Gaming for a living

When one designs and published board games for a living, one tends to rant a lot about it. This is where we do that, the folks involved with NSKN Games and our special friends and supporters. We'll post here our ideas about gaming, about life, about gaming more often than not, about the specific challenges of making a business out of a hobby and... did we mention games?

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An expansion for Exodus: Proxima Centauri

Andrei Novac
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For the past year there was one question we had to answer over and over again, "will there be an expansion for Exodus?". I must admit that we avoided that question for a while because we were simply not able to give a straight answer. That has changed, we are actively working on an expansion for Exodus and we plan to release it in Spiel '14 Essen.

The expansion topic revolved around yet another question, "how come there are no races in Exodus?". The game play is symmetrical, all player have the same starting resources, they have access to the same technologies and the same actions. Their development throughout the game is different, but this happens because each player has a different strategy for victory, not because the game forces them to go on a specific path.

The expansion comes with good news for those who wanted various player abilities and an asymmetric game play according to the race or faction (since all the parties involved in the struggle for dominance are humans, we will call them factions rather than races). In the expansion, each faction will have specific powers, access to a new set of technologies and even a different set of actions. Let's take them step by step.

Today I will talk about technologies.

At the beginning of the war for establishing a star empire, every faction started from the same common ground, a balance kept in place by the all-mighty Centaurians. But with every cycle that passed, the factions evolved differently. Therefore, they focus their research in different areas and some of the new found technologies were not accessible to the other factions.

The technologies we have prepared for the expansion will provide several interesting abilities:

- defense against Weapons of Mass Destruction - this is a set of technologies that we have thought about before the release of the first edition of Exodus, but we kept it boxed because it would add a new layer of complexity to the game. It is however appropriate for the expansion

- new drives will allow even faster movement and a more conflicting way of expansion. The most advanced engine core will be the Hyperspace Drive, a technology which may change the course of the conflict and allow unexpected Victory Points

- so far, the ships in Exodus have very straightforward weaponry. The Antimatter Cannons are the most effective, yet simple to use. The new Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Cannon will bring another level of battle tactics

- speaking of battle tactics, the expansion will bring new technologies which will change the structure of combat

- the expansion will also bring a core change related to research. A few of the new technologies will bring along direct Victory Points. This is possibly one of the biggest changes from the base game

Each player will choose a faction and will receive a separate player board with a specific set of technologies, most of them unavailable for the other players. This will not cancel the access to the base set of 28 techs, but will simply add to a total of approximately 35 technologies.

I will stop here, for the next post I will shed a bit more light on some of the other changes that the expansion will bring to Exodus: Proxima Centauri.
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Tue Nov 19, 2013 3:31 pm
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Let's take a look at the artwork of Praetor

Andrei Novac
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From the moment I imagined Praetor and its whole universe, I had something very clear in mind, I wanted the art work to show the grandeur of the Roman cities at the peak of their glory.

I believe in the functionality of the artwork in board games and its main purpose - to serve and blend into the game mechanics - but I am also able to admire and fall in love with a game just because of its great artwork. For Praetor, we aimed for both, combining great illustrations with functional graphic design elements with the purpose to make the game play interesting and challenging while pleasing the eye.

It took us a long time to discover the perfect artist for the job, but I believe that in the end we found the key to success. The artwork below came out of the hand of David Szilagyi. So, let's take a look...

Gold Mine

Marketplace

Marble Quarry

Imperial Outpost

Curia


So, what do you think?
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Wed Aug 28, 2013 2:10 pm
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    Board games - between art and engineering

    Andrei Novac
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    Some may argue that designing a board game is not art, it is simply the process of dressing up a mathematical structure with a theme and the few tweaks that make the game interesting can be easily added during play-testing. If you play Uwe Rosenberg's Agricola you will most likely have the peculiar feeling that the game has been engineered o be perfectly balanced, still offering enough options that no two games are alike.

    The whole genre of German (or Euro) games are usually almost luck independent, they challenge only the wit and skills of the players and the more you play the better you are. In a typical Euro-game, it is quite unlikely for an experienced player to be defeated by a newbie. Therefore, we may safely say that most Euro-game have an engineered engine, a mathematical model which is usually nicely hidden behind a village or town building like theme to make it more attractive to light gamers and families.

    However, those of you who have played lots of Euro-games know already that there are hardly two games alike - I am talking here about the good games, not about cheap clones - and that every game challenges you in a different way. If you know how to win Agricola, you won't be able to apply the same 'algorithm' for Puerto Rico, Trajan or Ora et Labora. As a game designer myself, I must argue against the assumption that most Euros are a nice cover for simple (or complex) maths. I am not saying that there isn't a core based on an algorithm, most good games have that, I am simply stating that there's a lot more to making a game than the maths behind it.

    You may have noticed that the best games out there are innovative in at least one way. This is where art or inspiration comes in. It's not enough to be a good engineer and apply optimization algorithms to have a good game. You might end up with a perfectly balanced game, but to achieve the holy grail (new + fun + balanced) you need a drop of ... something else. Innovation is not as easy to describe and quantify, but I will give it a try. When Puerto Rico was launched, it brought something that most player have not seen before, the mechanism of the common action chosen by the active player, executed by everyone. This was the new and brilliant touch that pushed Puerto Rico to the top of gaming charts. In Terra Mystica (best Euro I have ever played) it's difficult to pin-point a single innovation that makes the game great. If I had to choose, I would go with the way the theme integrates with the game mechanisms. I don't know how the authors worked this game, but I notice the result. Terra Mystica does not feel at all like two separate parts, the algorithm and the theme, it feels like an inseparable integrated body. Each race has one or more unique abilities and it also comes with deviation from the standard costs vs. advantages. However, each race feels so solid that I could not have imagined it having different abilities. Designing this game is definitely a combination between art and engineering, because the game a whole is balanced without being boring and each race is unique without being overpowered.

    Let's take a look to a different genre, the Ameritrash games. In my opinion, most of these games are leaning more towards the art side. To make a successful game of this genre, you need inspiration above all. You need to have a story, an universe that sucks people. Of course you will also need solid game mechanisms, but the theme dictates the mechanisms and not the other way around.

    Regardless of its type, whether it is thematic, family or strategy, any game is a mix of inspiration and hard work. The hard work is usually on the engineering side, when you bust you brains to balance resources or to quantify different paths to victory but the small tweaks that make a good game great are always the fruit of inspiration. In my opinion, making a game is just as much art as it is engineering because you need to be creative to make a board game but you also need to develop a technique of development to make the game playable and balanced.
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    Tue Feb 19, 2013 11:20 am
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    Board games: designer vs. publisher

    Andrei Novac
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    There is a clear distinction between how do board game designers and board game publishers think and what are their expectations.

    When I first started as a game designer, back in 2010, my goals and aspirations were crystal clear. I wanted to make good games, if possible brilliant, for people to enjoy and play every day. From the very beginning I knew that I will design gamers' games, the kind that won't be on everyone's table every evening and I went for no compromise.

    One year later, I made the decision to go also into publishing. I must take a short detour here... As a freelance game designer, the competition is fierce and there are probably 100 times more designers that are still waiting for their big break than published designers. Even those who innovate and create very good board games can wait for years until a publishing house takes their games and for most designers this never happens. Now, coming back to the main story line, my decision to go into publishing was backed by a few friends that offered to help and get involved and I was going to quit my job anyway and this looked like a great opportunity to do what I really like and have the freedom to publish my own designs, thus circumventing all the constraints that bind other designers.

    I am going to take a big step forward through time to the end of 2011. This is when the conflict between the designer and the publisher really started. What I had not realized before is that game designing is light years away from publishing in terms of thinking, effort and understanding the industry.

    As a designer I always started from an idea I liked. I would then create the theme, the game mechanics, take it to my friends to play-test, improve it, test again, without ever worrying about the market value of the game. As long as the game was interesting and enjoyable, I had no concerns about how the game would sell. As a designer I was oblivious to the demands of the board games market and I assumed that if game is good, it will sell.

    The perspective of a publisher is completely different, or, at least, it should be. The main focus is understanding the industry and the market trends. Based on these, there is a decision making process which could take months or even years regarding what kind of gamed have a chance on a very competitive market.

    When I really started to understand the market, NSKN Games was already one year old. Back then I understood that there will always be a conflict between the publisher and my alter ego, the designer. And there's no easy way to find common ground.

    Last spring I attended a designers convention in Gottingen. Inside the huge hall there were may tables with designers on one side, presenting their creations and publishers on the other side, moving from table to table, listening to hundreds of different ideas and choosing two or three to evaluate for publishing. I acted as both, I took some time to see what people have created and I also stood face-to-face with the representative of a major publisher in my attempt to better understand the market. It was then when I realized that there was a big gap between the two.

    Each publisher comes with his homework complete - a market analysis which tell what kind of games will sell in the upcoming year - and this is exactly what they're looking for. Anything that does not follow all the requirements is immediately rejected. It's all about business.

    Designers have a different approach. Maybe I am taking this a bit too far, but making board games is somehow like art (or maybe it is art) and an artist cannot or will not easily accept constraints. To end up with a good game one must have the freedom to experiment and innovation is usually killed by the limitations imposed by the market.

    I believed that by doing both design and publishing it would be easy to find the golden middle. As long as I use my business knowledge to guide guide my creative side, the results should be amazing. Reality showed me that this is not the case. Most of the time, knowing what won't sell stopped me from venturing into dead-end projects which would consume a lot of time and be a money black hole, but more often than that thinking about the business side impaired by ability to let ideas fly and work freely on a project that could have had potential. So, I tried to separate them. I did not want to stop designing games - that what I loved in the first place, but I did not want to give up publishing either.

    If the designer's work is not a continuous flow, there's no break from the business side. I can rarely find a day without some email to answer or some request to fulfill. However, this puts me in the 'publisher mood' which tends to be a big punch in the face for creativity. So, I started separating my weeks and even my days in design time and business time. As long as there are issues to take care of on the business side, they take priority and I am trying to fill the whole day only with that. This way I should be able to free up the next day or the day after that to work on design only. If that's not possible, I am trying to at least keep the afternoon or the next morning completely free from all money related issues.

    I know it's a long shot, but this is the only way I can do both with a decent chance of success. In the early stages of designing a game, I try to never think how much would a component cost or if it's realistic to even consider a complex plastic miniature. I let myself dream and create, without worrying about the consequences.

    Complaining aside, there a certain advantages in doing both design and publishing. Once a game has undergone some testing and it shows potential, the publisher mentality kicks in and I focus on the ergonomics of the game, removing useless components, adjusting sizes to fit in a box, rewriting rules so the reader will not get bored or angry and so on. It the latest stages, the business side takes over and I evaluate the production costs, the market value and see if the whole game represents a sound business concept.

    However, there is always this conflict between how a publisher think and how a designer does. The risk of doing both is big. On one hand, you can be blinded by a game concept you like so much that you fail to see that the other might not or it might be too complicated/boring/expensive. On the other hand, there's always the risk of boxing an amazing idea which could be the next big hit on the market because the evaluated production costs are too high or the game is too language dependent.

    From my short experience of game designer and even shorter one as a game publisher, my advise to all those who do both is ... not to do both if possible. If that's not possible, try to think like a third party who is always right - the gamer.
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    Thu Jan 17, 2013 9:50 am
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    Bye bye 2012

    Andrei Novac
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    We're back from holidays and among the first things we have to do at the beginning of the new year is to draw the line and analyze the last 12 months with the goods and the bads, so we can learn and improve.

    For NSKN, 2012 was a very busy year, the second in our short history and the year with the greatest growth so far. We released an expansion for our first board game and two new ones, we attended several gaming events and we expanded our market. But, let's take it step by step...

    Jan 2012 - NSKN attended GobCon, an event by gamers for gamers in Bologna, Italy. It was our first local gamin convention, we got to meet a lot of great people and we established a long-term relationship with La Tana dei Goblin, the largest board gaming community in Italy.

    Feb 2012 - We announced our new games for 2012, Wild Fun West and Exodus on BoardGameGeek. With the aid of the great people, we polished the games, we chose the right names and we organized play-testing sessions.

    Apr 2012 - One year after being established, NSKN got a new look. We designed a new logo and a new website in our effort to increase awareness and to give better customer support to all of you who own or are interested in our games.

    May 2012 - Our team went all the way to Birmingham, UK to attend for the first time the UK Games Expo. It was a unique experience, we met lots of great people and we discovered a community of great people. We presented to the public for the first time the final prototypes of Wild Fun West and Exodus: Proxima Centauri, our upcoming games for the fall of 2012. The feedback was encouraging and we decided to move further with both board games.

    Jun 2012 - June marked our second trip to Italy to meet Tana dei Goblin for and to released the first expansion of Warriors & Traders, Italia. We got a lot of help from our fiends form Italy and we designed this expansion especially for them. The first print sold out immediately and this represented another landmark for NSKN, our first ever sold-out product.

    Jul 2012 - The graphic design for Wild Fun West was ready and we announced the game for Spiel '12 Essen.

    Aug 2012 - Exodus reach its final state, with all the illustrations and it was ready to go into production. We made the decision to use Indiegogo for crowd-funding and we prepared the projects.

    Sep 2012 - In the beginning of September, NSKN celebrated another brand new accomplishment, we were no longer a one-game-publisher, we had Wild Fun West ready and Exodus was getting significant support on Indiegogo, getting ready to be funded. At the same time, our new games were being produced and shipped from China.

    Oct 2012 - October was by far the month with the most work, events and accomplishments for NSKN. Just a few days before Essen we reached our goal on Indiegogo. Our year long efforts were repaid by gaming enthusiasts who decided to back Exodus and we even exceeded our goal by 10 %. As soon as our crowd-funding campaign was successful, we shipped more than 130 copies of Exodus, in an effort larger than it looks for a still very small company.

    Since the first print of Warriors & Traders: Italia sold out so quickly, we decided to make a second print, also limited to 50 copies. It was the last chance to get this exclusive expansion and we got preorders for more than half of the production.

    The second part of October was marked by the mobilization effort for Spiel Essen. We attended the largest board gaming event in Europe for the second year, bringing a team of 8 people, three games and one expansion.

    Nov 2012 - NSKN went back to Italy for Lucca Comics & Games, a convention that brought together 138,000 people. We were the only foreign publisher and even though our Italian language skills were limited, we made an impression and sold out the last few copied of [thing=124430]Warriors & Traders: Italia[/thing].

    Dec 2012 - After we got back from Lucca until the end of the year we focus of sales and getting our new games to as many hobby stores as possible. We expanded our distribution network in Asia and Europe and this effort will continue throughout 2013. The year ended with a long overdue vacation from which we have just returned.

    After we drew the line, 2012 was a good year with many highlights but also some mistakes. We managed to expand, we designed and produced two new board games, but we also encountered some production quality issues that we'e still fighting to solve. We have big plans for 2013 but we want to stay a small, friendly company which is capable to respond to any request in a matter of hours or days, putting our fans and customers first. We're still learning and every day we realized how special and amazing the board games industry is.
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    Mon Jan 7, 2013 8:09 am
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    A special day

    Andrei Novac
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    Today is a special day for me for two reasons. The first is that it's my birthday, but that's been happening every year for the past... well let's leave it at that. The second reason is that exactly two years ago today I made a life-changing decision, to quit my day job and make board game full time. It was the kind of decision which triggers all your friends to gather up and have an 'intervention' to make you realize how silly/crazy/stupid you are and to bring you back on the righteous path.

    Well, I stood my ground and two years later I am still in the board games business and I don't regret it for a second. It was probably one of the best and (at the same time) worst decisions of my life, but I am finally doing something that I love and even though from the financial point of view it is not as good as my old job, I have high hopes and most of all I am happy from the professional point of view.

    There are people around who contribute to my being happy with what I am doing and those are the people from NSKN and all the others who I won't name here and who are contributing by testing, giving feedback, etc.

    So, this is the story of the day, at least for me, and now I will go back to doing what I'm usually doing - board games!
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    Tue Dec 18, 2012 5:39 pm
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    Praetor - a worker placement board game

    Andrei Novac
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    I've been asked countless times what the story of NSKN focusing so much on civilization or empire building games and when will we come to our sense and do what every typical start-up board games publisher does and make a simple worker placement game which would potentially reach a much wider market. Every time I answered the same thing, "when the time is right, our Euro-game will come to be", maybe with less fancy words, but you get the idea.

    Well, it looks like that time has finally come and we're working on a Euro-game!

    The working title of our board game is Praetor, it has a setting in the Roman Empire - pretty obvious I would say - and a number of players, most likely up to 6, are competing to become a Praetor. They're all in charge of building a new new Roman settlement together, each responsible for his own part and in the end, the most skilled of them will be appointed Praetor by the Caesar/Emperor.

    As Euro-games go, this one aims to be either middle-weight Euro. That means it won't be addressed to absolute beginners - it looks like I am simply not capable of designing easy games - but it won't be too complex for the average gamer to enjoy and it won't last more than 90 minutes.

    So far the theme is a bit different from the typical worker placement game (Agricola, Pillars of the Earth, Caylus, Fresco, Le Havre, Ora et Labora) but this is just the beginning.

    Since we're in the early stages of development and the game has undergone just a few tests, we can't reveal all the details, but just to stir your curiosity... the most important 'trick' this game bring is that your workers gain experience over time, becoming more efficient in building and collecting resources. However, once a certain amount of experience is accumulated, they retire so you must recruit new ones.

    Moreover, instead of being a simple worker placement board game, Praetor will combine this mechanic with city building. You will start with a simple settlement and you will develop it by placing new tiles. In a nutshell, each game will look different, simply because the order of available building will be different.

    Most Euro-games have a scalability problem, if they work well with two players they become messy in 4 or 5, or if they work well with many players they will become dry with only two. We plan to overcome this problem from the very beginning by changing the modular map setup according to the number of players.

    I guess these details will do so far, as soon as we're convinced and start massive play-testing, we'll come back with many more details and pictures.

    Until then, it looks like the winter is the season of great board game ideas. Stay tuned!
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    Thu Dec 13, 2012 11:54 am
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    Technology in games and real life

    Andrei Novac
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    In many modern board games and especially in the empire building games, the games is won by accumulating Victory Points. There are usually many ways to do that, conquest, exploration, economic and technological development.Warriors & Traders and Exodus: Proxima Centauri fall under this category, of civilization games, where players compete on several "layers" and each direction brings Victory Points.


    Exodus: Proxima Centauri tech tree
    While play-testing Exodus: Proxima Centauri, several people asked me why are there no VPs awarded for developing their technology tree. The same things happened to a lesser extent with Warriors & Traders. I gave an answer to each person, but I feel it would be useful to elaborate on this a little bit more.

    The topic I am going to debate is the reasoning behind our technological development and how are we benefiting from that.

    First of all, what drives us - humans - to research. There's curiosity on one side, our constant need to discover and to find answers and on the other side there is the need to improve our lives, our existence, the need to prosper, but also the need to expand or defend.

    I have read research (I cannot quote though) that most technological advancements in the history of humanity were achieved during the time of war or while preparing for war. Just think about World War II or the Cold War. Also, during the time of peace, most of our technology was not a purpose but means to achieve a greater goal. What I am trying to say is that we rarely research for the sake of science, but we have a purpose, a goal to achieve.

    It is possible that I am over-simplifying things, but I have this image in my mind of the first man on the moon. This was a peaceful technological achievement, but the technology that stood behind it was driven by the Cold War Space Race, which has mostly (if not solely) military purposes.

    My point is that developing technologies, research in general is the path to achieving a goal, not the goal itself. Moving back to board games... in Exodus: Proxima Centauri, there is no VP award for learning any specific technology, although researching is an important part of the game. It may be an obsession of mine to make games (even sci-fi ones) realistic, but every technology gives an advantage and just waiving one's achievement in front of the opponents won't bring extra power, it would be just a threat at most. And this is exactly what happens during the game when a player has reached a technology that would potentially give him an outstanding advantage: his opponents see it, fear it and react.

    Imagine that during the Cold War the US would just tell the Soviets "we know how to make nuclear weapons" and the Soviets would suddenly say "you the greatest, you win". History proved that both sides had to actually make nuclear weapons and threaten to use them to get a strategic position. The technology served as means, not as purpose. I followed the same rule. In Exodus, most technologies bring some military or civilian know-how. Then, the players have to build the weapons or the ships to take advantage of the successful research. Nobody says that they have to actually use the weapons, just like the Soviets never attacked the US, but they can be used to build up influence and to score indirect points.

    Maybe I've taken the comparison too far, it is just for the purpose of exemplifying a concept that I believe in - technology is not greatness but it serves as a path to greatness.

    Now I might be accused that I did not follow the same principle in Warriors & Traders, where the most advanced player on each of the three tech paths gets a direct award of Victory Points. The reality in the Dark Ages was different. The intelligence was not as developed as we are used to and enemies had to severe difficulties in spying on each other and gather relevant information. Hence, there was a short path from reality to myth and a big discovery could easily transform into a legend which would simply keep the enemies away.

    So, to keep the long story ...not so long, I am concluding my debate on technologies here wishing that people will simply enjoy playing our games.
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    Thu Aug 16, 2012 2:50 pm
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    What's so special about board games?

    Andrei Novac
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    I've seen recently a picture on Facebook that really inspired me. The day-to-day life is somewhat boring if we don't spice it up a little bit. Many say that the little things are the ones that make a difference. Well, for some of us, those little things that make a grey day bright are the board games.

    What brought me in the board games world at first was the amazing combination between having fun and using my brain. It sounds funny, I know, but it is true. Once we graduate from college, most of us get so sucked in the working world and we forget that there are books around - and I am not talking about Freakonomics, C++ or Excel for Dummies - or theater or museums. I know that it happened to me. After a certain age, it become increasingly difficult to keep learning new things, to stay open minded and to use our brains outside work.

    This is where the board games come in. If you don't have enough time to go to a museum, or don't want to be alone with a book or cannot afford an evening at the theater, play a board game! There are so many choices, from 20-minutes abstract game to enormous empire building games that take up the whole weekend, there are nowadays more than 10,000 decent (and above) board games on the market and at least 500 new ones get published every year. With this much diversity, it is impossible not to find something you like. So, instead of watching brainless TV, get you friends together, spread a board game on the table, talk, make strategies and enjoy a great time.

    Besides stimulating our brains and the obvious social role, board games stimulate our creativity. I guess that one of the reasons I started developing them instead of just playing. After many evenings of gaming, I realized that there a whole universe that has not been explored yet and there is an infinite number of things that could still find their way inside a game box. So, following the motto from the picture, I dug inside my head and I started putting all the ideas on paper. It turns out that there are a lot, many more that I could ever develop into games. So I must choose and even this little process of deciding what is worth developing and what isn't keeps me thinking.
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    Tue Jun 26, 2012 11:03 pm
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    Greece, politics, board games, live long and prosper!

    Andrei Novac
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    I was writing a few weeks ago about the political situation in Greece and how it affects the world of board games. Yesterday, a new round of elections took place and, although I am trying to stay as far as possible from politics, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this.

    Antonis Samaras-live long and prosper!
    The whole Europe and most of the world have focused on Greece for the past few weeks, not due to their impressive come-back in the Euro 2012, but due to the importance of these elections for the future of the Euro-zone and EU itself. The fear was that, should the radicals win, Greece would no longer respect the bailout agreement with the EU and IMF and would be forced to default on their debts, thus causing an extended crisis throughout all the countries which share the Euro as their currency and the other countries surrounding the Euro-zone.

    But that's just some political talk, right? How would we - the common people - feel this directly? Well, just the perspective of the Greek default cause the Euro to lose some 3% against the US dollar and other relevant currencies, the oil price dropped with more than $10. For all those who are doing business across borders and currencies, this lack of stability is causing stress and even panic. For those who have saving or credits in various currencies, this prolonged instability is a source of nightmares and for the rest it is simply a nuisance ready to become a serious issue as soon as the price are going bazinga once again.

    Fortunately, the (almost final) results of the Greek elections show that ND, a moderate right hand party won and will form a government which will work with the EU and IMF to get the country out of the brown situation and respect all the international agreements that Greece had signed. The political leaders in Europe are having less cold sweats, they can now focus once again on hiding their own dirt under the carpet.

    For the board games world there isn't much of a change. But there is some change. The quotation I got this morning for international shipping was 7% lower that the one I got last week, in spite of the slight increase in the oil price (everyone in the shipping business blames crazy prices on the oil and gas market), so there is hope for better.

    Overall, I guess the outcome of the last political weekend looks positive and most people have less to worry about. I am just wondering what will happen when the reality hits and one of the countries which are always under the magnifying lens of the EU, IMF and the rating agencies will not make the "right" choice.

    Live long and prosper!
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    Mon Jun 18, 2012 10:22 pm
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