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Designer Diary: Only a Few Cards, or The Making of an Automa for Patchwork

Lines J. Hutter
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Board Game: Patchwork
Like many other players, I ignored Patchwork for a while after its release. It just didn't look appealing to me. The theme didn't grab me. Eventually it was the app that made me realize what a brilliant design this is. The button and time board mechanisms are great. You're juggling three resources: buttons, time, and space. The set of shared tiles could be considered a fourth dwindling resource with various costs in the three other resources.

The way those resources are interwoven is new, fresh, exciting, and brilliantly streamlined. In addition, you have to look for the right shapes and which ones your opponent might be going for. Furthermore, with careful planning you can manage to get two or three turns in a row. This is one of my most underestimated games.

After playing the app, I immediately bought a physical copy — but unfortunately I didn't find the right people to play the game with as often as I wanted. I wished someone would create a solo variant for it.

Fast forward to SPIEL '16: Cottage Garden was released, with this game having some similar concepts to Patchwork. Morten Monrad Pedersen (Automa Factory) bought a copy, and so did I. Some weeks later, Morten presented an Automa for it. I tried it, and it worked fine but didn't grab me. That was not Morten's fault. I just found Cottage Garden itself pretty unexciting. It was missing most of what I loved about Patchwork and quickly gathered dust on my shelf, so I wasn't too much interested in Morten's Automa version either.

Instead I (and our third Automa Factory member [David Studley]) tried to push Morten into adapting his Automa to Patchwork. Unfortunately, Morten neither had the game nor the time.

Cottage Garden to Patchwork

It looked like I had to do it myself. My first version adapted some of Morten's Cottage Garden concepts. Instead of placing Automa's patches on her quilt board, they were placed beside it. A marker on the quilt board counted the squares the patch would have covered. It was moved in reading order along the empty board and when it reached the end, Automa was considered to have fully filled her board.

Other than that, my first Automa behaved much like a human player: She gained and spent buttons, she passed when she couldn't afford a tile, and when she could afford more than one of the available tiles she made her choice using a fixed tiebreaker list. The special tile you get for completing a 7x7 area was placed on a specific space on Automa's quilt board, and when her marker reached it, Automa was considered to have created a full 7x7 area and claimed the tile for herself.

From gallery of Lines42
Marker moving along the quilt board

I played this a couple of times and sent my draft to Morten and David. They both showed interest, but were way too busy to invest more time in it. That said, Morten mentioned he might be interested in developing this and offering it to Lookout Games, the German publisher of Patchwork. He asked whether I'd be willing to wait until he had the time to join in. Oh, yes, I was!


Having Morten's interest boosted this project from a nice little side project that I'd probably just have posted on BGG to something more serious. By that time in November 2016, I had already worked a lot with Morten and David. I know how they think, and I have learned a lot about Automas.

Priority number one is that Automas must be as simple to handle as possible. Looking at my current version I found that although I liked how human-like Automa was in handling the buttons, fiddling with them each Automa turn (gaining, spending, counting) was too much work. Patchwork has quick turns, so the solo mode must be similarly quick to handle. Could I get away with Automa not caring about buttons all? How would that work? More importantly, how would scoring look like without buttons?

I found the answer by coincidence. I tend to do a lot of statistics when designing. I keep track of all kinds of numbers from my playtests. One day, when I looked through my spreadsheet, I realized that the number of buttons on patches Automa gained throughout a game was pretty close to my average score. Could I use that as Automa's score?

I created a deck of cards that gave Automa a virtual number of buttons to spend on her turn. This was less realistic, but easier to handle. You flip over a card that shows the number of buttons Automa can spend this turn. All available patches with a cost equal to or less than that are eligible for her to take. Give the patch to Automa. Discard the card. Done. By that time, the tiebreaker list was still fixed and unchanging.

Next, I got rid of Automa's quilt board. By that time, it tracked only the spaces needed for Automa to gain the 7x7 tile. My spreadsheet also included notes about the position of my time marker on the time board at the moment I claimed the 7x7 tile. I took an average, marked that space on the time board and tossed Automa's quilt board. When her time marker reached the marked space before I got the 7x7 tile, she claimed it.

This was the slimmest version of my Patchwork Automa. At the end of the game, Automa scored the number of buttons on her claimed patches (plus possibly the 7x7 tile). It was different than the regular scoring, but it allowed me to get rid of unnecessary and fiddly elements.

Gaming Automa (Part 1)

One of Morten's biggest fears is that players will find a way to game one of our Automas. We had several discussions in which he didn't want a player to have specific information of what Automa might do on her next turn. Most of the time he's right about that, but every now and then I argue that the specific information he wants to hide would also be open information in a real game. It's always an interesting fine line how realistic you want to be in that regard.

The fixed tiebreaker made Automa pretty predictable. Sure, you wouldn't know how many buttons Automa could "spend" on her turn before you drew the next card, but you could always tell that if Automa had a specific number of buttons, she would go for the available tile that's first in the tiebreaker list, so I removed the list from the rules and added a list to each card, mixing up the tiebreakers differently to make them unpredictable. A good side effect of this change was that I could adjust the tiebreaker list to the number of buttons Automa has for her turn. On cards with high numbers, the first tiebreakers tended towards "patch with most buttons" or "largest patch", while cards with low numbers focused on getting double turns (patch that costs least amount of time).

From gallery of Lines42
Early print-and-play card with all four tiebreakers;
I don't remember what the number in the green circle was for...

Tactical Variant (Part 1)

Having Automa's button numbers on cards added a level of unpredictability that I liked. Each Automa turn started with a card flip and a surprise. On the other hand, I realized that this didn't match the real game in which the number of your opponent's buttons is open information. More experienced players might miss this tactical element.

I made a version in which the button numbers were also shown on the back of the cards. You always knew Automa's buttons for her next turn. I tried it and found it boring. The entire element of surprise and tension was lost. We decided to postpone this for beta testing.

Scoring Ranges

The system worked pretty well, but after a dozen more playtests I realized that Automa's scoring didn't have enough variety. She always scored around 22 points, with a deviation of around +/- 7 points. A real player's scores can reach from -20 to +45 points or even beyond that.

I tried to introduce difficulty levels by changing the card distribution in the Automa deck. Three cards were the key here, one with 0 buttons, one with 4 buttons, and one with 10 buttons. In a regular game, you'd leave out the 4-button card; in an easy game the 10-button card; and in a hard game the 0-button card. This looked good on paper but only marginally changed Automa's scoring range.

I tried a lot of different card sets with different button distributions. I introduced different spaces on the time board where Automa gains the 7x7 tile. None of this worked well. We had a "too perfect" Automa with not enough variety in scoring.

Then Morten sent me a suggestion: Each time Automa's time token crossed an income button icon on the time board, she'd gain a number of buttons equal to the buttons shown on the patches she already gained. I didn't like it first because I was so happy that I could get rid of any kind of button income, and second because the number of buttons on gained patches is not under my control. It would be pure luck if this system worked.

On the other hand, Morten was right. We needed a random modifier to stretch Automa's scoring range and a trigger for when to apply it. I divided the overall Patchwork scoring range into four sectors from beginner to pro player, set a center number for each range, and calculated the +/- deviation needed to cover the full range. It was somewhere around +/- 7. I kept Morten's trigger suggestion (passing an income icon on the time track) and added a new value to each Automa card. This would give Automa somewhere between 0 and 5 buttons when she passed an income icon. The distribution of my numbers needed to be so swingy that it creates a random but still controllable element. I needed an overall bonus from anywhere between 0 and 15 within a game, which would comprise my +/-7 deviation.

From gallery of Lines42
Intended scoring ranges for four difficulty levels

If this worked well, I could even add four different values on each card to use for each of the four difficulty levels. When you play easy, use the first value; when you play hard the fourth value, etc.

It took a ton of iterations to find the right distribution on the cards, but in the end, it worked. Automa's score was less consistent now. For me, this was the first time in a design where something was too perfect and needed to be made artificially worse. Interesting experience...

There was a good side effect to the new system. When Automa had lots of buttons to spend, she most likely gained a valuable patch. In such cases I didn't want to give her additional buttons if she crossed an income icon, so I placed 0 button income on high button cards. On the low button cards where Automa was likely to gain a weak patch or even needed to pass, I added the high numbers. This was an unexpected lever to work with and added a fun little twist.

The downside was that we added a bit more fiddliness back to the system in dealing with button income for Automa and having to count them for scoring — and of course since we were now adding 0-15 buttons to the endgame scoring, the basic score needed to be lowered.

Difficulty Levels (Part 1)

Again, I consulted my spreadsheet with all kinds of numbers and statistics. There were multiple variables I could use for scoring:

• 7x7 tile
• Buttons gained
• Number of patches without buttons gained
• Number of patches with buttons gained
• Number of buttons on patches gained

I looked for combinations of those variables to make for a good scoring result. Once I found them, they looked somewhat like this:

From gallery of Lines42
I always tracked and calculated the score of all (by then) four difficulty levels within one game played

Even better, I realized I could cover all difficulty levels just by adding different variables at the end of the game. This had two advantages. I'd need only one income icon on the cards, instead of one for each level, and the difficulty adjustment had no in-game mechanisms that you needed to remember while playing.

In addition, I introduced different spaces on the time board at which Automa would gain the 7x7 tile.

Beta Playtesting

In the meantime, Morten finished some of his other projects and had more time to join in. He had already contacted Lookout Games, and they showed interest. We knew this would not justify a new edition of the game or a standalone Automa expansion, but Lookout publishes its own magazine — "Neues vom Ausguck" — and talked about publishing our Automa in one of those issues. That was motivating.

We decided to start beta playtesting, and I'm glad Morten had enough attention on BGG to gather a playtester pool quickly. We did three waves of playtesting, starting with a small group of around ten players.

I was very happy with the initial feedback as Automa got good ratings right from the start, and it looked like I hadn't overlooked any major game-breaking factor. What a relief!

Difficulty Levels (Part 2)

After about eighty reported games, we had enough data to start tweaking the difficulty levels. Up until playtesting, I was more or less the only one who had played this excessively. All levels were more or less based on my personal skills and playing style.

We set target numbers for four levels and added the compulsory "brutal" level 5. Our targeted win ratios looked like this:

• Level 1: 80%
• Level 2: 50%
• Level 3: 25%
• Level 4: 10%
• Level 5: 1%

But first we had to deal with another problem: We kept track of how often players would gain the 7x7 tile. This tile feels pretty crucial in the game. Unless no one gets that tile, it's a 14-point swing. One player gains 7 points and also denies the other player the option to gain those points himself. Personally, I think this tile awards too many points. (My preference would be 3 or 4 points.) But as an Automa designer you should never change any original game concepts or rules. The problem was that the ratio in which players got the 7x7 tile did not match the win ratios of the games.

From gallery of Lines42
Some of Morten's statistics

We needed to adjust the 7x7 win ratios to our desired difficulty level win ratios first before we tweaked scoring. I took our playtest data with the four positions of the 7x7 marker, added them to a time board, and filled the spaces in between with interpolated values.

From gallery of Lines42
7x7 special tile percentages

Based on this, we set new positions on the time board.

Again, we needed to check our scoring variables: 7x7, buttons gained, empty patches gained, patches with buttons gained, and number of buttons on gained patches. Luckily, we found combinations that — at least on paper — would provide the win ratios for which we were aiming.

More Playtesting

In the meantime, Lookout had posted some hints about a Patchwork Automa on Facebook.

We started another wave of playtesting with the new variables, and they seemed to work well. Fifty more playtest results later with us collecting results and crunching numbers, we were finally there.

I cannot stress enough how valuable playtesting and playtesters are. Without them, you'll never be able to get 130+ games played with different approaches, skill levels, and tactics within a couple of weeks.

I'm very grateful to each and every player who contributed here. Without these players, this Automa wouldn't be as solid and balanced as it is now. Sounds like a cliché? Well, yes — but it's so true.

Tactical Variant (Part 2)

Still there was one open question we postponed as long as we could: Should the player know how many buttons Automa had for her next turn or not? We needed to bring this to the table again and rely on playtester feedback. We created two versions:

Version 1: We put the number of buttons on the back of the cards so that players could see them before the card is drawn. This came with another problem: Hardly any cards had the same button value. If a player memorized the cards based on their button value, they could derive the full card from the value shown on its back.

From gallery of Lines42
Card back with button numbers

Version 2: Here we left the numbers on the front of the cards only, but on an Automa turn she would use the button number of the topmost card of the discard pile. In other words, the previously played (and discarded) card will show the button value for the next turn. The player wouldn't know which card will be drawn next and which tiebreakers might come, but they would know the number of buttons Automa would have. The huge downside here was that the button value was suddenly disconnected from the tiebreakers and button income value. All the interaction between these factors was lost.

In the end, we decided to use version 1. We changed the button values so that there are at least two of each in the deck. While players could still try to remember which cards have shown up, this would make it harder for them to memorize the deck.

By that time, we knew Lookout was going for a magazine publication, which allowed up to 24 cards. Since playtesters seemed to be almost evenly split about having the tactical variant over the non-tactical variant, we simply decided to add both.

From gallery of Lines42
Late prototype card

A Few Cards

A few cards and a sheet of rules — this is what you get. Looks easy, doesn't it? It's been the first time I had the opportunity to go through such a meticulous development process of one of my own ideas. I'm glad it was "only" a "small" project. I learned a ton, and I'm even more happy that it's finally published, played, and appreciated. Lookout did a great job adapting the cards and rules to the original Patchwork style. Now you can enjoy it and play this fantastic game solo. Have fun quilting!

Thanks to Morten, David and everyone who helped.

Lines J. Hutter

Board Game: Patchwork: Automa
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Tue Apr 14, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Musical Chairs, or Take a Seat for a New Rio Grande Release!

Kelly North Adams
United States
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Board Game: Musical Chairs
In order to tell you how I came up with the idea for Musical Chairs, I need to give you a short backstory.

It all started at a small prototyping expo in Orlando, Florida in February 2017. I was attending the convention to support local designers and ended up pitching my first game there, too! I was meeting lots of friendly gamers and having fun playing everyone's prototypes. One of the events at the convention was a "publisher speed-dating" event in which new designers meet with publishers to pitch their ideas in five minutes or less.

While sitting at my little table waiting for the next publisher to pitch to, everyone suddenly started laughing because after the first meeting, none of the publishers knew which way to rotate. It reminded me of playing musical chairs when I was little and I thought, "We just need the threat of music stopping, then everyone would find a chair for their derrière real quickly!" — then it occurred to me that this could be a good theme for a game! While everyone was figuring out where to sit next, I jotted down a few notes. Board game ideas seem to come to me at the most peculiar times...

Later that week, I started on my new prototype. I had the idea; I just needed the gameplay, and I always start with a list! I knew I wanted it to simulate the classic game of musical chairs but with a fun modern twist. I wanted the game to include:

Movement: Players would travel around a circular board composed of different chair types, stopping at different chairs along the way.
Music: You couldn't have musical chairs without music — but how could I simulate this...?
Tension related to scoring: You needed a constant threat of not knowing when the music would stop, and when the music did stop, players would score points based on the chair they landed next to, whether they wanted that chair or not.
Competition: Certain chairs on the board would need to be more valuable than others to create conflict.
Elimination: I wouldn't have player elimination, of course, but the game needed elimination of some aspect of the board.

I started with the simulation of the music ending. To achieve this, I wanted the game to include a "push your luck" mechanism but with a new twist. What I came up with was a co-operative "push your luck" notion in which you are betting on the other players and the statistical probability of what could be in the other players' hands. I wanted to create questions like "Should I hang out at this chair because it's scoring pretty good points?" and "Will it make it back to me again, letting me get to an even better situation?"

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Coming Up with Rules and Mechanisms

I decided to accomplish this "push your luck" element by having players lay down one card on their turn, with a basic rule of "If you can play, you must play", similar to trick-taking games.

The basic rules: You have a hand of cards from a deck that contains eight different chair card suits numbered 1-10, then players take turns playing a card in ascending order, moving their pawn 1-3 spaces. Playing cards in ascending order was the time clock, and when a player couldn't play a higher card on their turn, the music would stop — which would create a scoring opportunity for players to score based on the chair they ended up next to, making the game all about timing and strategic placement.

All players would play their cards to the same central playing area, which meant that players could score the cards that others played, not only the ones they were dealt.

As for the card play, to start the round, the first player would play their lowest card in hand (disregarding chair suit). On the following turns, players would have two choices:

1) You could optionally play the same number that was played by the previous player, OR
2) You must play the lowest-valued card in your hand that's higher than the card previously played.

For example, if the previous player played a 7 green and you're holding a 7 red, 7 blue, 9 yellow and 10 blue, you can play any of the first three cards since the 7s are the same number that was played previously, and the 9 is the lowest card you hold that's higher than the card previously played. If you held nothing higher than a 7 (and you chose not to play a 7 or held no 7s), the music would stop, causing a round of scoring. To score, each player takes the cards from the play area that match the suit of the chair they are next to, scoring the point value of these cards.

Changes, Changes, Changes!

When I make a game, I try to start basic, then slowly add layers until it feels right. I like Walt Disney's idea of "Plus it". When one of his Imagineers came up with an idea, he would tell them to "plus it", that is, take it a step further, then a step beyond that by incorporating thoughtful decisions and additions.

Now that I had the basic play mechanisms and it was testing well, I wanted to plus it.

From gallery of KingKel
I started by adding powers to the chairs, with those powers being removed during the game. Players could acquire these powers to gain flexibility in their actions, strategy, and scoring opportunities. Each round, a power would come off the board, making this a game timer as a secondary effect.

Attaching the powers to the chairs, then removing those chairs during the game seemed thematic, but doing this made the board too small and limited scoring opportunities during future rounds. Another problem with this approach was that since the power was attached a specific chair, I could include only eight powers in the game — or perhaps sixteen if I included two for each chair.

I eventually separated the power from the chair. Instead of removing a chair each round, I removed a power, which resulted in players still scoring points from the chair in future rounds and something being removed from play. This also added variety and replayability because I could include more powers than the number of chairs, making set-up random each game. Later during the development phase, the powers were put on cute little cushions.

From gallery of KingKel

More Playtesting Problems...

So far, so good — except that during playtesting, people were landing on the same chair at the end of the round and were both scoring this chair's points. This didn't feel right because in real life two people can't sit on the same chair! This created a good opportunity to add interactivity.

Enter butt battles, with you battling for chairs you share! This ended up being a derivative of the classic game "War", with you needing to sacrifice a card from your hand to beat the other player. The interesting thing about this is that the higher cards in your hand are worth more points, causing difficult decisions and some interesting (and funny) situations.

Lastly, I added special wild cards to the deck that did things like score you points or copy the value of other cards. These cards altered the base rule options, creating interesting choices during gameplay and even during butt battles.

After playtesting endlessly and ironing out the game play, I felt the design was ready to show. Here is the printed prototype that I pitched, which featured an "Alice in Wonderland" Mad Hatter tea party vibe:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Pitching the Game, and the Process to Production

In the second half of 2017, I showed the design to a few publishers via email and received an offer that ended up falling through a few months later (a whole different story), so the design was released back to me. The publisher stated that it had taken on too many games and couldn't proceed with mine. I hadn't been a game designer for very long, but I was surprisingly okay with this outcome. I thought it was a neat little game, and everyone who played it really enjoyed it, especially those who liked trick-taking games like Tichu and Wizard, so I had hopes it would get picked up again.

I attended Origins for the first time in June 2018 and set up meetings for a few of the games I had been working on, with one of those meetings being with Rio Grande Games.
Possibly unrelated side story: While waiting for my meeting at the Rio Grande booth, I was playing Pokemon Go (a.k.a., my addiction at the time). It happened to be a special Larvitar community day, so in my spare time I was trying to catch a shiny. A friendly man noticed I was playing, said hello, and asked whether I was catching any good Pokemon. He was also playing it! We had a few minutes of friendly conversation about Pokemon. I later found out that I had been talking with Rio Grande's Jay Tummelson. ::face palm:: I had no idea! I felt like such a noob. Also, turns out that Jay Tummelson is super cool.
I received two offers for Musical Chairs that weekend and decided to go with Rio Grande. I liked everyone I met during the meeting as they were kind and thoughtful, and I knew working with them would be a great learning experience for a new designer. (I'm talking about you, Ken and Scott!)

It turns out I made a wonderful decision. They taught me a lot and welcomed my involvement throughout the entire process. To top it off, I got to work alongside Harald Lieske while he did the artwork for my game! He turned each chair into a different musical instrument to add even more harmony to the game. I am a huge fan on his, and he has done the art for some of my all-time favorite games.

Game Release

Just over a year later in November 2019, I was able to see and play an initial mock-up of the game at BGG.CON 2019. It was really cool seeing my game at this stage!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Other prototypes hidden to protect their identity!

Musical Chairs is scheduled to be released during Origins Game Fair 2020, but because of the current world pandemic, the state of Origins 2020 is uncertain. [Updated, April 13: Musical Chairs has been released ahead of Origins 2020 and is available for purchase!] I hope my fellow board game enthusiasts are staying healthy at home and playing lots of games to pass the time. Maybe one day you will try out Musical Chairs, and when that day comes, I hope you enjoy it!

Kelly North Adams

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Tue Apr 7, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Treelings, or A Series of Fortunate Events and Lots of Playtesting

Paul Schulz
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From gallery of 2578
Preproduction copy
In October 2016, I visited SPIEL for the first time and fell in love with the game Arboretum by Dan Cassar. I was fascinated by what a few rules can make out of cards that feature only colors and numbers. This marks the start of the design process of Treelings.

In the beginning of 2017, I used my Arboretum cards to try to find a new simple scoring mechanism using only those colors and numbers. I started laying them out in different constellations on my desk, first like in Arboretum, then sorting them in different ways, ending up just sorting them by color — and suddenly I found my scoring mechanism, never changing since then: During the game you collect cards in columns of the same color. In the end you score one point for each card in each column that has no higher neighboring column. That's it. I didn't even use the numbers.

But how do you build your scoring area? In this first version, each player had a hand of cards and had to play all cards of one color in their turn — and before playing, you could name one color and steal all cards of this color from your neighbor.

From gallery of 2578
Trying to find a new scoring mechanism using Arboretum cards

In June 2017, I visited the game designers' meeting in Göttingen and chatted very excitedly with developers from Ravensburger and KOSMOS, well-known designers, and even Spiel des Jahres jury members. The first fortunate event: I had applied for and was lucky to be nominated for the Spiel des Jahres fellowship for new designers, a fellowship that I would win (but I didn't know this until the next day). I had applied with two other, larger prototypes, but I was also showing off the first version of Treelings. People liked the scoring mechanism, but quickly someone noted that players could cheat and get away with it. They could avoid laying down all of one color, for example, so I changed the game so that players no longer had hands of cards, but an "open hand" with a separate scoring area, both in front of them on the table face up.

In July 2017, I was once again sitting at a table full of my prototypes, this time at Berlin Con. I hadn't actually planned to go, but one of the organizers had heard about the Spiel des Jahres fellowship and emailed me to ask whether I wanted to show my prototypes — which was another fortunate event because during that Berlin Edition SpielwieseCon a new publisher called Edition Spielwiese presented its second game, Memoarrr!. Their developer Julian (who is now working on his own exciting projects with 1 More Time Games) played Treelings. Then he said, "Wait a minute", and came back with Spielwiese's owner Michael and we played again. And they really liked it!

From gallery of 2578
Different ideas for theme and design; the bird prototype was the first one

However, the game wasn't yet contract-worthy. There was something missing. For more than a year, Julian and I tried many different approaches, and for much of that time, we thought that abilities for each color could be the solution. But which abilities? I had a long list. And when to activate them? Anytime you play a card? Once the column hits a certain height? When a column gets higher than a neighboring column (which would have been nicely antagonistic to the scoring since you want columns to have the same height)?

No matter what I tried, abilities always seemed too complicated, and using them took too much time compared to the rest of the game. Abilities weren't the solution. Instead, we focused on further analyzing the problem, discovering that you could have an objectively bad hand of cards. If you had five different colors in your hand, you could play only one of them, which would not really enhance your score. With the abilities, we had tried to make a single card more powerful. Instead, I changed the rules of how to lay cards into your scoring area. You take either all cards of one color (as in the original rules) or all the colors of which you have only one card in your open hand. At that point, in November 2018, the game was ready to be signed.

During the rest of the development process, we made two more changes. First, the outer columns of players sitting next to one another would also count as neighboring columns. Therefore, you might not be able to score them, and you could now actively "attack" or "defend" against your opponents, although these terms sound a little harsh for what it is. Second, we removed each player's "open hand" of cards and the ability to steal cards from your neighbor at the start of each turn. Instead, the game now has a "market" of five cards in the middle of the table. This helped the usability of the game and made it even quicker.

From gallery of 2578
First drafts of the six different guilds by Michael Menzel

The theme was changed a lot during development. In the beginning, the game was about songbirds forming an orchestra, and you couldn't score lower columns because their neighbors were too loud. Then we thought about spices, or maybe just colors or patterns? For a long time it looked like we would be going with feelings, which you needed to balance, yet in the end, another fortunate event decided the theme.

Michael Menzel, who originally wasn't meant to illustrate the game, played it by chance and said to Edition Spielwiese, "I want to do this. I've got an idea." The world of Treelings comes from him, and I could not be happier with it! In a way, this change closed the circle. The design started with an inspiration from a game about trees, and my design also became a game about trees, although that's the only similarity between the two games. While Arboretum is a strategic brain burner, Treelings is fast and easy-going, and it has just the right amount of luck so that everyone in the family can win — a very different type of game.

From gallery of 2578
The scoring area of one player after a few turns

In the near future, Treelings will arrive at your local game stores and online shops. It's my first published game, but won't be the last. You're welcome to follow my Instagram @paulschulzgames to stay updated (and see what I play and the miniatures I paint). Also feel free to ask me anything!

Paul Schulz


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Tue Mar 31, 2020 1:06 pm
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Designer Diary: The One Hundred Torii, or an Abstract Game Finds Its True Calling in a Japanese Garden

Scott Caputo
United States
Santa Clara
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Microbadge: John Coltrane fanMicrobadge: CatholicMicrobadge: Copper GeeklisterMicrobadge: 2008 Secret Santa participantMicrobadge: Kachina fan
Board Game: The One Hundred Torii
In October 2012, I went to the SPIEL game fair in Essen, Germany to promote the release of my game Völuspá and also to pitch four new prototypes to European publishers. My design career was just starting, and it was a thrill to talk to representatives from KOSMOS, Lookout Games, Argentum Verlag, and Ravensburger; even getting a meeting with these publishers was an honor.

The One Hundred Torii was one of those prototypes I pitched — except that it was called "Dot to Dot" and it looked like this:

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Initial Brainstorm

Back in 2010, I had only one published game — Kachina, which was later republished as Völuspá — and I thought, why not try to make another game like Kachina, i.e., a tile-laying game with lots of different ways to score?

I brainstormed different scoring methods, and one idea struck me as interesting and unique. What if the tiles contain different icons, and you score one point per tile based on the shortest path to an icon of the same color? That idea got a lot more interesting when I introduced winding paths on the tiles. Players would build a twisty maze with the tiles as they played.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Except that I wanted players to receive extra bonuses for the paths they created, so I decided that some tiles would have gates on them, and if your shortest path went through a gate, you would receive the gate bonus. My first prototype had three gates: one gate gave an extra point, another a token, and the third a peek. Tokens could be turned in for special powers, such as taking an extra turn or playing one tile on top of another. Plus, the player at the end of the game with the most tokens scored extra points. A peek let a player look at an extra tile when they refilled their hand. My dad suggested the "dot blocker", a pawn that players could buy to cover and therefore nullify one of the dots on the tiles, allowing for really long paths.

This initial rule set proved popular with playtesters. People enjoyed the easy rules and the thinky puzzle the game offered. I thought I had a strong prototype when I showed it to Ravensburger at SPIEL in 2012.

Searching for the Right Theme

Based on publisher feedback from SPIEL, I realized the game had several issues — some large, some small.

The biggest issue was that abstracts don't sell. I thought I was doing myself a favor by making my prototype look like Qwirkle, which had won the Spiel de Jahres in 2011 — but Qwirkle is a unicorn. The wider market demands beautiful themes, not just abstract shapes.

Coming up with a theme for "Dot to Dot" proved challenging. I considered a fast food theme, with different restaurants on streets in a city. It kind of made sense that a hamburger joint would be worth less if another hamburger joint were close by. I thought of wild animals in a natural preserve, but what were the gates? It didn't really make sense. I got stuck for a few years on how to proceed. "Dot to Dot" sat on the shelf.

With the success of the game Lanterns: The Harvest Festival, I wondered whether an Asian theme might make sense. I still had fond memories of my trip to Japan to visit a childhood friend in 2005. He and I had traveled through the many gardens of Kyoto, and I remembered loving the big red torii gates. Maybe these were the gates I was looking for? I renamed the game "Torii" and identified six garden features that I remembered from my trip: a fountain, a shrine, a bell, a flower, a bridge, and a lantern.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

I struggled to get images of torii for my prototype. There were no images of torii at the angle I needed. What was I going to do? Then I found I could buy a small desk-size torii online. I took a photograph of this small gate at the angle I wanted.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Now I was starting to get back on track. The other feedback from Ravensburger was that the game was too long. My original prototype was sixty tiles, as in Kachina, but I realized that was too long. I reduced the number of tiles to 48, and that seemed better. I also worked to make every tile as exciting as I could, adding more double gates and double icons on them.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

A New Publisher with New Ideas

Enter James Hudson of Druid City Games. In January 2017 on the League of Gamemakers website, James asked whether anyone had games they wanted to pitch. I spoke up and pitched James my torii game. He seemed intrigued and took a copy for evaluation.

James' feedback ended up being instrumental. He liked the game, but found it too mathy. Scoring involved a pen and paper. Players counted up the length of the shortest path they made, then added extra points for red gates. I could see his point. I immediately went to work trying to find a better way to score.

From gallery of scottwildcatman
What if you didn't score 1 point per tile in the length of the path? Maybe you gained a single token of the garden feature you scored from your path, and you could gain extra tokens if your shortest path went through any red torii. You could then turn in five tokens of the same type to get a 5-point scoring card and another five tokens of that type to get a 10-point scoring card. That seemed much easier to count. Players would have 5- and 10-point cards in front of them instead of having to use pen and paper. Once players scored 10 points of a particular garden feature, they wouldn't be allowed to score any more of that type, forcing them to diversify. That seemed interesting to me.

James liked the new scoring method, but in the end, he decided "Torii" was not what he was looking for. No worries, though, as James and I ended up doing Sorcerer City together, and that Kickstarter did very well.

Pitching to Pencil First Games

Fast forward to Gen Con 2017. I went to that show to promote the launch of Whistle Stop, but I also brought a few other games to pitch, including "Torii". I met with Eduardo Baraf of Pencil First Games, who I had met online through the League of Gamemakers. Pencil First Games was creating a name for itself for beautiful garden games like Herbaceous. Maybe "Torii" would fit in Ed's line-up...

Ed did like the game, but he wanted to do some development first before he would sign it. I thought the game was already pretty close to finished, but as was the case with Whistle Stop, as described in this designer diary, I was definitely wrong about how much more could still change.

Polishing, Polishing 'til it Shines

Board Game Publisher: Pencil First Games, LLC
Ed is quite the gifted developer, and he improved every part of the game — the tokens, the gates, the powers — while reducing the potential for analysis paralysis (AP).

First, the tokens. Maybe I should have thought of this, but after I changed the scoring system to use tokens and cards, I never went back to change the other tokens in the game. A player still earned a different type of token by going through certain gates and only those tokens could be turned in for powers. Why?, Ed asked. Why not allow players to turn in any type of token for powers? Players would then have the choice of collecting a particular token to earn a scoring card or spending it for a power.

Which leads to the second point, the gates. Ed right away said three gate types was too many as we were going to be hard pressed to find three different colors of torii that looked good and distinct. Admittedly, the gates that gave "peeks" seemed underpowered compared to the other two, so they were cut — except that Ed also suggested that we eliminate the secondary tokens used solely for buying powers. In that case, what should the second type of gate do? Well, if the red torii give you an extra token of the garden feature you scored, maybe the stone torii would give you an extra token of a garden feature you didn't score. Now players could grab the tokens they needed even if they didn't draw tiles showing desired garden features.

Then, the third point, the powers. Ed felt that the powers should be embodied as characters wandering around in the garden, such as a poet, a gardener, and a geisha. We added more characters (five total) and normalized their powers so that they all took effect at the start of the player's turn. Instead of taking an extra turn, now players could use the geisha power to play two tiles at once and score the second one. Players also received scoring cards for getting help from a character.

Board Game: The One Hundred Torii

Finally, the fourth point, the potential for analysis paralysis (AP), the feeling players get when they are overwhelmed with too many options. From the beginning, my game had a hand size of four tiles and I thought that felt good, but Ed pointed out that a hand size of four meant players might have as many as sixteen options since each tile could be oriented on the board four different ways. Multiply those sixteen options by the number of possible placements on the board, and you could have hundreds of possible moves. Ed first suggested a hand size of one tile, but we compromised on a hand size of two. That seemed like a happy medium, still giving players eight options in their hand. We also introduced the vendor power so that players could get new tiles if they hated their hand.

The second part of dealing with analysis paralysis was cutting the board size itself, that is, the number of tiles in the game. The worst AP happened in the final turns when the board was at its largest. I had already cut the game from 60 tiles to 48 tiles, but Ed thought we should cut further, so I trimmed the game to 42 tiles and created rules to remove a number of tiles based on the player count. In the end, I embraced the shorter, tighter game experience that still delivered on the fun.

After about six months of development, Ed loved the new version and signed the game. He enlisted Vincent Dutrait to do the art, and Vincent's unique style brought the Japanese garden theme to life.

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Making Sure the Japanese Details are Right

With Vincent on board, I expected smooth sailing (again) to the end. However, as his incredible art brought the game to life, Vincent, Ed and I had to grapple with a new question: How do we get all the details right in this Japanese-themed game?

My game was loosely based on my travel experiences in Japan over a decade ago. Ed was a Japanese major in college, but his college days were a while ago, too. Vincent was excited about illustrating a Japanese-themed game and lived nearby in Korea, but none of us are Japanese or experts. Cultural representation in games is a growing focus these days, and even with the best research it's hard to catch everything. The last thing any of us wanted was to bring the game we love to market, then discover we mishandled something or were inconsiderate of Japan's rich culture and history.

Ed decided to bring Lisa Wilcut on board. She is a Japanese culture specialist who teaches Japanese culture and religion at a university south of Tokyo. She reviewed everything — every piece of art and every element of the game — to ensure it was historically and culturally correct. She caught dozens of small details in addition to posing a big question for us to consider.

The torii is a Shinto gate, but we also had Buddhist symbols in our garden. Did it make sense for players to pass through a Shinto gate to visit Buddhist landmarks? That was not something we had thought about. For a while, we considered changing one of the gates to a different type of garden gate. Maybe we would have one torii in the game along with a non-torii gate? However, Japanese gardens often mix Shinto and Buddhist elements together, so making the game exclusively Shinto or exclusively Buddhist wasn't necessarily culturally accurate either. In the end, we decided to keep the game as is with two types of torii and a mixture of landmarks (which we adjusted). The gardens in The One Hundred Torii are diverse and vibrant with many cultural symbols just like real gardens in Japan. Lisa agreed with this final direction.

After we incorporated Lisa's recommendations, we then went a step further and shared the near final material with more native Japanese folks, including friends from Japan, board gamers, and a journalist from a national newspaper in Japan. Even here, a few additional details were highlighted for us to adjust.

This is the first time one of my designs has gone through this level of review, and it ended up delaying development another three months. Nevertheless, the entire team felt we needed to do this and couldn't imagine releasing the game without doing so. We even added three pages in the rules with historic and cultural details of many elements within the game.

Board Game: The One Hundred Torii

My Worlds of Board Games and Poetry Collide

Outside of board games, I am also a poet with one published book and another on the way. I enjoy writing different forms of poetry, including haiku, a traditional Japanese poetic form. While working on The One Hundred Torii, Ed, Vincent, and I struggled to come up with the right title. A game called Torii already existed, so we needed a different title.

To find inspiration for the title, I decided to write haiku inspired by the game to see what might follow. While the poems did not directly suggest the title, Ed liked the poems and decided to include them in the game. As an example, this haiku appears on the back of the box and in the rules:
The traveler goes
Through the ancient torii gate;
Leaf falls in water
Ed challenged me to write a haiku for each of the game's five characters, and that was a fun exercise. With haiku, the poet has only five, seven, and five syllables in the three lines of the poem to somehow convey a captivating image or thought. Most haiku have a turn by line three that transforms how the first two lines are read. I hope my poems add to your enjoyment of the game.

The Journey

Nine years after the first prototype, "Dot to Dot" has become The One Hundred Torii, and I couldn't be prouder. I learned again that you're never truly done when you think you are, but when you are finally done, it's always worth the journey. Happy playing!

Scott Caputo
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Tue Mar 17, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Ettin, or Two Kens Are Better Than One

Ken Shannon
United States
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Board Game: Ettin
Comments that helped inspire Ettin:

• "Do you have a game that can include all eleven of us?"
• "I want to play a co-operative game, but they want to play competitively!"
• "Alex and Pat are new to gaming, so make sure the experts aren't too tough on them!"

I never thought all these issues could be addressed by a single game, but Ettin became that game.

Board Game: Ettin
All the bits

Design Principles

Most of the good designers I know take old ideas and make them feel new but still familiar. They look for elegance. I am in awe of them.

I am not one of those designers. Being dyslexic, my mind comes at things from different directions. I mean, you likely could not understand this blog without someone having edited it heavily. I can't design to elegance, refinement, or renewal easily. Instead I focus on something I want to see that does not yet exist. I like to design games that are "outside of the box", but that's not my goal. It's just the only place that makes sense.

In Tournament at Camelot and Tournament at Avalon, the person in last place gets the most toys, which means that experienced players can play with new players and not hold back. Camelot focuses on hand management and Avalon on alliances and diplomacy.

Maiden's Quest was a tabletop game that didn't require a table. We could play as a family in the car, in line at a theme park, or at a convention, and bring to life my daughter's dream of a medieval heroine dealing with her own problems and finding friends.

Board Game: Tournament at Camelot
Board Game: Tournament at Avalon
Board Game: Maiden's Quest

But Ettin was a huge concept — literally. At the start, I focused on a single goal:

• Can we make a game for eight or more players other than a social deduction game?

Eventually I added these goals as well:

• Can we make a game that is inclusive of even the most casual player but be more than a single concept "light game"?
• Can we make a game that provides an ally so that new players can have a veteran friend, someone to have their back?
• Can we make a game in which you co-operate with some players and compete against others?
• Can we make a game that expands its player count with more copies of itself and future expansions or standalones?

Inception and Early Game

I started by combining elements from some of my unfinished designs — a superhero "war game" with minis and a map, and a space-based drafting card game — and I made it a medieval fantasy game. The high player count was a challenge. If I made the game highly strategic and gave lots of choices to players, then turns took forever. When I blind tested the original design with four people, it rocked; when it went to eight, the players demanded their time back. It was a real problem. I needed nicer playtesters!

My son, also named Ken for your convenience, was blunt: "Simultaneous play is required for this." This sounds simple, but at the time it did not match the design. A complete redesign followed. It helped, but a lot was still missing and the game still took too long. Minis on a board had to be basically programmed, and it was hard for non-hardcore war gamers and board gamers to follow.

I shelved the game at this point.

Two Inspirational People Change It All

I personally prefer co-op games by a lot — so much so that I enjoy watching when good friends do anything complex together. That synergy when one person looks at the other and already knows what they are thinking? It happens to my wife and I daily.

When I was playing a game at a prototype con in 2014, I noticed two of my good friends who were running it talking and laughing. They were in that moment two peas in a pod — and that sparked an idea. I was going to make a game with teams of two. You'd always have a friend.

When the game was redesigned to accommodate an ally, the base design changed dramatically. I ran with it for 1-2 games, badly wanting it to work, and though it wasn't there yet, one thing stood out. We had a new gamer who had played only RPGs, and she loved having an ally to help with the rules. She got to enjoy it. In fact, she enjoyed it the most of any player. One player said that they loved the teaming, but doing so actually made the game take longer to play. Ken then suggested simplifying the core ideas, and at this point my son became a developer. Two-player teams were staying, and the name "Ettin" popped in my head as a working title.

Why Ettin?

RPG Publisher: WizKids
The moment we went to two allies, it just was the name. An ettin is best known as a monster with two heads, but it also means any entity formed with equal control by two groups or heads of state. In this case, by two kingdoms. You are truly both independent and completely supportive of each other.

The key to winning most often comes from choosing how to divide your precious nation cards. The publisher WizKids added the "two against the world" subtitle, which is a fantastic tag line.

A Real Game

I redesigned the cards as troops, dropped the map boards to three locations between each set of players, and went to a draft between enemies, then allies to recruit the troops. Deployment became a secret, and the gameplay would be simultaneous to shorten the time as it also no longer required programming. The engineer in me developed an algorithm that allowed for easy generation of new units and abilities. This iteration worked out of the gate. My playtest group asked for more and ended up playing the prototype four times that night.

This experience left me excited to develop the game further. I wanted to add different nations, so the feel of the game was different each time. I also wanted events to hit each enemy pair to affect their play, again to add some chaos. To keep things simple for me, I used my game universe from the RPG I run and made distributed abilities differently for each nation. I layered their newly created nation decks so that more powerful cards were deeper, and I added powers to locations.

I don't normally think highly of much that I do, being super critical of myself as are most designers, but I felt great about this prototype. The playtesters kept playing it, and two copies got us games with as many as sixteen players, still having a blast. Ettin surpassed Camelot as the most requested of my games, and it ran in under an hour once everyone knew the game. This quickly became a new design goal: speed, size, allies. The big three.

Let's call this "Prototype 1.0" for now.

From gallery of Kitirat
Cards from prototype 1.0 (then called 0.2); each card had its own abilities, which was cool, but could slow things down

There were still problems. If you got behind, it was nearly impossible to catch up. A few strategies seemed to always win, and there still weren't any special nation abilities — but the game ran so smooth that I was sure I was almost there.

The Long Sorrow

In politics and science, there is a powerful set of principals. It is human nature to try to make things better. If you are 25% of the way towards the optimum solution, making a change is much more likely to make things better, but if you are at 90%, making a change is much more likely to make things worse.

And so came over a year of frustrations, pain, and grief, all found through trial and error. Nearly every change made the game worse. Game features that should increase agency slowed the game to a crawl. Nation abilities broke aspects of the game and unbalanced match-ups. There were lots of irritating "Oh, yeah, I forgot you had that" moments. In short, all the typical "strategy game" additions slowed the game down. Those slowdowns were exponential in Ettin as one person taking five minutes to change their strategy in response to your move meant that fifteen people sat there waiting. I shelved it again and worked on other games.

Then one day, a player at our game night asked, "Can we play the old Ettin prototype again?" They didn't want to playtest; they just wanted a game in which all ten people present could play. It was eye-opening. Vets teamed with new people, and everyone had a great time.

Now a year later, I went back to Prototype 1.0 with a new point of view. I realized all the "key" changes (mobility, strategy changes during deployment, nation special abilities, etc.) were not what made the game special. It was all the "other stuff". After that game night, Ken and I worked to remove anything extraneous and add only what was needed. No more changing the game; just perfecting what is already there.

In over 150 playtests from eleven different groups, players were catching on quicker and quicker. Even casual players had it down by the second game. We worked out kinks and addressed some lingering issues:

Adventures: Events had morphed into adventures, and with a bit of risk/chance (via dice) they became a kind of "catch up" mechanism. They also allowed for a more interesting distribution of abilities across nations.

Odd player count: The odd-player mechanism was solidified. We needed a mercenary board because if a single player played two unique nations, they almost always won. Perfect co-ordination of actions and access to the more powerful nation cards always gave that person too much of an advantage. Playing one nation, with only extra mercenaries, made it a greater challenge, so now if the odd player out does win, it's a big deal and people's expectations are better managed.

Nations' better cards: As a side effect of the odd player issue, we made a minor change to the card strength algorithm to give nation cards a slight power boost compared to mercenary units — after which we discovered that this change really improved the game. People quickly learned to hold back money in the skirmish phases to have it for the peacetime phases during which they could recruit their nation cards. This created a secondary strategy during drafting and made ruins (which get you deeper into your nation deck) matter that much more.

From gallery of Kitirat
Nation cards from when we first started working on the game again after the long sorrow; "The Risen" were originally undead humans from a long distant time that mimicked modern times

Protected locations: Protected locations prevent the attacker from attacking the location unless they meet a specific condition. These are a huge boon to game speed. If the attacker can meet the condition, the option is there; otherwise, they grant the attacker the ability to focus strategy on the other locations. In short, they limited choices enough to keep the game speed fast and always give one person a "woot!' moment. Either the attacker bypasses an otherwise "assumed safe" location, or a revealed protected location thwarts an overwhelming attack.

War?: At the end of the day, each battle comes down to something similar to the card game War: Add up numbers to see who wins. This made the game easier to understand for new players and limited decisions to mostly before, not during, battle. Terrify, dragon slayer, and ranged are the only in-battle effects, and they show up in mass only in later ages. This maximizes agency at the end of the game when it matters most.

Nation difficulty: By nature, some nations can be harder to pick up than others. We found this became more of a feature than a bug. By giving the easier nations to new players, you improved their incorporation into play. By making the harder nations have more choices, we gave the game a slight replay learning curve, which meant that vets felt like vets and replay was more fun. You felt more powerful going into your next game.

From gallery of Kitirat
An early Joymore (Human Knights) mat with cards during an Ettin playtest; Joymore along with the Dwarves, Orcs, and Dommorians (Giants) are the easiest nations to play

After these changes and some math tweaks, the game ran under an hour and had what I was looking for. Nations felt different. There was variety and strategy, and it was still pretty easy to pick up. I had a game I felt was ready to show off! Let's call this Prototype 2.0.

From gallery of Kitirat
An Ettin playtest with (from top left going clockwise) Ken (my son, now 16), Rob Yates, Gary Cox, Disembodied Arm 1, Sprite, water in bottle, water outside bottle, Coke, Disembodied Arm 2, Me

Finding the Right Partner

Ettin quickly drew attention at the first game show I brought it to, attracting six offers. Unfortunately, I didn't consider the match-making as much as I should have with the first publisher I selected; they wanted to turn it into more of a strategy game and follow some of the development paths I had already tried.

Eventually, I got the rights back, and with many lessons learned, I signed it with WizKids, after which it will have taken approximately a year to get into print, mostly due to personal illness on my part. Ultimately, the changes to the game mechanisms were minimal. We started to have familiar fights about single players, etc., but they actively asked, tried it out, and understood why we made many of the decisions we did, while still giving suggestions that improved the game, in some cases massively. They did wonders with the art (which amounts to over two hundred pieces), and the graphic design was incredible.

From gallery of Kitirat

My bane as a dyslexic, the rulebook, was taken seriously, and this rulebook is leaps and bounds ahead of previous work. I am personally thrilled. While the box was cut from sixteen to eight players to make it more accessible and affordable, the game still easily combines with multiple copies to hit 16, 24, or even more players. My goal is to hit 100+ players at a convention at least once. I hope you all help me make that a reality!

End Product (Features)

As you can see, many of the game's features came from those two initial goals:
• Eight or more players (with eight per box)
• Having an ally

From those two goals, most of what makes the game unique came to be:
• Playing time of approximately an hour
• Simultaneous play
• Quick elimination of bad choices (through Protection and Stealth Defenses)

These came from not wanting people sitting around waiting. If thirty people are playing, one person taking ten minutes to figure out how to adjust their strategy on the fly is a fast track to failure. Having a large player count game that can scale to super large requires constant engagement and quick narrowing of choices for players.

• Co-operative and competitive
• Casual player friendly/vet teaming
• Deeply strategic, while still allowing new players to pick it up quickly
• "War" battle resolution, with limited choices after cards are revealed

All of these came from inclusive two-player teaming. With a vet or heavier gamer on your team, even people new to games completely can get into it by the end of the first age and definitely by the second time they play it — and during playtesting, most were excited to try out again to do better.

Board Game: Ettin
Daemons of the Void

• Individual nations with unique feel but no unique abilities, each with different difficulties.
• Comeback "adventures" and lots of them
• Nation and merc cost variance with a strong algorithm for card creation
• Dragons and terrifying units

These come in to balance the game and simultaneously grant new experiences each time you play. The game has eight nations, over one hundred merc cards, 36 adventures, and a huge combination of different allies and enemy combinations, which gives the game extremely high replayability — something critical in a 8+ player game.

Playing with Two, Three, or Nine or More

To play with 9+ players requires two copies of the game, but the game scales up as high as you have space to play. We playtested games with 16 to 32 players many times. Playing three-player games allows one player to go against two others, and the two-player game effectively cuts out the middleman and has both players draw from the merc deck instead of an ally. This creates an intense one-on-one in under thirty minutes.

The two-player game took some time to realize, and it wasn't until the odd-player addition that two-player games went from a slog with two nations each to a lightning fast game that was worth playing for a completely different experience, one of those "we have only a short time before everyone shows up" games that's also ideal for two-player late-night square offs.


I hope you enjoy the game, partly so that I can selfishly see one or both sister games (code-named "Shadow Sea" and "Frostfire") realized, but mainly to help foster in a new era of 8+ player board games being more than a collection of (admittedly fun) social deduction games. Let's include more proper board and card games and diversify our options in that design space!

Ken Shannon

From gallery of Kitirat
"Shadow Sea" playtest cards
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Tue Mar 3, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Firefly Dance

Josep M Allué
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Board Game: Firefly Dance
In addition to designing 3F (fun/family/filler) games, I like science and magical effects, which means I really like scientific experiments that surprise you and make you think, "How did they do that?"

A few years ago, I saw an experiment on YouTube about how to light a lamp that wasn't connected to anything by placing it close to a small Tesla coil. While seeing this, I said to myself, "Hey, I'm sure there's a game hidden in here."

Following various tutorials, I bought a roll of copper wire, the right kind of lamp, and a 9-volt battery, and I made a coil by wrapping the wire hundreds of times. Then, very excited, I connected to the battery and gradually brought it close to the lamp, waiting for it to light up.

From gallery of jmallue
My first (and failed) attempt

The effect was immediate, yet rather unexpected. Even today, I'm not sure whether it gave me an electric shock or burnt me directly, but, my goodness, it hurt!

I never did get that lamp to turn on, but I thought that if I could manage to do it, I could have small pieces that would light up on their own no matter where on the game board you placed them. As a magical effect, it would be really nice — the only problem was that I had no idea how to do it.

I kept wondering how to turn on a light without any kind of connection until one day a friend said: "You need to get a magnetic switch connected to an LED and a battery, then place it close to a magnet." Eureka!

From gallery of jmallue
The key component of the prototype

I spent the following weeks testing how to assemble the pieces, while at the same time thinking about designing a game with them. It had to be a game with a magical theme, so while I was soldering and testing non-stop, it occurred to me that I could make four fireflies with a different color for each one. To light them, you would have to touch them with a magic wand that would show you which color each one was. I had it!

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue
The fireflies in full action

And if there were a magic wand, there had to be a fairy or a magician so that gave me the final component to create the story for the game: "Every night, a small fairy would go out to dance with her friends, the fireflies, to turn on their lights. Will you help them dance together?"

From gallery of jmallue
Front of the prototype

Depending on which square the fairy finished her movement, the fireflies would perform different actions such as moving or swapping positions, which would force the players to continuously memorize which color each one was.

From gallery of jmallue
Final prototype

When it was time to dance, the player had to take one of their dance cards, and to win that card, they had to turn on the fireflies in the order shown. The first player to correctly perform four dances would win the game.

From gallery of jmallue
Dance cards from the prototype

With the prototype ready, it was time to test it on children — and wow, what a success! They loved moving both the fairy and the fireflies, memorizing their positions, and turning them on with the magic wand. And beating their parents, of course. It seemed that everything was ready to be presented.

I took the prototype to Essen, and many German, French, and even some American publishers liked it. Many copies of the prototype were ordered, and a large publisher even paid a thirty-day reservation fee, but in the end, no one decided to publish it. They really liked the game, but it was difficult to develop technically, and the components were expensive — too much investment and too much risk. Little by little, the prototypes came back.

Although I wasn't exactly joyous, a few years ago I would have been much more disappointed to see them back. By this time, though, I had already gone through a similar process with my game Go Cuckoo! (designed with Víktor Bautista i Roca), which was finally published by HABA after being rejected by a long list of publishers due to production problems.

I continued to show people the game until I met the Korea Boardgames team at SPIEL '18. It was love at first sight. They saw the game and requested a prototype, and in less than a month, the contract was signed. At the FIJ 2019 game fair in Cannes, France, Ivan from Korea Boardgames proposed some small changes to the game dynamics and components that, in my opinion, improved the game, so we implemented them.

Just before SPIEL '19, I received the cover and the photo of the final game, and what can I say? I loved the work done by Korea Boardgames and the illustrations from ZAO.

Board Game: Firefly Dance
The fireflies and their magic friend!!

The game fair in Essen featured a giant version of the game and was one of the hits of the booth. At the end of the fair, copies were sold out, so I think it was liked by the players.

From gallery of jmallue
Playing at SPIEL '19

Now it's time to look for new publishers around the world who want some magic in their catalogs. Let's see whether the fireflies will fly far beyond!

Josep M. Allué
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Tue Feb 25, 2020 3:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Back from the Dead, or Designing Gloomy Graves

Jeffrey Allers
United States
Flat Rock
North Carolina
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Board Game: Gloomy Graves
Digging Up the Past

Flashback to 2009: Heartland, the first game that I had signed as a game designer (in 2005), was published in Germany, where I live. It was getting good reviews and was even selected for the German board gaming championships. It was also my fourth game published in a six-month time span (the others being Alea Iacta Est, Circus Maximus, and Piece o' Cake), and I had a new game designers' meet-up in the Spielwiese gaming café to test all my new ideas.

One of those ideas was for a follow-up card game to Heartland. I had already discovered that new limits could inspire new mechanisms, and I wanted to see what that might do to a board game that already worked well.

Heartland had players placing tiles onto the board — or onto other tiles — in order to create larger connected fields of the same crop, but everyone could score these fields when they added to them, creating a kind of piggyback game. The tiles also had barns on them, and instead of scoring points for the crops, players could move their markers along various tracks to score bonus points (if they were first, second or third), or, more importantly, to place their farms onto the board. Placing a farm meant that you claimed that entire field of connected crops for the remainder of the game!

Board Game: Heartland
From the Ground Up

Like most of my games since, timing was an important part of Heartland, and players faced the dilemma each turn of whether to score points now or build up to the possibility of more points later. This was what I wanted to capture in the card game, but the limitations forbade me from using any kind of tracks or markers.

I began with the "heart" of Heartland, which were the domino-style cards, and I explored different ways to place them. I wanted to maintain the (some call it "nasty") interaction of Heartland, so I kept the central play area where every player would lay their cards, piggybacking — or disrupting — the plays of their opponents. In this area, which I named "the communal farm", each new card needed to cover exactly one square field of a previously-placed card, which meant that the farm would expand by exactly one field each turn.

Since the game didn't have a barn track, I also added a "private farm" for each player to cultivate, i.e., a safe space that no opponent could mess with.

Quite a few games — especially tile-laying games — are classified as either "mean" (highly interactive) or "sandboxy", a.k.a. multiplayer solitaire puzzles. This game now had both!

This led to the theme of my prototype, which I called "Kolkhozes". These were the collective farms that existed in the Soviet Union and in other countries behind the Iron Curtain. In effect, players combined their harvest from these communal farms where everyone worked together with the harvest from their private plots.

Board Game: Rolnicy
"Kolkhozes" prototype

I did not want a game in which players had to write down points after every turn — I have no problem with that in other games, such as the excellent Qwirkle, but I wanted to avoid that with this design — so I created scoring cards worth different values, each of which required a different number of connected fields from both farms. Each player could score each crop only once, which made timing even more important than in the board game, and once you scored a type, you could try to block that for the other players — but only in the communal farm, of course! At the same time, you needed to transition your own farm in order to focus on the next type, possibly piggybacking on what other players are already doing in the communal farm.

As soon as one player scored all five types of crops — or the deck ran out — the game ended, and the player with the most points won.

My final addition to the game were bonuses for scoring three, four, or all five types of fields. This added pressure to the game as now it was not necessary to always score the highest-numbered score cards. A player could also try to score the easier, lower-valued cards of all five types and end the game before the other players could score enough of the high-valued cards to win. This is not easy to do as it takes time to transition to a new field type, but it adds more pressure to the decision of how long to focus on one field type.

The playtests were tense and highly interactive, and each game sped towards a climactic finish, but for years after it was finished, no publishers were interested in the game. Was the project dead and buried?

Out of the Grave

Board Game: Rolnicy
Board Game: Gunkimono
Several years ago, Nasza Księgarnia, the oldest children's book publisher in Poland, decided to expand its publishing to games. We met in Essen where they tested several of my prototypes, and soon they offered contracts for three games that had never been published by anyone else, including "Kolkhozes". The design was published as Rolnicy ("Farmers") in 2018, retaining the farming theme. [Editor's note: You can read more on the history of Rolnicy here. —WEM]

In the meantime, Heartland had found a new publisher, thanks in large part to Dan "Game Boy Geek" King, who was a big fan of the game. Renegade Game Studios released the new version as Gunkimono, also in 2018.

When Rolnizy was published, I sent copies to friends who were fans of Heartland/Gunkimono and my other tile-laying games, Citrus and Pandoria. These friends included game reviewers Chris Wray and Brandon Kempf as well as Dan King. The game was intended as a gift because I thought they might like it, and I honestly didn't expect them to write about it or tell publishers about it. I did send a copy to Scott Gaeta at Renegade, however, in case the company wanted to do a Gunkimono tie-in. It turns out that Dan loved the game and recommended it to Scott, who tested it and offered to publish it.

Death Becomes Me

It was fun to be able to work with project director Dan Bojanowski again after working together on Gunkimono. The Renegade team brainstormed new themes and decided on the Tim Burton-esque idea of a fantasy graveyard. I agreed that something more original than farming was needed to distinguish the game in a crowded marketplace, and I was also happy that it was going to be a separate theme from Gunkimono.

Board Game: Gloomy Graves

Gloomy Graves had, after all, become its own game that differed from its original inspiration. Aside from the mechanism of scoring areas of connected fields, Gloomy Graves has little in common with Heartland and Gunkimono. It is amazing how many different games can be made with domino-style tiles, and it was both enjoyable and rewarding to explore some of these possibilities over the past decade.

What's more, I'm happy that other fans of tile-laying games will now have the opportunity to enjoy this tight, tense, compact card game, either playing with everyone fighting for themselves or using the excellent 2-vs.-2 team variant.

Jeffrey D. Allers
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Tue Feb 11, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The Grand Trunk Journey, or Does the World Need Another Train Game?

Claude Sirois
Quebec City
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Microbadge: Spielworxx fanMicrobadge: The Grand Trunk Journey fan!Microbadge: I play with red!Microbadge: Train GamerMicrobadge: Age of Industry fan
Let's go back to 2012, even if just for a few minutes...

You remember 2012? Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States, the UEFA Euro was held in Poland and Ukraine, and "Gangnam Style" got a billion views on YouTube. On the game scene, Terra Mystica, Snowdonia, and Trains came out.

A lot less significant, but also in 2012, I started to work on The Grand Trunk Journey, a pick-up-and-deliver train game in which players operate their own railway, trying to be as efficient as possible while delivering goods to cities and ports by using cards that consist of rail equipments and locations. The game also features hand management, a time track turn system, and point-to-point movement.

Board Game: The Grand Trunk Journey

During mid-2012, I'm finalizing my Age of Industry (AOI) maps — specifically the Belgium & USSR and Great Lakes & South Africa maps finally published in 2013 with the help of BGG! — and got caught by an urgent desire to keep designing something. I had a couple of ideas for additional AOI maps, but why not try a bigger challenge: Designing my own game! I didn't feel completely ready to do so, but hey, I had to start somewhere.

Very quickly I decided that I would try to design a train game. Just for fun. Just to practice. Why a train game? I just love train games. Steam was (and still is) probably my favorite. I wondered whether the world might need another train game, but who cares? I was just practicing!

blacktrain A Few Guidelines

I knew I wanted to focus on the operations of a train company, not necessarily on the building of a network, so I gave myself a few guidelines:

E It would be a pick-up-and-deliver game: Nothing new here. Even though this game mechanism is not an obligation, pick-up-and-deliver and trains blend well.

E The movement of trains would be abstracted so that trains would be able to reach a destination each turn: I used to play Auf Achse and Empire Builder during that period, and even though I liked those games, I found it a bit frustrating sometimes to not be able to reach my destination with my truck or my train during my turn.

E The "level" of a locomotive would indicate the number of railcars it could pull, not (as in many train games) the distance it could travel: Okay, here I thought this element could bring a different perspective to my game. For example, a level 1 train could pull one railcar, a level 2 two railcars, etc. But trains, whatever their level, could travel the same distance to deliver goods. This element is related to the last item on my list...

E Different types of railcars would be used to move different goods: Often, trains are abstracted as one entity without taking into account their composition. In my game, a train could be composed of more or fewer railcars (depending on its level) that could move different goods.

Those guidelines were not bad considering they are still relevant in the published version of the game!

blacktrain The First Attempt

My initial design was about managing a shortline railway in Québec (my home province) during the 1990s, picking up and delivering goods to the two national railways: Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). There was a management phase in which you could found a new railway and purchase equipment for your railway(s) and an operational phase in which you could build and upgrade lines, move trains, and load/unload goods. What was interesting is that rail equipment could break because it was getting old.

The first attempt was...playable, which is not bad considering that most of the time first prototypes of a game are awful! But the mechanisms were not that interesting, so I decided to take a few steps back to see whether I could find something better.

From gallery of Klode

From gallery of Klode
The oldest relics of The Grand Trunk Journey, then called "Another Train Game"

blacktrain Why Not Use Cards?

The core of the game emerged somewhere in 2013. I'm sure you all know A Few Acres of Snow from Martin Wallace. That is a great game! In that game, Martin was able to cleverly adapt the deck-building mechanism to the theme of the game. If you remember, you had location cards that you could play by means of transport cards to settle a new location or develop an existing one.

Why not use a similar deck-building mechanism for my game? To move your train, you would have to play a location card. In addition, the management of railcars would be simulated by the utilization of the railcar cars you had in your deck. During the game, you could add new location cards and additional railcar cards in order to move more goods (in railcars) to more destinations.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
In this early version of the game, this train was moving one iron loaded in New York

From gallery of Klode
Later in the development, that train was aiming to Chicago moving iron and oil

From gallery of Klode
In the final version (with an image from the rulebook), this train is moving iron to Burlington

That mechanism evolved and was simplified during the design process, but it has always been the heart of the game!

I pursued the design of the game during the next couple of years around that mechanism. The game went into many different versions that I won't talk about here because it would take too long, but I give some details on that development on my BGG blog.

From gallery of Klode

From gallery of Klode

From gallery of Klode
Cards and components of the game at different steps of development

At a certain point, I thought I was ready to show the game to a publisher. With no contacts in the board game industry, I decided to test the route of game design contests. Between 2016 and 2018, I sent the game to four contests, and the reactions were not bad at all! Under the name "Routes of Steel 73", the game finished in second place at the Cardboard Edison Award (U.S.) in 2016 and won the Best Longplayer Special Award at the Hippodice Game Club Competition (Germany) in 2018!

From gallery of Klode
Ready to be shipped to the Cardboard Edison Award contest

What is great with contests is that you raise awareness about your game. You also have the opportunity to present your game to publishers and get relevant feedback. I just think you have to choose the right contest for your game, and if you're very lucky, you might find a judge willing to give you additional feedback!

During that same period, a few publishers looked at and even playtested the game, but they provided negative answers. The good news is that the game was still evolving and improving. I knew it had a certain potential, but something was still missing...

blacktrain Finally on the (Time) Track!

Spielworxx finally showed interest after the Hippodice Game Club Competition. Uli Blennemann, one of the Hippodice jury members, told me that he had taken my prototype with him and wanted to test it.

That was great, but I said NO! More specifically, "No, don't test that version. It is good, but I have a better version with an interesting addition to propose to you. I can send you a new prototype.

That was the right move to do!

I had replaced the system of train movement based on resources (oil) with a recording of train movement on a time track. This system is quite easy: Spend one day for each rail link you travel. The most interesting part of it is the addition of "special deliveries". In the game, you can deliver goods to fulfill the demand of each city. Those are regular deliveries. You can fulfill them at any moment during the game. With a special delivery, however, you must deliver the right good to the right city at the right moment on the time track. Such deliveries are worth more victory points (VPs), of course!

From gallery of Klode
In this example, you must deliver an iron in Québec during days 14, 15 or 16 to get 4 VPs

I like this "special delivery" time-track mechanism a lot because it is relevant in the context of a train company that tries to be as efficient as possible. I think it is a great addition to the game, giving players another way to score points and come back in the game if behind. Moreover, it brings an interesting tension to the game. First, do you want to try to accomplish the delivery? Second, do you have a good chance to be the first to do so? Planning and timing are necessary!

I always thought the game had the potential to be published, and the "special delivery" mechanism was the last element that was missing!

blacktrain Development with Spielworxx

I don't have much to say about the development of the game with Spielworxx other than that it was amazing! We didn't change that many things in the game itself, but we did move the setting of the game back to the 19th century (instead of the 1970s) to link it with a second game I've signed with Spielworxx, a game with the working title "Griffintown". That's why The Grand Trunk Journey is tagged as game #1 in the Griffintown Series.

Working with the Spielworxx team was great! I was involved at every step of the process and had good communication with Uli, who was always open to my suggestions. It was also great to work in collaboration with Henning Kröpke for the development and the rulebook, and with Harald Lieske who did a great job on the visuals! I've already met Uli, and I hope to have the opportunity to meet Henning and Harald in October at SPIEL '20! In the meantime, thanks to you guys!

The game is now available for preorder on the Spielworxx website and in the BBG Store. For more information about the game's development, have a look at my BGG blog.

So, does the world need another train game? Hmm, probably not, but we like them anyway!

Thanks for reading!

Claude Sirois
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Tue Feb 4, 2020 1:00 pm
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Publisher Diary: Dungeon Alliance: A Webcomic Adventure, or Exploring Game Characters in a Whole New Way

Andrew Parks
United States
New Jersey
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Dungeon Alliance Champions (October 2019)
Dungeon Alliance Champions (October 2019)
Microbadge: Quixotic Games fanMicrobadge: Dungeon Alliance fanMicrobadge: 15 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level II - If I have seen further, it's only by standing on the apex of other's dice.Microbadge: Level 17 BGG poster
Board Game: Dungeon Alliance
Dungeon Alliance was always going to be a deeply personal project for me. Although the Quixotic Games team has been designing games for over fifteen years for other publishers, this was only our second self-published game after launching Canterbury in 2013. As I wrote in an earlier article, when approaching the design of Dungeon Alliance, my initial player experience goal was to have each character feel distinctly different from the others so that each game would require its own challenge of coordinating the actions of a group of disparate individuals.

To help me design so many different personalities, I drew upon the fantasy role-playing characters that my friends and I had created over thirty years ago. We had spent years developing this quirky mix of individuals for our own personal amusement, and now our old heroes lay dormant as little scraps of paper collecting dust in attics and basements. These characters would become the foundation for the 21 characters featured in Dungeon Alliance and its first expansion, Dungeon Alliance: Champions.

Board Game: Dungeon Alliance: Champions
During our two successful Kickstarter campaigns for Dungeon Alliance, we focused more and more on the game's storyline, especially with the new Adventure Packs that became available in January 2020. We thought of new ways to market the game and to introduce players to the unique characters and the kinds of adventures they would embark on.

As a kid, I wanted to create comic books almost as much as I wanted to create board games, so when thinking of new ways to bring players into the world of Dungeon Alliance, it seemed natural to consider webcomics. It was important to me that these be free comics that anyone could view online and that we wouldn't subject the readers to distracting advertisements. If readers enjoyed the comics, they could learn about the board game by reading a brief article on the front page of the website and clicking "Learn More". That was it. The webcomic had to be able to stand on its own for readers.

From gallery of Andrew Parks
"Kastrom's Tomb" — art by EJ Dela Cruz

Assembling the Team

I approached my brother Jim Parks, who's done art for several of my games and who used to create comics with me when we were teenagers trying to break into the comics industry. Jim was also part of our old role-playing gang, so he had created some of the characters that found their way into Dungeon Alliance.

Jim had recently created a drawing of his old character Taio that I admired very much, so when I approached him with the idea for the comic, I asked him to use this picture as the first panel of the webcomic, which he did:

From gallery of Andrew Parks
"Lair of the Basilisk" — art by Jim Parks

Taio was a great character to start with since he had an intriguing backstory laid out in the card game:

From gallery of Andrew Parks

After choosing some companions to join Taio, we were on our way with the first script, entitled "Lair of the Basilisk". I plotted the full storyline first so that I knew how the story would end, then I scripted the first few pages for Jim to get started on.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

I was worried, however, that players might get a singular view of the types of characters who exist in Dungeon Alliance, so I got ambitious and decided to work on a second comic with an entirely new set of characters that would launch at the same time as "Lair of the Basilisk".

At this stage, I had also been in the middle of art directing the Adventure Packs for Dungeon Alliance, and I encountered many talented artists in the process. Most of the artists were actually discovered right here on BGG through the Board Game Art and Graphic Design Forum. One artist whom I hadn't had the chance to work with yet was EJ Dela Cruz, and when I visited his ArtStation page, I was blown away by the comic artwork that he had on display. I contacted EJ right away, and since he was available to work, I set about creating a script for him immediately, entitled "Kastrom's Tomb".

Several characters had a strange backstory relationship in the card game, so I thought it would be fun to explore these characters in depth. For example, Holgar the paladin hung around with a mad fire wizard named Mysterios, so we thought readers would enjoy reading about their eccentric friendship.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

The game's character cards also reveal that Holgar has a brother named Krom who is a half-orc assassin. As you can imagine, they don't always get along.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

Now I had two talented artists to get things started, but the team wasn't finished. Since the comic pages would be developed weekly, I had the luxury of taking my time to write each panel, but I needed someone to look over my shoulder to ensure that each character's voice was unique and that each character stayed true to their purpose. I enlisted my daughter Sarah Parks, a recent college graduate who loves fantasy writing as much as I do, to be the webcomic editor. Sarah has been an invaluable resource to me throughout the process, helping me parse every single word of dialogue and every scripted action so that we could get things just right and be true to our cast of characters.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

In order to maintain the demanding art schedule, I also enlisted my niece Emma Parks to help with coloring the "Lair of the Basilisk" storyline. At first, she simply worked on the flat colors, but soon after she showed us her talents and took over as the main colorist for the "Basilisk" storyline.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

The Process

Each page begins with a scripted page derived from the original story outline. After I write a set of pages, Sarah reviews them and provides feedback. After we settle on the final wording, we send the script pages to the artists.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

After reviewing the scripts, the artists send sketches that allow me to suggest adjustments before the artists move on to the full inks and colors. Since the artists are using a digital medium, they are able to make changes quickly.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

After receiving the finished art, I add the letters and word balloons in Photoshop. Sometimes we make small adjustments to the script after seeing the finished art.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

The Readers

A popular webcomic tradition allows readers to provide online commentary as the story progresses. I love this idea because it allows us to get a sense of what the readers are enjoying as the story unfolds and also allows us to make adjustments based on what they are saying. We've enjoyed the comments we've received so far, and we hope that providing comments on the individual comic pages keeps the readers immersed in the action.

From gallery of Andrew Parks

The Future

As of writing this article, 74 comic pages have been posted for both stories. Both storylines should wrap up in the first half of 2020, and we have plenty of new storyline concepts coming down the pipeline.

In the future, we plan to sell PDF and hard copies of the first two storylines as a way of funding future stories down the road. These stories will draw upon characters we've already seen and add new ones from the growing universe of Dungeon Alliance.

If you're interested in enjoying the comics yourself, please visit the Dungeon Alliance: A Webcomic Adventure site to begin your journey!

From gallery of Andrew Parks
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Tue Jan 21, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Race for the Chinese Zodiac

Christina Ng
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aka Auntie
Microbadge: Click to see my homepageMicrobadge: Starting Player fanMicrobadge: My lover is also a BGG userMicrobadge: 三國得志愛好者 (Three Kingdoms Redux fan)Microbadge: 生肖決愛好者
Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
It has been more than five years since we shared our thoughts in a designer diary for Three Kingdoms Redux, and now we are back to discuss our second game design, Race for the Chinese Zodiac. In this designer diary, we will share some of the decisions behind its design. We hope you will enjoy reading it!


Our first game design, Three Kingdoms Redux, happened to be a heavier board game. It is also language dependent, primarily due to the 69 generals and 42 state enhancement cards. That unfortunately made it inaccessible for my parents. They were unable to try the game even after the final product was launched, though we did share the progress of artwork with them. They also helped us with the logistics as we had chosen to self-publish our first board game. I always felt it is a pity that they could not get to try our first game design...

During brainstorming for our second game, we decided to aim for something family-friendly so that my parents could join in, too. In addition, my dad retired a few years ago, so I thought it would be a good idea to involve them in the playtesting of our second game. That was when my Significant Other thought of designing a game based on the Chinese Zodiac. It sounded like a fun setting and therefore suitable as a family game. That was how our second game design started...


Brainstorming led to preliminary ideas. Since the game was to be based on the Chinese Zodiac, which in turn was founded on an ancient folk story about a race between the animals, it seemed natural to us that the design would be a racing game.

Other design objectives included a low rules overhead so that it would be easier for my mum and dad to understand and a shorter playtime. With these in mind, our initial plan was for a pure card game.

Here are the core game mechanisms behind these initial ideas:

Number of players
The initial plan was to have a different player count from our first game (which was for exactly three players), preferably with a player count range. We penciled in 4-6 players. As the race revolved around twelve animals, we pondered whether all twelve animals should be included in each play of the game. However, that implied some of the animals would have to be non-player controlled and require certain dummy player rules to control their movements.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
The twelve animal sign tokens

Different skills for each animal sign
Each animal sign featured in a different part of the folklore, but with a different twist. This offered us the opportunity to design a different special ability for each animal sign, thereby enhancing the theme and improving replayability. However, these were not included in the initial playtests as we wanted to playtest the core game mechanism to ensure the heart of the game was working before making any further improvements.

Simultaneous card play
With 4-6 players in mind, downtime may become significant. To reduce downtime, we included simultaneous card play as a core game mechanism. The initial idea was for the active player to play an action card while other players played the benefit cards, which would together determine the amount of benefits gained by the active player. Some of the actions available include move, rest, seek karma, cheat, and strategize. The benefit cards are also divided into different sections, including an associated animal sign and the amount of benefits associated with each action.

Special card effects
To enhance the Chinese theme in the game, we tried to include other Chinese-related ideas or philosophies, such as the stars under the Purple Star Astrology (紫微斗數 or Zi Wei Dou Shu). These are special effect cards that players can purchase during the game.


Players felt restricted in their choice of benefit cards to play for the active player. The play of the benefit cards also felt somewhat random as players didn't have much information with which they could deduce the possible action cards that may be played by the active player. Similarly, the active player also found their decisions to be uninteresting as they did not have much control over which benefits they would receive. Overall, the playtesting results were negative, and we went back to the drawing board for other ideas.

The next idea involved blind bidding. After much discussion and a few playtesting sessions between ourselves, which seemed to click, we tried this second idea with my parents.


Here are the core game mechanisms behind the blind bidding idea:

Movement and resource cards
There is a stack of cards representing different movements (either forward or backward) and/or energy collection. As each of the animal signs is associated with either yin or yang, we also tried to incorporate this aspect onto these cards to add an additional dimension to the game.

Closed economy blind bidding
There are two types of resources in the game, namely energy and karma. Energy is used to bid for movement cards, while each karma token doubles the amount of energy used in that bid. The energy used by the successful player in the bid is then distributed among the rest of the players who failed to gain the movement from the cards.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
One of the playtests involving the closed economy blind-bidding mechanism


We playtested the closed economy blind-bidding mechanism fifteen times. Between these playtests, we made numerous changes to improve the game mechanism as it seemed promising initially. My parents were very supportive of us and offered their time willingly for the playtesting sessions, often trying out the game multiple times in a single session. (At times, we even made minor adjustments on the spot and tested them out immediately.) On the flipside, my parents were reluctant to make negative comments on the game. Each session almost always ended with them commenting that the game was fine as is and therefore ready for publication, though both of us felt otherwise.

Thus, we relied on our own intuitions to assess the state of the game. We discussed what we enjoyed and disliked openly after each playtest, making tweaks along the way. During one of these playtests, my Significant Other and I commented that the game felt boring and repetitive after numerous plays. That was when my mum and dad also professed that they had felt the same way all along. My Significant Other and I looked at each other and chuckled when my parents finally broke the truth to us.

We explained to my parents that they could have been upfront with us about their thoughts on the game, instead of worrying that we may be upset. That would help us greatly to improve the game play experience for players since our aim is to design a family game that can be enjoyed by all. With a unanimous vote, we abandoned the blind-bidding idea and were back to starting point once again.

To be honest, both of us had thought designing a simpler board game would be easier than a heavier game. It turned out otherwise. With Three Kingdoms Redux, our initial idea sort of worked, and we had to make only progressive changes to it. In the case of Race for the Chinese Zodiac, we found ourselves having to throw the entire idea away — repeatedly! Many a time, I found myself running out of ideas, and it was my Significant Other who encouraged me. He would often tell me, "At least we found out what doesn't work. This is also useful information for us."


After yet another unsuccessful attempt, we tried a few other ideas, but none of them lasted beyond two or three playtests before we discarded them. However, in one of those ideas, we felt a sub-idea relating to the play of an action card coupled with an energy card was worth salvaging, so we kept that for further consideration.

Nonetheless, we struggled with how to assign rewards and penalties to the actions. As mentioned, we were aiming for an interactive game with a lower rule overhead. On numerous occasions, I was tempted to include more game mechanisms to solve this issue, but that would defeat the purpose of our initial goal, and my Significant Other would often point out these loopholes to me...

The breakthrough came during one of the days when my Significant Other and I were idling and chatting on the bed. He suddenly asked, what if we had a rewards track for each different action and the reward would depend on the total energy played for that action? This concept tickled my interest, and after thinking about it over the next few days, I proposed the track length for each of the actions in the initial prototype.


Here are the core game mechanisms behind the action card and energy card idea:

Action card with energy card
All players start the game with the same number of action cards and energy cards. Players play an action card and an energy card from their hand each round.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Energy cards with traditional Chinese wordings for the numbers 1 to 6

The actions available to all players are (number attached to each action is shown in brackets):

• Run (1) – Movement action card
• Walk (2) – Movement action card
• Cheat (3) – Movement action card
• Co-operate (4) – Movement action card
• Help (5) – Non-movement action card for karma collection
• Copy (6) – Depends on which action card it is copying
• Rest (7) – Non-movement action card for energy collection

Different reward track for each action
Every action has a corresponding reward track that players refer to in order to assess the potential benefits of that action.

Karma has to be paid when players play a smaller numbered action card than the previous played action card. No payment of karma is required when a higher numbered action card is played.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Karma token with the endless knot design

Exchange to strengthen your energy cards
Players may exchange their lower numbered energy cards for higher numbered ones.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Prototype with different reward track for each action


Things certainly looked more positive with these changes. We continued to playtest with this version while making minor tweaks along the way. Some of the feedback that came up during these playtesting sessions were:

1) Confusing reward tracks
The reward tracks had too many numbers on them, and it was difficult to take in all of them at the same time. In addition, the distribution of the rewards on each track affected greatly how players played their action cards and nudged them towards a certain order or style of play.

2) Replayability
Replayability gradually became a concern with every completed playtest because the reward tracks remained the same in every game.

3) Karma
Karma had limited usage.

4) Energy cards overly abundant
There were too many energy cards available for exchange. As a result, players did not experience any urgency to change for higher numbered energy cards.

5) Numbering of the action cards
The numbers on the action cards may affect how players played their action cards. Coupled with the rewards available for each action card, there were certain action cards that were favored by the players and others that were shunned.

6) No differentiation for movement cards
The movement action cards were not differentiated. Although they have different names, i.e. run, walk, cheat and co-operate, they differed only by each of them having a different reward track.


1) Simplify the reward tracks
The various reward tracks were combined into an inner wheel and an outer wheel. The inner wheel contained the actions and total energy played for the corresponding action while the outer wheel reflected the reward available for each action.

On the outer wheel, the initial change was for two bands, with one band for non-movement actions and the other band for movement actions. This was subsequently simplified to a single band based on playtesters' feedback. The inner wheel would turn at the end of each round so that the rewards for each action would shift. With one combined wheel, this made it easier for players to assess potential rewards. Furthermore, the rewards change after each round, lending a stronger story arc to the game.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
One of the initial versions of the inner and outer wheel

2) Increased replayability
Special abilities were added for all animal signs.

3) Increase the usage of karma
An additional use for karma was introduced. Besides using it to play a smaller numbered action card, a few of the reward spaces on the outer wheel were based on payment of karma, i.e., players could discard karma in exchange for additional movement.

4) Limit the number of energy cards available
The number of "2"/"3"/"4"/"5"/"6" energy cards available in the game was now limited, though the number of "1" energy cards remain unlimited. We hoped players would have an increased urgency to exchange for higher energy cards due to the "while stocks last" effect. The energy "6" cards were limited to one per player.

5) Changing the number associated with each action
With the various reward tracks, some of the action cards were favored by players due to more movement potentially being available via those actions. After the implementation of the wheel, which rotates by one segment after each round, the rewards became more dynamic. Game play now depended largely on the position of the wheel during a particular round and the cards played by other players. Players also have a bigger incentive to look around the table to check what other players have played before deciding what they should play.

Previously, players had preferred to focus on movement instead of collecting energy and karma. We therefore re-numbered the movement and non-movement action cards, spacing out the movement action cards, with non-movement action cards associated with karma and energy collection being assigned smaller numbers. If players would like to go for the higher numbered movement cards but do not have any karma or limited energy cards on hand, they would be restricted in their choice of actions in later rounds.

The re-numbered action cards are (number attached to each action is shown in brackets):

• Cheat (1) – Movement action card
• Help (2) – Non-movement action card for karma collection
• Run (3) – Movement action card
• Rest (4) – Non-movement action card for energy collection
• Co-operate (5) – Movement action card
• Walk (6) – Movement action card
• Repeat (7) – Depends on which action card it is repeating
• Strategize (8) – Non-movement action card to collect previously played action and energy cards

6) Differentiating the movement action cards
We made small revisions to each of the movement action cards to differentiate them from one another and also to add to the theme.

Only the player with the single highest energy card receives the reward on the wheel. Other players move back one step, which is thematically associated with the penalty for being caught cheating!

Only the player with the single highest energy card receives the reward. Other players move forward one step (thematically associated with moving forward a little bit, since an attempt to run was made).

The player or players with the highest energy card receive the reward (thematically associated with expending the same amount of effort to receive the same amount of reward). Other players receive no reward or penalty.

Only the player with the single highest energy card receives the reward. Other players receive no reward or penalty (thematically associated with not moving, since only an attempt to walk was made, as opposed to running).

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Action cards


Subsequent playtests with the above changes yielded favorable results. We therefore continued with this core game mechanism, and playtests were now geared towards game balance and replayability.

1) Increasing replayability 1: Breaking up the inner wheel
During one of our playtest sessions, my brother commented that the planning aspect of the game felt a little similar after numerous plays. My brother is an excellent player of the game and would often plan several moves ahead, i.e., envisioning how the wheel would turn during the next few rounds and planning which actions to go for in those rounds. This aspect of the game felt samey for my brother after many a playtest with us.

From that feedback, the idea of "dismantling" the inner wheel by breaking it into separate pieces was broached. Specifically, each action would be a separate piece, shaped like a slice of pizza; these pieces are then placed together to form the inner wheel. For the purposes of our prototype, we purchased soft magnetic strips and pasted them on the underside of the pieces as well as on a circular inner wheel. That way, it is easy to change the set-up for each new game.

After implementing the above change, the order of the actions on the inner wheel became different for every game, and the replayability of the game was greatly improved as a result. My brother now had to plan in a different way from game to game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Four-player version wheel, with inner wheel pieces broken up

2) Increasing replayability 2: Variable starting positions
Every player had until now started the game on a clean slate with nothing in the play area and with a fixed number of karma tokens. This gave the start of every game a somewhat familiar and repetitive feel. We therefore tried to make the starting position of every player different instead.

Our initial idea was for each player to play an action card from those numbered 1 to 6. The player with the highest number would collect the largest number of karma tokens, but the cost of doing so would be starting the game with a high-numbered action card in their playing area.

This certainly improved the repetitive issue at the start of each game — until my dad started playing the highest numbered action card allowable — 6 "Walk" — almost every time. He explained that it was "riskless" anyway. We reasoned that the penalty of having a high-numbered action card as the first card was not high enough, and therefore came up with an improved version that builds on the initial idea. After collecting the karma tokens, all players who played the highest numbered action card (6 "Walk") had to give one karma token to all who played the lowest numbered action card (1 "Cheat"). Similarly, whoever played the 5 "Co-operate" has to give one karma token to all who played 2 "Help", and whoever played 4 "Rest" has to give one karma token to all who played 3 "Run". There was now really no gain without taking any risks!

3) Reduction in energy while in river
We observed after many playtests that the actions giving energy cards — "Rest" in particular — became progressively less important as a game developed. (After players have exchanged up to the higher energy cards, they would focus only on the movement actions and the collection of energy became less important.) To maintain these actions' relevance, we added a rule whereby one energy card has to be returned to the general supply each time a player plays 8 "Strategize", which allowed the player to collect all of their played action and energy cards, while in the river section.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Four-player variant set-up with finalized prototype

Playtests with these subsequent improvements went well, and we knew that we were firmly on the right track. These developments made us feel comfortable enough to affirm the core game mechanisms for Race for the Chinese Zodiac, and we could then move on to playtest other aspects of the game.

All of our playtesting sessions thus far were with four players. Upon settling on the core game mechanisms, we started keeping track of our playtest results. This was for the purpose of testing the power balance of the animal sign cards. The four-player variant ultimately saw a grand total of 124 playtests with many different players. A large portion of those were played with my parents.

With the core game mechanisms nailed down, we were ready to expand our horizons and ponder other player counts, e.g., five or six players. We were both skeptical about playtesting with three players due to the suspected lower player interaction but still kept our options open for that possibility.


We fully expected that minor tweaks to the four-player variant would be required to cater to different player counts. For the five-player variant, we roped in my brother to help, starting without making any changes to the four-player variant to identify any potential issues.


1) Exchange of energy becomes tougher
The first thing we observed during the initial playtests with five players was that exchanging for higher energy card(s) became much tougher to accomplish. You had the same number of ways to get an energy exchange action, but now one more player was competing for it.

2) Tighter resources
Resources also felt tighter due to the non-movement action cards providing an additional benefit only to the individual player who played the highest energy card. As before, with competition from an additional player in the game, it became more difficult to receive this additional benefit, thereby reducing the number of resources per player in the game. For the same reason, collection of all previously played action and energy cards also became more challenging because only the individual player who played the highest energy card with 8 "Strategize" would collect their played action and energy cards.

3) Balance of animal sign skills
The balance of the special abilities of the animal signs was affected. Some of the special abilities became more powerful with the higher player count, while others became weaker. This implied more playtesting and rebalancing of the special abilities would be required.

An example of this would be the monkey's special ability, which gave the monkey player an additional "1" energy card if they resolved the same action as another player. With an additional player, this special ability is strengthened.


1) New outer wheel
A different outer wheel with one more way to get an energy exchange was designed to cater for the five-player variant. The four-player variant's outer wheel has three energy exchange icons while the five-player variant has four.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Five-player version wheel

2) Reducing the resource tightness
We did not have a solution for this issue initially. Indeed, this issue was to remain the main reason for my Significant Other's dissatisfaction with the five-player variant for a substantial period of time. The eventual solution came as a by-product from our playtesting for the six-player variant, but I will jump the gun and elaborate on that change here.

A different set of non-movement action cards was designed for the five-player variant. The additional benefit would now be awarded to all players who played the highest energy card and not only the player who played the individually highest energy card. This not only reduced the tightness of resources, players would also experience less difficulty collecting their played action and energy cards with 8 "Strategize".

3) Balance of the animal signs' skill
The five-player variant was ultimately playtested over 83 times to ensure that each animal sign was adequately powered. After these playtests, we adjusted animal sign special abilities fairly frequently (and the rules less frequently) to ensure the game balance.

Returning to the example with the monkey, we eventually included a hand size limit of twelve energy cards per player. This naturally limited the strength of the monkey's special ability at higher player counts.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Five-player variant set-up with finalized prototype


Playtesting continued for both four-player and five-player variants every week. We also planned to give the six-player variant a try to test the limits of the core game mechanisms, but the main challenge was finding a sixth playtester who was able to commit their time to repeated plays instead of simply a single play. After all, only with repeated plays can we get a better feel of the feasibility of the six-player variant.

Our hope was answered when my brother introduced his girlfriend to us! We started by introducing other board games to her to test her interest in gaming because if she didn't like those, we wouldn't want to bother her with a playtest. Happily, she did enjoy the board games we brought to show her. My brother then helped us check whether she was keen to participate in playtesting, and she readily agreed to the prospect!


The problems that existed in a five-player variant were amplified greatly in the six-player variant. Everything felt tight, so much so that we introduced another action card to try to address the issue. This action card, which we named "Sprint", is a separate movement card and does not appear on the inner wheel as we didn't want to create a new outer wheel if we could help it. With two outer wheels, we could use the two sides of the same board, but three outer wheels would not enjoy such synergy.

The additional action card seemed to work initially, but we soon realized that its reward was too situational. We went on to playtest the six-player variant 11 times, but decided not to force the issue in the end. We concluded that the game design could not support this high a player count unless we upsized every single game component, but that would make it technically a different game.

We don't think it's fair to the end customer to add an additional player count to the box for the sake of more easily marketing the game. Being board gamers ourselves, we often found ourselves questioning the player count claimed to be supported by a particular board game (in our humble opinion) and do not wish to repeat such an error ourselves.


What remained for us to playtest was the three-player variant, which you may recall both of us were skeptical about. We had earlier playtested the three-player variant a few times, but it turned out rather bland, with a strong multiplayer solitaire feel due to reduced player interaction. This removed a big part of our enjoyment in the game.

Board Game Publisher: Capstone Games
In between these playtesting sessions, we approached Capstone Games (publisher of the second edition of Three Kingdoms Redux) to assess whether they might be interested in publishing Race for the Chinese Zodiac. Initial discussions with Clay Ross, president of Capstone Games, indicated that he preferred a game with a wider player count range as a 4-5 player game would be a much harder sell. We understood his stance and told him we would give the three-player variant another try.

Our main challenge was to retain most of the core game mechanisms and make only minor adjustments to accommodate the different player count. For the case of the three-player variant, we needed to increase the player interaction between the players as well as to tighten it up. We first tried one of the obvious ideas, i.e., removing one of the movement actions (we chose 6 "Walk") from the three-player variant.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Three-player version wheel


1) Reduced tension
The removal of one of the actions helped in tightening the game play. Nonetheless, players were still able to avoid each other a little too easily. Certain decisions also became a lot more obvious with the current form of the three-player variant. In short, part of the tension and excitement in higher player counts was now missing.

2) Balance of animal signs' skill
As before, the animal signs' special abilities would have to be playtested and potentially be rebalanced.


1) Increase the reward for outbidding other players on the same action
In the four- and five-player variants, whenever a player played a higher energy card than someone else for the same action, the player would gain one additional movement for each person who played a lower energy card. With the three-player variant, we increased this bonus to two additional movements to make the reward of outbidding other players much more attractive.

Based on feedback from players, this was a favorable change, so much so that my brother declared the three-player variant his favorite as we wrapped up playtesting. The three-player variant was ultimately playtested over 33 playtest sessions.

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Three-player variant set-up with finalized prototype


With the completion of the playtesting across all viable player counts, we are happy to introduce Race for the Chinese Zodiac as a 3-5 player board game. We have worked on the game for over four years, playtesting it a total of 279 times with our family and friends. As with our first game design, we are very grateful for the time spent and the valuable feedback from all playtesters!

We had initially set out to design a board game that my family could enjoy together, especially my parents. We are happy to declare that we have achieved our goals because my parents would still routinely ask to play the game — and get really aggrieved when they narrowly finished second. This is despite them having played it over two hundred times with us over the four years of game development. How cool is that?!

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Her animal sign
Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
His animal sign

Board Game: Race for the Chinese Zodiac
Game set up (four-player version) and ready for play!
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Tue Jan 14, 2020 1:00 pm
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