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Designer Diary: Mission ISS

Michael Luu
Germany
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From gallery of Michael Luu
At the beginning of 2017, Campagames in Hamburg, Germany — a publisher that specializes in the development of space-themed products — contacted me to ask whether I would like to work on a game for the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR).

The German astronaut Alexander Gerst would be part of the International Space Station (ISS) expedition called "Horizons" that would run from June to December 2018. To coincide with this expedition, the DLR planned to release a game that would not only remind people of this special event, but also provide the public a better understanding of the work between the control station and the astronauts on the ISS. Campagames was assigned for the development and implementation of this project.

Without hesitation, I immediately expressed my interest. The subject of space travel and the project background aroused my enthusiasm. In addition, I wanted to collect new experiences by developing a game under the terms of a contract work. After all, I would have certain requirements to fulfill with this design: The game should reflect the tasks of the control center, as well as the guidance and the support of the astronauts. Timelines and time management should also play a role in the game.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Campagames allowed me a lot of freedom during the creation process. Sabine and Joachim of Campagames and I worked as team, meeting regularly in a bistro in Hamburg. In the beginning, we exchanged our first ideas, put them on paper, then discarded them all afterwards.

It became clear that the game should refer to the history of the ISS, which would be the most suitable theme to capture in a game. Based on that, the construction and completion of the ISS — ideally done in a playful and entertaining way — turned out to be the focal objective of the game. Since the construction of the ISS was possible only through the close co-operation of many nations, it was obvious for us to design a co-operative game. The players should complete the construction of the ISS, maintain it, and deal with the hostile environment of space as one team rather than playing against each other.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Based on these approaches, I tinkered with the first prototypes, playtested them, and evaluated the gaming experience. However, the game ideas did not meet our high expectations. This was mainly because of the still missing "engine" of the game. The game needed a mechanism that would define the sequence and moves, drive the game forward, and (at the same time) generate fun.

After several discarded approaches, I decided to consult my "box of ideas" in my hobby basement, where I designed and collected many different game mechanisms. One of those was that the active player always has to combine their own card with that of other players during their turn. This idea of card combination has become the main mechanism of the game Mission ISS. The "engine" was found!

Board Game: Mission ISS

Afterwards, the project proceeded much faster. Campagames provided graphics and scientific texts for all aspects of space travel and of the ISS, and I integrated them into the game. The prototype slowly shaped up to the final version.

It was always important for us to develop a game that was based on reality, one in which the players could learn a lot about the ISS and experience the interaction between the control center and the astronauts. At a later stage of the project, we recognized the necessity of bringing the game to a more complex level to enable (as much as possible) a realistic gaming experience. Based on the complexity, the game is recommended for players age 12 and up.

Board Game: Mission ISS

After a number of prototype versions, we started to test with outside players. Later, we were confronted with an apparently unsolvable task of how to realize a game component that we were very fond of: the production of the base elements each equipped with three dials on which the astronauts stand today. These dials represent the "ability" of the astronauts, so the higher the setting, the better the ability of the astronauts to complete the tasks on the ISS. Campagames consulted different manufacturers for the production. However, the challenge about the production costs was not yet solved.

Board Game: Mission ISS

At a later time of the project, a fortunate coincidence happened. Campagames got in contact with Georg Wild, a well-known editor in the board game industry, and hired him as the rule writer.

At that time, Georg Wild had just switched to publisher Schmidt Spiele as product manager. He was very convinced by the concept of the ISS game, so he presented it to the Berlin publisher himself. As a result, Campagames licensed the game idea to Schmidt Spiele, which then took care of the final production and at the same time solved the "base element problem" thanks to its many years of experience in the production of game components.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Board Game: Mission ISS

Just as sixteen countries were involved in the construction of the ISS, the development of the game Mission ISS is also a product of good co-operation between many participants and, ultimately, two publishers. The engagement and expertise have resulted in a wonderful game that invites players to explore the world of space travel.

Unfortunately the game didn't make it to the ISS with Alexander Gerst due to the time required for design and production, but a trip by Matthias Maurer, another German astronaut, is planned for the second half of 2021.

I would like to thank Campagames, Schmidt Spiele, and all other participants for the great teamwork during the entire project and, above all, for the publishers' confidence in my abilities as a "rookie" game designer. This has been an exciting experience for me. I appreciate it very much and will always fondly remember it.

Michael Luu

Board Game: Mission ISS
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Tue May 4, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Umbra Via

Connor Wake
United States
California
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Board Game: Umbra Via
At the start of 2018, Inis had become my new favorite game. What I really liked about it was how it was an area-control game, but you didn't always want to kill all of your opponents. One of the win conditions is to be in control of regions where at least six other player units are present. You can't kill everyone. You can't brute force your way through it. You have to keep an unsteady peace with your opponents.

I wanted to make a game that took that idea from Inis a bit further, something where you weren't allowed to remove all of your opponents' stuff if it wasn't exactly where you wanted it to be, something you'd have to deal with and work around instead. This is where the key point of Umbra Via came from. Players would be in direct conflict with each other, but not able to use direct force.

I also wanted players to be able to do well playing off of instinct and have a good time against people who are thinking through every possible outcome. Oftentimes when playing, I'm either tired or stressed and not up for having a good time only if I can out-compute whoever I'm playing against — so I decided I wanted pure logical thinking to cause the player to get a bit stuck, to force people to go with their instinct instead and level that playing field. This is why I wanted to add a constrained, hidden bidding element to the game.

Figuring out someone's intentions is tricky, and some people will even write it off as random, but to me, that's the most interesting part of playing games with other people. If you try to just logic your way through a blind bid, you can end up with the classic Princess Bride poison cup scenario. If you take a step back and don't get sucked down the logical rabbit hole, you have enough information to figure out the fuzzy probabilities of what someone might do. Also, I simply prefer those types of decisions in which there is no exact answer and things are fuzzy, but you've still got a lot to go off of!

Since Umbra Via isn't a big box game, there was a lot of swapping out of a lot of mechanisms, scoring systems, etc. to make it work with my goals. The iterations of the game were often unrecognizable. (I could fill another few designer diaries with all that.) Through all of those versions, those overarching goals were how I eventually settled on the core gameplay of Umbra Via:
Quote:
Each round, players receive six tokens to secretly bid on four different tiles over two rounds of bidding. The player with the most cubes on the tile gets to choose where it goes, determining the shape of the paths you're building and trying to control. However, everyone's cubes stay on the tile, so you're picking where that tile and everyone's cubes go. When paths close off, players are rewarded based on how long the path is, as well as how they ranked in the path.
From gallery of connorwake

The two rounds of bidding came out of trying to help players feel informed enough to be able to go off of instinct. When I first brought the game to my housemates Jevin and Jordan to test, I was stuck about how to handle getting the players' cubes onto the tiles. On the one hand, you could have players bid one cube at a time — which was very slow, but let you see the other players' intentions. On the other hand, you could allocate and bid all of your cubes at once — which was quick and exciting, but didn't give the players much to go off of, so it felt more random.

From gallery of connorwake

I brought this up with my housemates and how I wasn't happy with either of them. Then Jordan simply said, "Well, why don't we do two rounds then?" This turned out to be perfect and never changed after that first playtest. Players get six total cubes, then bid on the tiles three cubes at a time. Bidding in the first round is a chance for surprise, and when bidding in the second round players have made their intentions public, so you get to respond to that.

From gallery of connorwake

You'll probably notice how I haven't talked about the theme yet. What got me into board game design was the idea of crafting an experience for players. With Umbra Via, I specifically thought about making a game my partner and friends would enjoy. During the design process, it did exactly that, hitting all of the experience notes I wanted it to: conflict without violence, and being able to play off of the other players and your gut feeling. However, these goals never inspired a theme that lined up with the mechanisms.

I tried all sorts of changes to the game to make a theme fit, but it always seemed to take away from that core experience. In the end, wrapping Umbra Via in the dressings of a mysterious ritual felt fitting. The game has you advocate for painted tokens with no pretense. It works because everyone agrees these tokens are important, that they represent you and your interests. This felt very similar to spells to me, in which the objects used are meant to represent so much more.

From gallery of connorwake

Keeping the theme more abstract allowed for simpler art that was easier to read. Ultimately, it's the feeling of playing with the mechanisms and the other players around the table, trying to carefully balance all the different parts of the game, that makes Umbra Via what it is. I love what Pandasaurus Games did with the design. It's amazing seeing it brought to life. I can't wait for more people to try it out!

Connor Wake

From gallery of connorwake
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Tue Apr 13, 2021 1:00 pm
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Developer Diary: Unforgiven

Sam Hillier
Canada
St. Albert
Alberta
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Board Game: Unforgiven
Unforgiven by Tom Butler and Green Feet Games was delivered to Kickstarter backers in February and March 2021 and hit retail outlets on March 12, 2021. Tom had asked me to come on board as a developer based on our earlier work together on Paradise Lost, which was released in 2020. This was my first major project as a developer, and after hearing the basic pitch of the game, I knew I had to be involved.

Tom presented Unforgiven to me as a two-player duel game along the lines of 7 Wonders Duel or Duelosaur Island. Here's a short description of the game's setting and what you'd be doing in it:
Quote:
Unforgiven: The Lincoln Assassination Trial is a two-player game that takes place during the May 9 - June 28, 1865 trial of the first woman, Mary Surratt, ever to be executed for treason by the United States. The game begins amidst the chaos of Lincoln's assassination as the country struggles to heal over the wreckage of the American Civil War. Each player must persuade the jury to convict or acquit the accused and thereby win the game. To do so, players draft and play cards that help them strengthen their case with the jurors and recruit them to their side, while also finding overwhelming evidence for or against the accused.
What made his game stand out to me was the use of dice, both as an input-randomness source of resources but also as a bit of push-your-luck and the incorporation of history. Given his focus on historical gaming, I knew Tom would demand — and deliver — a historically sound game. Given my love of two-player gaming, dice drafting, and tableau building, I had to deliver a strategically sound game. Together, I think we've achieved these goals, and this is the story of how we got there.

When I received the first version of the game, I could see Tom was trying to do unique things with the dice and with the juror cards. (Jurors provide bonus abilities when you recruit them, and you can instantly win the game if you recruit enough of them.) My initial playthroughs, however, were a bit clunky: resources were tight, we couldn't ever seem to reach certain thresholds or activate certain abilities, and some abilities were too convoluted for their ultimate payoff. I saw what he was going for, though, so it became my job as developer to highlight those key elements of gameplay and strip away the rest.

From gallery of Daybreak

I approached the development process as a problem solver. What issues does the designer have with the game? What does he want me to fix? The more specific the questions were, the more focused my work could be. We settled on streamlining the methods of acquiring cards and dice, increasing the strategic depth of the cards themselves, incorporating aspects of a trial into gameplay, and ultimately ensuring balance among both the obvious strategies and the hybrids.

The Development of Unforgiven

My plan was to step back and think about what the game wants to be. It is obviously inspired by 7 Wonders Duel (7WD), using a similar mechanism for card drafting. Starting here made sense because, like 7WD, a legal trial has a lot of back-and-forth, push-and-pull, and is filled with tension and the possibility of surprise instant victories. We began with this stable foundation and took it in our own directions.

From gallery of Daybreak

The primary mechanism of both games is drafting cards out of a randomized, structured display. Rather than three different displays as in 7WD, I settled on one for the whole game, one that had an entry point on each side. To me, this best represents the nature of presenting evidence in a legal trial and it supports a prosecution/defense duality that appears throughout the game. Being able to see what your opponent could draft next turn (and, potentially, risking that they get lucky with a previously face-down card) captured the tension we are looking to produce in our players. The cards you acquire represent the argument that you are making to the jury: the evidence you rely on, and the argumentative strategies used to establish your conclusion.

I wanted to make the cards more interesting, so I looked at my favorite tableau-building games for combo potential. This is how we ended up with the "rhetoric" cards that give you special abilities after drafting them. Some give you discounts, others let you use one resource as another, while a handful interact with the trial dice. I also wanted to include "plan b" cards that would be useful if your main plan didn't work. For example, cards that turn resources into points or let you easily convert one resource to another; these cards give players options to pursue hybrid strategies and still be effective.

From gallery of Daybreak

One challenge that came with these abilities was how to present a complex ability in purely iconic language. Icons are great because they make your game language-independent and also serve as a quick reminder from either side of the table as to what a card does. I had to take our special abilities and translate them into Euroglyphics that conveyed the card's ability. In doing so, I stumbled across cards that couldn't naturally be translated into icons; that was a sign to refine those abilities rather than stumble further over icons. We ended up with a nice, clean set of icons, and included an appendix in the rules for the more complex abilities.

Card Costs

A key aspect of balancing a game like this is making sure the costs are fair. You generally don't want two cards with equal effects having different costs...unless you do. I began with a flat and fair costing structure: this effect costs this much, one of these resources is equal to two of these, and three of these turn into so many points. This gives a nice foundation, but it could lead to an overall flat, same-y game. If you know the conversion, then the game devolves into simple math: Which action gives the best return? Well, this one gets me 2 points, and this one gets 1.5, so it's obvious.

From gallery of Daybreak

Games like that are too smooth. Unforgiven has several different kinds of resources, and I wanted them to be actually different. Each resource is tilted in a certain direction: one makes it easier to acquire jurors, for example, while another helps you acquire cards with special powers. I set the price on cards with this in mind, knowing the general paths that players wanted to go down. I had to be sure not to funnel them in a certain direction, but I did want to ensure that you couldn't do everything equally well.

From gallery of Daybreak

This balancing process went beyond the simple cost calculation and relied on playtest experience to get a feel for the major strategies. Then I could ask: What should a resource cost for this strategy? If you're committed to a certain path, you tend to have a certain set-up, which makes certain cards more valuable to you and makes others cost more to you than they do to other players. The cost of cards reflects that, but it means that there isn't a flat exchange anymore. The costs have some rough edges, if you will.

Another factor that influences costs is the three-phase structure of the game. Players will naturally accumulate resource production abilities as the game goes on, so cards in phase III should cost more than they do in phase I. Otherwise, you lose the tension. Some of these increased costs were intentional; a resource in phase III will cost more than it did in phase I as a way of saying "You should have bought these while they were cheaper; now you're going to have to pay more to catch up." Again, these rough edges enhanced the tension of the game, making each decision more than a simple, flat calculation.

From gallery of Daybreak

I also threw in some truly rough edges: two comparable cards in the same phase that have slightly different costs (one cheaper than the other). Nothing too drastic, but I found in playtesting that these rough edges brought something interesting to the table. Sure, there will be times where luck of the draw favors one player over another, but if the effects are minor it will add some character without disrupting the whole game. This is made safer by the way cards are drafted, so if you see an advantageous card, you can plan around it.

Trial Dice

Trial dice are the second main component of Unforgiven. Capturing the vagaries of evidence and public opinion in a high profile trial, we wanted the dice to provide a bit of input randomness as well as a few other strategic options for players.

In terms of input randomness, trial dice are a source of resources that can be used to acquire new trial cards. There are different kinds of dice, each with different faces. Most faces provide resources, but there are other faces, such as one that provides victory points at the end of the game. If you have one, it's worth 3 points, but if you have two they're collectively worth 7 points, and three such dice are worth 11 points. If you have one or two of these, do you sit on them to the end of the game or take a chance and pay to re-roll them, hoping for resources that you could use right now?

Having the dice work like this — resource providers with the potential for other actions — led to some tense decisions during the game. The dice also gave rise to an alternate strategy for card acquisition: If one player drafts all of the resource-generating cards, the other can develop a dice-based strategy, complete with bonus re-rolls, extra dice per turn, and the flexibility to use some faces as others.

From gallery of Daybreak

We also included the ability to perform a powerful action — an objection — by slamming three dice down on the table like a gavel and yelling "Objection!" in your best Phoenix Wright impersonation. Not only does this little flair add historical and thematic immersion, it also created a tense dilemma: Do I save my dice for a useful action, or burn three of them to stop my opponent from making a key move? It's a little element of unpredictability and player interaction that can change up the drafting decisions.

Dice Drafting

We also worked to develop a way to acquire these dice. Originally the dice were just pulled out of the bag, rolled, and added to your collection. Not only was this random, it didn't facilitate any tense player interaction. Getting to the final state is a good lesson in game development; you will strike upon dozens of ideas that you will not use before arriving at the one you will use, and the reason for using this last idea comes from why you rejected the others.

Here's what I mean: One option on the table had players selecting a die from a track that had both positive and negative abilities on it, and you got the ability corresponding to the die you chose. The intentions were good: Make players decide whether the die they want is worth the price they'll pay. We even had negative dice faces (e.g., lose a point) to get the same tension: Is the printed ability worth taking the dice hit?

It all sounded so good in theory, but it quickly became complicated. Complexity is fine, though you don't want too much of it, but what ultimately emerged through development is that this set-up would often produce really undesirable game states. It was easy to get stuck with an overly negative selection, while your opponent lucked out and got a positive die face on a positive ability. These negative dice faces also impacted a dice-and-rhetoric strategy because it was possible for such a strategy to not only fail to get what it needed, but get hit with negative penalties instead. This was not our intention. Similar flaws emerged with the next dozen or so mechanisms we drew up, and we ultimately ended up with something simple and clean that gives the tension we want.

The way dice acquisition goes is that it still uses a track of dice, but players choose from a line-up starting on the left and moving to the right. For every die you skip, you put a piece of sway (the game's currency) on that die. Whoever takes that die gains the sway on it. The tension became this: Is this die worth paying resources that could ultimately end up with my opponent? And also: I don't really want this die, but it has lots of resources on it; is it worth forgoing a more useful die for these resources (which I also deny my opponent)?

From gallery of Daybreak

At this point, card and dice acquisition facilitated the head-to-head tension we wanted in a two-player dueling game. I wanted to add more in this vein, so I got to work. One aspect of a trial I wanted to capture was reaching your conclusion — guilt or innocence — "beyond a reasonable doubt." Structurally this is similar to the military victory that 7WD uses, that is, at a certain point in a conflict, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Likewise, at a certain point in a trial, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Thus, it made sense to incorporate the track of 7WD, but instead of pushing your troops into the enemy's territory, you are swaying the jurors to your side. We even added a little bonus reward for a player who is able to recover from an opponent's strong position. This kept a strategic door open late into the game.

Another aspect of a trial I wanted to capture was convincing jurors to your side. Unforgiven represents the trial's nine jurors as characters who provide special abilities to whoever convinces them, which represents the overall convincing power of your argument. Some jurors begin the game sympathetic to either side, while others are up for grabs. I put these jurors on a similar head-to-head track; you can pay resources to move them closer to you, but your opponent can sway them back. Sway them far enough, and they become convinced, providing you with their bonuses as well as the possibility of an instant victory if you convince enough of them.

After all of this tweaking, the game was ready for public playtesting to polish the last details: ensure that costs are appropriate, that cards and abilities work the way we intend, that the game has the right amount of tension, etc.

Learning Some History

Green Feet Games has always sought to include historical content in their games, from Patriots & Redcoats to The Pirate Republic; even Paradise Lost is based on historical fables.

With Unforgiven, we wanted the history to be just as important as the gameplay. Each of the 84 unique cards is based on an actual person, place or thing surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln. We included the big names you'd expect, like John Wilkes Booth, but also those you might not know about, like the other conspirators who were tried. This includes David Herold, Lewis Powell, and of course Mary Surratt, whose fate takes center stage.

From gallery of Daybreak

What we didn't want to do was bog down the game or the rulebook with lengthy expositions. We wanted a game, not a textbook. By putting players in the shoes of competing legal teams, each using actual historical evidence to support their cases, players will have direct experience with the historical figures, items, and events. Rather than presenting a historical narrative to them, we let players craft their own narrative — including the ability to change the course of history, should the defense player win. I've always felt that when you let players take control of the narrative as it develops, they are much more engaged than if everything is on rails.

The other way that history is a focus in Unforgiven is the art. All of the art on the cards comes from historical photos that have been colorized, many for the first time. Players will see the real life images of the historical figures surrounding this trial. We find the art absolutely engaging, from the deep blues of the Civil War-era uniforms to the actual words written in John Wilkes Booth's diary, and we're confident that players will as well.

From gallery of Daybreak

The pinnacle of our historical efforts, however, is the only known photograph taken of President Lincoln lying in state in New York City, April 24, 1865. Discovered in his childhood by Dr. Ron Rietveld (who would later go on to become a professor of history at CSU Fullerton), the photo was thought to have been destroyed...until Dr. Rietveld found a copy tucked in an envelope in some historical records. Our team dutifully colorized the photo, paying utmost respects to the solemnity and gravity of the scene portrayed. We think that the historical importance of this image makes Unforgiven not just a fun and engaging game, but a genuine work of history.

Sam Hillier

From gallery of Daybreak
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Tue Mar 16, 2021 1:00 pm
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Design Diary: War Chest: Siege, or Buildy-Buildy, Smashy-Smashy

Trevor Benjamin
United Kingdom
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From gallery of TrevormBenjamin
Hi, all! After much delay, War Chest: Siege, the second expansion for War Chest, is being released on March 19, 2021. Like War Chest: Nobility, it adds an entirely new element, plus four thematically and mechanically integrated units. This diary explores the design and development of this new content.

The New Element: Fortifications

Barring the core distinction between spaces you can control (locations) and those you can't, War Chest's board is featureless and invariant. This fits perfectly well with the game's abstract roots, but we knew that there was room to experiment here. Siege's fortifications (henceforth, forts) are our first attempt.

From gallery of TrevormBenjamin

The Siege expansion includes seven fort coins (chunky plastic poker chips!) and six map cards. During set-up, you randomly draw one of the map cards, then place forts onto the four indicated locations. Forts can also be built by the new Sapper unit when it enters a location.

As you'd expect, forts offer an extra level of protection to locations and the units defending them. Here's how they work: You may not enter enemy locations with forts, and you may not attack enemy units in forts. In both cases, you must attack and destroy the fort first. This is done in the same way as you attack units.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We wanted forts to introduce additional planning and risks, but we had to ensure that the game remained dynamic and balanced. This took quite a bit of development. For example, we initially had map cards with three forts on each side (six total). This slowed the game down a tad too much and favored some units more than we liked. [**No spoilers! We'll leave it up to you to figure out which ones!] We also had maps with asymmetric configurations. Unsurprisingly some playtesters complained of imbalance and so, reluctantly, we dropped them. As a final example, the Sapper could initially build forts in any space (not just locations). This introduced a few fiddly rules, but perhaps more importantly made forts feel too much like bolstering (which made the Sapper feel too much like the Herald).

The New Units

You won't be surprised to hear that War Chest: Siege includes siege weapons, three of them in fact: the Trebuchet, the Siege Tower, and the War Wagon. Like real siege weapons, we wanted these units to be powerful but lumbering. They should be slow to set up, fragile to counterattack, but can wreak havoc if left unchecked. After much experimentation, we settled on a very simple rule which achieves this quite nicely. Siege units must be bolstered in order to use their special abilities, which we've called "siege tactics".

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We also wanted the siege weapons to actually help players overcome (siege!) the forts. We began by explicitly coding this into their abilities. An early version of the Trebuchet, for example, could attack any fortified location up to three spaces away. This led to some weird dynamics — players simply abandoned their forts — and became totally useless once all the forts were destroyed. In the end, we had to be a bit more creative. The siege weapons remain effective at attacking forts, but their abilities are general enough to make them useful in other contexts as well.

Oddly enough, the only unit which explicitly references forts is the fourth and final new unit: the Sapper. As mentioned previously, the Sapper has an attribute that allows it to build a fort in any location it enters. It also has a tactic which allows it to move, then destroy a fort, so just like a real sapper, it can both build and destroy forts. A useful resource for a siege to be sure!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Conclusion

We are incredibly excited about the Siege expansion and the continued success of War Chest. Big thanks to AEG (the publisher), Mark Wootton (lead developer), Brigette Indelicato (artist and graphic designer), all of our playtesters, and to everyone else who has helped us bring this game to life.

And now let's go play Siege!

Trevor and David
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Tue Mar 9, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Inkling

John Keyworth
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Board Game: Inkling
This is a short designer diary about the development of Inkling, a word card game designed by me and published by Osprey Games in February 2021.

To help make sense of a game you are unlikely to have played here is a brief overview of the final game: Inkling is a game about using letter cards — in any way you can — to help the other players guess words on a secret clue card. Longer words are worth more points, and you are playing in two teams at once, one with each neighbor.

Concept and Prototype

I've always been bad at word games as correct spelling does not come naturally and anagrams remain completely opaque, but in March 2019 I was listening to the latest Ludology podcast — all about word games — and I thought rather than start with the letters and make words, you could start with the words and make letters, and in that way you can play with words even if it's not normally your thing.

The prototype came together quickly, and the core of the game has remained the same: Drafting letters to spell words on your card for people to guess.

The components were the letter cards from Lexicon and the word cards from Concept. Both were ill-suited to the task, but making up words proved fun enough to develop the game further.

Design and Playtesting

The bulk of playtesting happened at the UK Playtesters group in Oxford and Oxford on Board, although I also took the design to the playtest area at the UK Games Expo 2019, which let it receive feedback from a much wider variety of people.

There were three challenges to work on before the game could be finished: the clue cards, the letter cards, and the scoring.

Clue Cards: Dedicated clue cards were the first component to be made — the same list of the most common English words with 4 to 9 letters that made it into the final game. The problem was word distribution as early versions had very easy cards and very hard cards depending on the letters in the words.

Fixing this took learning what made cards easy or hard, then making a formula to calculate a difficulty score in a spreadsheet. I then played with the word lists until each card was balanced with the others.

From gallery of jkeywo
Clue card prototype and final design

Letter Cards: While the word lists were being balanced, the letters needed designing. First, the cards became stylized, which gave players much more scope for playing with them to make words. After that, a new set was printed without the black border of the originals.

From gallery of jkeywo
Letter card prototypes and final design

Scoring: This was originally both more chaotic and more rule-intensive. You were limited to guessing 1, 2, and 3 words in rounds 1, 2, and 3, and these words could be from anyone. You received the points from words you guessed, as well as from each of your own words guessed by at least one other player.

You may be able to imagine the problem already, but with six players it could take a while to look at everyone else's creations, with players often getting up from the table and walking around it. There was also some unwanted randomness in whose words received the most attention, and some unwanted strategy that emerged from a mixture of competitive and co-operative incentives.

Laying the problem out like that makes the eventual solution seem much more obvious that it was, but ultimately, instead of playing as individuals, players would guess only their neighbor's words and total their scores as a team of two (so each player is on two teams).

The game became much more comfortable to play, the time taken was more consistent across player counts, and all you had to worry about was creating good letter combinations for your neighbor to guess.

Publishing

Come September 2019 I was playtesting the game at the UK Playtesters event in Oxford, and Anthony from Osprey Games was also there. He liked the game, they took it back to the office, and it was soon signed.

Board Game: Inkling
Image: More Games Please

While most of the game was finished at that point, we continued playing with the word list until it was as balanced as we could make it.

That all seems like a lifetime ago, with how long 2020 has been, but I'm very excited to be able to see the game in print come February 23, 2021.

John Keyworth
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Tue Feb 16, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Waddle, or How I Learned to Love Penguins

Isaac Shalev
United States
Stamford
Connecticut
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Board Game: Waddle
Waddle was designed by Raph Koster and Isaac Shalev. Raph's part of the story comes first.

Raph's Story

Hi! As you read this Waddle is just hitting the market from WizKids. It is my first published tabletop game after designing several dozen. My career is as a videogame designer, and for a long time, my tabletop designs were just things that I would prototype, get printed into presentable versions, and play with friends and fellow designers at videogame developer conferences.

Even though I am a game designer by trade, and videogame and tabletop design have a lot of similarities, there are also some huge differences — but frankly, the differences between the businesses of board versus digital are a lot bigger. I had no idea how to go about getting any of these turned into a real thing.

Now that the game is actually going to be hitting store shelves, I thought it might be interesting for people to see the process of getting Waddle from a vague notion to something that will be on FLGS shelves soon!

The Idea

The earliest design document I can find was nothing more than a sketch. Long ago, I used to carry a pad of paper or a sketchbook with me everywhere I went to take notes and sketch out ideas. I switched over to an iPad a long time ago, and I've used various different note-taking apps ever since.

I think this game was originally prompted by a vague memory of Eric Zimmerman telling me at a Game Developers Conference (GDC) dinner about his new game installation Interference, probably in 2013. (See this page on his website for a description.) I don't actually know the rules for the game, but I do recall how the images of the game struck me: hanging sheets of cut metal, with pegs that are placed in holes in the sheets. The sheets are arranged in ovals, and each oval has a different number of pegs and slots in it.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I would not be surprised if the following notes were taken at GDC fairly soon after the conversation with Eric, to be honest. I don't have an exact date, but these are from early 2013, and before May for sure because I have a date of the contents of the next page in the notebook!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The text is a bit hard to read from the image, but the idea is quite short, which is pretty normal for me. It reads:
Quote:
A board with spaces on it. You get to put in your pieces anywhere...but we rotate through win conditions per turn. So who owns the space changes as the win condition does.
Probably the most notable thing about this quick idea is that this is not what the game ended up being at all. Waddle is not an area-control game, so there is no "owning" of spaces!

After that come some questions and elaborations:
Quote:
Do they rotate with dice? With cards? Can you see in advance what is going to come up? And do you score at the end or when you end a phase and the condition changes? Or maybe you choose from your hand each turn: play a piece (or several) and then play a card.
The answer to these questions ended up being "with cards, no, and yes, it will work like that!" So in the space of just a couple of sentences, the original idea was already dead, and the bare bones of Waddle started taking shape.

At the bottom are then the seeds of the actual strategy behind the game: the varying scoring conditions that you can play in order to score the individual spaces on the board: Majority — minority — even — odd — multiple — empty neighbors — neighbor count — empty...

The struggle in the game development process was going to be about picking the right set of scoring rules, the right number of spaces, and the right number of pieces. This would turn out to be a lengthy process.

Iterating

I instinctively lean towards abstract strategy games when I do tabletop design. This is a little weird to those who know my videogame work, which is mostly big sprawling online worlds with tons of mechanisms and systems. The commonality is that even in those giant projects, I try to keep each system small and super simple. This also means that I tend to design games for two players, which isn't necessarily in step with the market realities of tabletop gaming.

You haven't gotten to play the game yet, but here's how it ended up working: You have different colored tokens that go into spaces on the board. Each space has room for five tokens. There isn't really a spatial relationship between the spaces. Each turn, you either place several tokens into spaces, or choose one space to empty of all tokens and redistribute them to the other spaces. Then you play a card that has a scoring rule on it. You get as many points as there are now spaces that match your scoring rule. You get to play each scoring rule only once, and you cannot play the same scoring rule as the previous player.

I often do the first few iterations entirely in my head, or playing against myself. The original board consisted of five circles drawn on a blank sheet of paper, shaped like a five-spot on a die. I had plenty of glass beads laying around to use as the tokens. Pretty quickly I was calling the game "Pebbles" in my mind.

It's my habit to rewrite the rules from scratch every time I do a big design iteration, while keeping the old version in the document. It turns into a longer and longer design history of how the game evolved. It means I can often go back to earlier versions and check out discarded ideas to see whether they once again fit into the game.

Version 2

The very next ruleset I wrote down looked like this:
Quote:
There are five wells on the table.

Player starts with either three cards or all of them.

Each player has white and black pebbles to distribute. Each turn they get to put a pebble on the board or move a pebble on the board. A given well can have only five pebbles in it. Is there a cap on the number of pebbles? Say, 16? (works out at avg of 3 per well)

Each player has a hand of cards. Each turn after their pebble actions, they get to choose to play one of the cards in their hand to claim points according to the rules on the card.

The cards are things like:

● A point for each even well
● A point for each odd well
● A point for each empty well
● A point for each well with more white than black but split
● Each well with more black than white but split
● Each evenly split well
● All white
● All black
● Each full well (five)

When they play that card, the pebbles in the wells that score are removed from the board, and that card is discarded, never to be played again. The player gets one point for each well that meets the criteria of the played card. Play ends when all players have gone through all the cards.
The big new thing was the idea that the scoring rules were a consumable resource. This imposed a length limit on the game; it would always consist of the same number of turns. This is a nice thing for a tabletop game, I think, many of which have unpredictable durations.

I also baked in a couple of things after that early playtesting: five spaces and 16 tokens total. Why those numbers? Because they have awkward relationships to one another. Perfect multiples here would lead to a lot of symmetry and repeated moves, I thought. I eventually tried out letting players pick from pools of white and black beads, letting them get more beads over time, letting them play varying quantities of beads in a turn, but kept coming back to the idea that this would be a game about fixed resources, about managing a decline in choices.

Version 2 suffered from really disjointed pacing. You added only one pebble every turn, which meant that spaces didn't build up fast at all — you rarely got to a full space before the game ended. Most of the scoring cards were useless. Emptying the wells when you scored them added to this. If you play version 2, you will find it truly sucks and doesn't really feel like a game at all.

Version 3

In the next version I am still stubbornly hanging on to forcing the player to choose from among three cards. In an effort to make the board more dynamic, you now can choose from several actions — what I tend to call "verbs" from my videogame design life.
Quote:
Players shuffle their decks.
They choose three cards to lay in front of them.
They take turns adding or moving a pebble, then playing a card from the three they laid in front of them.
New cards:
● Add a pebble
● Move a pebble
● Remove a pebble
● Empty a well
Total failure. This didn't help the game at all.

But there was something to keep, something I still had strong faith in: the scoring rules mechanism. It was the beating heart of the original idea, and it had evolved into basically a permutation space: every axis of comparison that I could think of for two sets of five. I explored having scoring cards for exactly 1, exactly 2, exactly 3, and so on, but discarded it as less interesting; it made the game longer, but also meant that players had too many choices on their turn.

It was time to make radical changes. The problem was that choices weren't interesting yet, even though the scoring rules, I felt, were solid.

Live Testing!

I cornered one of my kids, we sat down at the game table, and we started playing. I would change the rules every few turns, just to see whether more interesting choices appeared. When they got sick of me changing rules, and as the changes started becoming less frequent, we set my phone up on a tripod, pointed it at the board, and used video calls to loop in other kids so that they could do head-to-head matches while I watched.

One of the first things that changed was the realization that there was no need to limit players to just three scoring card choices. In practice, the board layouts tended to force a small set of choices on you. Even with nine scoring rules on the first move, most of the possible choices were obvious dead-ends, so it never felt overwhelming.

Where a limit of three cards had made the game feel like you were pushed into bad choices or had no real choice but to play a given card, allowing you to choose from all the cards put agency in the player's hands and made them feel like every choice was in their control on every turn.

In fact, this led to an interesting change in the dynamics of the game over time. Some scoring cards have pretty low utility early in the game — the one that calls for full spaces, for example — while others are of limited utility late in the game, such as the one that calls for empty spaces. Even though those are the two most obvious examples, it holds true for all the cards: their "potential" value changes over time in the game. Some move in a straight line, some swing back and forth.

I visualized it in my head as a line graph: What's the "potential value" of this card, on average, as the game progresses? This landscape of intersecting curves headed in different directions was very interesting to me. I now had a lens through which to look at the game for tuning it as a system.

All About the Value Curves

This realization led immediately to the choice to not allow beads to be removed from the game. Otherwise, you didn't get a nice clean set of graph lines. They bounced around too much. I was persuaded that having regularity to these curves helped the game. Players could speed up the demise of the empty card's value through their choices, but it was always doomed to go down over time. This created a sense of risk-taking: How fast is this curve going to decline? It contributes to a sense of pushing your luck, without actually using that formal mechanism.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Pretty soon, I was thinking of the mechanisms all in terms of these curves. "Empty" versus "full" was a natural progression through the game, but we could get more curves to be strategic. In the earlier versions, both players had access to both colors of beads. By giving each of the two players control over only one of the colors of beads, rather than a mix of both, they each controlled the ramp of availability of a color. This then affected the curves of all the scoring cards that called for scoring based on color.

The last scoring card curve that needed to be put under player control was the odd/even pairing. Adding beads one at a time was not only really slow paced, but it tended to move this curve in far too predictable a way, swinging back and forth. The earlier versions of the game let you break the pattern only by skipping a bead, that is, by moving a bead from one space to another. This basically was a parity shift, but in itself wasn't that interesting. Both problems could be solved at the same time by letting players place a varying number of beads in any of the spaces. Now there was a new curve to manage the speed of: running out of beads, which could happen very early or very late depending on player strategy.

Lastly, the old moving mechanisms were now obsolete. We didn't need them as cards. Moving a single bead felt pointless now that you could place a bunch at the same time, yet a board that only accumulated felt too static, so I kept the rule that allowed you to empty a space, but now the beads had to be redistributed to other spaces, as long as they were not full.

I now had what I felt was an interesting mathematical landscape. Players, through their choices, were basically pushing the game along these curves. Every choice they made was going to affect more than one of them, sometimes perhaps in ways they didn't see (though a thoughtful player could work it out). There were enough curves that even though the game has no hidden information, it's more than you can reasonably keep track of. Every scoring choice you make is actually deeply consequential — which they had to be because you got only nine of them.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Making It Pretty

What I had, at this point, felt very much like a battle of wits. It was determinedly two player and very simple in appearance: five circles, and white and black beads. It conjured up the unholy marriage of go and mancala, despite not playing very much like either, so I decided to skin it that way. I used The Game Crafter, my usual go-to for making pretty prototypes, and put together something that I was trying to make look ageless or timeless.

I even thought about actually making a real wood version of it, but I am not a very good woodworker.

The final ruleset was still quite small and elegant:
Quote:
There are five wells on the board. Each player starts with eight beads, either black or white. Each player has nine cards as well. White goes first.

Each turn, a player can choose one of the following actions:

● If the player has beads left, they can place between 1 and 5 of their beads in the wells. These beads can be distributed into any wells you choose as long as a well does not exceed five beads total.
● Select a well that has beads already, pick up the beads in it, and distribute them into the other wells. They can be distributed into any wells, as long as the destination wells do not exceed five beads total.

After performing one of these moves, the player plays one of the nine cards from their hand. The cards have rules for scoring on them:

● Score one point for each well that has only black beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has more black beads than white beads, with at least one white bead present.
● Score one point for each well that is split evenly between white and black beads.
● Score one point for each well that has more white beads than black beads, with at least one black bead present.
● Score one point for each well that has only white beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has an even number of beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has an odd number of beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that is full, at five beads.
● Score one point for each well that is empty, with zero beads.

Set the card face up on the discard pile so that the other player can see what it is. Scoring markers are placed in the spot on the board that matches that card. The next player cannot play the same card in their next turn, unless it is their last card.

Players then play until all cards are exhausted. Tally up the points, and the player with the most wins.
I came up with an abstract way of indicating all of the different scoring methods, and used that to guide the card designs and the scoring boards next to the card wells.

On the Road

Once printed, the game made for an attractive package despite the uninspiring name of "Pebbles". I started to take it with me to game conferences in 2017, four full years after I had first jotted down the notes for the original concept. At 2018's Austin Game Conference, it was played by famed videogame designer Dr. Cat, who quite fell in love with it — so much so that I gave him my test copy. As a designer, of course, his big interest was whether the game was going to break because of its small size, that is, whether there was a degenerate strategy that resulted in always winning.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I was pretty sure that the permutation space of the possible states in the game was too large for the game to be easily solved — but as the game went on the road, I did start to see something that had never happened in earlier playtests: playing to a draw. And so I had to add a rule for breaking the tie.

In 2018, I took all my prototypes with me to the Tabletop Network conference, where I had been asked to speak by my friend Tim Fowers, designer of many wonderful boardgames, including Burgle Bros., which I had helped workshop when Tim lived in San Diego. I spoke about applying what I call "game grammar" to tabletop games, using poker as a particular lens.

It was a great chance to reconnect with many friends who work mostly in tabletop, such as James Ernest and Scott Rogers, as well as meet some folks whom I mostly knew only from online interactions. I felt a bit like a fish out of water there as I quickly discovered that tabletop's ecosystem for aspiring designers, pros, and publishers is quite different from that of videogames. They were all encouraging about taking my prototypes to publication, but also cautioned me that my predilection for two-player abstract strategy might prove to be a barrier to getting the games signed.

One of the folks I met there for the first time was Isaac Shalev, who worked with my acquaintance Geoff Engelstein on a boardgame design podcast and later book. Isaac and I played many prototypes together (not just mine — playing each other's games, and other people's, was the primary evening activity for the event, of course). I mentioned to him that I felt like several of the games were good enough to get published, but it was clear that given my day job, there was no way I would ever have the time to go to all the boardgame conventions and pitch. Isaac kindly offered to take my bag of prototypes on the road with him!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

And so it was that our partnership on this game began. Little did we know there was one more huge design hurdle ahead of us...

Isaac's Story

I enjoyed Raph's prototypes because they were both beautifully rendered as products, and they were unapologetically mathematically tight. I like games that balance on the edge of a knife, and I enjoy the way playing an abstract game almost feels like communicating in another language. I knew that these games could be published, but they needed to fit the taste and aesthetic that publishers and gamers were looking for, and it was my job to develop the design further, based on the feedback I received from playing the game with others, from gamers to industry professionals.

At Dice Tower Con 2018, I had the opportunity to show "Pebbles" to Tony Gulloti, who was working for Arcane Wonders, the publisher of Onitama. I thought that "Pebbles" could perhaps be the "Go" of that world, and in any case, Tony understood what it took to sell a two-player abstract that meshed a classic movement and spatial mechanism with a modern card-based system. Tony's advice was to make the game work for a higher player count. He wasn't alone. Designers, publishers and players all agreed that the game was compelling, but nothing about it suggested that the game had to be for only two players.

I had already been toying with some ideas for increasing player count. I knew that the game's math was wound pretty tightly, and the symmetry of both players playing the same nine cards over nine turns was something I could unwind a bit. I knew I could create new scoring cards and loosen the game some by cutting a turn or two off, giving players a smaller hand of scoring cards, and having players play with only a subset of the scoring cards in each game. But how to add more players?

At first I thought I'd try to add more colors — one for each player! Instead of using white versus black on scoring cards, I tried to have your color versus opposing colors. When I ran it by Raph, however, he pointed me to some problems. It would be easy to score some of the opposing colors cards and hard to score some of your own. We could rebalance how the cards score to account for the difficulty, but it might still make for lousy gameplay.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
At this point, I discarded the idea of multiple player colors. I almost discarded the game entirely, to be honest. Just prior to Tabletop Network, Geoffrey Engelstein and I had begun to write Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms, and that consumed a lot of my time and design thinking over the next year — but in the back of my mind, "Pebbles" was still percolating.

Elm City Games, a New Haven, Connecticut game store and design community, was hosting Fantasticon, and I knew it was my best shot to get a lot of players playing "Pebbles". This is the advantage of having a nice prototype with components that players want to touch — you're never short of playtesters at public events. With the event upcoming in March 2019, nearly a year after Raph and I had met, I finally came back to working with only two colors.

Raph had previously shared some math on how the game worked in terms of the overall number of stones (16), the limits of each well (5), and the total number of wells (5). I realized that something would have to change, but I also knew that solving an equation is hard when there are too many variables. I determined that the capacity of each well would remain at 5, which was a nice number that felt good in the hand. However, the number of stones in the game would increase, as would the number of bowls. For three players, I added three wells and eight stones, and four four players I added five wells and sixteen stones.

This approach succeeded in replicating the overall feel of the game and the density of stones on the board. But because a well could never have more than five stones, it was not possible to impact all the wells on the board in a single move. On the other hand, some scoring cards — particularly Odd, Even, White, and Black — were overpowered because they could score too many points now that there were more wells to count. I considered simply declaring a maximum score for these cards, but the circumstances that would allow a player to score the maximum amount cropped up too often and with little effort.

Another problem child was Empty, a card I had misgivings about from the very start. In my many early games of "Pebbles", I found that players typically chose from one of a couple of standard openings, either dropping one stone in each of the five wells to play Odd or White/Black to score five points, or playing a single stone to score Empty for four points. I had already nerfed the first opening by changing the mix of stones players received. To help unmoor the game from its two-player roots, I chose to give each player four white and four black stones. This meant that the maximum score from White or Black as an opening was now four. You could play this opening, but you would concede the ability to add stones of one color for the rest of the game. Odd was still viable as a five-point play, but now the player had to have the card in their opening hand, which happens less than half the time, and in any case, Odd was a reliable high-scorer later in the game, and stronger players concluded that opening with Odd and giving up five stones was unsound.

But Empty! Even in the original game, playing a single stone to score four points using a card whose scoring potential only continued to decrease seemed like a very strong play.

From gallery of ender7

In the game that was slowly becoming Waddle, all those extra wells, those extra locations, made Empty even stronger. In a four-player game, it was not uncommon for the first player to score nine points on Empty with nobody else able to score better than six for it. Disaster!

Design disasters are not really disasters, though; they're oracles. They provide clear feedback that something fundamental is not right, and that you ought to consider making changes to the game's core structures. Earlier in the process, I had dealt with the issue of how to translate the rule that you couldn't use the same scoring card your opponent had just used from its two-player version into multiplayer. I tried having the rules apply only to the next player in turn order, but this led to some awkward ping-ponging in which alternating players took advantage of a good board state while the other two players were a bit snookered. I decided that the bar on playing the same scoring card would apply for as long as the card was face-up in your discard pile, that is, until the end of your next turn.

Surprisingly, this led me to the big breakthrough. By taking the deck of scoring cards, adding a few, and then having players play from a smaller hand of cards, I had limited the chances of particularly unfair arrangements of cards and stones from cropping up, but I hadn't eliminated them — and the existence of more wells, and thus more scoring potential, had exacerbated their impact. A play that earned 6+ points could create a massive swing, and players couldn't counter by playing the same card, both because of the rule against it and because the odds that they had the card in hand was low.

I realized I needed to address both sides of the problem. First, I introduced the Copy card, which allows players, once per game, to copy the card an opponent has played previously in the round. This is an insurance card. Every player starts with Copy in their hand, and it gives players a tool to counter the overly-good fortune of another player.

The first half of my answer broke a fundamental rule of "Pebbles", but the second half of my answer was even more transformational. I realized that all these new wells could be organized into two separate domains. In essence, in a four-player game, there would be two regions of five wells each, and players could manipulate one of those regions and score it, but could not freely manipulate all ten wells. Either you could add stones to one region and score it, or you could redistribute stones all into one region — whether the region of origin or the other region — but you could not add stones to both regions in one turn, or empty a well and distribute its stones to wells in both regions. Your scoring card would apply only to one region: the region to which you added or redistributed stones. In the three-player game, three wells would count as being in both regions, creating two overlapping regions of five wells. Frankly, this worked a lot better than I initially expected!

Board Game: Waddle
Three-player set-up in Waddle

With the concept of two regions, the flow of stones and their balance was closer to the two-player game. There were no huge scoring plays that felt undeserved. At the same time, the tactical space of the game increased as players could consider how the two regions were evolving, and how that might suit their cards. It also opened up design space to create some new cards and adjust some old ones.

Empty had now been conquered. The Copy card curbed its advantage as an opening, and the regions diminished its top-score potential. In fact, it was now a bit of a problem when Empty showed up in hands later in the game when it was hard to use effectively. We tweaked this by introducing the concept of a special action. Instead of taking the normal action of moving stones around the board, you would instead empty a well and give the stones back to your opponents before scoring. On the one hand, Empty guaranteed you an additional point thanks to the special action; on the other hand, giving stones back to your opponents gave them a bit more power, a few more options for their turns. The idea of a special action also expanded the template, the possibilities of what a card could do, and opened up even more design space.

Full, the mirror-image twin of Empty, now got my attention. In the two-player game, Full could score only a maximum of three points because there were not enough stones to fill more than three wells. This was always a bit of a letdown for me. Going to the fully open, non-regional board had rescued Full from its weakened state, but with regions, Full was back to being a poor-scoring, uninteresting late-game card.

Board Game: Waddle
Four-player set-up in Waddle

And then it hit me — just because there are regions does not mean that ALL cards must be limited to scoring a single region! A card like Full could score both regions! It would still top out at no more than six points in a four-player game, and achieving that condition was difficult and satisfying. Another OG card, the card now known as Equal benefitted from similar treatment. It had previously been somewhat challenging to score well with this card for wells with an equal number of white and black stones. Early in the game there aren't enough stones on the board, and later the board is too tight to manage the manipulation, leaving only a brief mid-game period in which a good score was possible. Allowing Equal to score both regions made the card more powerful, while increasing the ways players could cleverly construct the right arrangements.

It took some time to finalize these new cards and make all the little adjustments and decisions that take a game from "fun" to "ready to be signed". Fortunately, Zev Shlasinger, whom I've been lucky enough to know from before I even started designing games, had taken an interest. Zev saw the game over the summer convention season in 2019 and took the prototype for further evaluation. We had an agreement to go forward at BGG.CON, where Daniel Solis, the Wizkids product manager — and the graphic designer for Building Blocks — began to consider the theme, product, and packaging as well.

Board Game: Waddle
Penguins chillin'

My design goals for "Pebbles", now Waddle, were to extend the game to four players and to loosen it up a bit, to make it more fluid, fun, and not quite so tense! I knew I succeeded when Daniel came back with the art and the re-theme for the game. We had always thought of "Pebbles" as an Asian-inspired game of stones and wood and leather wingback chairs with smokey scotch and a cigar in amber light. It was Serious and Formal — but that was the game that we started with. At the end of our design work, the game was much lighter on its feet, and the movement of the penguins from place to place brought more smiles than grimaces to the faces of players. It took Daniel and Zev seeing what the game in front of them was and bringing that to life, instead of being tied to the game that had been.

Raph came up with this game back in 2013. We met in early 2018. The game was signed nearly two years after that in late 2019. It will arrive in stores in February 2021. This eight-year journey is not even that unusual in tabletop game design. Sometimes that's simply how long it takes. But the journey from "Pebbles" to Waddle, from stones to penguins, and from two-player mindbender to a delightful family game is, like the march of the penguins itself, remarkable.
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Tue Feb 9, 2021 1:00 pm
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Visual Design Diary: Master Word, or Simple is Complicated!

Manuel Sanchez
Canada
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Microbadge: security is our dutyMicrobadge: Zombie Kidz Evolution fanMicrobadge: Le Scorpion Masqué fan
Simple is Complicated! (or, The Puzzle of Determining an Artistic Direction for a Game Without a Theme)

The process behind creating the visual assets for Master Word was more of a collaborative effort than a complete "work" conceived and carried out by one person, which is often the way of things at game publisher Scorpion Masqué.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

For the visuals of this game, the final result is a fusion between the work of the illustrator (my longtime friend and veteran videogame artist NILS, who has also illustrated three of our other games); the modern graphic design of our graphic designer/illustrator Sébastien; the visions of Christian Lemay (Scorpion Masqué's Grand Poobah); and finally me, the Creative Director (a little-used title in the board game world that situates me at the crossroads of the visual and mechanical experience of our games).

This box (and its design) that seems so simple was, in fact, a work that was constantly doubted, second-guessed, brought back to the table, and re-designed over the course of three months. This investment of time and resources was totally over-the-top for a "silly little" party game, but as they say, being simple is complicated — especially when we ask ourselves too many questions, and we don't want to be like everyone else!

How Would You Like Your Game: With or Without a Theme?

If you're making a zombie game, you stick a zombie and a cheerleader holding an axe on the cover of your game, and voilà! If you make a classic fantasy game, you throw a dwarf, an elf, and a knight in there, and you've covered your bases. You then simply have to decide whether you want your visuals to be serious or more cartoony, and bada-boom, you've got all the elements you need for your cover. (Yes, I know, it's not that easy, but let's allow ourselves this caricature for the sake of demonstrating the point.)

The characters we see on these box covers are the player's "avatars", the imaginary characters they will take on during the game.

But a themeless game gives you nothing to represent, so what do you use?

When making a party game with words, you are addressing a very wide audience which, without a fairly restrained visual style, could easily be frightened off. It's also very easy to get lost as you try to reinvent everything along the way.

If you put too much theme into your word-based party game by adding space ships, asteroids, and lasers, nobody is going to understand what category your game should be in, and you risk losing people who will react against your choice. ("I hate Star Wars, so this game is clearly not for me!")

If you are too much like everyone else and do what they are doing — a big colorful title written on an equally-colorful background — then you risk falling into anonymity, drowning in hundreds of games that are forgotten before they even come out, victims of the "do what works" mentality.

Board Game: Codenames
Board Game: DAWAK
From gallery of W Eric Martin
Board Game: Give Me Five
Board Game: Time's Up!
Board Game: Just One

For a few years now, foul-mouthed party games have carved a niche for themselves within the industry by establishing their own particular graphic design code.

Yes, this is essentially the same game three times...

Board Game: Personally Incorrect
Board Game: Disturbed Friends
Board Game: Cards Against Humanity

Amateur party game enthusiasts don't expect this:

Board Game: Trapwords
Board Game: Unspeakable Words

For me, Trapwords is well-executed, but it's hard to know exactly what to expect with this illustration. It's probably too heavily "themed", which alienates more people than it attracts.

This also presents a significant risk of falling into the black hole between party game and thematic game.

When Repos Production revealed this minimalist cover, many people considered it commercial suicide, and yet, somehow it still managed to be hugely successful...

Board Game: Concept

In fact, some covers in this vein have really stood out recently:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Let's do a little thought experiment:

What is the best box art for a themeless party game you've seen in the last little while? As in, that stood out and that you thought was nice? Difficult, isn't it? More often than not, they "do the job", but don't really touch us in any significant way. We understand what to expect from the game, and the art doesn't drive us away — but it doesn't spontaneously attract us either!

All this to say that this type of game has always given us a tough time at Scorpion Masqué. Considering the sheer volume of games being released into the marketplace, doesn't "doing it like everyone else" become riskier than trying something new?

In wanting to stand out we took a few paths, with varying levels of success, in our pursuit of the winning formula...

From gallery of W Eric Martin

...until we finally managed to focus on who our games are made for:

Board Game: Decrypto
Board Game: Stay Cool

Building on the success (which had evaded us to this point) of the covers of Decrypto and Stay Cool (another collaboration with NILS), and because every success deserves a trilogy, we wanted to drive home our advantage even further with our "old cartoon" characters with their white gloves!

In a Themeless Game, The Character Is...You

Christian and I love characters. We like that a little character can bring a big personality to a game, and it's also easier to identify and memorize. "You know, the game with the green dog?" is a lot better than "You know, the game in which you have to guess a word from some other words?" In Master Word, one player is a guide, so why not play around with that?

But creating a character is a hazardous undertaking: A girl? A boy? Young? Old? Black? White? Asian? Inner-city style? Hipster? Countryside? Will this character be "you" enough to identify with?

Remember, when you play a game with a theme, the character on the cover (barbarian, astronaut, medieval peasant...) is an avatar that you will embody during the game. It doesn't need to be exactly you, but it has to satisfy your fantasy, be it of power, of nobility...or even of cruelty!

But if the game doesn't have a theme, the human character on the cover is pretty much "you", and the style or type of representation could get in the way of you identifying with it. When humans are pictured on the covers of party games, they are for the most part represented as silhouettes, upon which players can project images of themselves. That's certainly one way around it, but it hardly creates a strong connection.

How do you create a character that is neither an avatar nor "you"? A kind of mascot...?

Board Game: Spot it!

Is it an object, like the bomb in Stay Cool or the little computer in Decrypto? Or perhaps a human-like animal, that classic cartoon and comic trope dating back more than one hundred years?

The fox is an easy choice for a cheeky character in a game in which we're asked to be clever — but this leads us to concern #2 for graphic design in a party game for (mostly) adults: Will this be too childish?

Christian and I wagered that if our character's look were a mix of extreme retro and modern "street", rendered in an unmistakably adult, contemporary graphic style, we'd put that concern to rest. A little research into some of the best-known adult animation universes would be the best place to start.

The classics:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Modern works in the classic style:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Street style with Montreal-based 123Klan:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From that we got the first sketches from Nils, which were a little too cute, a little too childish:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

A guide that is a little too charming and cute:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Back to the drawing board: cheekier and more 'street'!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

There's the mischievous look we were after!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Logo and Packaging

So the character lines up perfectly with the rest of the retro line established by Decrypto and Stay Cool, but this time we envisioned a super-clean graphic design and a white background to create a strong contrast to all the other games of the same genre. The contrast is also important for creating a visual that is modern, fun, and engaging, despite the retro choice of black and white for the mascot, and of white for the background. As we saw above, white boxes had already made their mark on store shelves, and we were going to build on that — but as we also saw above, fans of party games like their boxes colorful and full of cartoony lettering.

As the character is a mix of old and new, the title's style should also follow this trend. Luckily for us, there's a bit of a hipster movement going on that is following exactly the same lines of inspiration as us!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

It was no small feat to find a visual that was both clean and efficient to put on the box. (Our "cover" folder has eighty different iterations, not counting the versions that NILS proposed!)

Here are some of the early research pieces by NILS in the "That's All Folks!" style:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In the midst of all these reiterations, we were starting to have a hard time seeing the wood for the trees. We needed a new pair of eyes to guide us, and the game's designer, Gérald Cattiaux, , stepped up (perhaps being a little concerned with the iconoclastic path we had taken). With one glance, he was able to help us understand that our intermediate version was much too bland. Discussions with José from Asmodee France and Tom Vuarchex, our favorite illustrator/graphic designer ("illugraphiste", as he calls himself!), gently pushed us toward the contour and the red stars that both add color and create a link to the party game concept.

Too bland!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Perfecto!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

It's worth noting that for the red, we wanted to use a fluorescent Pantone color close to the neon color of the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con controllers, but the factory was never able to find the ink that would produce that result. This being the case, we decided to opt for a more classic red.

The rest of the game's materials matches the style established by the box: two colors, red and black, simple and efficient. The little fox heads on the card holder distinguish the back from the front. The clue cards could have been completely white, but a light dotted grid motif and the little thumb indicating where the joker should be placed gives an elegant look that links them with the rest of the game's materials.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Board Game: Master Word

Simple Is Complicated

And there you have it, a summary of our team's peregrinations, our doubts, our second-guessing, the process we went through to achieve visuals that are not simply old-fashioned retro skins, but instead graphics that use those retro concepts as jumping-off points to reconstruct something fresh and modern. We hope we have created something that stands out from what everyone does, while still staying within the tastes of those who love party games.

To survive this kind of exhaustive process, each contributor has to focus on their craft, reiterating and reiterating until the goal is achieved. We can expect resistance from some of the more conservative elements of society, but we feel we had a clear direction from the start, a good understanding of people's tastes and their reactions, good intuition, and a strong sense of confidence in the fact that the goal we set ourselves would work and was attainable.

The worst part, in fact, is that the development of the game design itself was a similar story, but that's one for another time...

Manuel Sanchez
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Thu Dec 24, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game Takes on the Supreme Court

Board Game: Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game
We're three siblings from a gerrymandered district in Austin, Texas, and this is the story of how we designed a board game about gerrymandering — and ended up at the Supreme Court with 82 copies of Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game.

We grew up on Catan, Dominion, Tigris, Galaxy Trucker, and dozens of other games. Birthdays consisted of laying out our collection on the living room floor and playing straight through the day. We also invented our own games, pilfering components from different boxes and mashing them together. One of us, Louis, invented Pathwayz at the age of eleven, with the game being published eight years later, but that's another story.

We also grew up discussing politics around the dinner table. In 2017, on summer break from high school (Josh) and college (Becca and Louis), we wondered: Is there a gerrymandering board game? Gerrymandering has all the elements of a game: scheming, strategizing, backstabbing. Even more importantly, a board game seemed like a great way to help people learn and have face-to-face conversations about an issue that isn't discussed enough.

Gerrymandering is when politicians draw their district borders to benefit themselves. Packing and cracking are the main tactics of gerrymandering. Politicians "pack" an opposing party's voters by cramming them all into a single district, so that party will have fewer voters to win other districts. Politicians "crack" an opposing party's voters by spreading them across multiple districts, so that party never has a majority.

From gallery of bscriptor
Voters from Austin have been cracked into five districts

We wanted to create a game that would be easy to learn and fun to play, not just a one-off political gimmick. We wanted to appeal to board gamers, educators, and gerrymandering experts alike. We'd always loved games with a high depth to complexity ratio; we turned to Knizia and abstract strategy games for inspiration.

We started tinkering. We settled early on the idea of each player as a political party trying to gerrymander. From the first version, the goal has remained the same: Win the most districts.

From gallery of bscriptor
Early prototypes of Mapmaker, made with components from Catan, Ticket to Ride, Cosmic Encounter, and Othello

We cared about capturing the spirit of gerrymandering, the feel of cracking and packing, more than the precise details. For example, in the real world, districts are required to be approximately the same size, while in Mapmaker, the size of each district varies.

At first, the game was just for two players: Republicans vs. Democrats. Wanting to open the game to more players, we expanded to four political parties: Blue Donkeys, Red Elephants, Yellow Porcupines (fun fact: the porcupine is the symbol of the Libertarian party), and Green Leaves. We kept the symbols — this is, after all, a political game — but avoided official party names so that players could overlook the political theme if they preferred.

We playtested with more than one hundred people over the course of a year.

From gallery of bscriptor
Just some of the playtesters who helped make Mapmaker better

We experimented with the shape of regions. Squares were too limiting. Classic hexagons worked best.

We experimented with the number of district borders per turn. Three didn't allow players to do enough maneuvering at once. Five led to double guessing and analysis paralysis.

We experimented with the size of districts. Allowing players to close off larger (non-splittable) districts led to wacky shapes, capturing the bizarre extremes of gerrymandering.

At first, the number of borders and size of districts per turn varied based on player count. Biasing for simplicity, we went with four per turn regardless of player count.

Tie-breaking was our biggest breakthrough, including creating swing counties for players to fight over and making whoever closes a tied district choose the winner. Natural politicking ensued.

We also designed a solo version.

From gallery of bscriptor
Left: three swing counties won by a narrow margin; right: a game won with a 12-county district

From gallery of bscriptor
Wooden prototypes of Mapmaker, laser cut at Stanford's Product Realization Lab

We'd heard about plenty of Kickstarter fulfillment nightmares, so we reached out to Go! Games, the company that had published Pathwayz, and they partnered with us to publish Mapmaker.

From gallery of bscriptor
Here we are playing Mapmaker soon before the Kickstarter

Fast forward to the Kickstarter campaign in mid-2018. We had no idea what to expect. Neither us nor Go! Games had ever done a Kickstarter before. We knew about the importance of day one funding and building momentum. Despite research and pre-Kickstarter marketing, we worried that no one beyond our family and friends would back Mapmaker.

The campaign began, and to our delight, people began backing right away. We'd set up the Kickstarter to have several levels, including:

State Pack, which would send a copy of the game to your governor or state legislator, in addition to getting one for yourself
Supreme Pack, which would get you copy while also sending a copy to each of the nine Supreme Court Justices
Super PAC, which would send five copies to you, nine to the Supreme Court Justices, 32 to the governors who have veto power over gerrymandered maps, and 37 to the state legislatures that draw maps

We didn't think anyone would actually order a Super PAC — but a few hours into the campaign, funding shot up $3,000 with a Super PAC pledge, and Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted his support.


Then he did it again two weeks later:


Mapmaker ultimately ended up on NBC, NPR, Ars Technica, and The Washington Post. And thanks to 1,468 backers, the game became a reality.

From gallery of bscriptor
Meeples at the factory

Backers ordered 82 copies of Mapmaker for the Supreme Court. On March 26, 2019 during the "Rucho v. Common Cause" case, we delivered them ourselves, with a "Gerrymandering Is Not a Game" proclamation in each box. One of us (Josh) gave a speech on the steps of the Supreme Court.

From gallery of bscriptor
With Arnold Schwarzenegger after an anti-gerrymandering event in Washington, DC

From gallery of bscriptor
With 82 copies of Mapmaker in front of the Supreme Court

One of the coolest full-circle moments was watching The Dice Tower review the game since we'd originally discovered many of our favorite games through them.

Throughout this journey, we've especially loved seeing students play Mapmaker and learn about gerrymandering in classrooms.

Mapmaker can now be played for free online at Board Game Arena (tell your friends, families, and Civics and History teachers), in addition to being available on Amazon and directly through our local publisher.

The next round of redistricting is starting, and will determine our maps for the next decade. We hope you enjoy playing Mapmaker, and remember that gerrymandering is not a game.

Becca, Josh, and Louis Lafair

From gallery of bscriptor
Copy of Mapmaker, complete with meeples and other stretch goals, thanks to our backers
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Tue Dec 22, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Skora

Rory Muldoon
United Kingdom
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Board Game: Skora
Skora is my first published game. I'm the designer and the illustrator, Rose Atkinson is the developer, and Inside the Box Board Games is the publisher.

In the Beginning

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to make video games.

I quit my ad-agency graphic design job and set myself up as a freelancer. I'm a pretty risk-averse person, but I was spurred on to make the decision after working on an iPhone virtual pet with some friends. It wasn't a huge success, but it did make me realize that games were what I wanted to do.

The virtual pet had been a team affair, with us all handling game design and me specifically doing the art and UI. I tried to recreate this dynamic with my next project but struggled to find the right people. The friends I'd worked with before had moved on to other things, and after a couple of false starts, I began wondering whether it was time for me to move on, too.

Tabletop

Tabletop games were a chance to make something without needing a team (at least to begin with). I was already a keen board gamer, but I'd always seen analog design as a mysterious dark art. I got over this by telling myself that even if I made a bad game, I might still be able to demonstrate my ability as an artist. If I couldn't make my own games, maybe I could get some graphic design work in the industry.

After the burnout of my last few projects, I was keen to do something small and achievable. I wasn't set on a particular theme or mechanism, but I knew I wanted to do something with a minimalist art style. If I could get the ruleset to match this graphical simplicity, then all the better.

Simple ≠ Easy

As it turns out, making a simple game is hard. My first iterations were either too convoluted or so simplistic that they just didn't work. Through all of the muddiness of my prototypes, I started losing the vision of what I wanted my game to be. I had a vague theme of fishing, but it was uninteresting and uninspiring. Some elements were working mechanically, yet I couldn't visualize where it was going.

I started thinking about the things I liked about my current prototype. Top of the list was an area-control mechanism that rewarded all players who placed a piece in an area. I was still solo playtesting at this point, but it was the thing that I enjoyed puzzling over the most. After some contemplation, it occurred to me that I should leverage this mechanism as part of the theme. I figured a lot of area-control games are about war, so maybe mine could be about warring and fishing. The juxtaposition of those ideas excited me in a way that finally made things click.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Card sketch and final artwork

Enter the Vikings

It's not a massive leap from fishing and warring to the Vikings, and that's where I went next. I researched Viking art and found some great articles on the "Borre Style", a visual language used by the Vikings around 900 CE. It fitted with the geometric art style that I wanted to use and provided me with a great foundation for the art direction. It also brought me to a name: "Skora", the old Norse word for counting fish.

From gallery of Wookiebait

Various Prototypes

By this point, I was involved enough in the design that I wanted the game to be good. I refined my ruleset further and introduced a battling mechanism to further push the theme. I didn't want to make a confrontational game, so the "war" element was abstracted into a way to break ties.

I playtested the game at a few Playtest UK sessions. I also booked a slot at my local convention, Handycon, and it was with that event looming that I started work on the art in earnest. Development of the visual style was relatively swift. I'd had this idea in my head for so long that it pretty much fell out in one go.

From gallery of Wookiebait
Playtesting at Dragonmeet and Handycon

Pitching

After more playtesting and development, I decided to pitch my game to Inside the Box Board Games. I was pretty nervous as I'd read a few articles about publishers not wanting to see games with finished artwork.

It turns out ITB liked the art (and the idea) enough to invite me in for a playtest. After a bit more development, the game was signed in early 2019.

I learnt a lot working on Skora, but my biggest takeaway was how useful it is keeping an end product in mind. The desire to make a defined thing not only shaped my prototypes, but also gave me the constraints I needed to get Skora over the finish line.

Rory Muldoon

From gallery of Wookiebait
The finished game
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Tue Dec 15, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Codenames Online

Tomas Uhlir
Czech Republic
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Microbadge: 2017 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: 2019 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: Under Falling Skies
From gallery of uhlik
It's Friday evening, time for a game night with friends — or at least that's how it was before COVID-19 hit the world and changed everything.

That said, we've still found ways to get together for games, in this case playing Codenames with our new web application, and it's still hilarious to see how one of us misinterpreted a clue, even though we're seeing his face only through a videochat window.

Let's go back several months: The first wave of COVID-19 had struck, and everything is getting shut down. We at Czech Games Edition immediately saw how it would affect our customers, the gamers. As you know, we are all gamers, too. We would miss our regular meetings, close gaming clubs, and cancel boardgaming events.

Board Game: Adrenaline: Solo Play DLC
Board Game: Sanctum: Singleplayer
Of course, this situation would affect not just our hobby, but also the way we work. Playtesting would be now much more challenging. We are kind of lucky since one of the two games we have in our sleeve for 2020 is Under Falling Skies, the first solitaire game we've ever published. Not only is a solo game a bit less problematic to playtest, but we realize that this design might also come in handy for players who have lost access to their gaming groups. On top of this, we publish free solitaire modes for our games Adrenaline (Adrenaline: Solo Play DLC) and Sanctum (Sanctum: Singleplayer), while adding a solitaire mode to our other 2020 release, Lost Ruins of Arnak.

However, board games are about playing with friends, so we quickly prepare special instructional videos for Trapwords and Codenames to show players how they can play these games remotely with a physical copy by using common videochat tools.

We also put a huge discount on our digital apps for Galaxy Trucker (link) and Through the Ages (link) because social contact through asynchronous gameplay is better than nothing, but still we wanted more.

We were considering whether our third app, which would be for Codenames, could be finished quickly enough. However, that project had just received a big overhaul, with us designing lots of cool content, game modes, challenges, ranking systems, etc., to allow for a really lasting experience, and it would take much more time to implement all of this. Should we strip out all that great stuff just to bring it out faster?

Luckily, we didn't have to. It doesn't take that much to play a game of Codenames with your friends over the internet. Many great videochat tools exist for communication, and people are getting more familiar with them in the time of lockdowns and self-quarantines. All you need is a comfortable playing table, and that's not that hard to implement if you have a good web programmer — and we just happened to have one who was both very skilled and enthusiastic about the project.

We wanted to provide an experience for our fans that looked and felt like the board game version, so developing Codenames Online — an official web version with all the assets and languages — became a clear choice. We knew that we could provide the true experience of Codenames, a version that we would continue to develop and support in the future.

From gallery of uhlik

We started quietly, adding a link only to our official Codenames webpage, without promoting it in any other way. We planned to run it for some time without announcing it publicly so that we could control the growth and test it, but even without any additional support, news of the online version started to spread fast, and I mean really fast. We recorded over 85,000 players in the first four weeks, and at that time the only way that people could have discovered the online version was through that single link or by Googling.

Now six months have passed since the debut of Codenames Online, and its growth has exceeded all of our expectations! So far, more than 1.6 million players have tried the game, with over 500k having started just in the last month. This volume would probably be much more without artificial limitations to avoid overloading our servers, and at this point we're adding server after server to keep pace with the rapidly growing playerbase.

From gallery of uhlik

But apart from increasing the capacity, we continue to work on making Codenames Online more accessible and pleasant to play. As of the end of November 2020, the site itself (buttons, instructions, etc.) can be run in nine different languages, while you can choose from 39 languages for the words. Have you ever tried to play Codenames in a foreign language? It's a lot of fun!

From gallery of uhlik

It's amazing to see people use the site in so many different ways: to hang out with family and friends, to run regular streams or tournaments, to enrich school lessons, or as a fun activity between lectures, which is what happened for the All Day DevOps conference, which had nearly 30,000 registrations and speakers from companies like Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and many more. We even agreed to support their tournament with a special thematic word-pack they had prepared.

From gallery of uhlik
This would be a tough game indeed

Codenames Online has been a really fun project so far. It started as something small, developed mostly to fill in this strange period of time, but it's grown into something much more. While developing it, the ideas started to pile up. The digital platform offers a myriad options, and in some ways the online version is already smoother than the physical game.

And while it's still completely free, we already plan many cool features that you can look forward to. We guess we can give you a hint as to one addition that's already moving down the road...

Your CGE team

P.S. Come join the fun of Codenames Online!

From gallery of uhlik
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Tue Dec 8, 2020 1:00 pm
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