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A Very Prolix Geeklist – Behind the scenes of my first published game
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Prolix is my first published game, and Z-Man's first word game. It took me about three years of on-and-off work to finish the design.

In Prolix, players take turns coming up with a word. Unlike Scrabble and games of that ilk, you don't need all the letters in your word to be on the board in order to use it. This rewards the use of long words; those 2- and 3-letter Scrabble words do you no good here!

It's pretty amazing how many twists the game took as I designed it. For a simple word game, Prolix has a long and complex history. Let's watch!
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1. Board Game: My Word! [Average Rating:5.73 Overall Rank:5576]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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At a game convention in November 2005, I played a card-based word game that is very popular in my area. I was struck by how awful it was. The rules were surprisingly counter-intuitive. It featured a frustrating "Take-That" element. And, of course, it favored players who had memorized an arcane list of obscure words. In fact, one player passed around a sheet of words with a Q with no U following. Fun times!

I will not mention the name this game here; it is not represented in this GeekList. If you really want to know, do a little research on me and you'll find it easily enough.

After some thought, I realized that it wasn't that I hated word games. I just hadn't played any I liked. I mean, I'm a smart guy with a decent vocabulary. I like games. I like words. I should like word games, shouldn't I?

So, if there were no word games I liked, perhaps I could design one for myself?

What an arrogant idea. But I couldn't get it out of my head.
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2. Board Game: Scrabble [Average Rating:6.36 Overall Rank:1131]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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The first thing I did was work out what I didn't like about word games. The biggest culprit was the need to memorize those lists of 2- and 3-letter words. With all due respect to Scrabble, shouldn't a word game reward players who come up with impressive words? I mean, I was sick of losing to words like XI or CWN. There had to be a better way.

I also hated the downtime of most word games. Sure, you could work out what letters to play when it's not your turn, but the board changes so much, your turn (and those of your opponents) will naturally take a long time.

So, how about a realtime game that rewards long words? I made a deck of letter cards, and placed them along a strip. The strip determined each letter's score. When you scored a word, you put a small chip on each letter you used, and those letters advanced to the next space on the strip.

The best part was that you didn't need all the letters in your word to be on the board. So you could use very long words, if you wanted. Eeeeexcellent.

So this idea of skipping letters formed the core that I built the game around.
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3. Board Game: Word Jam [Average Rating:5.85 Overall Rank:6659]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Now wait a second. This idea of skipping letters was so simple, it had to have been done before. Right?

I did some homework, and at the time, I simply couldn't find another game with the same concept. There were some that were close, but it wasn't the same.

I'll jump, Tarantino-style, to two years later, when Prolix was mostly done. A friend of mine brought out a word game he wanted to try. Word Jam, it was called. I read the rules and held my head in my hands. Aaaarggh!!!

So here's a hat tip to the earliest word game I know of that had the skipping-letter mechanism. It's not the same thing, because it's more of a puzzle game, and each round features a letter you're not allowed to use. But it's a spiritual brother, even if I can't realistically call it an influence.
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4. Board Game: Boggle [Average Rating:6.19 Overall Rank:1629]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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The first incarnation of Prolix was a realtime game in which all the players studied the board simultaneously. It had a Galaxy Trucker-esque mechanism where the first player to see a word would say it, and grab a big wooden token with a 1 on it. Then the next player would say his word, grab another big wooden token with a 2 on it, and so on. Once every player but one had a token, everyone scored their words, with the quickest players getting a bonus.

It was decent, but it had a bunch of holes in the design. The biggest problem was that it was a puzzle game. By which I mean, everyone simultaneously figures out a word, and the fastest player gets the most points. The problem with puzzle games is that one player tends to dominate them. I had to do something else.
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5. Board Game: Upwords [Average Rating:5.71 Overall Rank:4275]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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What if I made the game turn-based? Would it still work? Hmm. I gave it a whirl, and was stunned at how much better it made the game. In fact, it felt close to done. Think of that, three months to design a game, and I'm almost done! How much longer could it possibly take?
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6. Board Game: Bananagrams [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:1227]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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After a few months of playtesting, I felt like I had a game. I printed a board out, and created letter tiles out of poker chips and circular stickers.

Here's a picture of the first board. Warning: I'm not even close to a competent graphic designer, so this image isn't for the squeamish:



Each chip was worth between 1 and 3 points. The board was divided into columns, with each column scoring a different amount of points (+0, +1, +2, +1, and +0). You started your turn by drawing two chips into the upper-left-hand corner.

To score your word, you simply found the letters from the word on the board, flipped them, and added the chip value and the column value.

One thing about the board is that it had extra spaces at the top of each column. Remember that at this point, the only letters that moved were letters you used in your word. This meant that I needed a spot for “overflow” letters. Those are the dotted circles you see at the top of every column.

The idea behind overflow letters came from one playtester, who suggested having a maximum of three letter chips in each column. If there were extras, the bottom chips shuffled to the next column. I liked that rule.

A Protospiel playtester suggested something very obvious: since each chip was worth at least one point, subtract one point from each chip and add it to each column. That was the first of many great, forehead-slapping suggestions I got from my awesome playtesters.
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7. Board Game: Train of Thought [Average Rating:6.11 Overall Rank:3618]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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So at this point, I had a solid, workable word game. But the more I playtested it, the more I noticed a problem. At some points, the active player would be faced with a board that had only a few letters on it. With no good word to come up with, he'd often take a long time to figure something out, and eventually come up, frustrated, with a low-scoring word.

I had to do something. Perhaps have a rule where if the players agreed that there weren't any good letters, to wipe the board and start again? No. Too awkward and easy to abuse. How about having a minimum amount of five letters on the board at any time? Well, that was okay. I implemented it, but found that some players were still taking a long time. One Spielbany player, notorious for having a serious AP problem, participated in a two-hour game of Prolix. UGH. Something had to be done.
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8. Board Game: Typo [Average Rating:6.15 Overall Rank:3072]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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I do some of my best thinking in the shower, and one wet morning, I wondered how the game would work if there was a timer on each player. Well, no. I hate timed turns, because my brain tends to freeze as the timer starts to run out. I wanted something more organic.

Then I thought: what if a player could interrupt another player's turn? Hmm. It would have to be delicately done, but I couldn't get the idea out of my head. It would be nice for everyone to be involved in every turn, unlike other word games, where you take your turn and then it's just elevator music for the next fifteen minutes. And, just as importantly it would provide a soft time limit for each player's turn.

So at the next playtest, I gave every player two Interrupt Chips. Each chip let you interrupt once.

Immediately I noticed a positive tension that the game had never shown. Everybody was riveted to the board for most of the game. And turns went much more quickly.
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9. Board Game: Unspeakable Words [Average Rating:6.30 Overall Rank:1967]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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It was around here that I decided to start shopping the game to possible publishers. After all, it was almost done, wasn't it?

The game was at one publisher for a long time (fourteen months). At one point, when I believed we were stalled, I pulled some strings to get myself into the New York Toy Fair, and I pitched the game to them. After a few more months, they finally rejected the game.

In game design, rejection is good! Rejection means that you can move on. The worst thing a game designer can hear from a publisher is silence.
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10. Board Game: BuyWord [Average Rating:6.35 Overall Rank:2083]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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At this point, it was time for Protospiel 2008, and I couldn't wait to show off my almost-completed word game. I mean, considering how much work I put into it, plus the new addition of interrupts, meant that the game was almost done, right?

I playtested it three times, and each playtest was harsher than the next.
Andrew Juell
United States
Red Lion
Pennsylvania
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did a great job of tearing a bunch of rules apart, like the tiebreaker rule. At the time, if two players said a word at the same time, the active player broke the tie. Andy showed that he could hold back on a word, and if another player interrupted, he could blurt out his word at the same time, even if it stunk.

In the meantime,
Peter Dast
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Wisconsin
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took me to task for my eyesore of a board. After Protospiel, he took up the task of creating a board that didn't make eyeballs bleed. Here's the board he came up with:



You'll notice that this board is narrower. Another Protospiel change was to cut down on the number of columns. This made the game simpler. It also proved to me that I was nowhere near as close to done as I'd previously thought.
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11. Board Game: Password [Average Rating:6.11 Overall Rank:2645]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Soon I found myself tweaking the Interrupt rules. Two interrupts weren't enough. If a player spent both of his Interrupt Chips, then he was twiddling his thumbs for the rest of the game.

One player suggested giving players one Cancel chip to cancel an interrupt, but I immediately vetoed it. Too take-that. I wanted the emphasis to stay on the words, not on extraneous rules.

Instead, I moved from Interrupt Chips to individual player scoresheets. Now, players could interrupt up to five times (six in a 3-player game), but their word would be subject to a penalty. Your first interrupt would be subject to a -1 penalty, your second to a -2 penalty, your third a -3 penalty, and so on. At the end of the game, your interrupts would replace your lowest-scoring words.

I found that players were interrupting twice, maybe three times, but that was it. They wanted to interrupt more, but it was never worth it.

After a good amount of thinking, I realized the problem. I wanted there to be an increasing penalty for multiple interrupts, but there already was one. See, your first interrupt replaced your lowest-scoring word, your second interrupt your second-lowest scoring word, and so on. At some point, you would start crossing out your higher-scoring words, and even without the penalty, you'd probably lose points.

When I removed the increasing penalty, I found that players were interrupting about as much as I'd originally expected them to. This was a great lesson in emergent complexity.
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12. Board Game: Word on the Street [Average Rating:6.71 Overall Rank:1054]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Still, my main problem with the game was that despite the interrupts, the game was still occasionally locking up. I despaired about the problem, and wondered if I'd ever solve it.

It was at a NYC Game Designer's group that I made one of the biggest changes to the game so far. My playtesters begged me to try a game where we threw out the current chip movement rules. Instead of having only played letters move, how about having all letters move, whether or not they were used?

I reluctantly agreed, and was shocked at the result. Suddenly a whole bunch of fiddly problems with the game evaporated. Gone were the annoying chip overflow and minimum chip count rules. Gameplay was now as smooth as a baby's bottom.

Even better, I found that the lockup problem was almost solved, because there were always eight letters on the board. This meant that there were always letters to choose from. It wasn't completely gone, but it was reduced significantly.
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13. Board Game: Letter Roll [Average Rating:6.21 Overall Rank:6386]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Awesome, right? Well, almost. I'd decreased the frequency of the lockups, but they were still happening. At Protospiel 2009,
Scott Starkey
United States
Dayton
Indiana
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offhandedly suggested putting in a timer that players could flip when someone was taking forever on their turn. I fought it off at first, refusing to sully my game with a timer.

On the plane ride home, I had a change of heart. What if flipping the timer meant that a player couldn't interrupt? Now there was an interesting decision to make.

From that point on, no game of Prolix lasted more than 45 minutes. After two years of struggling, the lockup problem was finally solved.
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Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Blind testing is one of the most important things you can do for your board game. Think of how many crummy, ambiguous rulebooks you've come across in your gaming career. Blind-testing the Prolix rulebook was a huge priority for me.

Sadly, blind testing is also one of the most difficult things for a game designer to achieve. There are a lot of people out there who will say they will blind-test your game, but few will actually do it, and even fewer will give you feedback worth using.

One adventure was when I sent the game to my old college roommate, who is a bit of a boardgamer himself. He blind-tested it with his friends, but it sadly crashed and burned. There were two reasons I found for this. I'll mention the first problem in the next entry, but the second problem was the copious amount of whiskey my friend consumed before attempting to teach the game. Naturally, he got a bunch of rules wrong.

I've tried things like posting on BGG and mailing the game to conventions, but neither really worked. So at BGG.CON 2009, I tried something new: bribery. I offered GG to people to play my game, and I raffled off three ThoughtHammer $26 gift certificates. In order to qualify for either, you had to fill out a form I provided that had a bunch of very specific multiple-choice questions about the game.

The feedback from my testers was overwhelmingly positive (only one person found the game frustrating, which was a big concern of mine), though I did come across some parts of the rulebook that I had to tweak.
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15. Board Game: Quiddler [Average Rating:6.03 Overall Rank:2357]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Remember that problem my friend came across? At the time, in a 4-player game, each interrupt replaced one of your lowest-scoring words.

It turns out that one player had made two good interrupts, and his first two words were outstanding. That meant his game was effectively over, because it didn't matter much what his last few words would be. His two interrupts would replace his last couple of words.

I dealt with this problem for awhile by firmly ignoring it. In the meantime, the game was for 2-4 players, and I wanted to make a 5-player version available. When testing with five players, I noticed players getting frustrated because they had more opportunities to interrupt, but not enough valid chances to do so.

There was one way I could solve this problem, but it was risky. I could say that each interrupt replaces one fewer word than you interrupted with. So if you interrupt three times, you replace two words.

It was a risky idea because it was so fiddly. But when I tried it, it worked like gangbusters. Players now needed to interrupt in order to keep their scores high. You now had to interrupt, which made the game even more intense (so intense, in fact, that I put a warning in the rulebook to avoid the 5-player game if your group is playing Prolix for the first time). Also, one low-scoring interrupt wasn't the game-killer it used to be.

After a few months of this, I realized that the same phenomenon was happening in the 4-player game. Players wanted to interrupt, but didn't have enough chances to do so. That's what happened in my drunk friend's game.

I realized that I should give the players what they wanted, and placed the 5-player rule into the 4-player game. Another dragon slain!
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16. Board Game: Ubongo: Duel [Average Rating:6.94 Overall Rank:1056]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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Yes, I know Ubongo isn't a word game. But Ubongo Duel played a vital role in Prolix' development.

I wasn't happy with the 2-player game. It lacked tension, and interrupts seemed kind of anticlimactic. I wondered if I could make it more of a puzzle game, but I hated the idea of one player dominating the game, as usually happens in puzzle games.

Ubongo Extreme deals with this by adding a random element in scoring. But Ubongo Duel has a slightly different approach. A player who builds a dominating lead is forced to deal with a handicap.

Eureka! I could make the 2-player game a puzzle game if I applied a handicap to the leading player. And with that, 2-player playtests were suddenly alive and kicking, instead of cringeworthy.

I was so pumped about this, I added a solo variant as well. Now the game played 1-5 players. Awesome!
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17. Board Game: Word Blur [Average Rating:6.81 Overall Rank:3450]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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All that remains are random details.

* I raised the scoring somewhat early on, in order to make scores higher and reward using more letter chips. Scoring went from 3-2-3-1 to 4-3-4-2.

* You'll notice how high-scoring the first column is, compared to how it used to be. That is because there were too many "insta-rupts," in which players interrupted the moment another player's turn started. I raised the scoring of the first column to force players to pay attention to the new letters, which slowed them down enough to cut down on insta-rupts. They still happened, but at a more tolerable frequency.

* At some point, I moved the letter chip drawing from the start of a player's turn to the end of a player's turn. This kept a player from the unsportsmanlike act of spending valuable seconds digging through the bag while studying the board.

* Late in development, I changed the solo and 2-player rules so that letters advanced two columns instead of one. I realized that the 4-3-4-2 scoring arrangement didn't make much sense, because the same column of letters would always be 4 points.

I changed the 1- and 2-player board to 4-4-3-2, which felt much more natural. After some thought, I realized that I could save a lot of agony by changing the main board to this as well. It would save money and be more intuitive for players.
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18. Board Game Publisher: Z-Man Games
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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I pitched the game to Z-Man at BGG.CON 2008, and at ConnCon 2009, Zev told me he wanted to talk to me about Prolix. Great, I thought. He's probably rejecting it, but at least I'll get some good feedback from Zev.

Instead, he said, "Yeah. Let's do it." Holy crap.

Reactions from my playtesters were incredible.
Linda Baldwin
United States
White Plains
New York
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hugged a stranger, thinking it was me. There were congratulations all around. One guy who works at a well-known publisher even told me that if Z-Man didn't pick it up, he would have lobbied for it.
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19. Board Game: Prolix [Average Rating:6.54 Overall Rank:2820]
Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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And now here we are. To many people, the journey begins here. But hopefully this Geeklist will show you that it starts much, much earlier, from the spark of an idea, to the first playable prototype, to the publisher rejections, to all the despondent moments when I wondered if I'll ever finish the game, to the magic, unbelievable moment when I signed the contract.

Right now, I have no idea how the game will do. It tested well, and almost everyone I've taught it to loves it, and have said they will buy it. Perhaps they were just being courteous. It's tough to tell. Perhaps the game will flop. Perhaps Tom Vasel will throw it from the roof of his building. Perhaps I've gone through all this just to make a game that Tanga will be struggling to sell for $5 next year.

Either way, I feel like I've succeeded in my goal. I've made a word game that I will want to play, hands down, every time. Biased as I am, I like Prolix better than Scrabble, Boggle, or any word game out there. It's different enough to be noticeable, and strong enough to hold its own against the big boys.

And as sick as it sounds, I loved every part of the game design process (well, perhaps not so much writing the rulebook. That's always a bit of a slog). I genuinely hope that you enjoy playing the game as much as I enjoyed designing it.
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