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To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, please contact BGG News editor W. Eric Martin via email – wericmartin AT gmail.com

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Designer Diary: Body Party, or Vanishing Right Before Your I

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Body Party exists due to industry contacts and false memories.

Right after I posted a selfie with the game in August 2014, I was sorry that it had been published and wanted nothing to do with it ever again.


In his book I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter proposes that consciousness is a mirage, an epiphenomenon that emerges from the countless interactions taking place at a scale below our level of perception. An example of such from his book:

One day, many years ago, I wanted to pull all of the envelopes from a small cardboard box lying on the floor of my study and stick them as a group into one of my desk drawers. Accordingly, I picked up the box, reached into it, clasped my right hand around the pack of envelopes inside it (about a hundred in number), and squeezed tightly down on them in order to pull them all out of the box as a unit. Nothing at all surprising in any of this. But all of a sudden I felt, between my thumb and fingers, something very surprising. Oddly enough, there was a marble sitting (or floating?) right in the middle of that flimsy little cardboard box! […]

I peered in between the envelopes, looking for a small, smooth, colored glass sphere. No luck. Then I fumbled about with my fingers between the envelopes, feeling for it. Again no soap. But then, as soon as I grasped the whole set of envelopes as before, there it was again, as solid as ever! Where was this little devil of a marble hiding?


My dad didn't play many games with the family when I was young, preferring solitaire puzzles on the computer such as Sokoban and Everett Kaser's Sherlock as he disliked competition, but every so often he would join us for games, such as the deduction game Alibi from Mayfair Games. For some reason he really enjoyed the challenge of creating complex questions that could still be answered with a number, as was required by the rules: "Using 1 for 'yes' and 0 for 'no,' give me a six digit binary number that tells me which character cards you've seen."

He also liked the Parker Brothers game Funny Bones — coincidentally published the year I was born — most likely because we never worried about who won when we played. Two of us tried to hold as many cards between us as we could while everyone else watched and laughed.


Excerpt from a Bruno Faidutti article about reviews, slightly edited for style:

W. Eric Martin is in charge of the news feed of BoardGameGeek. He's a really nice guy, fun, open-minded, talkative, and I always enjoy meeting him at game fairs. That's why I've always been surprised by how boring his video reviews are, until some day in a Facebook discussion he boasted about the way he could review a game without letting his personal feeling show through, so that gamers could make their own free and independent opinion on whether they will like the game or not. No wonder I don't like his reviews, since the only interesting thing would be his personal opinion on the games.

I find this frustrating and meaningless. By restraining from giving their own opinion, from telling what they have and want to tell, Eric and all the reviewers who share his approach are emasculating their own works. Like the rules paraphrases, this must be boring to write, and it's no wonder it's also boring to read or look at. Such descriptive reviews usually don't give more useful information than the blurb at the back of the box…

Reviewing a game in a cold and impersonal way, ignoring the pleasure, fun, anger or boredom one felt while playing, it's focusing on the subsidiary and ignoring the crux of the matter, the feel of the game. It's frustrating both for the reviewer, who doesn't give his opinion, and for the reader who doesn't learn anything useful. Can you imagine a book or movie critic restraining himself from telling what he thinks of a novel or movie? Where would be the point in reading his reviews? It's not different with games.


Excerpt from a note I sent my then-girlfriend (now-wife) in high school:

But what does it matter because in a hundred years we'll all be dead anyway.


I've met hundreds of publishers since I started writing about board and card games in the early 2000s, and some are better than others at explaining what they want to see in a game design. Matthieux d'Epenoux of Cocktail Games is one of the best. I had met d'Epenoux a few times at SPIEL in the mid-2000s, and in 2008 he contacted me about editing English-language rules for a few upcoming titles, one of which was Reiner Knizia's Robot Master.

I edited the rules, then met d'Epenoux at SPIEL 2008 to thank him for the work and get paid. We talked about how he decides on what to publish, and he gave three rules for Cocktail titles, although plenty of exceptions exist:

• They must consist solely of cards.
• They must be explainable in one minute and playable in ten.
• They must be as fun to watch as they are to play.

He also explained how masterful Knizia is at giving publishers what they want, noting that he'll meet with Knizia at one fair, mention specific topics or types of games that he wants, then Knizia will approach him at the next fair with a catalog of designs to fit Cocktail's needs.


In the late 1990s, a short story of mine published in Speak magazine led to both an agent and a book editor contacting me to see whether I had enough stories, either already written or still waiting to be extracted from my head, to publish as a collection. I found the attention discomfiting, swearing to all that I couldn't possibly do such a thing.


My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a couple of years before he died from complications following a fall. One story of his that I still remember well from his later years:

While running errands one day, he unexpectedly ran into my mother at the mall — unexpectedly as she had taken the other car to do errands of her own — and while he knew who she was, he couldn't remember her name. He figured that his brain had taken all of his "home" information and put it in a mental box to be retrieved later because he was busy with other things at the time and needed to focus entirely on current tasks.


My college English professor, John Batty-Sylvan, introduced me to many great works, the most profound being Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie, a theoretically first-person narrative in which the first person must be inferred from the description presented in the text, description that never veers from what a person might directly sense, placing you directly behind the mask of the main character and forcing you to generate everything that might be happening there. ("La jalousie" can mean either "jealousy" or a certain type of window blind, a lack of distinction unfortunately lost with the English-language title.)

La Jalousie presents a narrative without a narrator, a body of text without a self. This book resonated with me, ringing hard my own empty shell.


More from Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop:

Eventually it dawned on me that there wasn't any marble in there at all, but that there was something that felt for all the world exactly like a marble to this old marble hand. It was an epiphenomenon caused by the fact that, for each envelope, at the vertex of the "V" made by its flap, there is a triple layer of paper as well as a thin layer of glue. An unintended consequence of this innocent design decision is that when you squeeze down on a hundred such envelopes all precisely aligned with each other, you can't compress that little zone as much as the other zones — it resists coompression. The hardness that you feel at your fingertips has an uncanny resemblence to a more familiar (dare I say "a more real"?) hardness.


My memory is fairly terrible — always has been, really — and I often discover after the fact that I'm remembering something in a way that didn't happen, assigning events and quotes to different times or people than where they originated.

Games are concrete objects, with names and numbers that don't change no matter when you take them from the shelf, but I find that I'm not remembering them as well as I used to. I can partly attribute this to the sheer number of games that I see each year, that number ballooning annually beyond the ability of anyone to fathom, much less experience, but only partly. I sample and share what I can, while letting most of it pass over me like rain, content to hope that someone else finds it quenching.


Despite appearing in game demonstration videos and being interviewed on radio shows and having my name in this space all the time, I'm not someone who craves publicity. I'm not interested in being famous, and I feel embarassed each time someone says something along those lines at conventions or game stores or at my house when they show up for game day.

Yes, I'm a guy who does public things, and yes, my name and face is out there, but that's not me. I'm playing a role; I step into that role at a particular time, do the thing, then retreat into privacy once again. I'm not the one who appears on camera. I just play that guy on BGG TV.


Another author introduced to me in college by Batty-Sylvan was Jorge Luis Borges, and some of Borges' recurring themes in his short stories included identity and the mirroring of the world, the abstract and the make-believe being made inseparable from the real, as in this one-paragraph story "On Exactitude In Science", as translated here by Andrew Hurley:

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map,inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658


I often forget to look at myself in a mirror before going out — or maybe "forget" isn't the right word as I just don't think about looking at myself. I know that I'm there because I'm walking around and wearing clothes and eating food so that's good enough, right?


One night, for reasons unknown to me now, I thought of my family and what we played in the past. I reminisced about the gloriously dark cloud at the heart of Bermuda Triangle and our dexterity version of All the King's Men. I thought about Funny Bones and its double-sided cards and its head-to-head play and the points on each side of the card, although I couldn't remember how the game ended.

In the morning, I downloaded the rules for Funny Bones and discovered that it didn't play anything like how I remembered it, so I messed around with my fake recollected game, streamlined it further so that teams competed to hold a certain numebr of cards first to win, then pitched it to Cocktail Games, knowing that the design fit d'Epenoux's criteria and that I wouldn't pitch it anywhere else if Cocktail didn't want it.

D'Epenoux agreed to publish the game, after which I immediately started wondering whether he had signed the contract because he thought I was going to publicize it heavily on BGG, after which I started hating myself for not trusting his judgment and honesty because he had always seemed like an up-front person in the past. I could barely talk to him after that, always feeling like a fraud who had snookered his way into publication. I hesitated to cover Cocktail following the game's announcement as I didn't want to come across as favoring my publisher, effectively punishing it instead. I didn't know how to relate to this experience, and I just wanted it to end so that I could retreat to what I knew and keep on keeping on.


From an email I sent in 2008:

I don't feel that I have to convince others that my point of view is the right POV, that everyone must agree with me. I'm writing as a way to record my own thoughts and beliefs and observations, to figure out what I think. Ideally the writing will interest others and make them think about things in a new way, but I have no faith that it will. People get stuck in tracks of thought, and challenging someone's beliefs is rarely enough to encourage them to look at something from a different POV. Everything gets processed through a person's skein of reality, for good or ill.


While roaming the Boston Pubic Library one day, I ran across a fascinating book by Douglas Harding titled On Having No Head in which he writes about the philosophy of headlessness, what he calls "the headless way" for as he points out you can never see your own head the way that you see the rest of the world, which should give you pause as to what's really going on on top of your shoulders.

One experiment he suggests is called "Two-way pointing":

Point with one index finger outwards at the world, and with your other index finger point inwards towards your no-face.

The finger pointing outwards points at a scene full of countless shapes and colours. It’s a complicated picture. The more time you spend looking at it, the more there is to see. And most of it is hidden — obscured by other things in one way or another.

The view in is different. Here the space is not hidden at all. You can see it all, all at once. In the photograph I can see only part of the room in the distance, but here I see all of the space. There is nothing more to view here, nothing concealed. Nor is this being that I am here — and that you are here (I suggest) — remote in any way. It is right here, it is what I am. It is the "part" of me that I can never lose. What could be simpler than seeing this — and being this? It is uncomplicated, transparent, open to inspection, nearer than near, given in its entirety…

Is this Who you really are? Are you empty of everything, and at the same time capacity for this endlessly changing view out, room for this amazing world? To find out, just look. Seeing the space here is simpler than simple.


As soon as Borges had been presented to me, I read nearly everything he had written, finding multiple similarities between his work and Robbe-Grillet's — so much so that for one of my essays in college English, I "wrote" about La Jalousie by stitching together quotes from Borges' stories and essays. In the final paper, 95% of the essay was someone else's writing now repurposed, my voice clearly heard, yet simultaneously unnecessary thanks to my efforts to ventriloquize the dead.


My story from Speak:

Maybe Next Time

So I see you in a cafe reading the Sunday newspaper and having coffee, and on a whim I sit down across from you so I can read a section of the paper as well, although mostly I look at you over the top of the page. I ask you questions about your weekend and weekdays and work life and home life, and I find out you don't have anyone special in your life, no lover or significant other, no partner who considers you the most wonderful person in the world, and this surprises me as you seem to be a charming and lovely person, intelligent, witty. I invite you out for a movie, dancing, a trip to the circus, a walk on a pier in moonlight. We have an evening that satisfies both of us, more evenings and weekend trips, seventeen months of sharing a bed, a kitchen, an apartment, thirty-four years of marriage before you die, leaving me and our son and two daughters to mourn our loss, leaving me without the most important person in my life, leaving me alone for three years before I die. The only thing that survives us, that shows we were together, are our children, but then our children have four children and their children have nine and those nine, fourteen. Our genes spread through the human race and would be a part of every man and woman on the planet except before that happens everyone is killed by chemical agents that leak out of forty-thousand-year-old canisters. The earth lies empty of animal life for the remainder of its lifespan, for six hundred thirty-five million years and then the sun melts the earth to nothing as it expands and dissipates its energy. The remains of the solar system are devoured one-and-three-quarter billion years later by a black hole, which is then consumed by another, and slowly the entirety of the universe is drawn to one point as one black hole cannibalizes another, then another, increasing its mass until it becomes all-devouring. The enormous and universal mass that it absorbs and contains crushes it back to a single point that explodes a nanosecond later to refill and recreate the universe. Fifteen billion years of development create thousands of galaxies and millions of stars and a million million planets and more specifically, in a galaxy which some of its residents call the Milky Way, a solar system with a plain yellow sun and nine planets, the third planet overflowing with carbon-based life. One species advances to the point that it can transmit energy through wires and double the natural lifespan of its members and send representatives of the planet into nearby areas of space. And you live now on this vast and interesting planet that has many areas you've never visited and millions of people you'll never meet and one of those people is me, who you'll never get to experience or know or care for or love; the only contact you'll have with me is reading a story that I write.



From a Nov. 24, 2016 email from Cocktail Games' Matthieu d'Epenoux:

Here is a royalty statement for BODY PARTY.

The game is not a success and I think that we probably made bad choices in terms of cover.
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Mon Nov 28, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Dexikon, or A Postmortem Analysis

Andrew Rowse
New Zealand
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In the world of video game development, there is the concept of a postmortem: an analysis of a finished project that examines how the different parts of the project came together, what worked well, and what could have been done better. In principle, it's a great way to learn important lessons and improve future development, and it's especially valuable when two or more games with similar themes or gameplay come out close to each other. After a confusing conversation with a fellow game designer who hadn't encountered the term before, I was advised to add this line: Despite the morbid tone of the word, a postmortem is usually done for products that are still very much alive!

Almost six years ago, towards the end of 2010, I started work on a deck-building spelling game that would eventually be called Dexikon. The goal was to create a game that helped usher my Scrabble-playing in-laws into the fold of wonderful modern games, and early in development it was clear that there was definitely something to the idea. After a lot of iteration, Dexikon was published in 2015 by Eagle-Gryphon Games.

The game is a bit like Ascension, but all the cards are letters and you have to use your cards to spell words. You start with a deck of low-value letter cards that are easy to use, and using them to spell words generates points that you use to buy higher-value (and harder-to-use) letter cards and/or victory points. At the end of the game, you get to use all your cards to spell one massive "last word".

Yep. Unfortunately for me, I was not the only person to have this idea, and my slow-and-not-particularly-steady development cycle meant that Dexikon would not be the first deck-building word game to hit the market. That honor would be taken in mid-2013 by Tim Fowers' Paperback, which has achieved widespread recognition as a well-designed and wonderful game.

With apologies to Paige Turner because you never did anything to deserve getting an "art" treatment from me.

I put Dexikon on the back burner when Paperback was announced on Kickstarter, but after I'd had a chance to buy and play a copy of Paperback post-launch, I decided that there was enough to set the two games apart that it was worth pushing on with Dexikon. The most critical differences boil down to two things...

[1] In Dexikon, the most common letters (vowels, S and T) are freely available through the game on multi-letter "core" cards. The ES card can be used as E or S, and the AT and IOU cards work the same. This means that the player gets a lot of flexibility from a couple of core cards and few consonants.

In Paperback, you get a handful of vowels in your starting deck, then any vowel cards gained through play are either short-lived (trash upon use) or hotly contested (claiming the common vowels). You also have access to the common vowel card, a card that you can add to your word even though it's not part of your hand.

[2] In both Paperback and Dexikon, players spell a word each turn to earn currency, which can then be used on that turn. In Dexikon, players must choose to either spend their currency on buying new cards or bank their word and get just half the currency to spend on new cards. The game ends once any player has banked seven words, at which point final victory points are scored from several sources:
• The values of their best five banked words.
• -2 points for each penalty (wild) card in their deck.
• Each N or P card in their deck (1 and 2 points respectively).
• The value of one final word, using as many cards from the player's deck as they like.

Paperback uses four tiers of Dominion-style (and beautifully illustrated!) victory point cards, which are also wild when used in words. At the end of the game, players' final scores are the total value of the victory point cards in their decks.

The different approaches to vowels and wild cards mean that the sort of words you can spell changes over the course of the game in different ways. Both games have an initial period of moving toward more valuable hands that make it harder to form words, but then Dexikon's late-game is characterized by a push to get rid of penalty cards, whereas Paperback's late game is all about acquiring lots of VP cards. The trick in Dexikon is navigating the late-game while making sure your deck doesn't run so low on core cards that you lose the ability to spell words, and in Paperback the trick is making sure that the influx of VP cards doesn't leave you in a position of being easily able to use all your cards but unable to score enough to buy new VP cards.

There are other, less fundamental differences, such as the way the pool of available cards works, the spread of abilities, and the treatment of attack cards. These all contribute to a generally different feel and flow of the game, but the two key differences are what really set the two games apart in terms of mechanical strategy.

Dexikon was Kickstarted by Eagle-Gryphon Games in early 2015 and delivered a few months later. Reviews were generally positive and very naturally focused on comparisons with Paperback. GeekDad (review) and Tom Vasel (review) both preferred Paperback.

Jonathan Liu on GeekDad felt that Paperback has the advantage on ease of play and teaching, and that Dexikon's decision between banking and spending has the potential to be tough and less intuitive than Paperback's decision between regular letters and VP cards.

Tom preferred the look of Paperback, agrees that it's an easier game to teach to new players, and felt that where Dexikon gives an advantage to players with larger vocabularies, Paperback gave the advantage to the player best at deck-building. He also felt that Paperback plays faster.

Craig from Botch Games preferred Dexikon (review). He really liked the choice between banking and spending, and the dilemma of when/if to purge penalty cards. He was surprised by how much he enjoyed the game and described it as one of the most cut-throat deck-builders he'd played. He felt that the use of the score pad for banking (and blocking other players from spelling words) was "the bee's knees" and found it hilarious that you're guaranteed to be able to spell "outset" on your first turn. He thought that Paperback was closer to Dominion, and Dexikon was closer to Ascension.

The "last word" mechanism was a selling point for Eagle-Gryphon when I pitched the game to them, and I've found it's been generally popular with players. The idea that a solid last word strategy can compensate for weaker turn-by-turn banking is appealing, and I've enjoyed seeing games swung by last words.

In Dexikon (without the alternate attack expansion cards), the hand you draw at the end of your turn cannot be interfered with by other players, so you can start planning your next word immediately. This helps keep the AP down somewhat.

Once you've got the hang of using the multi-letter cards, you can usually find a way to use all your cards each turn, which feels epic (but more on this in the next section).

After a lot of playtesting with friends' children, I hit upon a simple way to balance the game across spelling levels: By letting younger players replace one or more of their penalty cards with special penalties, which have exactly the same functionality but are worth 1 instead of 0 when spelling a word. This allowed kids to compete on a fairly even level with their parents, and I think it's one of Dexikon's best features!

In Dexikon, you can always use all your cards on your first turn. Being put at a disadvantage before you've made a single decision in a game is one of my pet peeves, so I wanted to make sure that every opening hand could be completely used, even if you happen to draw all of your non-penalty cards (two each of AT, ES and IOU). By sheer, glorious coincidence, one of two words that you're guaranteed to be able to spell at the outset of the game is, in fact, "outset".

Players generally seem to enjoy the choice to spend or bank. Learning when to switch from deck-building to scoring is not immediately intuitive because of the way that your deck continues to grow (albeit with lower-cost cards) even on turns when you bank. In the end, it comes down to a combination of reading what other players are doing, being aware of what your deck already contains, and (ideally) having a vague idea of which letters you still need to collect to maximize your last word.

There are a couple of minor cosmetic things that give Dexikon a bit of an edge over Paperback: the corner letters on both left and right makes it friendlier for left-handed players, its single deck of pool cards makes it marginally quicker to set up, and the smaller box makes it a bit more portable. That said, it's important to note that few if any people were calling these things out as aspects of Paperback that needed fixing, and Paperback's larger box is stuffed full of extra content and game modes!

The name should have a C, not a K — what was I thinking?! The choice to go with K was a stylistic conceit that has not resonated with players. I think I've seen more reviews/comments about "Dexicon" than "Dexikon"! In contrast, Paperback has a catchy name that is nigh-impossible to misspell!

Dexikon is themeless. The art brief I wrote was to create something with the same theme-neutrality of Scrabble while also evoking a feeling of expensive, leather-bound Victorian tomes. As far as I'm concerned, Simon Brewer (Dexikon's artist) absolutely nailed the brief. Paperback has a light theme that mostly comes through in the pulp novel art on the VP cards, and for all that people might argue that the theme is not intrinsic or necessary, Ryan Goldsberry's art is often called out as one of the satisfying parts of the Paperback experience. I think that the theme makes Paperback feel friendlier, whereas Dexikon comes across as more calculating and potentially cold. Just to be clear, that's on me as the author of the brief; I have nothing but gratitude and awe for how well Simon delivered what I asked for.

Dexikon's multi-letter cards may offer flexibility, but they do so at the cost of familiarity. Wild letters are a concept with which any Scrabble player will be familiar, so there's no real cognitive cost to learning a game that includes them. Scrabble also features the core gameplay of "arrange these letters to form a word", but it's initially difficult to learn to do that with multi-letter cards. In my experience, most people pick it up within a few games, but until they've done so, it can be a stressful experience. In contrast, Paperback builds upon the Scrabble experience without forcing any fundamental changes in thinking, so it's much quicker to get players up and running, and enjoying the card effects and deck-building.

Dexikon gives a bonus point to a player who manages to empty their hand when spelling a word, which helps players feel like they've "solved" a hand and makes them feel good — but it also creates an expectation of using the whole hand, leading to stress, AP, and disappointment when a player winds up with a hand that is hard (or impossible) to fully use. Paperback doesn't offer this bonus point, and since the starting decks are not guaranteed to spell a word with every card in your initial hand, it never fosters the impression that using anything less than your full hand is a failure.

Dexikon's scoresheet mechanism and spend/bank choice are compelling, but they're a big departure from the Dominion style of buying point cards, and that's another cognitive cost to learning the game. It means that the game can potentially go on too long if none of the players have a good read on when to start banking. Paperback uses a scoring system that builds on the Dominion experience in the same way that its spelling builds on the Scrabble experience, and Tim Fowers really nailed the balance between Scrabble, Dominion and SomethingNewAndExciting.

Honestly? Not much except that accursed K in the name. Getting my A into G a little earlier and being first to market would have been great, but the time on the back burner after Paperback's announcement actually resulted in a lot of positive changes, so I would have been first to market with a much weaker game. As it is, I really like the way that Dexikon works differently from Paperback. I like the way that both games gently recalibrate the way that you think about language as you learn to play better, and I think it's neat that the recalibrations are subtly different. (Dexikon works best if you weigh the short-word potential of new letters against their possible inclusion in your eventual "last word", whereas Paperback rewards you for balancing powerful letters with an occasional influx of wild VP cards to make those letters easier to use.)

Early on, I wanted to call the game "Animalexikon" and make each card a picture of an animal that started with that letter (AT would be "American Toad", ES "Elephant Seal", and IOU an ambiguous silhouette called "Ibex Or Unicorn"), but thought it would feel too childish for a hard-ish core spelling game. From the comments on the Kickstarter, a lot of people would have preferred that, but I still think such an approach is better saved for a follow-up title — with no K in the name. My eldest son is five and keen to work with me to make a spelling game for kids, so watch this space…

Unsurprisingly, I like Dexikon, and I think it does a good job of doing what it was supposed to: Provide an iterative word puzzle that evolves based on what you and your opponents do. Though it's fair to say that it's harder than Paperback to grok the way the game plays, I've had very good feedback from the people who have resonated with Dexikon.

Interestingly enough, since Dexikon was released, I've met a couple of other designers working on deck-building word games, and when I played one of them, I was struck by how slightly different mechanisms can completely change the way the game flows. I think there's still a lot of untapped potential in the world of deck-building word games, and I do hope to see those other designers press on with their versions.

Also, and this is really cool, Tim Fowers invited me to help out with the design for an upcoming Paperback expansion. It's very exciting to get to play in another designer's sandbox and to finally have a potential outlet for all the letter combinatorial gubbins that my brain trained itself to do while working on Dexikon. Turns out that stuff is of limited use in regular life! I can't give any details, except that I am very confident it will be awesome...

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Thu Nov 17, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Lotus, or Everything Blooms in Time

Jordan Goddard
United States
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Hi there! We are Jordan and Mandy Goddard. Yep, you guessed it — we are married, and we design games together. We love getting the chance to work on projects together in our free time, and what better hobby than one in which we get to play games all the time! Here is the story on how our latest game, Lotus, came about and how it evolved over the course of two years…

Lotus is a game that was developed mechanisms-first, then grew into its beautiful theme along the way. The process started during the summer of 2014. Our early objective was to create a board game-like experience using cards and no board. We started playing around with how cards are held in your hand and how that same fanned-out shape could be placed down on the table to create a full circle of cards. This led to the development of the game's core mechanism of set completion with five different sets, ranging from three cards to seven cards. Using a little geometry to identify the exact angle of overlap for each set, we were able to guide placement of each card for a clean shape every time.

It didn't take long before the card-laying mechanism naturally led us to a theme of building flowers. That theme, in addition to our desire for a board game experience, led to the addition of butterfly meeples to be used for area control of the flowers in the garden. We gave the design the name "Bloom" and got to work on a ruleset and petal card illustrations.

It doesn't always make sense to invest in full art so early in the game design process, but in this case, the petal cards actually help enable the mechanism by providing guides for placing the next card in the set. The art also provides a visual indicator of progress toward the completion of each flower, which is helpful during gameplay. We had a full art prototype made to confirm whether our vision was going to work as we expected. It was time to move on to playtesting!

Thanks to the great community at Unpub and the Blue Noodle, we were able to show our design to a large number of wonderful people and receive incredibly valuable feedback. Their countless hours of playtesting various iterations and providing detailed suggestions helped us polish the details. We also leaned on the Reddit community, specifically the TabletopGameDesign subreddit, for some early feedback on artwork and general concepts of the game. You could even say this process led to some budding friendships.

Daryl Andrews, Gil Hova, Jordan Goddard, Ian Zang, Tony Miller, Mandy Goddard, Isaac Shalev (back row)
Tiffany Caires, Daniel Newman (front row)

About a year into our project, in the summer of 2015, we partnered with Renegade Game Studios. It was a wonderful experience working with the Renegade team and collaborating with their extended network of game designers and artists. While the core mechanisms of the game remained unchanged, there were a few significant improvements made as a result of working with the new team.

Theme and Visual Aesthetics

We learned that the name "Bloom" was already taken by a European game, so we started brainstorming alternatives. (Two examples were "Blossom" and "Garden in Bloom".) The final decision for "Lotus" didn't come about until after we landed on the idea for the box art. Kane Klenko (designer of Covert, FUSE, and Dead Men Tell No Tales) led the art direction for Lotus and we owe him a HUGE thank you for how beautifully everything came together. Illustrations were provided by Chris Ostrowski and graphic design by Anita Osburn — what an amazing team!

The box cover took on a clean, inviting, mysterious feeling through the use of negative white space to draw attention to the gorgeous Asian-inspired artwork. The petal cards bring the game to life with their bright, bold colors and natural imperfections that allow for no two completed flowers to look exactly the same.

The final theme was a result of the art direction — or at least of a feeling the art evoked. Players are invited into a mysterious lotus garden where they compete for flowers in order to harness the wisdom that the mystical blossoms provide. Each player also commands a set of insect guardians that helps them gain control of flowers and aids them in gaining special abilities to make their quest more successful.

Mechanism and Components

For what may seem like a fairly simple set of rules, the game did pose a number of challenges for us during playtesting. It's interesting to look back now to remember how much it really changed over the course of two years in development.

Below are a few examples of ideas we tested that didn't make it into the final version of the game. We also show the issues that kept these ideas from working and the solution that was implemented in the final version of Lotus.

A few more tweaks here and terminology updates there, and we finally had the Lotus rules. Final components were also taking shape, including a change from using just butterfly meeples to including three other critters — ladybugs, dragonflies, and caterpillars — to round out the mix of insect guardians.

The most fulfilling part of the entire process was supporting the launch of Lotus at Renegade's booth at Gen Con 2016. The reception of the game was so positive, and we are just so excited to see other people enjoying playing with their families and friends. If you have a chance to play, we would love to hear your feedback on Twitter @JordanandMandy.

Thank you so much to everyone who helped us along the way!

Jordan and Mandy Goddard
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Tue Oct 25, 2016 6:00 pm
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Designer Diary: From Quiet Shores to Troubled Whirlpools: The Making of Nautilion

Shadi Torbey
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Ancon — a charming city with a lake surrounded by verdant hills, a pleasant marina, a beautiful opera house…

In winter when tourism is dormant, its streets are empty and fog rises from the water, Ancon's beauty takes a rather eerie and melancholic turn, verging on the sinister: something like Death in Venice (without the sun) meets The Shining (without Jack Nicholson running after you with an axe).

Needless to say, I was there one winter.

I had just flown in to replace a deficient colleague in a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. I didn't know anybody on the production (the fate of latecomers) and had packed only one book: Jared Diamond's Collapse (which describes how brilliant past civilizations have collapsed almost overnight for badly managing their natural resources –something that, according to Diamond, will happen to us soon, if we do not change our ways).

Was it the uplifting read, the loneliness, the fog? Sitting in my hotel room, thinking about what the next game in the Oniverse series could be, I decided: "I'm going to take the WORST game mechanism ever and use it to make a fun solo/coop game" — and the worst game mechanism I could think of was "roll and move".

Ah, roll and move! The mechanism that most of us "serious gamers" love to hate! How could I possibly turn this into something that I would consider a satisfying and fun solo game experience?

My first impulse was to think: "Onirim: The Dice Game". You are in a labyrinth and have to get out. To do so, you must outrace a bad guy running towards you (it was obvious to me that he'd be running towards you as thematically absurd as it was at that time; my intuition would be proven right a couple of weeks later) and get to the exit (the bad guy's starting point) before he reached the center of the labyrinth (your starting point).

To make things interesting, you wouldn't only need to go as fast as you could, hoping for high rolls (where's the fun in that?); along the way, you would have to gather pieces of a key-like artifact. Only with the complete artifact would you be able to open the exit door. And the path would actually be made of the pieces, so no need for a board or track. For this reason, you would sometimes need to go slower in order to pick the right piece (obviously, there are several copies — four actually — of each piece, allowing you to jump over some of them).

Already in my first draft, the bad guy was not alone: an arch-villain would hover over the race, sabotaging your progress.

So the primal situation with its game-nurturing contradictions was the following:

• You want to go fast BUT must sometimes slow down to get missing pieces.
• You want the bad guy to go slowly BUT you must be careful that he doesn't land too often on the pieces you will need. After all, he steals each piece he lands on, so you sometimes need him to jump over a larger part of the track.
• You need to prevent the arch-villain from too often sabotaging your race as he makes you discard pieces you already have if he gets high results on the dice.

Three actors (player, bad guy, arch-villain), three dice.

And instead of each actor having their own dice, you would roll all three dice each turn, then assign them.

This was the first playable version. It had enough hard and fun decisions in a short amount of time for my taste, so I didn't throw the prototype out the window.

Still there were some flaws: I had no expansions at all and a lot of elements didn't make sense thematically: Why would you race towards the bad guy? Why is he ignoring you when you cross paths in the narrow alleys? Why do you lose as soon as he gets to the center of the labyrinth?

The solution actually came from a tiny, but annoying thematic/component-related problem: How could I represent the player?

In Onirim, the player has no physical presence in the game components: the cards represent the visited locations and the encountered dreams — but the player somehow stays "themself", which I find coherent with the story that the game is telling. And the same goes actually for Sylvion, Urbion, and Castellion.

Would I change this here? And how? A humanoid figure running? An abstract pawn?

Then the answer dawned on me: The player should either be wearing a suit or be in a vehicle! A diving suit? A car? A boat? A submarine!

And suddenly everything made sense!

You weren't escaping anything; you were diving into the depths, towards the lair of the arch-villain, who was no longer hovering over you, but firmly waiting at the bottom of the ocean, prepared to conquer the whole aquatic world of the Oniverse.

The bad guy would be the arch-villain's henchman, a ghost ship — or rather a phantom submarine! — on its way to the surface to bring desolation to your homeland, the Happy Isles.

That's why you have to get to the bad guy's starting point before he gets to yours: By destroying his boss, he will become powerless! And in order to defeat this arch-villain — a sinister Darkhouse that emits darkness instead of light — you would need help from various inhabitants of the depths, no longer inanimate pieces of a key.

This thematic change not only made everything more coherent, but it somehow opened up the game to various expansions, as if the thematic inadequacy of the first draft had me stuck into a mechanical dead end.

First, you could have various submarine designs. With of a simple "air conduct rule" (you can take a new member in your ship only if their cabin is adjacent to the cabin of another member), some submarines would be much easier to man than others. I came up with six different shapes, ranging from quite comfortable (lots of adjacent cabins) to very tricky (with cabins connected only to one other cabin).

Niobe racing the Hammer to Zion through a mechanical line, Lando and Nien Nunb maneuvering the Falcon through the Death Star pipes, Max and Furiosa bogged down under enemy fire — what would a good race between vehicles be without obstacles? In the "Reefs" expansion, some of the crew-members gain special abilities to outmaneuver various sub-aquatic traps that would otherwise bring your ship to a grinding halt, making you lose a whole turn, while the Phantom Submarine, impervious to anything in its way, would continue on its path up relentlessly!

If some crew members were pilots, other could become…fighters! The "Mercenaries" expansion develops on this and adds a new climax to the mid-game. (In a movie — or an opera — you would call it the first act's finale.) Now when you cross paths with the Phantom Submarine, you have to fight him! Not only does it start with better equipment, but it can also enslave fighters it meets on the way, further increasing its strength.

Fighters, pilots…how about some mechanics? Those would have the ability to re-roll some dice, but only if helped by a new sort of crew member: the Undersea Mages! This expansion actually brings a new type of dilemma; the fighters and the pilots help you as part of the crew on the submarine, but in order to get a mechanic's help, you have to pair it with a Mage in a separate section of the ship. Re-rolling dice is cool during the game, but is not part of the winning condition…

And what about the Darkhouse, lurking in the depths? I decided it would be fun to make him a cheater: the fourth expansion (named after him) brings rule-changing cards into the mix. Each turn, a new rule comes into effect, slightly modifying how the dice are rolled or assigned, how the figures move, how the tiles are distributed, and so on. Some of those cards make the game trickier, some make it easier; you choose at the beginning of each game how difficult you want your mix to be, then randomly reveal five cards that will be in effect alternately each turn.

Finally, what's a good crew story without some heroic sacrifices? The last expansion adds those; you will have to sacrifice some of your hard-earned crew members in order to accomplish heroic actions that may help you tremendously — but only if triggered at the right time!

This is how I made the journey from the quiet shores of Ancon's lake to the troubled ocean of the Oniverse, full of turmoil, submarine fights, and tricky tides.

The worst game mechanism ever? Probably.

A fun solo/coop game? Grab the dice, and dive into it to find out!

Shadi Torbey
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Thu Oct 13, 2016 9:00 am
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Designer Diary: Motion Pictures: Movies Out of Cardboard, or From One Art to Another

Alexandros Kapidakis
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One of the first things they taught us in film school was that when writing a script, you need to write about what you know. Although we didn't agreed with that opinion, inevitably we did write about characters and situations that we had already experienced. Everything about this profession was new to us, and it's unlimited options were frightening, so we needed something familiar in order to get a foothold. It was obviously easier to reproduce something we already knew than to imagine, and then create, a whole new universe. As we grew as artists, we had the chance and ability to venture outside the known and usual stories to create something truly unique and new. That took time, practice, and a lot of hard work.

Some years later, the same happened to me again when I started designing board games. Here, like in the film industry, I was entering a whole new — and equally massive — ocean of potentials, and I needed something familiar to grab and float onto.

So the first game I ever tried to make was about the film industry, a subject I already knew well. As a beginner, I fell into literally all the traps a first-time designer can fall into. My first game was way too long and complicated, it had every mechanism I had encountered, and most importantly it wasn't fun. Thankfully I had already dealt with many, many, many failures and disappointments in my first job, so I didn't give up and I made a second, a third, and many more versions of that initial game. At some point I was confident enough to show it to a publisher, mostly for feedback and thoughts. In no way was it a finished design, but the meeting was positive enough for me to keep at it.

From that meeting, I learned about a national board game design contest that was taking place in my town. I was encouraged to participate in it, but I felt it wasn't the right time to show my design to such a wide audience. I promised to myself that next year I would be ready. In the meantime, I put aside my first game and tried to complete other ideas I had. Some were very promising, and some were unimaginable disasters.

Some months later, the next national board game design contest was announced and a friend of mine suggested that I should participate with my cinema game. I felt it was still too complicated and big for that environment, so I decided to make a new game, specifically for the contest, by keeping the same theme and inserting new, streamlined and easier mechanisms. I needed to create a game that could convey the theme of managing a movie studio by using only cards. I wanted a game that would be easier to set up, explain and play than the heavy worker placement and economic game that I had already made, so I tested many different mechanisms and I ended up loving the idea of hand management. As in real life, you need to manage correctly your crew and cast, as a production of anything audiovisual is an extremely long and hard process. I also wanted to incorporate a sense of expansion and progression, so I decided to implement deck-building aspects to the game by adding new crew members that the players could hire to their studios.

The projects at the beginning were only movies, but soon I realized that by adding new kinds of projects, such as television series, commercials and awards, I could add multiple ways to victory, much more replayability, and of course cool new artwork!

Early in the design process, I also decided to make the game two player only as I thought I could manage the balance better and I was able to playtest it more often. In the initial playtests, I was happy with the general idea and direction of the game, but I needed to make sure that players always had interesting choices to make during their turn and were not obliged to play a specific card. Unfortunately by making some big changes to the game, I went to the opposite direction. I though it would be cool to have each type of project always available to the players. That way they always had something to do in their turn, but the problem was that these many options didn't help the pace of the game, and by removing the limitations I had made the game less interesting. By reverting to the original idea of shuffling together all the projects and dealing some of them in the middle, I could create an interesting puzzle again.

Many versions later, I was convinced that the game could support more players, but I wanted to make sure that by adding more players I wouldn't add more chaos, so I decided to incorporate specific set-up patterns in order to ensure that by the time a player's turn came up again, the available projects would be mostly the same.

After a lot of work, I had a version that played 2 to 4 players in forty minutes, and I was confident enough to submit my game to the competition. During that competition the designers would have the opportunity to playtest and showcase their games, and after three months the jury would select the ten best games. The first of the three playtest events was very enlightening because for the first time strangers played my game and gave me feedback. Up to that point, my focus group was friends and family that although sincere still wouldn't hurt my feelings with aggressive opinions and critiques — but strangers didn't care about my feelings and that's exactly what I needed! After the first event, I redesigned almost every card in the game and I introduced goal cards. I felt that players needed a sense of direction both for the entirety of the game and for the early rounds, so setting up objectives that reward fame points for specific strategies helped to guide the players, even those who deliberately avoided them.

With the new version of the game, I went to the second playtest event, where I had the chance to show it to three different publishers! Drawlab Entertainment was the first company that immediately liked my idea and soon we met again to further discuss the game and its potential. From the first moment, their level of enthusiasm for my game won me over, and after months of balancing and developing its core aspects we had managed to create an amazing game based on what I knew best: cinema. The game ended up in third place in the card games category, but I felt like a winner as I knew I had found the best home for my creation.

I hope you will enjoy Motion Pictures: Movies Out of Cardboard and keep enjoying it as we develop more content from the endless world of audiovisual productions.

Alexandros Kapidakis

Motion Pictures on display in the press room at SPIEL 2016
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Thu Oct 13, 2016 4:35 am
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Designer Diary: Behind the Throne

Oleksandr Nevskiy
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In the present day, new movies, comics, books, video and board games are constantly struggling for our free time. New products come out every day, and many of them are so extraordinary that you just can't miss them. In order to catch all that stuff, sometimes we want to play something fast with just a few components, but at the same time we want to get the same range of emotions and amusement from a larger, complex game. Of course, all designers have the dream of making a game with just a small amount of components and cards, but that has become particularly important recently. We, as designers, decided we wanted to take up the challenge of creating a "minimalist" game.

In fact, it happened that I created the basic concept of Behind the Throne during just one single evening. There is something archetypal and basic, yet fascinating, in the mechanisms of "pressing your luck". However simple at core, I like these games a lot. It is always interesting to me to try to assess risks in these games. It's funny when you find out that you scared yourself in vain or (vice versa) you were too self-confident. That's why I like the idea of number comparison, and the ability to predict the risk seemed interesting to me.

The next morning, I made the prototype and showed it to my co-author Oleg. He was just about to take a break after designing Pirates of the 7 Seas. As this game was pretty light, I convinced him that we would be able to finish it quickly — but of course everything was not as easy as I had thought it would be.

Monsters That Almost Got Main Roles

After several days of testing, when we had determined the basic properties of cards and their values, it was the right time to make a "true" prototype, with actual art and layout, partly because I perceive a game much better when it has at least some art, which helps players to memorize specific cards and so on, but also because we had decided to give the game to our friends to see their reaction.

The game is quite abstract and almost any theme would fit. It could be based around animals, robots, aliens or something else. I decided it would be nice to see on cards some funny monsters that help their lord to win. Their appearance should help the players guess their abilities.

I went online to search appropriate images, preferably with a consistent style, and I was delighted when I found a series of very original monsters, just like I needed. Each of them had its character; they were very skillfully drawn and made everyone smile. There was even a back illustration for the cards! However, I couldn't find the contact data of the creator! That is how the game almost became a game in which the main characters were funny monsters.

After that, I started looking for an artist. I wrote to several people we worked with earlier, but after a few sketches, we still had not found the right style. Those monsters I had found were so awesome that we couldn't create something we liked as much if we insisted upon sticking to this theme, so that's when we decided to change it.

Politicians and Their Games

Together with the talented Ukrainian artist Denis Martynets, who worked with us on Pirates of the 7 Seas, we started looking for a new theme. It so happened that my friend dropped in and started talking about politics, conspiracy, and corruption — and suddenly I realized that this theme fits the mechanisms perfectly, even better than monsters. This theme allows you to control different people with the different abilities useful to you, outbid them, and try to surround yourself with the most influential people.

Denis made a few sketches. We were looking for a medieval look. Although this topic is used a lot in games, it allows for very colorful characters. We also added a little bit of fantasy, and to make it less grim, we focused on the grotesque. Oleg and I both didn't like the first two sketches in terms of proportions and style. Denis was about to refuse this job, but I convinced him to try one more time, and with this third attempt I was amused and convinced this was just what we needed! The character looked great. By the way, this card is the "judge" card today.

Balance of Powers

We worked on the game's balance for quite a long time. It seems the game is pretty simple and everything is ready, but this is a game with just nine types of cards (and they must have certain numbers), so there were a limited number of elements we could tweak for tuning the entire balance. Every little detail has a huge influence on the gameplay. We had a large number of different versions of the game and balancing it all took a few months until we got the desired result. We finally decided on the abilities and how the game should finish in order to keep the intrigue until the very end.

For this I have to thank our colleagues from Ares Games. They were the first ones who believed in this game and helped us with the final version. They were very patient, in spite of the fact that balancing of the game delayed its finishing much longer than we planned. By the way, there were originally tokens in the game; you can see them in the pictures which appeared with the announcement of the game. We used them to indicate cards with invalid abilities, but the constant shifting and placing irritated us. And Oleg, after he returned from one exhibition, brought a great solution, the idea coming after explaining the game to one of the exhibition visitors who constantly forgot to add or remove tokens. That's when Oleg figured out how to help him. It was a simple but effective solution: just rotate the cards when their power cannot be used! Ever heard of it?

Behind the Throne

Finally, we had to choose the name of the game. We thought we had found the right one, which fit well all the various intrigues, different fights for the throne, and backroom conspiracy: "Gray Cardinal". The name is derived from true historical events and one famous individual whose activities made famous this well-known term.

But this idiomatic expression translates differently in different languages. For example, in English it sounds like "Behind the Throne". We wanted a name to be the same in most languages, so we decided to use this title because it expresses well the main point of the game: Players are influential people who can have different levels of impact on the same characters.

The Experience vs Luck Factor

Does luck have a great impact in this game? Of course, but it is not decisive. You have to be careful and take risks in this game. I can also give one piece of advice: Do not ignore card exchange in this game. It is actually a very powerful thing. And, of course, you may well instigate others against the leader. That's politics!

Awaiting Players' Reaction...

Behind the Throne has just released in English and will soon be in the hands of players in the U.S., Europe and China. Its premiere was in Poland, surprisingly, but that is where we premiered our Mysterium game as well, so it happened again that an Ukrainian game appears first in the hands of our good neighbors. It almost looks like a tradition!

I hope you will enjoy the game. We have put in so much effort. We would appreciate your feedback! We accepted the challenge of minimalism. If we coped with it or not, you will decide — now it is time for a new project!

Oleksandr Nevskiy

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Sun Oct 9, 2016 5:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Steel Arena: Friday Night Robot Fight, or Giant Battle Robots and Game Balance

Yury Yamschchikov
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In this designer diary, I'll cover my experience of balancing a design using concrete examples from my new game Steel Arena: Friday Night Robot Fight. Also, there will be some words about what the game is and how it was designed and developed.

Part I: Genesis

My first published game, Kosmonauts, received a lot of feedback like "game is cool but where are lasers, guns and other stuff?!". The next one, Labyrinth of the Mirrors, was even more peaceful. The worst thing that you can do in this game to your opponents is snatch valuable treasures right under their noses. (Okay, you might add evil laughing to increase the effect.) Finally, my manliness broke through and I became obsessed with designing a game in which you should MUST fight, shoot, burn, blast, and produce other kinds of destruction on your enemies.

I was thinking about the game setting and found that probably the best would be combat between giant anthropomorphic battle robots.

Early robot concepts

The second idea was to build your own death machine during the game from different modules. Some of them should move your robot, others rotate it, and of course there should be a lot of different deadly weapons. A game turn should consist of activating one of those modules and using its special ability.

Since game balance is extremely important for me, this game balancing was a real challenge. There should be a lot of different weapons, and all of them should be not only cool, but also effective in comparison to one another.

Early weapon tile concepts (text in Russian)

All my game design experience tells me that I should start to think about balance even earlier that I start to create specific modules. If a game is balanced on the core level, it will reduce the number of required tests and make development easier and faster.

But what is balance? I have read a lot of definitions of game balance, spent a lot of time thinking about it, and can finally state it in the following way:

A game is balanced when every game element has comparable application area in comparison to other game elements of that kind.

"Game elements" are quite broad in conception, including not only cards, units, weapons, building, etc., but also tactics, strategies and even player order. The application area of game elements is the set of game situations in which a particular element is more preferable than all (!) other elements of that kind.

Part II: Types

In this game of destruction, you will construct your robot during play, so my goal was to give players real, multi-valued choice of which modules to collect and in which order — but before I started to create modules, I thought about their types and the core mechanisms of the game. There should be at least three types of modules: moving modules, rotating axes, and (naturally) weapons. To balance them, I used irreplaceable abilities technique.

Move, turn, and attack modules—early versions (text in Russian)

The idea is that you can provide comparable application area by giving each game element a special function. That function should be not only necessary for the win, but also irreplaceable with other game elements.

So why do robots have to use weapons? Because it is the only way to win. Specifically, the player who destroys the most enemy modules by the end of the game wins.

Why do robots have to use moving parts? First, through movement they will collect new modules. Why is this important? Because the modules that will be collected are more powerful than the starting modules. Moreover, during the game even more powerful modules will appear on the battlefield (which should also give us tension mounting during the game and an epic finale).

Second, movement is essential for the same reason as rotating axes; robots have to be mobile to move and rotate quickly. Without this ability, it will never get a chance to attack opponents. Moreover, a slow robot will be an easy target.

Second generation move, turn, and attack modules

So all three module types have to be used and therefore they have to be collected. (If you remember, robots need to replace weak starting modules with more powerful ones.) And the question of which module you should take/use has different answers depending on your chosen strategy, present tactical position, and current robot status. On the basic (or "zero iteration") level, we give to every module type theoretically comparable application area and as a result may think that they are preliminary balanced.

Of course it is only a hypothesis, and of course we need to create specific modules and test them a lot of times to prove it. Moreover, we probably will change some things (or even many of them) in the game after tests. But the fact that we design the core level of the game considering the balance will save us a lot of time because we will make many fewer modifications and adjustments.

I know that most game designers think something like "let's create basis of the game, let's make it work, and after that maybe we will do something with the balance", but all my experience with both my own games and my colleague's games that I have helped to balance tell me that it is a mistake. Usually it is much easier to completely recreate a whole game than to balance it in its current state.

Part III: Comparison

When we are going to create a group of balanced elements, the most obvious way is to use a points system. Every element has the same number of points as all other elements. Points are spent on parameters, so when you make some parameters high, you have to make some others low. Every ability also has a price in points.

As far as I know, this is a quite popular technique, but for this game I had to use another one. As we considered in the first part, game elements are balanced if they have a comparable application area in comparison to other game elements of that kind. So I decided to create a standard for every module type; when I created a new robot module, I immediately compared its application area with the application area of the corresponding standard. If their application areas weren't comparable, I changed the module and compared them again until success.

Sometimes I needed to make a module more powerful than standard, but in this case some negative attribute needed to be added to recoup the balance.

For example, both EQUALIZER and O.R.C. are ranged weapons with damage 2, but since O.R.C. is a rocket launcher, I gave it high shot and explosion abilities with one penalty: it is a single-use module. So there are many situations when O.R.C. is preferable, but also sometimes you would like to use your weapon more than once per game.

When all modules of some type was created and basically balanced, I compared them to each other and corrected them if their application areas weren't congruous. Let us consider some examples of mentioned comparison:

Dimensional application areas are good for move modules. The tiles to which you can move using the WALKER module are indicated by number 1. CRAB could move your robot to tiles with "2". If you need to jump over an obstacle or enemy robot, FLEA is definitely your choice.

For some cases, it is necessary to analyze the time domain to compare application areas. It is especially important for auto-cooling modules. (Most other modules have to be cooled before their next use; all modules are cooled during a single turn.)

In released version, its named CRUSH

For example, CRUSH 2 with the auto-cooling ability deals less damage per turn then CRUSH 3, but after the second turn it has better results since it does't need to be cooled. Thus, CRUSH 3 has an application area in one-turn attacks while CRUSH 2 AC is preferable in protracted fighting.

After every module was compared with all other modules of its type (the first iteration of balancing), I compared combinations of modules (the second iteration). In this game, there is no need to compare every combination, but only combinations that have emergence — new properties that appear when you use both modules. Melee weapons, for example, become very effective if you have speed move module.

Good combo!

Moreover, the combinations of weapons and enemy armors have to be checked.

Armor modules

In Steel Arena, I did not recalculate the application area of modules after the analysis of their combinations; I found that for this game that I needed only to avoid much too powerful combos, but for some games such recalculation is necessary.

Of course, I used many more techniques to balance the game, but let me finish and not to make a draft on the reader's patience.


Using the described approach, you have to spend more time during the creation stage, but that work can save a lot of time later when you test and develop the game. In Steel Arena, I changed just a few modules due to balance problems after dozens of tests. Of course you still have to test the game a lot of times, but during those tests you can focus on the other important things: player interaction, gameplay deepness, replayability, etc.

Yury Yamshchikov
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Sat Oct 8, 2016 8:12 pm
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Designer Diary: How Traveling the World Gave Birth to Scuba

Martin Looy
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My name is Martin Looij, and I'm a board game designer from the Netherlands. I love scuba diving, traveling, and board gaming (in that order). From July 2014 until May 2015, I was traveling through North, Central and South America, and while hanging in an overland truck for up to 14 hours a day, I started thinking about making a board game about my #1 passion: scuba diving.

I have been scuba diving since I was eight years old, and I still absolutely love it, so I started designing a board game about diving with sheets of paper, markers, and used egg cartons. In the picture below, you can see me working on Scuba in Baños, Ecuador.

From that point on, Scuba kept developing rather quickly. From the start, I focused on making Scuba as realistic as possible, but I quickly realized that it is hard to translate the concept of diving into a board game. After all, diving is very relaxing and that would translate to boring gameplay, so I had to come up with realistic ways to design an interesting board game. This is where concepts such as "currents" and "dust trails" came in.


In real scuba diving, there often will be currents that affect your dive. Sometimes you will make a drift dive, which is starting at point A, then drifting along the current and finishing your dive at point B. Since this is something exciting, I wanted to implement this into my game. After some experimentation, I decided to go with the element of surprise. Before a player starts diving on their turn, they draw a current card to see whether there is any current and which fish (or divers) are affected by it. In the game, currents mean that fish could swim out of the diving area, so when other players discover them, you can't just wait forever to see them, too, which adds a sense of urgency to the game.

Dust trails

In real diving, you don't make trails of dust. You will be trained properly so that you hover above the bottom of the sea without touching the floor with your fins. In Scuba, however, dust trails are a given. I added this element because otherwise it would be too easy to follow other players and spot their fish as well. In the game, you leave a trail of dust behind you that will stay for one round, during which other players can't see any fish that are on a space with your dust. (The cubes are used to indicate dust.)

While I developed the basics of Scuba, I was traveling through Ecuador and was still using egg cartons and pieces of paper. Then we hit Peru, and in a small beach town, I was able to find three magnetic chess sets to upgrade my "designer kit". With these sets, I had a game board and enough magnetic pieces to stick small pieces of paper on them with letters and numbers to indicate the type of fish. Pawns were also included in the set, which I could use as player pawns. This might still sound like a poor prototype, but it was a huge step up from the small cardboard pieces that were all over the place.

In the following months, I kept working on making Scuba as realistic as possible, yet an exciting and fun board game. I introduced events that made the game more exciting and thematic. When diving in the game, you can now find treasures, get grabbed by an octopus, or get seasick.

One of the event cards

There was still one crucial element to include in the game: air. You start with 20 units of air. This is 200 bar of 3000 psi, but non-divers can just call them units of air (as long as you don't call it oxygen). The implementation of the air in the game was actually quite easy. In diving, the deeper you go, the more air you use, so I used that principle in my game. When diving at 0-10m (0-30 ft), you use 1 unit of air. For every 10 m (30 ft) lower than that, you use one additional unit of air, and that worked out really well. On the board, you can see the amount of air you will use at a certain depth.

The air you use at certain depths

When the mechanisms of the game all came together, I started searching for an artist and a graphic designer. Whenever I had decent wi-fi — I was traveling through South and Central America at that time — I searched for artists with a style that would fit what I had in mind. I ended up contacting a few of them and asked whether they could send me a sample card with a turtle on it for $30.

The first three artists also tried their hand at the graphic design. (Note that turtle 3 and 4 are made by the same guy.) I asked the Dutch board game community Bordspelmania to help me choose between these artists, and I ended up settling with artist 3. Artist 4 made an awesome turtle, but was too expensive for this project and couldn't work fast enough on the 18 animals, box, and board needed for the game, so I decided on artist 3: Shaz Yong from Malaysia. I didn't like his graphic design well enough for this project, and just as I was about to start looking for one, Sebastian Koziner from Argentina saw something about my project on BoardGameGeek and dropped me a message saying that he was interested in the project. He would do the graphic design for one card for free to show me what he could do. He sent me his design, and I instantly loved it. So how did the card with the turtle end up? Like this:

Final artwork of the turtle (graphic design not yet final)

Now I had a concept, an artist, and a graphic designer. When I came home in May 2015, the next step was playtesting. Over the course of the months, I used all sorts of playtesting: local game clubs, Dutch and Belgian board game conventions, and many blind playtest sessions. I made three prototypes and they made quite a journey. I optimized a lot of game rules and by November 2015, playtesting was done. I sent the games out to video reviewers and went from game designer to game publisher.

Final game

Meanwhile, Sebastian and I worked on the Kickstarter page. Video reviews started to come in and luckily they were all positive! The most common conclusion of the reviews was that the game did a good job of portraying the feeling of scuba diving, without getting boring. Since this was pretty much my exact goal when starting designing the game, this felt like a huge victory!

The Kickstarter funded and was delivered a month early, with the game also being available at SPIEL 2016. Now you know how Scuba was made!

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Fri Oct 7, 2016 7:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Honshu, or An Idea That Blossomed Into a Game

Kalle Malmioja
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The journey of Honshu begins in the first quarter of 2014. I had played Patchistory twice in January 2014 and really liked the patching aspect of the game. The rules were not very clear, but what we gathered as a whole was a good experience.

The patching thing stuck to me, and I was wondering how I could make that more accessible to players? I hadn't played any other patching-like games (Hanging Gardens, Flix Mix, Edo Yashiki, Sunrise City, Heartland, Java, Taluva, Marrakech) at that point — well, Poseidon’s Kingdom but the patching aspect is very low in that game. I wanted the components to be easy to prototype and readily available, so basic cards were the choice. How could I distribute these cards among players before patching the cards together?

Trick-taking was the answer right from the beginning. Tichu was a game that I really learned to play in the first quarter of 2014. While Tichu is a climbing game and not a trick-taking game, the distribution mechanism idea for Honshu can be derived from my love of Tichu and trick-taking games. It is easy to understand, and players can have some interaction with it. I wanted the game to play up to five players and first thought that the lower limit would be three since two-player trick-taking isn't very interesting.

Trick-taking also can be used to determine player order. Win the trick go first, play the lowest go last. From the start I wanted the player order to be fluid and not locked in clockwise order. This opens up tactical play as going last in a trick is very good; going first is also good as you can pick the card you really want. I wanted a flowy vibe for players, allowing you to find a purpose to affect your own place in the order. This also links to the quality of the cards, but more on that later.

That was the foundation of Honshu: trick-taking to distribute basic playing cards and determine player order, make a map from those cards, player count 3 to 5. Then came the questions: What are players building? What are the pieces on the cards? How does the trick-taking work?

The prototype I made was thematically just a city-builder in the modern era called "Parks & Pavements". The reason for that theme and name is that my first published game — Councils & Contracts in 2013 — was a city-builder and I wanted this to be the second part of my small city-builder series. So what elements do cities have? Roads, houses, parks, water areas, factories, stores and (of course) land. Those were and pretty much still are the land types of the game.

Finished city map of Parks & Pavements

What each element did was pretty straightforward thinking. I could have longest road, resources delivered to factories, and single parks. Land was and is nothing, easy to replace. Water areas were also nothing, but they couldn't be replaced, so water was just bad without any upside.

During the prototype phase, the game was divided into four parts. First, you played three rounds of trick-taking. Then with the cards you collected, you made the map. Then you gave the rest of your cards to your neighbor. The "play three rounds until map-making" was there to give players some room to think. The change cards rule was — and still is — there because I wanted players to have an incentive to play high-numbered cards. This helps the map-making part and also gives players a little information of which cards can be played in the following three rounds.

The other important rule in the prototype was a size restriction on the map that a player would build, taken from Patchistory: You could build at most a 9x9 grid. Restrictions didn't stop there as the cards had numbers both horizontally and vertically. This was done as each number had to be readable from the player's viewpoint. (See the leftmost card in the image below.) The quantity of each number in the deck was very different as the numbers went from 1 to 10, with only four 10s, ten 1s, and the other numbers falling in between those two. Finally the cubes, in four different colors, were suits. In the trick-taking phase, you could make a card a particular suit and it thus became trump.

Map card phases through development

That was the prototype phase. The contract between me and Lautapelit.fi was signed in early 2015. I must say that I really like working with Lautapelit.fi; I know many from that company personally, including the owners; have had game nights with them; helped them promote gaming in Finland; and overall have a great working relationship with the firm and the people operating it. They know what they do and want to develop prototypes to a polished product, as was also the case with Honshu.

Then came the development phase. The theme was thrown out the window, and a medieval theme was suggested. (Limes was the inspiration here; see the cards second from left above.) The game got a working title — "TriXity" — that would have been a great name for the game. Lautapelit.fi wanted the game to be more family-friendly, so the size restriction of the map and the facing of the cards went away. I had no problem with those changes as they reduced the number of rules to be explained, while the gameplay didn't really change. (I still play with the self-imposed restriction of the map size from time to time.) The "play three tricks, then build" rule was also gone as it bogged down the game. It was like fun, fun, fun — then wait for all players to build. Since the building restrictions were now gone, it was better to use the pattern trick-build-trick-build since that toned down the waiting quite a bit.

During development, it was suggested that each element in the cards should have something "good" in them, which meant that water areas needed to change. Thus, water in groups now earned points. I still wanted them to be little hindrances, so the first one is bad, but if you plan ahead, you can get a pretty good score from water areas. This was the first change made to the prototype.

The card numbers from 1 to 10 were also gone pretty quickly, which was a good thing as it took care of the tie-breaker rules and simplified the game. Now the numbers were just 1 to 60. At this point, I recalibrated the cards for the first time as the previous version had the cards of higher value be better. I wanted the cards to be distinct from the phases. A card that is good in the trick-taking phase should not necessarily be your best choice in the map-making phase. If that were the case, then the game would be a multiplayer solitaire as players could pretty much play their hand cards right to their map.

I introduced more things to the game, such as the B-side of the start cards and personal scoring cards. These were introduced because we wanted variety for the game. The B-side start cards are interesting as they put the players on different paths right from the beginning. Personal scoring cards were introduced so that players had a focus right from the start. However, these scoring cards were the last thing in development to change and they became an optional part of the game with one card being used for all players instead of one card for each player. (With four players, you can still try the "one card for each" variant if you want. I like to play like that.)

Until this point, the player count had always been 3-5. As my usual gaming partner is my wife, I wanted Honshu to be playable with two players. However, as I said earlier trick-taking isn't fun with two players, so what to do? The map-making part didn't need any changes as each player makes their own personal map. It took a few tries and very many losses to my wife, but I think that I came up with a good system for two players to replace the trick-taking. The main questions were how to have as many cards available during the game as with higher player counts and what to do with the resource cubes. The answer was card pairs and simultaneous play. Players lay down one pair of cards, then draw another pair from the deck; each player then collects a pair and picks one card to place in their map. Each "trick" was now four cards, and players basically had the same options as in four-player game, but what about the resources?

My initial idea was that by using any two cubes, the losing player could win the hand, but you had to use the cubes before the "normal" winner of the trick chose their pair of cards. However, my wife sometimes plays a mean game and really liked the idea that the "winner" could actually lose the hand unexpectedly. Well, I liked that idea also, and the rule was changed so that the loser could use any two cubes to win after the "winner" had chosen the pair. With this system, the normal loser of the trick can spare their cubes if the not-chosen pair has something good to place in the map. It is not nice and I haven't seen that in any other game, so that is how I got the two-player game working.

The last part of the development was the involvement of the artist. The final theme idea came from the artist, and the final name was discussed for a lengthy time. I suggested "Mura Ezu", which could be interpreted as "picture map of villages" and one other mention-worthy title was "Torihiki" — but when "Torihiki" is translated into Finnish, it means "market square sweat". In the end, Honshu came to be the name, and it is a good name.

Pretty quickly the final art was done and layout began. The last thing that had to be done was the rulebook. While I wrote the first version of the rules, there might be 20% of that text in the rulebook. That is a good thing. Rulebook writing is the hardest part of game design for me, and fortunately Lautapelit.fi employs a few great minds that read and really understand rulebooks. At this point, I made the last changes to the game. The suits were gone; now a cube added to the card gave it a boost. This change got rid of about two hundred words in the rulebook without changing a thing. People without trick-taking knowledge can now get the game more easily, but people with a card-playing background still recognize them as suits. The final change was the final calibration of the card numbers based on playtesting.

The cards can now be divided into three groups: the higher cards are easy to place in your map and give okay points; the middle cards have the four-point factories and score the most possible points; the lower cards have the majority of the resource-producing squares, but also a high number of lakes that are more difficult to place. With these groups, you hardly ever pick up the card you play on the trick, so goal achieved.

Finally with all the rule changes made to the game during development, the rulebook is a condensed source of gaming goodness.

Honshu went through a great development process. The starting idea for the game is solid and fun, but after all the steps we have made to take out unnecessary restrictions and rules, keep up the tempo, and make things clearer, Honshu has become a great fusion of two established mechanisms. While my name is on the box, the development team of Lautapelit.fi are the unsung heroes of Honshu. A big "thank you" for believing in my idea and making it a great game! I sure hope that you, the players all around the world, enjoy this game as much as we do.

Kalle Malmioja
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Fri Oct 7, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Solarius Mission, or Dice for the G*****, or Solar 3X

Mike Keller
Schwanden i.E.
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I still remember the day when I first came up with the idea for Solarius Mission: It was in summer of 2011 and I was working on the facade of a house. I mused about various mechanisms and suddenly an idea came to me: spaceships, which would be represented by dice. The number on top would represent the "class" of the ship, and this could change during the game — but why spaceship dice? That would be a smaller element of a great space game in which you would slowly conquer the universe — like in Twilight Imperium. I spun my idea further and as I had to start somewhere, I invented a simple game step by step, comprised of tableaus, cards and those same dice as spaceships.

I can't remember anymore how exactly I came to this mechanism, but it definitely was inspired by the "dice-building game" Quarriors I wanted a similar theme as in Race for the Galaxy, so at first I named the (dice) game "Dice for the Galaxy" as a working title because it sounds good (although it's an entirely reasonable free title).

Anyway, I wanted to represent different areas of a civilization with different colored dice, so I established the four colors. Then I took a bag of twenty dice in four colors (which, incidentally, were mainly the somewhat larger cubes of the first edition of Agricola) with the sides painted with a different number of points. Thus I had created a "dice-mechanism". The four colors/areas are those now in the finished game.

This was followed by some initial tests and I quickly realized that the mechanism was somehow incomplete. I made cards with actions and a game board in space. In this early stage, the game worked like this: The player drew dice from their bag and rolled them (like in Quarriors!). With the different colored dice/points, you could make different actions. Black dice were spaceships flying in space, with yellow you could draw action cards, with white draw additional dice from the bag, and brown were resource points.

So I had designed a simple system that worked somehow, but there was no progress: Via the action cards you could generate resources, more dice and also victory points, but that was it. I had to bring developement into the game and not static card effects.

Not much later I got the idea that I could represent development with dice on a tableau, and you could use the action dice to turn (upgrade) and slide the display dice. Turning was technology (white) and slide was "number of dice" (brown). Thus, you could make more efficient use of upgraded dice and you could pack more dice in the bag with "number of dice" — an ideal and easy way to show development of a player.

The first tableau was comprised of four rows and five columns. In there, the display dice were placed.

At this point I showed the game to Ode and he really liked it. Anyway, he had time and he read my first rules and commented on them. These rules from October 2011 were already in such a state that you could understand and play the game.

Every player had as many dice in their bag as they had free spots to the left of the display dice on the tableau. You could draw 4-6 dice and roll them, then you had to decide for each color of the dice where you wanted something to do with it: Yellow gave money (which was already used for dice manipulation by the way), white was enhance display dice (turn) and brown was slide display dice. The black dice were placed directly in front. These were the spaceships that attack all the other players at the same time, equally strong (a Quarriors! mechanism). For conquering, there were planets in the form of cards that specified as a "condition" different colored dice with different values. If I want to conquer such a planet, I had to use the specific dice with the appropriate points and voilà!, it was mine. These planets were worth points and whoever had the most points won.

I refined this version even further. At some point I realized that I had packed too much stuff into the game, even including rules for space fights. The game was, for what it was, simply overloaded and it no longer clicked. I sent this version to the Hippodice Competition 2011 as a game called "GalaxyDice", but I got a disappointing rejection. The game remained like this and only after several months was it reincarnated in a different version.


In the winter of 2011/2012 Ode and I started to discuss the game intensively. Our conversations resulted in Ode starting to develop a game from scratch. This then created a whole new game, which shortly thereafter, also thematically, chose a different path and became "Bauernhof-Bauer" (and later La Granja). There was no satisfying solution for DFTG, so we focused together on the new game.

I still kept working on my version with the space theme. This time it should be a civilization-building game, with players colonizing planets, managing resources, and tracking life points. Via space battles, the planets of other players could be attacked. Having no colonized planets meant your home planet could be destroyed at any moment. Once the entire life points of the home planet fell to 0, it was "game over" for you.

The dice mechanisms had to be revised because each player always used four dice sequentially. This downtime was almost unbearable, so I developed this mechanism, which was quite inspired by La Granja. With this we were very happy for a long time and only in the last year of developing have we again revised and refined it. Also around this time, I experimented with so-called "maneuver" cards through which the players could "level up" their actions and also fight in space combat. These maneuver cards introduced for the first time something similar to conditions through which one could increase their combat strength.

I tested the game for several rounds and kept working on it. On paper, the concept should have worked out, but it didn't. It was too easy for the other players to destroy everything you've accomplished. The game didn't feel balanced at all. On top of that, it took far too long for a game of this type.

At some point I realized that the game has a big "building up" character, so it had to be provided with Euro mechanisms: Instead of players destroying planets, they should colonize them, with the planets providing VP for a fixed number of rounds. (The end of the game was variable at this point.) High dice rolls should be punished, so I introduced pollution (waste).

You should be able to do more than just fight with your spaceships, and that was the birth of "primitive" space. The basic idea was that it includes 25 squares: 20 normal planets and 5 special-function planets, laid out face down in a 5x5 grid. The players started with only one spaceship on their side of the table, moving into space to explore planets with certain conditions. These conditions I split in the four colors and also marked on the backside of the cards as a hint of what you had to expect. As soon you fulfill the condition on a planet, you colonize it and put it next your tableau. In the middle of the space, I put additional planets with special effects and a +1 VP token on each. Every later colonized planet is placed beneath any already colonized planets, so every planet underneath a +1 VP token gives +1 VP. This design choice supported a rush ahead to the valuable planets rather than players just worrying about the planets near them. Soon after, I let all the spaceships start from the same side, but placed the valuable planets on the other side of space. This was a much bigger challenge as the players where in a race for the same planets.

Planet, special-function planet, development, standard planet

In addition to the planets, which were to be discovered in space and colonized, there were standard planets to be settled. These were made as a fixed display and could be "bought" with resources. They have specific effects on the game and they also provide storage space for waste.

Developments that players were able to establish brought various different effects, variety and replayability because each game featured a different selection of developments.

I prepared this version of the game for the Hippodice 2015 competition, I applied for it and sent the rules and game description. This time, a prototype was requested of the game, and in the end it landed on the recommendation list for the year.


Early in 2015 Spielworxx showed interest in the game. At the end of 2014 Ode and I agreed to join forces again to continue working on the game together. After a short playtesting period from Spielworxx, they agreed to publish the game in 2016, so we all thought about how to tie up the loose ends of the game, to shape and harmonize the big picture. We agreed on Ode taking the lead for this and I would take over the creative part in the further development.

Ode wrote a long report on how to change space and several other elements, and that was our starting point for redesigning half of the game. Many elements stayed, while others were changed or expanded — but the main aspect of change was the space. Before the change, there was only a small display of cards.

Space went from a small display of cards to a big board using a grid of hex spaces

At this point, space became a big grid of hex spaces painted on a board. The planets had fixed places in this grid, but additionally there were bonus tiles giving the players one time advantages when exploring those spaces. The player mat (tableau) was expanded to hold a number of hangars for multiple spaceships so that players would control a whole fleet.

Space now had certain endings, so new to the game were "final frontiers", i.e. frontiers of known space. Thematically this was meant to be the ultimate challenge to the players: Send out their exploring spaceships and find out about the outer limits of the galaxy. When reaching a "final frontier", the ship and contact to the ship was lost. They sacrificed themselves for science on a research trip with unknown dangers. The nation that had to mourn that loss now turned to an even better future, starting a science plan in order to honor the sacrifice of their heroic ship and crew. The player gained a victory point condition that grants a bonus for the end of the game. This victory point condition tile needed to be placed in the now empty hangar to remind the nation of the heroic and brave crew (who obviously went where no man had gone before).

Depending on the time the player gained that VP tile, there was another bonus tile given to the player. The earlier in the game this sacrifice was made, the more points the player could get.

The hangars are full of light-blue research tiles; in the personal display are orange-colored research planets that were once part of the game

The final scoring was expanded so that it would be possible to gain victory points from multiple sources. Back then I called them "sun points". By expanding space and the possibility of building more spaceships, the game got very dynamic. Building spaceships was quite important. The motto was "The more the better!", meaning that in order to win it was not optional to have more than one spaceship. You just had to decide whether to use them to do many things or sacrifice them to have valuable VP conditions. Wouldn't that be thematic? But we felt it was still a flaw in the design that you had to build more ships in order to be able to win.

Splitting the player turn into a die action and a supplementary action was always our idea. Every space flight consisted of up to three movements because you were able to have a maximum of three spaceships, and this raised the downtime. Our reaction was to create a new flight phase at the end of a game round. Thus, instead of having up to three movements with each supplementary action, we reduced that option to only one movement with any one ship per action, followed by a flight phase at the end of the game round in which the players would move every ship they had. (We had six game rounds back then.)

By reducing the maximum number of movements of spaceships, we reduced downtime, but nevertheless it was important to have all your spaceships early in the game to use the ships as much as possible. Another important point connected with this was that in order to colonize planets, the players needed to leave their spaceships on that planet as long as it took to colonize it. Once a player started colonizing a planet — that is, claimed it from the board and added it to their playing area — they needed to have their spaceship connected to the planet's colony as well. The motivation to complete the colonization was high because once the colony was erected, the player gained their spaceship back, ready for their next mission in space.

The small central board then, with a VP track, dice display and the track of power which was responsible for bringing the centers of power to the galaxy

Aside from the personal player components like colony discs, space station octagons, and mission cubes, there was a neutral gaming piece: The centers of power. You would go up the track of power as an action in order to erect one of those centers one day. The centers rewarded all gaming pieces by any player adjacent to this with bonus points in the end, so being able to place them was a huge advantage because you could choose the best place for yourself. In addition to this scoring opportunity, we added a scoring of the dispersal for the players. Depending on so-called "nation cards" there were different scoring conditions in the hand of the players. The cards showed a condition for how to spread in space. Every player had one secret card in their hand. All of them would be scored at the end, so it was important to observe the dispersal of the other players in order to be part of their "nation card' scoring.

Research effects and standard planets were also in a constant change. Not only the effects, but the cost and reward for the elements were always in flow in order to gain a better balance. Standard planets were changed thematically to space stations — partly because there were so many different types of planets in the game, including a phase in which a fifth kind of planet was available: the research planets. The new modular board had no defined sides anymore and no "Final Frontier" spaces. Instead of VP conditions by claiming research tiles, the players could complete the requirements of the orange-colored research planets (gas planets in space that needed to be researched). This fifth kind of planet had no relation to one of the four action-related colors. Instead the players needed to have some shapes or clusters in space consisting of their own gaming pieces, and forming these clusters in space was very valuable.

At some point, the centers of power were renamed to be commercial hubs. Instead of letting the player erect those centers, they now popped up in space randomly and had the additional job of being game round counters. What's more, players could deliver their resources to those commercial hubs to gain VPs. In order to do so, the players needed missions or delivery tasks. These new tasks were printed on the same cards as the research effects, so a card can now be used as research or a mission. The problem with the research effects is that they get more useless when played late in the game — a permanent effect is best played early so it can be used over and over again — so by adding the missions to the progress cards they were balanced for the whole game. The research effects get unattractive, but the VP-giving missions were still important. So again we have a multi-use card in the game; if you know La Granja, you might recognize our enthusiasm for multi-use cards.

Back when we had four phases per game round the player aid looked like this:
A – dice action, B – supplementary action, C – use space stations, D – flight phase

The game was in progress all the time, but it had many too many elements. The feedback from the playtesters also said so. The playing time was 3-4 hours. The downtime was high because of the structure of one game round. Our editor from Spielworxx always lead us in the way we needed to let go, so Ode did a huge cut. Once again players had only one spaceship, which removed the need for the flight phase. Research planets were banished from the board completely. The personal scoring cards from the players hand left as they were a constant distraction. The number of game rounds was six back then, with four turns per player per game round for a total of 24 turns per game. We reduced the number of actions to three and shortened the game by a quarter. Later we went back to four turns per game round but cut two game rounds, making for a total of four rounds with four turns each for a total of 16 turns per player — one-third from the original 24 was gone.

The screaming by the playtesters was loud! They liked the game and Ode had just reduced it by a third — but the anger did not last long since the game feel got better and better. We were down to a playing time of two hours with four players, yet the game was still complex enough to be challenging. The playtesters who knew the game before were still missing some things, but everybody was sure that the changes worked out pretty good for the game. It gained focus and felt well-rounded. The dead freight was gone and nobody really missed the eight (!!!) missing turns. The editor nodded in wise silence.

Modular board and the bonus wheel on an extra board

But the most important change to decrease the downtime was the change of the structure of a game round. Up to this point, in every round a number of dice were drawn from the bag and rolled. Each player chose one of the dice in playing order to perform one turn, with the remaining die being placed on a certain board to indicate the bonus the player would gain if they took the die in later rounds. After four turns, the game round was over. The problem was that the starting player of one turn was the last player in the next turn, so they had to sit through six whole turns of die actions and supplementary actions when playing with four, which was endurable only by reading a good book — even without analysis paralysis at the table.

Thus, we chose to change the structure of a round and introduced a new element. The old side board had a place for the dice display that showed certain bonuses for untaken dice, but what if we played just one turn at a time proceeding clockwise for the entire game without having a change after the game round. To do this, we couldn't have a pool of dice that would empty after a few turns; instead we need a constant pool of dice available each turn — but doing this would disrupt our old bonus system that relied on the unchosen dice being shifted along columns to indicate the appropriate bonus.

The solution to this problem was the first time we were inspired by another designer. Uwe Rosenberg is a friend of Ode, and while Uwe did not invent the wheel, he made it a great element for board games. Games like Ora et Labora, Le Havre: The Inland Port and Glass Road use this wheel wonderfully, and this inspired us to create our new bonus wheel! The wheel was a new, constantly changing pool of four dice. In order to always play in clockwise turn order, the old La Granja-styled dice distribution had to go. The bonus wheel was able to use one turn of the hand in order to change the value of the bonus for all dice at once. A lesson well learned after many playtests and talks with Uwe.

By using this bonus wheel we reduced downtime, and again the feedback from the playtesters about the game feel got better and better.

After balancing the game over a period of six months, we called it quits and stopped development of the game. It was ready. The always stunning Harald Lieske started drawing wonderful pictures, and the publisher started writing a 20-page rulebook and an 8-page glossary for the game. Finally in the middle of 2016, our game took off to space: 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 0!!!

Thanks very much to Ode for sharing his perspective for this diary and not forget to mention a BIG thank you to Grzegorz Kobiela for (some) translation and proofreading!

Michael Keller
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Thu Oct 6, 2016 8:19 pm
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