroughly through Geekmail. We started talking, and the next day, after I pressed to see whether anything else was amiss, he sent me a huge list of problems with the rulebook. Seriously, I'm not going to post it here because it was long and thorough, but I systematically jumped into the rulebook file and reworded or changed every single thing he typed. Maybe he's just a savant at this stuff and it took him five minutes, but I swear he did an hour or two of proofing work for me as a gift. I can swallow my ego easily when I respect and admire someone as much as Heiko and he is willing to help me just because he enjoyed one of my games.
I'm now getting compliments on the rulebook! COMPLIMENTS! This never happens! But the thing is, this never would have happened if I wasn't making the rules myself. It would have been a struggle to make changes like this if Daniel had control; probably would've taken two or three Skype calls. Such a labor-intensive, brain-bending, painful blessing in disguise!
Then and Now: Adding New Tools to the Arsenal
Now that I've mentioned some of the people that made Xenon Profiteer the easily dismissible game that is taking up space on the shelves at a warehouse currently, let's take a trip backwards in time, back to 2011, back when VivaJava: The Coffee Game was still in development.
It was a balmy year filled with hope and promise, when every new day I awoke at 3 a.m. to the sound of my clamshell work cellphone chirping and every afternoon ended with me screaming at one of 35 drivers that couldn't follow instructions. VivaJava and the eventual publication of said game was like a chilled glass of iced coffee in hell. It was a twinkle of hope in a very dark place.
Back then, I did my best. I created all the prototype materials in a terrible entry-level Corel drawing program, changing and saving each file one-by-one, then transferring and pasting them into a Word document for printing. My six-year-old Macbook's fan made clicking sounds and smelled ever-so-faintly of burnt plastic the entire time.
It was so simple back then. I was so inefficient and ignorant to the wonders of technology. When I started to blind playtest the game, very few people even knew I existed. I posted onto a BGG forum with a request for playtesters and luckily received two responses. I was elated to send them my hastily cut and painted prototypes and happy to receive a few paragraphs in return about their experience. How cute.
Sometime in 2012, Darrell Louder gave me his old Mac Mini. Gave me it. Crazy generous. Included on this machine was the entire Adobe Suite. Darrell spent five minutes showing me how to use Illustrator, and it literally and figuratively changed my entire world. Within a week or two, I went from having zero experience to creating an entire prototype rulebook in Indesign, exclusively using Illustrator to create all icons and layouts for my next game design, and only begrudgingly using Photoshop when absolutely required. I was well on my way to becoming a true graphic design snob, although I still don't understand the difference between font and typeface.
By the time I was ready to create an initial prototype for Xenon Profiteer, I was utilizing advanced techniques to efficiently pump out prototypes at ten times the speed. Continuing with the social generosity, Daniel Solis showed me how to use datamerge to create cards, and before I even made the first card for Xenon on a computer, I had laid out an entire spreadsheet with all card info, text, and icons. With a few clicks, Indesign created an entire, fully updated PnP file with all cards. I was now advising Darrell and other designers on how to use InDesign for this function.
I wasn't a fledgeling game designer just fiddling around anymore. I had Adobe. I had an iPhone. I was a cybernetically enhanced prototyping machine set to kill.
I became more focused and introspective. I bought a game design journal. It was bright, candy red, and big as a textbook. I began to devour articles about game design. The knowledge I retained spurred me on to experiment more with my designs and regurgitate my findings on social media. I now have 2,400 followers on Twitter and at least fifty of them aren't bots. I started to care about color-blind people.
Here is the unedited manifesto I wrote in a fit on page 41 of my game design journal:
I want to explore every aspect of game design. Every facet, from start to finish. I want to know every major publisher by name and face and be able to have an inside joke running with each of the cool ones, I want to know every trick and approach to creation and have examples to follow that exemplify each type of creative design endeavor. There is no subject that I want to ignore. No designer too small to glean inspiration, no jack-asses too smug that I won't be able to learn in their shadows. I will strive to be the best. I will earn respect by being true to my own design philosophies and always being willing to share any knowledge I've gained. This respect will only be used to fuel my designs until I die. I will put out the best, most consistent and competent products onto the market that I love. I will never stop. I will know everything there is to know and then I will plow on further into the abyss. And I will make a game about it. And it will be extremely good.
You were not supposed to read that.
Armed with the confidence that I was truly going to charge into game design, not just as a hobby, but as a career, I started becoming more prolific, and I started defining my special approach to creating tabletop experiences.
In the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro is a character of singular focus. He wakes up every day at the same time. He follows the same specific steps and prepares sushi with a repetitive, meditative efficiency that only a master can attain. When he's not working, he dreams of working. His process becomes incrementally more refined with each passing day and there is a reason why his sushi is considered the best sushi in the entire world. He dreams of it. He improves every day with one singular focus.
I realized that however inspiring his story may be, I am not Jiro, and I need to embrace that fact. He does not need to be creative. He does not need to build a new world with each new project he embarks upon. I do. And I can't nor should I always resist the call of play. Both for my sanity and for this line of work, a lack of play and expression breeds complacency and staleness. I feel bad for some of the career designers that have lost their relevance in the last few years. Come on, Knizia, don't be a curmudgeon. You have your legacy. Now adapt and make a collaboration with Feld. I'll buy it.
But it wasn't only technology and morale, I was stealing game design ideas from everywhere. Above is a picture of my decision tree for the different phases of Xenon Profiteer. To help refine the game experience, once most of the pieces were in place in a beta version, I created this tree along with the percentages to justify the existence of the game's mechanisms. The percentage represents how often a player might choose the action, and using it I knew which abilities to add in order to make the game choices more difficult and satisfying, and where to make hard cuts. I can't even remember who I stole it from.
Most importantly, I created a PnP file for Xenon Profiteer and posted it openly on the Internet calling for blind playtesters and discussion. I have and will continue to do this with every game I make. With VivaJava, I had to fight for blind playtesting. Since its release, people have craned their necks in my direction when I release a PnP file, and I am extremely grateful that my friends have taken the time to print out these files and provide me feedback. When I go to conventions, it's a warm fuzzy to have other designers and friends ask to play my prototypes.
I became deeply involved with Unpub in 2012 and have been ever since. It provides both a system of small conventions to help game designers set up events in their local area for playtesting and an online feedback system that keeps a record of and tabulates all scores that players have given each of a designer's games within the system. It's amazing to be involved with a program that started with around twenty people in a church and has grown to a main event that is expecting nearly two thousand attendees in 2016 at Unpub 6 (not to mention the smaller events that have been hosted in Brazil, UK, Poland, Canada and all around the U.S.) I've made a ton of contacts and a ton of friends.
Which is helpful because though it may not seem this way, I am shy and always have been. I need a push to break out of my comfort zone in social situations.
My Feelings Never Change
I buy Chinese food from the same place once a week. I don't buy there because the food is amazing. (It's good, though.) I buy there because the girl at the counter makes no attempt to engage me with a smile or with conversation. In and out. I enjoy fast food and chain restaurants because they make me feel welcome. Not in a way that a welcoming smile or hug might, but in a cold, genericized "What would you like today, sir?" way that helps me blend into the situation. Local places tend to have people that want to talk to you. I don't like that. As much as it sounds ridiculous to even type it, if I had the option, I'd rather punch my order into a computer and receive it from a slot, like a vending machine, like something from a 1950s vision of the future.
But I love my friends. Even just a few days ago, when I accidentally slept through a State of Games podcast recording, my friends were immediately worried that I was dead. It's comforting to know that somebody doesn't want you dead. This dichotomy, the Internet calls this personality trait "introvert": anxiety about outsiders, an inability to small talk, and complete attachment to and comfortability around close friends. Sometimes I have to retreat from everything.
What I noticed, with Xenon Profiteer especially, is the tremendous outpouring of support from other game designers and friends. During the Kickstarter campaign, there was a Twitter message advertising the game from someone on average every five hours. For the entire campaign. Usually stuff like that hits hard on day one, then disappears until the final day. And the support just came from everywhere. All the friendly faces I'd met; their names would briefly pop up as backers. I'm terrible at thank yous, but thank you.
It's the kind of support that I'll need for every game I create, the grassroots rumbling and evangelizing of a sleeper hit, because with the release of Xenon Profiteer just now, and with the months to come, I'll have a chance to hear everything else, to let my ego wade in a overwhelming, sticky black bean soup of questions and negativity that emerges after the release of a new game. For some reason, the brain just loves to focus on the negative even when surrounded by positivity.
For example, I wrote the blog entry below just after Spiel with no intent to ever publish it. I don't know whether other people do this — write and half-edit something only to delete it or place it deep into a file on a hard-drive and forget it until years later. I do it out of self-preservation. I never call out reviewers or specific people in public. I try not to be defensive. Everyone has their own opinion, and I want them to. No one should ever feel bad about writing a negative review of one of my games or rating them, but I will share it. This is the way I cry whiny man tears — from my fingers.
The most frustrating part about game design is the reception. Three games in and I still want to scream obscenities in random Internet people's stupid idiot electronic faces.
It's even worse for someone like myself, who becomes highly invested in the project. Many times, I'm either directly involved in the entire process, going over proofs, writing a rulebook, and developing until the files are sent overseas for production. I spend a huge amount of time openly playtesting, providing free PnP files for blind testing, and revising games to the point that other designers have started telling me to not "T. C." my games so much.
I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I've played a ton of games and have been critical of a ton of games. I want my games to be the best they can possibly be, and I invite aid from various friends and reputable sources to make sure that I'm not designing in a bubble. I want my games to create that sort of tabletop magic that I found so endearing in all of my favorite games. I want my games to be of a high quality in both components and gameplay.
And I'm not crazy when I state that my games are "good" and compare highly with some of the best games on the market for innovation and satisfying, long-term gameplay.
So when I see Xenon Profiteer
get a flat 5 rating from someone random on the Internet BEFORE it's been released to the market, it's like a gut punch. Here is some guy/girl that has the opportunity to play one of the handful of copies that exist of a game that I spent two years creating and molding and sanding down to a perfect structure and they give it a 5. No comment.
A 5. This game is okay. I played it once. There's nothing new here. It doesn't engage me. There is nothing to debate. Bland. 5.
This will be my legacy. The worst and most devastating treatment. My games aren't bad; they're just easily dismissed. My epitaph will read, "T. C. Petty III: Game Designer: Why did he spend so much time on something he's clearly just okay at? I don't get it. 5/10." Yes, I will have a life rating on my tombstone.
I have to get used to this. It'll be the same with every oddball title. People won't like your games. Many of them are going to be esoteric or eccentric. Xenon Profiteer
is a game about cryogenic distillation. No matter what interesting mechanisms you slap onto that shell, there will be people out there that simply dismiss it. I don't see it cracking the BGG top 100 anytime soon.
I have to remind myself of the judge's ratings from the Ion Award competition (which were gladly sent to me in spreadsheet form). Half the ratings were 4/10. The other half were 9s or 10s. Nothing in-between. If judges were that wild at the Olympics, I think you'd see a few judges getting fired very quickly. That spreadsheet hurt your brain, remember? And still, somehow, you won.
And all of this is okay. But why is it so different with the wargamer niche? Wargamers love to inflate ratings of their favorite game systems and historical time periods, even while knowingly discussing the inaccuracies and cumbersome nature of many of them. I have a game about an esoteric theme that is extremely thematic, and it induces finger-waving and boredom from the same people that would cry for something different! Imagine if wargames were rated by players in the same way. We'd see the same exact disparity as the Ion Award judges above. "It's a game. Sounds boring. 4/10." War games would be simultaneously receiving 9s and above from the dedicated players that love wargaming and 4s from the rest of the world.
What sucks is that I know the game is good and I also know it's niche. Niche within a niche. I just wish that those niche-bashers would stay quiet and let me enjoy a wildly high rating with around 500 dedicated and interested players like good war games get. Let me have my dedicated fans, adequate sales numbers, and the ability to continue making little pieces of balanced weirdness. I'm not asking for much.
Either way, it's difficult to stay silent. I've worked so hard on this game and I just saw it for real over this weekend. And it looked gorgeous. The little bridge cards. The cross-style cardboard insert. The cute Distillation Console with a player's turn sequence. When I arrived at the convention, Rik, the person who bought the copy at Essen, told me how often the game had been played and demoed over the week. It made me happy. The cards looked crisp even with all the use. The box was shiny.
When they gave away all the Spiel games as door prizes later that night, all the new games were piled onto a single table and badge numbers were read aloud by a man standing on a chair and holding a microphone. I couldn't resist watching. I wanted to see who would pick up Xenon Profiteer
. Twenty names later. Forty names later. Six games left on the table and someone finally picks up the game. It made me sad. I knew that all the other games had bigger boxes and more expensive price tags, so I had prepared myself for the worst, but it still made me sad.
But when it was picked, more than a few people got excited and clapped. They pointed in my direction, and I humbly signed the first copy of Xenon Profiteer
that I had ever seen.
My biggest fear has always been that it will disappear. That Xenon Profiteer
will be the non-canon T. C. Petty III game. Something I did. That kinda cool thing that flew under the radar. The 5. Something about a 5 with no comment. It just sticks with me worse than any other rating could.
I fear dismissal. It doesn't help me make more games. Honestly, when I think about it, I don't really care about the ratings as long as it wins more awards! I'm so funny.
So go give Imperial Assault
and Arena of the Planeswalkers
a 5. It'll make all us indie designers feel angsty and cool. Stick it to the "design by committee", time-clock punching, homogenized, corporate game designers. You can return to bashing my games once they sell out and get into the BGG top 1000.
Let me be your Sekigahara
of cryogenic distillation.
The Point of It All
I like Xenon Profiteer. It's a pretty cool game.
I think most people will be surprised at how fast Xenon Profiteer is — not simply in game length (I call it a power-filler), but in the ability to begin setting up combos. The game does not last for as many turns as you might think, so every action you take needs to push you forward and the abilities you can acquire are straight-forward and feel immediately powerful.
My favorite part of Xenon Profiteer is a little hard to explain. It's that moment when you're playing and you realize that everyone at the table is trying out a different strategy, and that the strategy you tried last game isn't the strategy you have now. Each upgrade card feels overpowered, and becomes even more so when combined with other upgrades. It's a very satisfying feeling to set up a chugging engine to either drown in cash, drop bid tokens on everything, draw a ton of cards, or pump out xenon to fulfill contracts. And then watch as someone else wins by better balancing these things.
Xenon Profiteer is also one of those games that will cause a murmur of controversy in board game circles. The game is set in present day and is highly thematic, with flavor text included on every single card in the game. Upgrades are named after important pieces of a cryogenic distillation facility and legitimately function similar to their real-life counterparts. Contracts from the government, medical, and entertainment fields represent actual contracts a large distillation facility might take on. The rulebook is framed like a technical manual for running system software. The science is real. And every detail was combed over to make sure it is true to life. (Even "Pressure Swing Adsorption" is spelled correctly.) I even added variable player powers based on common résumé entries.
It's impossible to say that it isn't thematic. It does everything about thematic games so right, and yet so wrong. The flavor text is just about as dry as any sentence I could possibly find — and just about as interesting to me, personally, as the flavor text on any Magic card.
The point of Xenon Profiteer is to tap into that little thing called board game magic. Most of us don't work at a cryogenic distillation facility, nor do we dreamily fantasize about the possibility. Xenon Profiteer is my blatant homage to all the boring, esoteric Euro games that I have played and adored with absolutely no interest in the subject matter. And a little middle finger to stuffy thematic game types that can't enjoy anything outside of their flavor-text heavy, exception-based gameplay comfort zone. It doesn't sound fun at all; it just IS fun. And I hope that realization brings a smile to at least one player's face. First you get the distillation facility, then you get the xenon, then you get the power.
Xenon Profiteer takes a familiar concept like deck-building and the racing-style Euro game, creates a variation of both, and pumps out a new game. That's not exactly how I would phrase it on an advertisement as it completely ignores all of what I consider to make the game clever, but it doesn't make the statement any less true. It is new, but also an evolution. I could expound upon its loftier purpose in reverent tones, say that it is like a haiku — that is, a a simple, thematic statement that artistically examines an often overlooked piece of our modern framework. By building an infrastructure, tempering chaos, and trying to control the air itself, we can observe man's true conflict, the fight to find sense in an infinitely insensible world. A poem in game form.
It sounds good, but in the end, it's an experiment in mechanisms supporting theme. It's a weird little game, which is par for the course for me, and I think it's pretty awesome.
You can't go into Xenon Profiteer with any sense of hype. There is no fireball throwing, time travel, explosions, or anime art to fall back onto. It's a game, a little escapist fantasy about running a business that strives to draw you into its world merely by the interesting and strategic interactions players have while building their engines and solving a puzzle each turn. Less standing up and cheering; more smiling deeply and feeling the warm satisfaction in your bones.
I'd like to end this diary on a downer. Someday I'll die. The problem with dying is that it comes with that really lame part about being dead. I can't make any more games, and I can't watch all the cool stuff that happens afterward. Like, what's the point in having a long slide show with orchestral music for all the dead actors and directors at the Academy Awards if you don't get to watch your own or see the impact your life has on people in the future? I hope Xenon Profiteer is still being played after my untimely death in 2054, which I can only assume will be from being burned alive while sword-fighting through a wave of terrorists on a cliff edge. I hope it makes ripples in the timeline. I hope my future games make that ripple a splash.
Because as much fun as being lifted to heaven by a Valkyrie as I watch my flaming carcass explode in a geyser of blood against the ocean-swept rocks below along with a decimated regiment of evil soldiers sounds awesome, I'd rather spend my last moments making a particularly clever play in a game of Puerto Rico. Sounds super boring. Sounds perfect.
Thanks to everyone who supported me! Now's your chance to go buy Xenon Profiteer. It's the perfect Christmas gift for anyone who likes to breathe air.
Alan R. Moon
In 2013/2014, I designed several Ticket to Ride maps that I hoped would be the new products for 2015 and maybe 2016. I know it's a tease, but I can't tell you much about them except to say the two new maps have significant new elements not in the existing games. Of course, the best laid plans always seem doomed to fail, and my plan was no exception.
Late in 2014, Mark Kaufman called me on a Sunday to tell me that he and Eric Hautemont had sold Days Of Wonder to Asmodee. To say I was stunned would be a huge understatement. Mark said he and Eric Hautemont, the two guys I was used to working with on Ticket to Ride, were both leaving the company and my new point guy was going to be Adrien Martinot. My next thought was, "Wow, I won't have to try to translate Eric's machine-gun, rapid speak, French accent phone calls anymore." But then my following thought was "Geez, Adrien's French, too, and not even a semi-Americanized Frenchman like Eric. Is there any chance his accent will be easier?"
I won't say anything more about his accent, but Adrien has been a very pleasant surprise. A man of many ideas, Adrien had good and bad news for me. The bad news was that he didn't want to use the maps I'd already designed for new products in 2015. The good news was he had an idea for a new map. Adrien suggested a Ticket to Ride UK map and emailed me an outline of some ways to add "technology" to the rules. His impetus being that because the UK was where railroads were born, we should try to add that into the mix. I was immediately taken with the idea and started thinking about how technology could be integrated into the basic system.
Almost every expansion I have done starts out as a moderately complicated version of basic Ticket to Ride, changing the game in one or more very significant ways and adding lots of new rules. Fortunately, in every case, the actual published versions are quite streamlined compared to their first prototypes because my goal is first and foremost to retain the heart of what is Ticket to Ride while adding a new, fun experience for the fans of the game. While the UK map in Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 5 is probably the most involved of all the expansions, I feel like the added features are still very easy to pick up.
The first UK prototypes featured a Tech Chart with four or five tracks of technological developments. Here is one early version:
There were numerous versions of the chart, each change an attempt to balance the tracks on the chart and provide multiple and equal paths to victory — but it was not to be.
The major problem was that the developments were all "bought" with points. In every playtest, one or more players jumped out ahead on points and were then able to buy more tech than the ones lagging behind. It was also hard to balance the relative worth of the tech tracks, so it always seemed like focusing on one track first was the obvious choice.
After quite a few attempts, changing the Chart after each play, I came to the conclusion that I just couldn't make it work. It became obvious that it was going to be impossible to balance the options on the Tech Tracks — at least, not in the time I had. Maybe if I playtested it for year, maybe I could have make it work, maybe, but certainly not in the couple of months I had.
When I announced that I was giving up on the Chart, the three playtesters present were incredibly disappointed. I spent the next hour talking to them about the game and trying to present my reasons for needing to try something else. Their passion for the Chart-driven game surprised me, and even though I assured them the next version without the Chart would probably appeal to them, they weren't thrilled. Their lack of confidence in my ability to create another version they thought would be as fun was a little disappointing, but luckily I was confident enough for all of us, at least outwardly. The discussion with them was one of the most interesting design discussions I've ever had.
Instead of the Tech Chart, I decided to go with what I consider one of my strengths as a game designer: cards. So the spaces on the tracks of the Tech Chart became cards. This was immediately better and felt more like an appropriate Ticket to Ride expansion, but the problem of a runaway leader or leaders remained.
The next step was to change the cost of the cards to a mix of points and Wild Cards. Again, better, but still not right. The final step was to use only Wild Cards to pay for the Tech Cards. Ten minutes into that first playtest with this payment method, I knew I was almost there (a very satisfying feeling for a game designer during development). The actual cards and their costs changed quite a bit, as did the number of copies of each card, but that was just a matter of more testing.
The other thing I wanted to make different about the UK was the map itself. Because of the size of the land portions, I knew it would be able to handle only four players at most right from the start. I also knew it would need lots of small routes because the distances between the major cities were so short. Luckily, short routes were going to work well with the technology rules since players would be able to build only one and two space routes at the start. The pleasant surprise for me was the congestion created around London and the midlands, which also worked well with the technology.
There seem to be four basic strategies in the game:
-----1. Buy the Boiler Lagging Tech Card first. Build lots of small routes in England and Scotland. You will gain 20+ points for the Boiler Lagging Card. You will not need to buy that many other Tech Cards, maybe only the Scotland Concession and Mechanical Stoker Cards.
-----2. Build from Southampton through London north to Edinburgh and Glasgow, then start drawing Tickets. At the crucial moment when the game is about to end, buy the Double Heading Card. You will gain 20+ points for the Double Heading Card.
-----3. Draw lots of cards, including Wild Cards whenever available. Don't build any routes. Don't worry about your Tickets. Buy the Booster Card early. Claim the Southampton-NYC route as quickly as possible. After that, buy the Steam Turbine, Ireland/France Concession, Propellers, and Superheated Steam Boiler Cards. After you have all of these cards, buy the following Ferry routes: Penzance-Cork, Belfast-Barrow, Plymouth-Southampton, Dover-France, and Newcastle-Hull. Those routes will need 22 trains. That will leave you with three trains, so you will need to build one other route to initiate the end of the game. You will score 94 points plus/minus your tickets. If you can end the game quickly enough, you can win. The key will be getting enough Wild Cards, so this is more of a gambling strategy, but it's also fun. Of course, it can also be messed up if an opponent buys one of the key routes you need.
-----4. Use a more balanced approach based on your initial Ticket Draw like other Ticket To Ride games. You may want to draw more Tickets on your first turn just to clarify your strategy. Building routes in Ireland initially, especially if no other player is building there, can be a winning strategy when combined with builds from Ireland to Scotland, Wales, and England later in the game. The key to this strategy is to buy only as many Tech Cards as you need. Don't waste Wild Cards buying a Tech Card that you use only once.
Of course the preceding, especially the first three options, assumes no one else is following the same strategy as you. If someone else is following the same strategy, you will probably need to modify your choices.
The end result is a game that feels like Ticket To Ride with some fun differences and additions. I particularly love the fact that players have to build smaller routes so they spend a lot more turns playing cards — which also means the competition for routes is heavy right from the start, particularly on the double routes that run from Southampton north to Scotland. There are alternate routes, but many of them require Tech Cards.
The Advanced Technology Cards were not fully playtested and should definitely not be used if any of the players are playing for the first time. There were quite a few other possible Tech Cards that did not make it into the game.
The Pennsylvania map was done before I started on the UK map. For many years, my good friend Erik Arneson had encouraged me to design a PA map for Ticket To Ride, his main argument being that PA was such a perfectly rectangular shape. I would always laugh when he suggested this. While I hate to admit it publicly, he was actually right, at least about the shape. But as I thought about it more, I realized that Colorado was also a rectangle and it had tons of railroad history, so the second map of this expansion started out as Colorado. My basic idea was to add Stock Shares of the railroads into the game that players would receive for building certain routes.
Unfortunately, while Colorado had tons of railroads from which to choose, including favorites like the Cripple Creek, Cimarron Valley, Rock & Rail, Cumbres & Toltec, and Durango & Silverton, they were mostly "very" short lines, so it quickly became obvious that I couldn't create enough routes for them.
At that point, it was like Erik's voice was in my head, and my eyes turned to Pennsylvania. I had been so enamored with the Colorado railroads that it had blocked out the plainly evident fact that Pennsylvania also had a ton of railroad history and great railroads. As soon as I started researching the railroads and their lines, I knew PA was the right choice.
The rules for the Stock Shares are similar to the new rules for Passengers in the Germany map game. They create some interesting choices. Since the first share is the ultimate tie-breaker for each railroad, it can be very important to build routes early. It can also influence your choice of routes to build. Sometimes, building more short routes can be valuable to give you more shares. Sometimes, building a specific route just to get the last share or one of the last remaining shares available can increase the points you will receive for that Railroad. It is easy to get too distracted by the shares though, and sometimes it's best just to follow a more normal Ticket To Ride strategy.
There is a Big Cities element in the game, with Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City as the Big Cities. All six of these cities are connected to each other as Tickets, and each of these six cities has one more Ticket as well, meaning that 21 of the 50 Tickets in the game involve the Big Cities.
Finally, I wanted the PA map to feel more like the USA map than the other expansions, so there are lots of big routes to build.
The playtesting of the PA map was fairly uneventful. I started out with more railroads than the final version, but fewer railroads provided more competition and put the emphasis on the big lines like the PRR and B&O. There were a few route changes and some Ticket changes, but the game quickly came together. The last few playtests were very fun with one or more players trying to end the game quickly and others trying to pick up as many Stock Shares as possible.
There are a number of personal things in this expansion. The two maps include Southampton which is where I was born and Syracuse which is where I currently live. I really like the fact that Reading is on both maps and that three of the four Monopoly railroad lines are also present. Perhaps the most fun for me though is the Southampton-New York route, which is a tribute to my grandfather who was a steward on the Queen Mary his whole life, sailing back and forth along that route.
I hope you enjoy both of these maps as much as I enjoyed designing them — and I hope that in 2016 you'll see the two maps I designed before these two...
Preorder One Night Ultimate Werewolf now from www.beziergames.com
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
Back in the Day...
After Daybreak (the standalone expansion to One Night Ultimate Werewolf) was completed in mid-2014, I figured that I was done with the One Night series for a while as the base game and Daybreak provided a pretty much complete experience for One Night players, ranging from simple roles to really interesting, complex ones. I thought I would probably put out a few more expansions because there are cards that were on the sidelines for a variety of reasons, but as far as gameplay goes, One Night was locked in place.
I had started working on One Night Revolution for Indy Boards & Cards, and I thought that ONR would be a nice sideways step for the mechanisms in the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf, mainly by splitting the role from the player's team. One of the things I had been toying with was preventing a player from using their night action in Revolution, and this was done by a player giving a "disable" token to another player, who would wake up later in the turn order to discover he couldn't do his night action because someone before him had disabled him. Neat idea, but for a variety of reasons it just didn't work in ONR.
Would You Like a Bite?
That idea of "giving" something to someone stuck with me, and one morning I woke up with the idea of a new One Night role card for a Vampire, who would "give" his gift of vampirism to another player by biting them. Actual physical biting was considered, then quickly dismissed, but the idea of the Vampire player giving a "bite" token to another non-Vampire player was pretty solid. Of course, then everyone would know who was bitten, which would suck (pun intended) for the victim.
New idea: What if everyone started with one of those tokens, a blank one, then the Vampire exchanged the blank one for a bite? Problem solved! But that would require ten blank tokens (one for each player) and a bite token (maybe two because of the Doppelganger) just for that one role card. The publisher side of my brain did the math and rolled his eyes at the designer side of my brain — yet another idea crushed by the realities of publishing.
Marks Take Hold and Won't Let Go
A few days pass, and in the Shower of All Great Ideas™ I'm struck by Cupid's arrow. Well, not his arrow (that would hurt, and I'm married, so it would be awkward, too) but instead by how I could get Cupid to work in One Night. Cupid, you see, is one of the more popular roles in Ultimate Werewolf: One player causes two other players to fall madly in love, so much so that if one of them dies, the other dies of a broken heart. These new tokens required for the Vampire role would also work for Cupid — two players could receive one of Cupid's arrows! And if Cupid woke up after the Vampire, Cupid could cure Vampirism. (A "love heals all wounds" kind of thing — very romantic of me in hindsight.)
So now there's a thing — these tokens could really add some flavor to the game by marking the players with various attributes. I renamed them "marks" (Mark of the Vampire and Mark of Love) and thought about what else would work with this new mechanism. The original idea was a Mark of Disabling, which sounded a little too crippling to be fun, but what if a special-powered vampire scared someone so much they couldn't do their night action? A Mark of Fear! The Count was given this ability — and an uncanny resemblance to a certain muppet.
The Marks of Nothing were renamed to Marks of Clarity during this process, too.
Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch of Mark-Manipulating Characters
Now things were looking good. I looked through the dozens of characters in Ultimate Werewolf Deluxe Edition to see whether any more might work with the new Marks system and found the poor Diseased role, who in the "big" game makes werewolves sick, preventing them from eating the second night. Of course, there is no second night in One Night (or it would be called "One Nights", which is a grammatical nightmare).
No one wants some terrible, very communicable disease, but because it is so contagious, the Diseased gives a Mark of the Disease to the player sitting directly to their left or right. And because the Diseased is on the village team, they have a really fun defense: If anyone points at a player with disease, that player (not their team) loses (even if their team wins) because thematically they contract the disease and die a horrible painful death while the other team members are partying in the village square to celebrate their victory.
What's really fun about this is that the Diseased can give their disease to a vampire, which still has to be killed in order for the village to win, but YOU don't want to be pointing at them. (You'll need to convince everyone else to do so while you point at some other random player, thus ensuring that your team will win, even though most of them will end up losing because they pointed at a Diseased player.) Really fun!
The Tanner in the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf, who has to die in order to win and in doing so prevents the werewolves from winning, is a fun role. I really like the idea of additional teams, and in creating the Assassin, that's what you get: a new "team" of one that can win only if his target, whom he's given the Mark of the Assassin, dies. He's got to convince the players to kill his target (he can't do it alone), knowing that if they suss out that he's the Assassin, his motives aren't to be trusted and they might go another way. However, with the Assassin, if he wins, other teams can still win, so if the Assassin is lucky enough to put a mark on a Vampire, he should have an easy time getting the village on his side. Likewise, if he's targeted an innocent villager, he might be able to sway the Vampires to help kill said villager.
One of my favorite new roles is yet *another* solo team. Originally I thought it might be fun if the Assassin had a helper, a morally-challenged Robin to the Assassin's Azrael-style Batman. (Extra points if you don't have to look up that reference.) The Apprentice Assassin would help the Assassin kill the player with the Mark of the Assassin — but after a few playtests, it wasn't nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. Keeping the name, the new Apprentice Assassin has a single goal: to be the Assassin. How does she do that? By killing the original Assassin! What's super cool about the interaction here is what happens at night: The Assassin wakes up and places his Mark of the Assassin on a player, then *doesn't close his eyes*. The Apprentice Assassin wakes up and sees him, and the Assassin sees her and knows she wants to kill him. They're totally aware of each other, but neither can say anything about the other or they'll never manage to kill their respective targets!
The Priest came about as a way for the Villagers to ward off the avalanche of Marks being played. He rids both himself and a player of his choice of any Marks, giving them a blank "Mark of Nothing". (That was the working title of the "empty" marks.) This worked thematically quite well as it ensured that the Priest couldn't be a Vampire *or* be in love. (You're welcome, Catholic Church.)
One of the reasons people love the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf is because of the potential for role-switching. I wanted to add some of those abilities to this game, with a focus more on Marks than role cards. The Marksman is a Seer-like role, allowing the player to look at one player's card and one other player's Mark. The Pickpocket is the Robber's little brother, stealing a Mark from a player and replacing that player's Mark with their own. The Gremlin is like the Troublemaker on steroids (steroids that turn you into a weird blue monster), with the ability to exchange Marks *or* role cards, including your own.
Dusk vs. Night
The working title of the game was "Dusk" (nice symmetry with Daybreak, which had a lot of roles that took place at the end of the night) as most roles did their actions before the roles in One Night Ultimate Werewolf. To that end, there's a distinct break between Dusk and Night, where all players open their eyes and view their Marks, then close their eyes again. This allows players with "night" actions to use the info on their Marks when they do their actions — for instance, if the Pickpocket has the Mark of the Vampire, he knows that when he steals a Mark from a player, then that player will get his Mark of the Vampire; if he can convince the village of that, it should be an easy win for the village team. Should be.
Later in development of the game, when it was determined that the game worked incredibly well as a standalone, the decision was made to give it a new name, and One Night Ultimate Vampire was the clear choice.
Through a lot of playtests — One Night games have been playtested more than two thousand times for all three games — a few other roles were added and modified, and several (not mentioned here) were discarded.
The original One Night Ultimate Werewolf game has a role called the Doppelganger. It's awesome and fun because it allows a player to look at another player's role card and essentially duplicate that role. Making the Doppelganger work initially was pretty difficult, and when Daybreak was being developed, all sorts of issues cropped up that had to be dealt with. With Vampire, those issues took on a whole new level of complexity.
The key with the Doppelganger is to get all the roles to work with it without having to modify the original role functionality at all. At least, that's the theory — and with the exception of the Copycat, I was able to pull it off. One of the things that had to be done was to provide another set of Marks just for the Doppelganger (similar to how there are two Shield tokens for Daybreak's Sentinel). The publisher side of my brain fought this pretty hard because it essentially added another punchboard to the game and about two pages to the rulebook as well as a new Doppelganger token because the number on the token (that determines wake order) had to change.
Things are a little weird for several edge cases, such as when the Doppelganger views the Apprentice Assassin because now the Assassin has two people gunning for him, but I guess that's part of the job, as anyone familiar with Grosse Pointe Blank will tell you.
That Amazing One Night App
The app for One Night would, of course, need to be updated with all the new roles, which by itself isn't too bad; it's the interaction with pre-existing roles that takes time. For instance, The Revealer (from Daybreak) flips over a card and leaves it there unless it was a Werewolf or a Tanner, in which case he flipped it back down — but the narration had to change because if the card is a Vampire, he has to leave it face up and the narration can say that only if a Vampire is in the game, and if there are no Werewolves in the game, he can only say Vampire and not Werewolves. Similar issues appeared with lots of other roles.
And then there's the !@#$%!@#$ Doppelganger. The app logic for the Doppelganger is SO confusing that the spreadsheet for the app needed all sorts of new "if" and "then" columns in it. Working through all the permutations was a brutal exercise to get everything just right. The positive, glass half-full view of this is that those permutations resulted in lots of rules clarifications for how things are supposed to happen, which led to notes in the rules to help players figure things out. The app is more useful than ever when you're combining Vampire with the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Daybreak.
For Vampire, I hired Eric Summerer much earlier in the process to provide narration for the new roles; this allowed for app and game testing much earlier than in previous One Night games, and while I've had to get corrections/updates from Eric several times, having "real" narration in a beta app for testing has been incredibly valuable.
Next, I started working on ideas for app enhancement. The app was already awesome, so I didn't want to mess with it too much, but there were some things that could be better. I designed a "verbose" mode for the Doppelganger that reads off the roles that have to take their action immediately when the Doppelganger wakes, and an expert mode that makes the night move super fast for experienced players.
No, Really, They're Epic
During development, I was convinced that Vampire would work only if there were no Werewolves. After all, the winning condition for Vampires and Werewolves were the same: No one on your team can die. That would result in Vampire/Werewolf team-ups to kill a villager, something that would be hard to stop if you're a villager.
But as expected, the Shower of All Great Ideas™ came through, and by changing the winning conditions for all three teams, Epic Battles not only work, but they're, well, Epic.
As a bonus, those three-way Epic Battles work with as few as three players!
I'm super-excited about this One Night prequel, and I think anyone who has enjoyed One Night will really have a lot of fun with the new mechanisms and roles!
The year was 2007, and Pandemic had hit the streets like a bull in a china shop. As a game designer does when they enjoy a game, they try to make their own of a similar genre as if it is a challenge.
I remember sitting on the computer in my bedroom when something sparked my mind. I quickly drew a few pictures, then grabbed a few cubes and a black bag. I tested the idea a few times. It worked. It was unique enough of an idea that I felt it was worth pursuing.
My first implementation of this design was that of an Aliens movie game: creeping aliens growing bigger the longer you left them alone, holes where the players would fight them back like a castle siege game on the popular cell phone apps of the time.
Next was a hospital administration. Doctors would be in charge of patients, running through the ropes of an ambulance ride and the ER to end up in operating rooms. This idea, though close to Pandemic, stuck as the best version. Local playtests proved this as well.
Doctors were designed to help in their own special way. Training was added. Everything was going well, including getting a bunch of thumbs-up when the game was tested at meetings of the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah (though a couple wanted a M*A*S*H theme — sorry, Steve). I decided on Healthy Heart Hospital for a name around this time, keeping the same alliteration of all my games to this point. ("Tribute and Taxes" would break this mold as it became Ibyron: Island of Discovery a year or so later, but I digress...)
The next step was to find a publisher. After a few attempts, on a whim I wrote Victory Point Games, mostly known for war games at that point. Of all the attempts, this one I thought would fail before some of the others, but quite surprisingly I received an email saying I had found the "magic door" on how to submit a game to their company and that "...we have an ever growing line of eurogames."
This was the first and not last time I would hear back from Nathan Hansen. Of course, my first email to send the rulebook and parts sheet failed. Luckily, Nathan persevered with me, and shortly thereafter I was able to send an attachment that did make it. Then, like all designers, I was very patient and didn't bug him for a whole week...
Slowly, the game started to show up on Nathan's radar of one hundred or so submissions. This was about six months from the first email, quite fast for any publisher in my experience. After the radar came the "burners". There aren't a lot of developers to work on every single design that VPG has under consideration, so we all had to wait in the back of the queue until HHH boiled to the top. Around November of that year (HHH had been on burners for eight months at this point), I heard that a developer would be assigned to HHH. Yay! And then for some reason, all my mails went into the SPAM folder for about three months. Speed bump. Boo.
That leads us to Josh Neiman, whom Nathan sent HHH to in order to be developed more fully. Up to this time, little things were fiddled with, such as adding abilities to doctors, but no deep development was going on. Josh was going to pick up the reins and develop it further...but within a month forwarded the design to their new developer: Stephen Zorn.
Zorn, as he liked to be called, was working on HHH as well as a few other designs, so HHH took a back seat a little bit so they could push another game out of the queue and to the public. I understood the problem with too many games and not enough developers — very common in my experience. He worked heavily on the rulebook and the bits and pieces, and for a short while things started humming along until they put him on a project that was to be published within a month. Backseat again.
First prototype designed by my wife Anna-Marie featuring old television sets;
who would've thought it would be an omen to the final design taking place in the 1960s
Now, this was a year from the last time Nathan worked on HHH, and due to Zorn's commitments, he had to drop HHH, and who do you think they put back on it? Nathan is back, stronger than ever...and I was sent a contract to sign. Yay!
Nathan, at the helm again. This time, he was the developer, completely. Through the next six months we got HHH ready for out-of-house testing and all was looking good. We had more ideas that were in the emails back and forth and getting those nailed down took some time.
Speed bumps do happen, remember? Though we thought we had gotten HHH all tested and ready for publication, I found out it was not ready, but this time I didn't know it immediately. My emails from Josh Neiman and Alan Emrich hit the spam bucket for some reason. For two months while I thought HHH was getting published, it was in limbo — or so I thought. Alan Emrich had placed his Euro designer hat on and had taken HHH under his wings. After perusing the many emails and talking to Petra Schlunk in the hospital field, he and she took the basics of HHH and when to town on it.
They added many ideas that made sense thematically to the game, taking a simple lightweight game and giving it tons of depth. They tested it some during this time with no input from me. Remember, I was in spam-limbo, not getting any emails of Alan's morphing of HHH. Speed bump.
For some reason, I was checking my spam folder in August and spied an email from VPG. Bluntly, I read that the game had to change or it would be dropped. This is after I thought it was done. I communicated futher and headed to changing it. Then after a week, communications stopped. It was then when Alan Emrich contacted me and I saw his beast of a game. Wow! It had everything I wanted in the game, and tons more!
Alan and I talked about the changes, streamlined a bit, then he sent it to a developer. Yep, there was Nathan, back on board for the final voyage of the U.S. H.H.H. Now, we had the priviledge of taming Alan's beast. Streamlining it down, as well as adding to it, became a weekly chore for the next five months. Nathan had some great ideas. I was able to shoot those down as he shot my down as well. Eventually, it was ready — a year from the last scheduled out-of-house playtesting — to get out-of-house testing. Two months of out-of-house testing and it was ready to be sent to the art department...again...to be published. Yay!
Healthy Heart Hospital has been through a lot of development. This is not the game I dropped off at their doorstep three-and-a-half years ago; it is much better. Developers were at every point of this trip. They don't get much credit for what they do, but without their input and willingness to listen to my input, the game would not be what it is. Nathan jumped in and out of this picture many times, but each time he was great to work with. In fact, the whole staff at VPG was great to work with. I am very glad I found the "magic door"...
Final board, with some bits and doctor cards
The third edition of High Frontier is the culmination of 37 years of design and development work! Here I talk about some of the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs from its early days.
ATOMIC ORIGINS. In the Navy, my father, Melvin Eklund, sent ASP sounding rockets into the "stabilized clouds" following atomic blasts on Pacific islands. Maybe the radiation had something to do with the way I turned out.
Melvin Eklund (middle) with an ASP sounding rocket
L5 SOCIETY DAYS. Whether by nature or nurture, by 1978 I was a nerdy aerospace engineering student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After reading The High Frontier by visionary Gerard K. O'Neill, I joined the L5 society, a space activist group founded by fellow student Keith Henson. We helped defeat the UN Moon Treaty in 1980 on the grounds it would close space to private exploitation. I became an artist and contributor for the L5 News.
1978 ROCKET FLIGHT. My first original game production was a dozen copies of Rocket Flight, a typewriter and whiteout board game, with pen and ink graphics and a two-piece map covered with plastic. After each turn, you marked your rocket's location, altitude, and vector with a grease pencil. Each turn was two days; each hex a million kilometers. Combat interception required visualizing in three dimensions and vector addition. Decoys were common; so many missiles wasted on disguised chunks of rock. Each rocket relied on its "Forward Mass Detector" for IFF. I think this publication was the first appearance in any game of EMP and X-ray spalling as a damage mechanic. (Keith had advised me on the realities of space combat, as documented in footnotes in the first and second editions.)
FLEDGLING ROCKET SCIENTIST. The next year I landed my first big aerospace job with Hughes Aircraft and worked on various Star Wars projects such as the exoatmospheric kill vehicle. Among the remarkable rocketeers I worked with at Hughes was Dr. Hans Mauer, one of the transplanted von Braun rocket team who collaborated with Howard Hughes himself to found the aerospace division. Dr. Mauer distanced himself from my crazier projects, such as my 1982 paper on catalyzed fusion propulsion. This was instead sponsored at the Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland by Dr. Leik Myrabo, inventor of the Myrabo Lightcraft, and tireless promoter of rockets and aircraft powered by laser beam. Leik gave me his book, gave advice for my game, and in general baselined the rules for remotely-powered rockets, and the ESA special ability.
SIERRA MADRE IS BORN. I officially launched Sierra Madre Games in 1992, pretty much making whatever games I felt like, unfettered by customer preferences or marketing. My entrepreneurial mentor was Neal Sofge (a.k.a. Fat Messiah of Fat Messiah Games). Neal and I had much in common, including both having had Dr. Myrabo as a mentor. Neal is now with NASA Goddard and is a developer in High Frontier Interstellar, a solitaire game based on High Frontier.
GENIUS. Another Hughes rocketeer was Dr. Robert Forward, the free-thinking inventor of star wisp, space fountains, laser sails, antimatter propulsion, and the aforementioned mass detector. Robert rubbed elbows at Hughes Research Labs with Richard Feynman, another notorious genius. Robert explained how the ionosphere could be converted into a megawatt laser, and many other wonders. And patiently explained to me the more elementary stuff, like heat pipes. In a fever of productive excitement, all these elements were incorporated into the second edition of Rocket Flight, which appeared in 1992. This edition featured the first "delta-v" map, a map of energy rather than space, and the first rules for heat rejection.
THE MAP. The biggest design headache was converting the map from one of distance (each hex = million km) to one of energy (each space = 2.5 km/sec). An energy map has a big advantage: Since each orbit is at a fixed potential energy from Sol, each space represents a stable orbit. No need to move markers around the sun or planets. But this leads to weirdnesses. Did you know that it is less energy to get to the surface of the moons of Mars than to get to the surface of our own moon? Have you ever tried to draw a map of the solar system where Mars is closer to us than Luna?
SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM. Furthermore, I felt the original hexmap did not reflect well the space-time "landscape" of a heliocentric system. Given rockets with low thrust and high specific impulse, gravity should dominate their movement. In an effort for Ad Astra Games (that was never produced), I designed a map with spaces as concentric rings around Sol. This used different rules for moving within the ring as for moving from ring to ring. A disadvantage to the rings was that players instinctively felt that they must drift their ships in circles.
ENERGY VS. SPACE. Robert Zubrin (Mars Society founder and game designer) was most emphatic about reverting back to a traditional map. He wanted the planets to be represented by tokens that revolved about the sun. But not only is this irritating — I have over fifty sites on the basic map alone — there are conceptual difficulties. For instance, the low-energy ("Hohmann") path between two orbiting bodies occurs not when they are close together, but when they are the farthest apart. How to represent this? Dr. Zubrin and I are developing a game called Space, which is a light High Frontier variant with chess-like qualities. This may appear in 2016, depending upon the success of High Frontier third edition Kickstarter campaign.
LABYRITHINE. Eventually, I discarded spaces in favor of "trajectories", paths from place to place, with spots on the intersections. The energy requirements were shown as small diamonds along the paths. The early game developers (Matt Eklund and Dr. John Douglass) were against this move as the resulting map resembled spilled spaghetti. Players were also negative. They found the map unrealistic, even if told the delta-v levels (i.e., energy levels) had been computed by LPL computers. Moreover, they were instantly lost in the serpentine convolutions, with no clue how to get anywhere. It was horrible.
CANDYLAND. We tried all sorts of things to tame the monster. Most of the routes were eliminated, and the important ones were rainbow colored and outfitted with signposts. This unfortunately made the map even more like Candyland, but players came to appreciate them. The diamonds were dropped, instead coloring certain spaces pink to show they required energy to enter.
THE FLY-BY PROBLEM. For years I struggled with the transition between circumplanetary and heliocentric space. My chief advisor here was Dr. Nathan Strange of JPL, who patiently explained to me the Oberth effect, and other details of slingshots that I must have dozed through in class. If you make a planetary fly-by, you can gain a gravity boost, but this energy is specifically not useful for entering an orbit around the planet. The energy gained is only with respect to the sun. The solution was to have the paths to the fly-by space not intersect any of the circumplanetary spaces of that world. An entire page of rules were replaced by a geometric arrangement of the map. Candyland rules!
HOME ON LAGRANGE. Other than pockets of circumplanetary space, the entire Solar System is dominated by solar gravity, yet there are null points here and there where gravity cancels out. These are the famed "Lagrange points". (The L5 society is named after Lagrange point 5.) While taking astrophysics at U of A, I became acquainted with the LPL programmers for the Cassini mission. They showed me their programs and porkchops and explained how to shoot for these points during a mission. With solar gravity canceled, one could freely jump to a new orbit. The "Candyland" map accommodated Lagrange points easily, as natural intersections and jump-off points for many other trajectories.
TIME. The energy map handled fuel requirements accurately, but time was a different matter. After years of tinkering, I used a system of marker facing to put "lags" into the routes to make the mission require the correct number of years. Later, the concept was simplified to costing extra energy (and propellant) to change direction at intersections. The advantage of a Lagrange point was that there one could change direction without cost, in either time or energy.
HYDRATION. Water is the key to the solar system! Naturally water is essential for many biological activities, but this is a drop in the bucket to its usefulness as rocket propellant. Fortunately my camping buddy Dr. Jonathan Lunine (currently with Cornell) had just published an article about the accessibility of water everywhere in the solar system, the basis for the game's hydration system. Jonathan went on to write two textbooks (to which I contributed illustrations and editing): Earth, Evolution of a Habitable Planet and Xenobiology.
THE OUTER WORLDS. Space is hazardous. Another camping buddy, Carolyn Porco, the Mission Director of Cassini, (and allegedly Carl Sagan's inspiration for the heroine of Contact) contributed information on the game's hazard system. Every time her team discovered a new moon or radiation current around Saturn, the game map got more complicated. Carolyn and Jonathan used to bicker around the campfire about which site (Jovian moons? Enceladus? Titan?) should get funding for the next outer planet mission. Naturally, they had opposite opinions about where I should locate my "high science" sites on the map: Carolyn favored Enceladus, which has a potential for subsurface oceans and life; Jonathan argued that his balloon observatory on Titan would give much more science results for the dollar. (Check the map yourself to see who I agreed with.)
High Frontier, first edition game map
RAD-HARDNESS. Both Carolyn and Jonathan agreed that the radiation of Jupiter (the highest in the solar system) argues against the exploration of Europa, another potential site with a subsurface ocean. I was and am involved in the radiation hardening of the exoatmospheric kill vehicle at Raytheon. Thus, I know that shielding electronics from Jupiter's radiation belts would be heavy, costly, and risky. From this, radiation hardness evolved into the game's "defense factor".
A REGIME IN SPACE. I have extensively studied how politics influence the development of a frontier. (See the designer's notes in Pax Porfiriana for much more on this.) The key to any cutting-edge development is how much innovators are allowed the freedom to benefit from their own efforts, so including a politics diagram in the advanced game was important to me. (My son Matthew argued it detracted from the core themes.) Anyone who remembers the libertarian propaganda card containing the "world's smallest political quiz" will instantly recognize the Political Spectrum chart in High Frontier. It expands the traditional left-right polarity to two dimensions.
WHERE FIRST? My game shows how and why man might first venture off Earth. But where to first? I met with two activists, Avery Davis of the Moon Society and Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, with opposing views on this question. I eventually sided with Robert's position because of one key factor: water. There is water on asteroids and Luna, but the water on Mars is easier to attain. Water extraction technologies led to the breakthrough game concept of ISRU (in-situ resource utilization). ISRU, or "living off the land", is championed by Zubrin's "Mars Direct" proposals. Dr. Zubrin is also the inventor of the Zubrin salt-water drive and the mini-magnetosphere drive, both in the game.
THE THIRD EDITION. Almost four decades after the first Xeroxed copies of Rocket Flight, the third edition of High Frontier is emerging as the exhaustive culmination of its ideas. There are four "chassis" changes from the second edition: the new fuel strip, fungible fuel tanks, event triggers, and lander burns. All of these make the game simpler and more consistent, and replace rules conceived at a time when the game was not contemplated to go beyond Jupiter. They allow things like fully reversible landings and lift-offs, events out of reach of player triggering, and fully interchangeable WTs and fuel. The third edition also makes a big effort to make the rules more mature, streamlined, and accessible to the rookie rocketeer, while keeping new stuff and "simulation" rules in a second volume. As a final value add, the game balances the Futures and Modules, the results of literally man years of game-testing since the second edition.
High Frontier, third edition game map
In 2010, I designed my first game, Pressure Cooker, and it got picked up by Rio Grande Games. That got me thinking...maybe I could be pretty good at this game design thing, so in January 2011 I started writing notes for a new game. I find inspiration for game designs in everything. Conversations that people are having, TV shows, commercials, seeing things out on the street, books, whatever — it always triggers a "what kind of game would that be?" question in my head. I live across the street from a fire station, so I had had the thought in my head for a while that a firefighting game would be fun. Of course, a good firefighting game would be cooperative, so I started the process of creating a cooperative firefighting game. Nobody's ever done that before (RIGHT?!?) and it's a theme that will draw people in.
The initial picture in my head was of a building that players would explore and build out of tiles as the game progressed, and each room had a die in the middle of it that showed what the fire level in that room was. Players would use actions to lower the fire level and move around, and the fire would spread and explode in a random, but semi-predictable, manner. That set the groundwork for what would become "Backdraft".
My initial thoughts on what to add to the game got a little too out of control, so I quickly had to pull things back. I wanted players to have to worry about their oxygen level, water level, where the hose was going, their fatigue, and all kinds of other things. They were working together as a team, but had to monitor their own levels to make sure they weren't becoming a hindrance.
I liked the idea, but I prefer streamlined designs over lots of things to track, so I decided to combine all of that into one thing: fatigue. The way fatigue works is that if you move from a room into a room with a higher fire level, then you increase your fatigue by the difference of those two dice. For example, if you left a 1 and went into a 4, you would take 3 fatigue. In addition, triggers along the dial mark different fire levels; once you cross those thresholds, you can no longer enter rooms with that fire level or higher. Fatigue levels increased even faster when you were carrying a person to rescue them (or carrying loot as is now the case in the published design). This worked great from the first play and hasn't changed since.
I designed several character powers as well as several other problems that players had to deal with, and everything came together just how I wanted it. It was time to show a publisher. I e-mailed a publisher and immediately got some interest. Woohoo!
And then, days later, Indie Boards & Cards announced that it was releasing Flash Point: Fire Rescue, a cooperative fire fighting game. CURSE YOU, KEVIN LANZING!!! At that point, no publishers wanted to even look at my game. One publisher did get a chance to play it during this time and the comment was, "I'd sign this game immediately, but we can't do it right after Flash Point." Back to the drawing board...
I needed a re-theme. I spent some time thinking about the other cool themes that could potentially fit. Searching a cave for treasure was one that I really liked, but the fire was a big part of the game, and I couldn't think of anything else that would work the same way. The fire going up and down and players getting fatigued as they moved through it was the core of the game. I didn't want the theme to be such a stretch that things didn't make sense, but I didn't want to change the core of the game because of the re-theme. Luckily, I have a brilliant wife. "What do you think about pirates looting a burning ship?" BOOM. There it is.
At first I tried to get away with the re-theme the easy way: Keep the game the same and just put the pirate theme on it; rename everything, change the art, and POOF, a pirate game. But it wasn't that easy. It still felt like a firefighting game. I needed to change more than just the art and the names; I needed to piratize the game. And how do you piratize a game? Battles.
"Backdraft" had tokens on the board that you could pick up and combine in specific combinations in order to purchase cards that gave special powers. I liked the idea, but in practice it didn't flow with the game as nicely as I'd want. This was the first thing to go. I decided to replace the tokens with enemies. Instead of having random things you could pick up to buy cards, I split this idea into two parts. The first part was the tokens; these became enemies that the players would need to battle, and eliminating them would provide items that would help them in future battles. The second part was the cards. I decided to change them from being things that were purchased, and instead turned them into items that the players could carry. They became a secondary power that each player would have that could be swapped out depending on their situation. This combination both made the game more interesting and more piratey. ARRRRR...
The whole theme change seemed like a let-down for me at first, but in the end I ended up with a better game because of it. And it's not like I ended up with bunnies searching for carrots or something; we have pirates looting a burning ship while fighting undead minions!
As I was putting the final touches on Dead Men Tell No Tales, I attended a Protospiel event in Milwaukee. This is a weekend when designers get together to play each other's prototypes and offer feedback. There are usually a few publishers around, too, including Minion Games. I was teaching a few people the game and had others stop by to comment on what a cool theme it was. As we were starting to play, James from Minion Games stopped by and said he'd heard good things about the game and wondered if he could join. I happily gave up my spot and walked him through the first turn since he had missed the rules explanation, and he was up and running. It was a tense game with players commenting on how they really enjoyed the tension throughout. At times they felt like things were hopeless, but they were able to turn things around and pull out the win.
Normally the process of signing a contract with a publisher can go on for months, but this was the first time I was ever offered a contract pretty much on the spot. Dead Men Tell No Tales was finally signed! The trouble of going through the theme change and re-working the game had paid off.
I'm a big believer in great art in games. For the players it makes the game more exciting and immersive; for the publisher it makes the game more marketable. As a designer, I'm interested in both of those things. So, whenever possible, I want to be involved in the art for my games. I talked to Minion about this before signing, and I was told that I would be involved.
As it turned out, Minion's normal artists were busy working on another project, so James was kind enough to grant my request to be the art director on the project. I was given full control, which included finding my own illustrator and graphic designer. This was a very fun process, but also a bit stressful at first because I knew how I wanted the game to look, and finding an artist to match that style, keep to our timeline, and stay on budget isn't necessarily an easy thing.
Luckily, I found what I was looking for with Chris Ostrowski doing the illustration and Jason David Kingsley doing the graphic design. We worked very closely with each other, me telling them exactly what I wanted and them doing amazing work to bring it to life. I'm sure I drove them nuts at times as I pushed to get the logo and cover especially just how I wanted it, but hopefully it pays off in the end. I, for one, couldn't be happier with the finished product.
Note: No Kevin Lanzings were actually cursed in the creation of this designer diary.
Xeno Invasion expands Race for the Galaxy with two new play experiences: a full expansion set, plus a bonus invasion game.
This expansion portrays a galaxy under siege by a newly discovered violent Xenophobic alien race.
The Xenos Are Coming!
Xeno Invasion is Race's third expansion arc. Similar to Alien Artifacts, it is complete by itself. The 55 expansion cards include five start worlds, 46 play cards, and nine action cards for a fifth player. All players need is Race for the Galaxy (just the base game).
While Alien Artifacts was especially designed for novice players, Xeno Invasion is aimed at intermediate RFTG players. Each player is dealt two start worlds, choosing one after seeing their initial hand of cards.
Xeno Invasion adds three concepts to the base game:
• Xeno worlds — worlds already conquered by the Xenos.
• Specialized military vs. Xenos (similar to military vs. Rebels).
• The Anti-Xeno "keyword", representing various groups working to rally empires' defenses.
In addition, all Explore actions are "mix with hand" to ensure that players can find the cards they need. This concept was introduced as a power back in the second RFTG expansion, Rebel vs. Imperium. In this expansion, it isn't a power but a change to the Explore rules.
This change was necessary in order to add a new "type" of worlds, the Xeno worlds, that aren't in the base set. Otherwise, the variability in card draws would be too high.
"Mix with hand" Explores allow players greater choice and flexibility, at the cost of making this expansion suitable only for players who are comfortable with Race. With novice players, play simply slows down too much.
Since Xeno Invasion is designed as an expansion arc in itself, all keywords hinted at in the base game (Rebel, Imperium, Alien, Uplift, Terraforming, and "chromosome") appear on expansion cards, used in various ways.
Behind the Front Lines
While many cards depict military forces, I wanted to show that life continues during wartime, with cards portraying the home front, black markets, and war profiteering.
Several cards hint that the long-departed Alien Overlords once fought the Xenos aeons ago, leading scientists to search the Alien archives for weapon plans to help defeat them.
Another theme concerns biological terraforming by several Uplift races, allowing them to prosper on newly settled worlds.
Mechanically, this last theme rewards non-military green production worlds, which have always been the "odd man out" in Race. Novelty and Rare production worlds are fairly cheap and lend themselves to produce/consume strategies, while costly Alien worlds are worth lots of victory points. Non-military Genes worlds fell in between. Now, they can used to good advantage.
Designing the Xenos
For the visual look of the Xenos, we had several requirements:
They needed to work in both space and land scenes, which led us to having them hover in the air.
They needed to convey a sense of menace, so that every appearance didn't devolve into a combat scene.
They needed very distinctive but relatively clean lines, so they could be referenced in displays or by just part of their bodies.
They also needed to "feel" alien, something that didn't fit with the sprawling galactic civilization depicted by other Race cards.
Finally, they needed to be different from the many well-known aliens of various books, films, and computer games. Meeting all these criteria was quite tricky and took quite a few iterations by the illustrators, Martin Hoffmann and Claus Stephan. Here is a sample of some rough concept sketches we reviewed, for both individual Xenos and a star-faring spaceship that might carry them between solar systems.
I'm quite happy with the final result. I think we got to something that is quite atmospheric and easily recognized even when used in a small size or just partially.
The Invasion Game
For players wanting a new Race play experience, forty Invasion cards, five bunkers, five Produce: Repair action cards, and a repulse track are supplied for the bonus invasion game (which also uses the expansion game cards).
In this game, after two "grace" rounds, players must defend against three successively harder waves of Xenos, until their collective military equals or exceeds the Xeno repulse value (which varies with the number of players).
Until the Xenos are repulsed, as many invasion cards as players are turned up each round. These are assigned high to low to players based on players' military. Each player must then either beat this number with their military (including military vs. Xenos) or damage a world, flipping it face down.
Players start with bunkers, enabling a player to discard one card for +2 defense. Defense adds to a player's military for the purpose of fending off a Xeno invasion, but not for conquering Xeno worlds or repulsing the Xenos.
Some cards have Xeno defense powers and repair powers as well.
Players who defeat their invaders receive bonus awards (worth VPs), with the lowest military player receiving two awards if successful. The conceit here is that the low military empires are "civilian empires" — not expected to hold off the Xenos — who receive renown if they manage to do so.
While some players really enjoyed the Alien Artifacts orb game, others complained that it took too long, breaking up Race's quick flow. Here, the invasion step is quite quick: update players' military, check Xeno repulsion, flip the invasion cards and hand them out, and either take an award or damage a world — typically taking about one minute. Then, players are back to picking their actions for the next round.
Players may repair damaged worlds during Produce by flipping them face up with either a repair power, a good, or two cards.
During Produce, players may also contribute goods to the war effort. Each good reduces the Xeno repulse value by 1 and earns 1 VP chip for its contributing player. Both the Xeno repulse value and players' collective military are tracked on the repulse mat.
War contributions are a way to earn VPs without calling Consume. While they can't be doubled, a new strategy exists of calling Produce every turn, once a player has enough production worlds. This can create tension between a player who calls Produce each turn for war contributions and a player who consumes them for double VPs, leeching off these Produce calls.
The game can either end normally or in one of two new ways: the players defeat the Xeno invasion — by having their collective military equal or exceed the Xeno repulse value — or lose to them, by having all players fail to defend against invasions twice.
At game end, the player with the highest military plus military vs. Xenos and the one who contributed the most to the war effort both receive 5 VP bonuses. These awards are not given out if the players lose to the Xenos.
The invasion game changes Race considerably as players have to manage their defenses and repairs while jockeying both for highest military (to earn the VP bonus and easily defeat Xenos) and lowest military (to earn double awards if they can stave the Xenos off). As war contributions affect the Xeno repulse value, a player who is ahead can try to end the game quickly either by producing them or by adding Military.
The invasion game is optional. If you prefer to just play Race with more cards, then simply add the Xeno Invasion cards to the base set and start playing. If you want a new play experience, then — after getting used to the new cards — try the bonus invasion game. Enjoy!
When I started thinking about the game now called The Golden Ages, it was February 2010. For a long time, I was mumbling about civilization games, a kind of game that I have loved since the first Sid Meier's Civilization for PC. I was thinking about how the board games created from this kind of videogame were never without flaws, like the game's length or the high downtime. I felt like they were missing a game that would reproduce the main aspects of the civilization game, with a short play time and with game mechanisms that would make it easier to compete with players suffering from "paralysis by analysis". I hadn't found this game around, so I tried to make it myself!
The first consideration that I felt, and that is perhaps obvious, is that in a civilization board game you cannot have the same complexity of a computer version. At the same time it is necessary that the interaction with other players is tighter because otherwise the game becomes a multi-player solitaire for at least half of the match. Thus, something of the original experience must somehow be sacrificed. Many games typically sacrifice the map; others sacrifice urban development; still others sacrifice the variety of the strategies, which are almost always heavily influenced by the military choices of some of the players; others sacrifice the historical extension to a single historical age. Some games, finally, focus on just one aspect of the matter, such as the tech tree, and leave out all the rest.
I realized that need to leave out something only after the first two or three versions of the initial prototype. At first, there were five different kinds of resources and a more complex technology tree, and the game was still too long and too chaotic — but the basic structure was there and it worked pretty well. From there, the development process went for stepwise refinement — for the curious that meant sixteen major versions of the prototype, plus a few minor releases — some of which have proved to be much more difficult than others. I think it's worth exposing at least some of these steps because each of them has taught me something and maybe they can be useful to other game designers.
In developing the game, I tried to avoid the "headache" at the end of the turn. Typically, the end of the turn in a game of civilization is when you do all the upkeep math: You count how many and which resources you control, you move counters on some tables, etc.
I realized — and I needed seven different versions of the prototype to understand it! — that this part is tiring and boring; for this reason I have removed from the game almost all counting, shifting the phase of economic rent to the time when a resource is acquired. In this way also the attacks become less frustrating for those who suffer them because while losing a resource can decrease the points you'll score, you don't ever lose money, which might have meant stopping the strategy you're pursuing.
In addition, in the development, I have endeavored to reduce downtime. The moves are therefore very basic and take place in a hurry; the turn comes around to you again almost immediately and you don't have time to get bored. Also, and I believe this is the newest mechanism of the game, when you have finished all your moves and pass your turn, you will not wait patiently for other players, but you continue to accumulate money. The fact that you're earning gold that you will use in the next turn puts pressure on the opponents who have not yet entered in the Golden Age. They must then decide whether to continue developing (thereby helping you, too!) or not. I find that this solution is much more fun than waiting patiently for other players to have finished!
Another effort has been to balance the different strategies. The lines of development of the technologies are very different, and you can win in many ways. Making balanced strategies has been quite difficult because some technologies were more useful than others with the same cost. For example, before I finally give up the idea that there would be a technology providing additional colonists, I had to bang my head on it several times! Actually, an additional colonist became so useful that it was also indispensable, and then this strategy was mandatory; the whole game was depleted.
The most fun thing in the whole development has perhaps been the search of game effects that were not purely abstract but related to historical reality. This is clearly visible in buildings and wonders, but especially in the civilization cards; each of them has a special power that is closely linked to its "personality" in history. For example, the Phoenicians were the inventors of the alphabet, so they start with the knowledge of Writing; the Portuguese receive additional gold if their colonists circumnavigate the world, the (modern) Japanese have an advantage in technological development, and so on.
I really care about these small "setting" details because I think that they make the game more fun and less abstract.
A similar choice was made with the continent tiles. With them it is possible to reconstruct our "real" world, which is therefore one of the thousands of possible spatial configurations available. If you try, you will find that the continents are not to scale. It is a deliberate choice which simulates how, throughout history, the world has become progressively "smaller" as the ability of humanity's exploration grew up. I hope you enjoy this strange map because I don't recall any other game where you can build a map using modular continents of the "real" world.
The game's aspect that has been more difficult to balance was the attack system. I have tried at least ten different ways to make war, and I discarded all of them. Obviously, the game had to have a military aspect, but I wanted that to be a strategy among the others, not a mandatory path to win the game. In civilization computer games, I have always noticed that there is a kind of schizophrenia in the way you use the troops; the turns cover several years, but the army deployments are purely tactical. From the point of view of the simulation this way to make war appears completely out of place.
The path that I have chosen is therefore one of abstraction; any military action in TGA is similar to a technological development, and "attacking" means investing resources into armaments and military technologies, gaining a military advantage that implies the disadvantage of someone else, who will lose some kind of resource. Getting a military supremacy is increasingly difficult and expensive; the first attack is cheaper and often allows you to make "easy money", while the fourth attack is very expensive and generally you should perform it only if there is a valid reason. This rule also follows the historical fact that modern civilizations think a lot more before starting a war because the social cost (in resources, but alas, even in human lives) is much higher than that of the battles of antiquity. Also, the one who is attacked, as I said before, receives contained damage and rarely is his strategy totally ruined.
A few notes about the game's name: I had several ideas, but I discarded all for several reasons: one name seemed to summon boredom and sadness; another sounded bad in some languages, etc. The thing that amused me is that someone else had the same ideas, and they have all been used for other titles released or soon to be released! What eventually prevailed was the idea to remember in the title the mechanism that characterizes it most, the "Golden Age" one.
In conclusion, I tried to create first of all a game that I would play: a full civilization game lasting less than one-and-a-half hours, a game that you can play also twice in a single evening. I seem to have succeeded, although of course I cannot say so myself! If you'd like to try it, maybe you will say it to me!
One word about the Cults & Culture expansion. I decided to spend time developing that expansion because I thought that the game may want something more; too many things had been left behind along the road, sacrificed on the altar of "easiness" of play, like religion, government, arts, wonders, etc.
I searched for how to integrate all of that stuff in the game in a way that doesn't appear as a superstructure upon a linear game. I think I've found that way, with a single rule that integrates all the new things...and now that the expansion is for real you may say to me whether my solution is good enough or not! And you may also try the game with a fifth player, if you want...
(...and for further consideration, you may look at this BGG blog where I continue this analysis...with more words and badder English...)
Every time I start working on a new idea, I always ask myself the same question: "What would I like to play?" This time I thought: "I like the feeling of cooperative games; I love the dynamics in deck-building games...okay, let's make a cooperative deck-builder!"
The best ideas are often the ones for which you don't immediately realize all the work needed to make them come true. It actually took five years for The Big Book of Madness to come to life and hit the stores.
The story began with a simple thematic idea: run across a temple, loot a sacred relic, then manage to get out alive. From this theme, game mechanisms came flowing very quickly, almost on their own. A series of various rooms with challenges to overcome, enemies, obstacles in the way, traps, room cards to progressively increase the difficulty of the game, and decks with four types of cards: Strength, Intelligence, Speed, and Special Abilities.
As in most deck-builders (like Dominion or Thunderstone), basic cards evolved into more powerful ones (1, 2, 3...) and special abilities allowed various chain combos.
From the start, several things seemed obvious to me: A deck-builder is particularly hard to balance because you need the possible combos to be exhilarating when they happen, without being overkill. I had already explored this issue with a few previous prototypes, but I found out it was an even more challenging puzzle to balance a cooperative game so that it turns out to be neither too easy to win nor too hard. From the first version of the game to the final one, difficulty remained a constant issue.
Interesting things started to come up during the designing process. New interactions between players that I never witnessed before emerged from this mix of cooperation and deck management, with everyone sharing cards, helping to build each other's decks, and giving up cards to support others.
I fiddled a lot with all of this, but something was missing, something that would set the game apart from other deck-builders. Than I thought: "Why not invert the process? Let's start with decks already well-built and spoil them as the game goes. But what would be the thematic reason for this? What if the temple had a curse that made the adventurers inside slowly turn mad?"
That's how the madness first appeared, even though the idea of "unbuilding" the deck didn't hold up for long.
Here I was, spending weeks looking for a mechanism that would prevent the common and obvious strategy in every deck-building game; I didn't want my game to feel just like another quest for a lean and efficient deck with combos that end up with you having all of your cards in hand in a single turn. "But how could I avoid this? What if each time you shuffle your deck, a card comes to spoil it? That's it!" The idea just fit perfectly with madness, which became a core and constitutive element of the game from then on. At that time, the release of Friday (a little card game by a certain green-haired designer) strengthened this idea for me.
After the cursed temple, I tried moving the poor adventurers into a maze reminiscent of strange horror movies, but the game had too many ideas — that I won't disclose here because even if they haven't made it into the final version of the game, I haven't entirely given up on them! — and game sessions were always lost in length and intricacy.
While madness had eventually fixed what annoyed me with the deck-building mechanism, several issues specific to cooperative games remained, especially the alpha male syndrome (or as I like to call it, the "Do this already, you idiot!" problem). I didn't like the fact that a seasoned player could dictate what to do to others. After a few tries, I decided to remove the standard turn order; the players would not play in clockwise order, but in the order of their choice, gathering fatigue and managing their resting time. I actually solved the issue later in the sharing of information.
It was still too intricate, but there was really only one thing left to change to come close to what would become The Big Book: Special abilities were chaotic, messy and unbalanced. I had to move them from the deck to personal boards that each player could activate with skill points. This last change streamlined the mechanism of the game, which eventually allowed me to gather enough courage to show the prototype to a publisher. Or did it?
I am amazingly lucky to work at a boardgame café in Nancy, France ("La Feinte de l'Ours", which literally translates as "The Bear's Trick"), so I have a lot of willing playtesters at hand. Showing my prototypes to our regular customers already felt slightly uncomfortable to me, so submitting them to a publisher seemed quite impossible. I had to wait a whole year of work on the game before I dared to do so — and even then it's really because Gabriel, a good friend of mine at IELLO, played the game several times at the café and insisted on showing it to his workmates. They all approved the game almost instantly! "That's it! My game's getting published!"
But there were still so much work — several years of work actually!
Back then, we enthusiastically named the project "Asylum" and pictured a game in which players would play as Allied agents posing as lunatics to spy on a mental hospital run by undead Nazis! We were young and boldly inventive, so IELLO's management had to kindly got me to understand this theme was..."too difficult". Too bad!
Allied agents became magicians
Another element of the game made things too intricate: a board game composed of a random series of rooms. This issue took us a long time to solve. Reluctant and weary, I eventually gave up and threw all the boards away. To help streamline the game, I conceded another theme change; instead of moving from room to room, players would fight against a book and turn its pages. Deep down, I liked the new idea, but what was I to do with the madness, which was the game's core element? The book would be plagued by demons, and the players would have to prevent them from getting out and spreading terror and destruction! "I like it, it sounds quite epic!" The Big Book of Madness had found its final theme at last, and that made fine-tuning the mechanisms a lot easier!
Some of the monster cards from the Big Book
At first, game sessions were too long and brainy. Gabriel had to fight to make me give up the chosen game order and resting time. Eventually, I agreed to work on a version with more usual, clockwise game turns. It shortened game sessions by half and made the thought process more intuitive. "I have to admit that it's much better this way."
Then, magic allowed us to bring everything together. Personal boards were dropped, and skills became spells. Strength, Intelligence and such were replaced by four common elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. And the element cards were now used for all actions. The game was more clear, better balanced, but also much more exciting to play!
Sample element cards
Later, I received the first roughs by Naïade. I felt so proud that I was exultant, while people at IELLO were pouting with discontentment. There was no way I could judge this without bias because it's my game and because I think so much of Naïade's work, so I stepped back and silently watched new briefs and sketches come and go. It took quite a while, but now that I see the result, I think it was really worth it!
Spells that you can learn
Now that we had chopped bits off the prototype, it looked like a real game. Game sessions at the boardgame café were looking increasingly exciting. As soon as I could get my hands on a little of Naïade's art, I made a new, better-looking prototype. I kept on fine-tuning and balancing, one bit after another. Changes became smaller and fewer. Playtesting progressively seemed less necessary. "It looks good! Now I just need to wait for the actual box to get on my shelves..."
Prototype at the 2015 GAMA Trade Show
"This story takes place in the dark times from which legends come."
These are the opening words for the rulebook of Ekö. For those of you who have already played the game, I hope that this "designer’s diary", where I permit myself to talk a little about game design in a more general fashion, will show you how the game was born and has evolved. For those of you who know nothing about Ekö, let's just say that you will discover it the same way I did — by groping a bit. Oh, and sorry if those little titles in the text sound odd sometimes; I've tried to make them sound funny as they do in French, but...well, you'll see.
It all starts with the chicken and the egg question. The pawn or the Emperor — which came first? Theme or mechanisms? Here, it is the pawn. In 2012, I was fascinated by stacking games. Basically, I had tried to produce an adaptation of the "match 3" games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush with pawns and as a multiplayer game...without much success. I was not satisfied with the result at all: It was strategically poor and demanded a lot of fiddly manipulation, things that are normally taken care of by the system in the video game.
However, I found it excellent to start with a pawn, an "abstract" game, with a random set-up of the tokens: It created different situations each game and required the player to read a game freshly constructed right on the first turn. I saw the antithesis of games with scripted "openings", like chess, in which the set-up is fixed, and in which the first turns are far too crucial and can be more or less identical for seasoned players. I even used this principle for Crab Stack, which I created at the same time.
The Stack Options
So I was going with a random set-up of colored pawns without really knowing where I was going. Some mornings, you just play with the pieces like a toy and see how you naturally want to use them as a player. I stack the pawns, I unstack, and I see the possibilities of several amusing systems — but I tell myself that in terms of stacking games, it is awfully easy to reinvent the wheel, considering that there are already a number of them out there. I spent a little time researching, on BGG or François Haffner's site, in order to familiarize myself with the domain and to know where it was useless to go because others had already gone there before me — and better.
At that time, this resulted in a simple stacking and capture game — a distant cousin of Focus and Avalam, but with its own distinctions. I pasted on a theme because it's prettier, and — presto! — I cranked out a first prototype on a square cloth. The game functioned...not too badly...but there was a little problem with the victory conditions. Furthermore, it's a little dry, remaining a pure and true abstract game, and even though I adore games of this type, I had the feeling that this game would not be good enough to compete in the abstract domain. Since the system was already very pure, I told myself that I had a little room to add something to the game.
A Game of P(r)awns
The following draft was called "Medusa". I kept the sea floor theme because I was attached to my kawaii medusas, but I moved the game to a modular, hexagonal board: Hexagons are more "fair" than a checkerboard in terms of movement and trajectories, and the modular board fit well with the random set-up of the pawns, reinforcing my goal of high replayability by producing very different set-ups.
In order to enhance the theme a little and to resolve my victory condition problem, I placed "reef" spaces on the board, obstacles on which we do not place pawns at the start of the game and which are necessary to control during the game. In order to control a reef, you simply must have a majority around it. This is the prototype that I made to play at Cannes (the biggest gaming convention in France) in 2013. People had a lot of fun playing it, but numerous times I was told that even though the game was good, the theme was not a good fit. The colors of the board and the pawns suggested that it was a friendly family game, perhaps even childish, while the experience of playing the game was very calculated — literally, because you were constantly counting the pawns around each reef to see who controlled it, which was a bit tedious. Nevertheless, feedback on the game mechanisms were mostly positive, most notably a point that will later be what spices up Ekö: the placement of reinforcements.
Spinach Is Like Nietzsche: It Reinforces
"Medusa", like Ekö later, is a game that I wanted to be playable with up to four players. In its scale and features, "Medusa" is already a game of conquest. One of the problems with conquest games — games in which strong interaction is pervasive — when playing with three or four players is that in the same round, one player can be eaten alive by all the others (even without specific collaboration on their part as it often can happen circumstantially), and thus this player loses all traction and any hope of staying in the race. I wanted a balancing mechanism that could level the playing field in such a situation or at least make it less crippling. I decided that whenever a player's pawns are captured, he gets them back in front of him and can later bring them back into play on his turn. So, sure, he lost his strategic positions, but this gives him the opportunity to return his pawns to play with the flexibility to place them pretty much wherever he wants. This way, all players remain relevant and involved throughout the game. This (re)placement of captured pawns in reinforcement is a really nice addition to the game.
However, there was a parameter to bear in mind: In spite of this balancing mechanism, the game still needs to resolve. Allowing players to replace pawns on empty spaces can lead to loops or blocked situations. A strategic advantage in one region of the board can be destroyed because pawns are "parachuted" from out of nowhere. (In Ekö, this will be prevented in part by the rule that forbids placing reinforcements adjacent to an enemy building.)
But it was equally important that the board gradually empties in order to allow movement. Because of this, I decided that the reinforcements must be placed on friendly stacks. This prevents the creation of new stacks, which means the board can empty, so movement becomes necessary if you wish to reclaim a strategic zone that you lost.
The Wrong Movement
The more the pawns pile up, the more empty spaces are created. In Ekö, empty spaces permit movement, and this is what provides the story arc for the game: The board starts the game full, and movement is impossible. As the game progresses, opportunities open up, and pathways emerge.
In "Medusa", stacks moved only in straight lines. This drew from a legacy of classic games with pawns: You could think of the queen in chess, or many, many "pawn" games that make use of vector tactics. My modular board, full of obstacles, produced winding corridors, and this linear movement was laborious; it was often unappealing to move because going from point A to point B often required several turns. As a result, the starting set-up, which was random, induced a bit of predestination. This was a problem.
I think I have provided the simplest solution in the world. If the problem is that you cannot go from point A to point B, um, let's just say that you can. That's it. Thus, a stack of pawns can go anywhere it wants on the board as long as there is a clear path to it. Certainly this can seem less "realistic" than the movement in a normal wargame. How would my army get to the other end of the map in a single turn? I would respond by pointing out that it is all about the scale: scale of time, scale of distance. Now, you will notice that this scale is not explicitly defined in the game. We kind of ignore whether the lands represented on the board are an entire country or a simple valley. Visually, the "geography map" style chosen for the prototype advantageously did not define this scale. Game boards often use this type of graphical ellipse, and this was the scale that was ultimately chosen for the final game board of Ekö.
Tactically, this rather liberal movement rule suggested another interesting aspect; instead of thinking in terms of the "range" of the troops, as is often the case in conquest games in which movement is limited to a number of spaces, this game will make you think in terms of "access": open or closed. This was even more efficacious than the proposed board of winding paths; managing access could be done at multiple locations and by different players. The starting set-up was becoming far less determinant.
The Stack of Cthulhu, or The Question of The Theme
Upon returning from Cannes in 2013, I still needed to acknowledge the shortcomings of the game. Even though I was fond of the gap between the form and the substance, in which a cute and colorful game could in actuality be less light than it might seem, I had a choice to make: Either render the game more accessible in order to keep my pink jellyfish, or find a more adult theme for the game. I decided to set my octopi aside. The game was rather pure, so I chose to adapt it to a theme of medieval Japan. Not bloody original, sure, but doubtlessly effective.
The Map Is The Territory
Having discovered at that time Taluva, which I adored, I realized all the pleasure that can be found in handling little wooden buildings. This is where games and toys share common borders. A little wooden building, this is quite concrete; the game constructs itself, stirs, and comes to life as the game progresses. Looking at this game, we see neither numbers nor icons, just a flat region portrayed in three dimensions by little wooden buildings.
Thus, I decided to include little houses, towers, and castles in the game. This kills two birds with one stone: On one hand, it permits me to totally create a construction part of the game, and something on which to base the victory conditions (adieu, simple majority!); on the other hand, it brings the game away from being a pure game of pawns, and this reinforces the theme.
Obviously, the trap lay in creating the management part around what I had, which could imply resources, perhaps gold pieces...but I wanted the game to remain pure. In order for the heart of the game to remain in the placement and movement of the pawns on the board, the system to construct buildings must therefore be intuitive, simple to understand, and easy to remember. It should not involve additional components (gold pieces, resources) — it thus needed to be connected in some way or another to the pawns representing the players' troops.
No problem! One, two, three: "Sacrifice" one pawn (returning it to your reserve) to build a level 1 building, which is worth 1 victory point, and so on. Imposing a linear progression in the construction of buildings (house → tower → castle) is reminiscent of development or civilization games, which is a good thing.
That the buildings provide better victory conditions and reinforce the theme is good — but it bothered me a bit that they ultimately served "merely" as victory point markers spread around the board. In order for the game to be able to balance itself and resolve, it was necessary to forbid placement of reinforcements beside an enemy building. Thematically, this is justified if one thinks of it as a form of the building's "zone of influence" — or their territory. Mechanically, this turned out to be an excellent idea: This completes the narrative arc of the game. In the early turns, it is a placement/blocking game, then as the game progresses, it becomes about access created on the map (with the players sacrificing pawns in order to construct buildings), which then becomes a game of movement/capture.
Fish! Fresh Fish Here!
For the most part, Ekö was already here. It was called "Uma-Jirushi", and the game ran like clockwork. I was at the point at which I neither wanted to add nor remove anything. I decided that it was "fini" — or at least as much as possible. Now it was time to find a publisher.
It was François Haffner who told me that pawn games were no longer fashionable — and I think he was talking about a period of time more vast than just last year. When I went door-to-door trying to pitch "Uma-Jirushi" to different publishers, invariably, one may recognize the qualities of the game, but be turned off by the stacking principle of the game.
Without really knowing with whom to publish the game, I joined the Boulogne design competition, which had been won in the past by some non-standard games. The game passed one stage after another, leaving me more and more perplexed, thinking, "Well, crikey, I'm a finalist." At that point, I'd achieved everything I'd wanted with this contest: The game would have visibility to a lot of publishers, which is what I wanted.
The icing on the cake is that the game won! Beyond giving me enormous pride, it was also an enormous springboard for "Uma-Jirushi". The initial task of the Centre National du Jeu in getting games before publishers — whether downstream to francophones or upstream by taking award-winning games to Essen to show international publishers — is enormous. Well, in the end, I found myself playing with the guys from Sit Down!, with whom I had already worked on Wiraqocha and Sushi Dice; they liked the game right away and wanted to publish it. This is where "Uma-Jirushi" became Ekö.
The Void Is On The Box, But Not Inside
Sit Down! and I decided to transpose the game to a more fantastic universe, more dream-like than it was at first. Even if it still takes some Asian graphical cues, the game takes place in a universe that can't be identified, and that is for the better. The cover illustration perfectly serves this purpose in that it hints at more than is stated explicitly, and the line of the horizon allows you to get lost there, looking at it.
However, when we started to talk production, we found that on the larger boards from which punchboards included in the box would be cut, there was still room. Well, this was unacceptable. Although this was a game made without Kickstarter, without stretch goals, we decided to add more content because it didn't cost more and because we had the opportunity.
Note that at first, I was not particularly in favor of this, and for one simple reason: The game had turned out very well as it was, and sometimes the best is the enemy of the good. Adding things for the sake of adding things is not necessarily a good idea because it can transform a simple, functional concept into a kludge-fest. And then very quickly, strongly warning myself with this same notion, I told myself it was also an opportunity to give more breadth to the game, and that this would not only make me happy, but future players, as well. The main thing was to keep in mind that it should not add more complexity to the game and that these elements should be optional, acting as variants.
Thus, our developments have added Tempest tiles, which are the most beautiful effect to add to the game board, while requiring only a single additional rule. I also added the Pyramids, which are a nod to the reefs of the first version of the game, with their majority rule — though now the majority is counted from merely three spaces, which can be tallied at a glance. Finally, the temples bring little interesting effects without breaking the game.
Oh, The Places You'll Go!
If there is a lesson to this story, it would be this: Sometimes one conceives a game with a strong and simple intention, and because it functions, one succeeds in keeping it that way through to its completion.
The story of Ekö is the opposite. This is the story of a hazardous, three-year pilgrimage, armed with a pawn game that was supposed to be Candy Crush on a board, crossed with Avalam, and married to pink octopi and yellow jellyfish; I traveled to a realm at war in which one constructs little wooden buildings to finally stop in a desert of ochre dust, facing a golem of wind and sand who tells me that his Emperor is long dead. In the end, this is a game "of strategy", and I think the term is not abused here. Yes, Ekö is more than the simple abstract game it was in the beginning. This is a game of conquest, tense and open, delivered with elegant components and visuals.
Now the game is yours. Your turn to play!
Translation: Nathan Morse
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