You find yourself back in Sydney, Australia, around Christmas in 2017. You enjoy being back home and escaping an English winter, as well as seeing your family. You have some spare time one day and are wondering what to do.
If you want to design a game by yourself, go to . If you want to try to find a co-designer to generate some new ideas, go to .
In return for meeting up to discuss designs, you offer Phil a veritable horde of riches and wealth, an offer that in reality amounts to paying for a few drinks. Phil, being the extremely kind person that he is, turns the table and in fact invites you to his house to work — no bribes necessary! Go to .
Considering the rough state of the game, you decide to show the game to only a few publishers in Nürnberg. You get some interest — and even play a full scenario in one meeting — but no one quite sees the promise in the game that you and Phil see. That's not surprising considering how new the design is!
One of the final meetings you have is with Wolfgang Ludkte from KOSMOS, someone you have been meeting at fairs for the last eight years or so. It is always a pleasure to meet with Wolfgang, especially as he is particularly willing to be shown absolutely anything you are working on. He always wants to see designs — even if he will quickly say it is something KOSMOS is not interested in.
Brett Gilbert (center), Wolfgang Ludkte (right), and I at SPIEL '18
This is key as you had not really considered showing the Adventure Game to Wolfgang. KOSMOS publishes the already hugely successful Exit series, after all, and isn't this game just a bit too close to it? What do you do?
Leave the prototype in your bag — better not to risk it. Go to . Take Wolfgang's encouragement and show him the prototype. Go to .
It starts with Phil's desire to make a system for an open adventuring game, something that acts as a scaffold for any type of story or mechanism, while offering interesting yet clear decisions. You quickly think about the old point-and-click video games — games, puzzles really, that relied on the myriad possible combinations between a few simple elements. Going straight from this inspiration, you think about having a deck of actions — Search, Talk, Take, or Use — and a set of cards laid out that represent different locations where you can perform these different actions. Players have a hand of action cards, and on their turn will move to a location and use a specific action there. Then they would draw a new card, and the game ends when the deck of actions is depleted.
Because each of the locations potentially has five different results based on which action you choose to use, we needed an easy way to access these results – it would be too difficult to list them all on the back of the card! Sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel, so in the tradition of games like Tales of the Arabian Nights, we turned to a paragraph book. Each action card has a specific number, as do the location cards, and to show the interaction between the two, you would simply add one to the other (a lá Unlock) and turn to that entry in the book. For example, you encounter a knight at a crossroads. Do you...
Search him? Go to . Talk to him? Go to .
Cards from the first prototype; I'm not known for my artistic skills!
You enjoy some alone time, but can't seem to get any new ideas brewing. It's hard to concentrate when the weather is so good! But you still really want to make a new game, so you reach out to some friends. Go to .
One hot December day, you trudge through suburban Sydney to Phil's apartment. Once there, you undergo the usual meeting of design minds: seeing what each other is obsessed with playing at the moment, which games are in your collections, what it was like to work with publisher X. But the question that propels the discussion is this one: "What game are you really itching to make?"
"I want to make an easy-to-learn family game, maybe something with brightly colored pieces?" Go to . "I want to make a crazy ambitious open-world adventuring game!" Go to .
You try to get started on an idea based on a deserted island and pirate treasure, but in the meantime Phil is so productive that he manages to finish a scenario with that same theme in only a few days! Cyberpunk it is, then! Go to .
While you haven't lived in Australia for almost ten years, you reach out to Phil Walker-Harding, having only met him a handful of times — fun side fact: you were the very first distributor of Sushi Go! in Europe, which in reality means posting a lot of parcels to the original Kickstarter backers — to see whether he is open to working on a game with you.
If you want to try to convince him by flattery, go to . If you want to try to convince him with a bribe, go to .
This is the option you should have taken. It is certainly not recommended to show games to publishers that you haven't had time to playtest and iterate extensively. You don't want to waste their time, after all!
But in this case, well, you and Phil just instinctively know you have something here, even if it is still rough. You decide to show it to a few select publishers anyway. Go to .
You want a scenario that is a bit more sinister and dark. What better than a shadowy corporation in the near future that has developed a new wonder drug? And while Phil's excellent graphic skills are on display in his scenarios, your meager artistic skills lead you to rely on images from computer games with the required look. It's a tough slog, building a scenario from scratch, but you eventually have a first draft ready to send to KOSMOS.
Initial prototype location card from what would become Monochrome Inc.
But this is only the start. Over the coming months, you and Phil work with Ralph and Michael Sieber-Baskal, a role-playing expert at KOSMOS who takes the development lead for the project, going through iteration after iteration to find the best experience and story for the two scenarios. A lot of work is done to remove any elements not absolutely essential to telling a compelling story, and to reduce any overly mechanical experiences. You know that you couldn't have done it without Michael and Ralph (and indeed the rest of the KOSMOS team), and when the final product is ready to go to print, you are all extremely proud of what you've accomplished. Adventure Games: The Dungeon and Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc. will launch in German on May 16, 2019, and in English in October 2019, and you and Phil can't wait to see players making their way through the adventures!
The launch is imminent, and you consider writing a designer diary for BoardGameGeek. Do you...
Write a conventional kind of story, with a linear narrative? Go to . Do something a bit different, more befitting the adventure games? Go to .
This system worked well and allowed a lot of surprising results, often from the fact we had to choose relatively generic actions that could work with people and inanimate locations — although even then it stretched logic a bit! For example, what would you happen if you "Interact" with that knight? What happens if you "Talk" to a lake?
But we also wanted a sense of progression, of discovery, of finding that key interaction that suddenly opens up all of these new options. Again turning to the source material of point-and-clicks, we remembered that these usually allowed you to pick up various items along the way, with these items then becoming a new way to interact with locations. It was relatively easy to implement new numbered items that you would receive at different locations, such as gaining an empty bottle when you Search the tavern. A player would keep items in front of them, and on their turn they could combine these with a location, or another item, again looking up the sum of the two numbers in the book. We also added new locations that were revealed if the players did certain actions, again opening up new options. Here we reached the same complexity of combinations from a small number of components that we were looking for!
You meet Phil a second time to work on the scenario in early January 2018, and before long it is time for you to travel back to the UK. With a little bit more writing, you have a full playable prototype, and Spielwarenmesse — the annual toy fair in Nürnberg — is only two weeks away! What do you do?
Work more on the game. After all, it's only about a month old and has barely been tested! Go to . Playtesting — who needs that? Show it to publishers in Nürnberg! Go to .
Hasn't this story taught you anything about following your gut and taking a chance? Obviously it hasn't. You lose. Go back to .
You wax lyrical to Phil about the elegance and simplicity of his designs, from the moorish Sushi Go! to the chunky decision making of Imhotep. Despite him being extremely modest about his accomplishments, you sense your words have convinced him, and he invites you to visit him. Go to .
Phil takes out his enormous box of many colored cubes, and you start randomly moving them around on a piece of paper. Then a kind of slot machine mechanism starts to form, with you dropping pieces into different chutes and trying to get them to match colors where they land. Maybe the pieces are differently colored candies? But most importantly — there is something here with this idea...
You have designed a different game than what you were destined for. This is the end of this story, but it will be continued...! Go back to .
Here goes! You set up the game and start explaining it to Wolfgang. Within five minutes, he gets up and gets a colleague to join you at the table. This turns out to be Ralph Querfurth, the person at KOSMOS who had the original idea for the Exit series. Immediately they are both extremely excited by the game and start thinking about possibilities for the system. Rather than this idea competing with Exit, they think it could be a new line to follow it! They ask to be able to take the game back to their offices and test it further.
In the meantime, Phil has been working on another version of the system called "Trek" in which there are no specific action cards; instead the location cards simply show a series of numbers on different features of the card, and players can choose which thing they want to interact with by turning to that number. If, for example, you are in a dungeon, you can examine the window or the door, or perhaps look under the bed, and in each case you turn to a different number. You still have items, and these can be combined with any number present in a location or with another item; to do this, you place the smaller number in front of the larger number, then to that combination. In the example below, if you turn to entry 1011 this details your success in using the can opener on the can of cat food, and it gives you item 12 — an open can of cat food!
An example of how combining items works in the Adventure Games
Seeing as the game is still progressing, we send this version to KOSMOS as well, and they begin testing both versions. It is quickly apparent that the Trek system is superior. Gone are the strange combinations of action and place, and it more closely resembles the adventure games: You can look at a location and directly decide what you want to investigate more closely. Furthermore, you can control the rate at which new location cards are added to give a better sense of pacing. Finally, the game is simple. On your turn, you simply examine a location or use an item.
KOSMOS agrees as well, and within two months they sign the game for publication! But the work is now only just beginning: KOSMOS wants new scenarios to test, to see what works and what doesn't. Phil continues to work on his dungeon concept, as well as [redacted] and [redacted] scenarios. Now you get a chance to write your first scenario with Phil's new system — what type of story do you want to tell?
Pirates! Go to . Cyberpunk! Go to .
(Real entry from the initial prototype) Hello, stranger! I am afraid I cannot let you pass. But I am extremely thirsty and would happily share a drink with you if you had one.
Hmmm...where will you find a drink for him? Go to .
In some adventures you have to take a chance...but this is not one of those times. You leave Nürnberg with no interest in the game, and your adventure ends here. Go back to , and maybe try taking a chance this time!
(Real entry from the initial prototype) "What are you doing?" The knight doesn't take kindly to a stranger attempting to search his person, and he "thanks" you with a punch to the head. Discard all of your action cards, then draw three new action cards at the end of your turn.
Well, that didn't go too well! Go to .
I hope you enjoyed your adventure! You have made it the end of this designer diary, and the Adventure Games have become a reality. You win!
There's an old saying that I'm sure you've heard: "It takes a village to design a game." I'm about a dozen games into my career, but I don't think any of my designs has been quite as collaborative as my small drafting game Bugs on Rugs.
After each convention, I have a steak dinner. It's a treat, a way to wind down, an excuse to put meat in my mouth-hole. At the end of Field Marshall Gaming Con 2016, as I was eating my New York strip, I decided to go through the "game ideas" folder on my phone.
I'm sure every designer has something similar: a list of themes, names, mechanisms. Most of them will never leave the folder, but sometimes you'll find a 3:00 a.m. idea you had that has some potential.
In this case, it was a drafting mechanism that caught my eye, specifically a Rochester draft — a draft from the table, a là The Networks — in which the undrafted card affects everyone.
When I originally thought of the mechanism, I was imagining it as a small part of a larger game — players choosing a Greek god to worship, with the remaining deity getting mad and smiting the town — but I'd just started to find success with Jellybean Games, so my focus was on small, family-friendly games.
Instead of this mechanism being part of a whole, what if it were the entire game?
I landed on the bug-catching theme pretty quickly: The cards had to be something collectible, and the unchosen card having an effect suggested it had to be something active, alive.
I could have gone with hunting safari animals or even my original "picking a god to worship" idea, but once the idea of bug-collecting struck me, I knew it was the perfect fit. My love of ants (no idea why, but I truly love ants) certainly helped.
By the time my meal was done I had two pages of notes, and within the week I had a prototype:
My worst habit is overdesigning. The first draft had 21 unique bugs, in four types: standard, pest, butterfly, and dragonfly (which existed as an elaborate mechanism to determine each round's starting player). For comparison, the final game has nine bugs, and the first player role passes to the left at the end of each round.
This is where the village began to weigh in. Two designer friends of mine — Allysha Tulk and Kevin Carmichael — had a design night at their house. The first time we played, the (then-untitled) game wasn't fun. A lot of the effects involved cards moving in and out of your hand, so you'd pick a card, then immediately lose it. Kevin made the first big suggestion of the development process: Have everyone take two cards before the effect kicked in. The game immediately got a lot more interesting.
Before I left, Allysha made the second big contribution: "Net It", a working title for the game.
Over the next few months, "Net It" became my most playtested game. It was the easiest to teach, it required very little set-up or table space, and people understood it almost immediately. I remember playing it in a Korean restaurant at 1:00 a.m. with Eric Lang, who suggested I start everyone with a card to discourage everyone memorizing each other's picks.
Cardboard Edison (Chris Zinsli and Suzanne Karbt) helped me tweak the numbers higher and lower, seeing how the incentives for different bug combinations changed.
But the next huge change to the game came after BGG.CON 2016 when I showed the game to Jonathan Gilmour — but before we get to that, let me lay out a few details about gameplay at that time:
The game is simple. To set up, shuffle the deck and have everyone draw a card. Each round, lay bugs on the table: twice as many bugs as players, plus one, so in a three-player game, seven bugs and in a five-player game, eleven. Choose a starting player. They take a bug. Go around to the left until everyone has taken two bugs, then trigger the final bug and move it to the side. (At the time, this was called "the garden").
Keep playing until the first butterfly card is exposed — these are placed at the bottom of the deck at the start of play — then finish that round and calculate points from your hand. Whoever has the most points wins!
Each bug had a different scoring method: Fireflies gained a point for each bug of a different color in your hand; ants were worth more the more you have; bees were worth 2 points each, plus a point for each bee held by another player; flies were worth 2 points each; and spiders were worth 2 points for each fly you held.
The garden effects were pretty simple as well: Everyone draws a card; everyone discards a card; discard all other garden cards; activate some more garden cards.
I'd first met Jon at Metatopia. To my amazement, he recognized me as the guy behind Dracula's Feast (which had just wrapped up on Kickstarter). Dead of Winter was one of my gateway games, so I was more than a little starstruck.
At BGG.CON, I didn't really know anyone. That was the con where I met my future best friend/business partner Nicole Perry, but I'd literally just met her and didn't really love the idea of saying, "Hey, can we hang out all day every day at this convention please?" Jon saw me wandering around, found me on Facebook, and sent me a message asking whether I wanted to come play with him and his crew.
If you're looking for a physical representation of the spirit of kindness, warmth, and inclusivity in this community, you need go no further than Jonathan Gilmour.
I spent most of BGG.CON playing games with Jon and his group — the "Jontourage" — all of whom I'm now good friends with. We played published games, prototypes, the whole gamut. By the end of the convention, I'd shown him every game I was working on, and he'd offered valuable feedback on all of them.
The trouble with someone as nice as Jon Gilmour is that he's nice, so after we played "Net It", he told me that there was no real feedback he could give. By that point, I'd spent months cleaning everything up and sanding off the rough edges. It was a difficult game to give feedback on because there was nothing obviously wrong with it.
But I pushed.
"I know it's fun", I asked, "but as a product, why would anyone buy this if they already have Sushi Go?"
I assured him that I really did want an honest response, and after a few moments of thought, he told me the truth: He couldn't really see a reason.
When you're designing a small drafting game, the comparisons to Sushi Go are inevitable — and I'm sure the fact that Phil Walker-Harding and I are both extremely handsome Australians doesn't help.
Sushi Go is incredible, a flawless execution of a very simple idea. It's a small game that casts a long shadow, so I asked JG what he thought I could do to differentiate my bug-drafting game. He looked through the deck, pulled out the ant and the beetle, and pushed them towards me. "These cards," he said. "These cards have you interacting with other players in a way that Sushi Go doesn't."
As I said above, most of the cards had simple, global effects — effects which, looking back, weren't particularly interesting. The two that Jon pulled out? The ant's effect was "Pass a card to the left", and the beetle's was "In turn order, each player swaps a card from their hand with a card from the garden."
I thanked him for his candor, then put the game away for a year.
Jon's advice was absolutely correct. I knew it was the right direction to go. The trouble was that I had no idea how to do it. The game was so simple that I didn't have eight different ways for players to interact.
"Net It" ideas continued to brew in my head, and almost exactly twelve months later I sat down and assembled a new prototype. The changes were simple: "Draw a card" was still there, as was "Pass a card to the left". Joining them was "Pass a card to the right", "Return a card to the top of the deck" (so it would be an option in the next draft), and "Everyone places a card in the middle; shuffle them and redeal."
I was surprised by how effective these changes were. The game was still 90% the same, but it was suddenly so much more dynamic. Interactive. Fun!
It turns out — and this may shock you — when it comes to game design, Jonathan Gilmour knows what he's talking about.
Over the next month or two, I continued to clean up the game, all little things at this point. For a long while, "Net It" had cards that you removed for two- or three-player games. This was unnecessary, and including all cards at all player counts was a flat improvement to the game.
Buffalo-based game designer Joel Colombo spotted and immediately solved a problem I hadn't seen. Going last in a five-player game was a miserable experience because you got last pick twice, then second-last pick twice, then third-last pick twice, so by the time you got an early pick, the game was almost over and you had a hand with zero synergy. He suggested a snake draft (with players drafting one card in clockwise order, then the second card in counterclockwise order starting with the last player), and this change eliminated the issue entirely, while also making the role of first player more interesting. Now you got first pick (giving you the most options) and last pick (which meant you were choosing the global effect to activate).
After another few months of playtesting, I'd taken the game as far as I could.
I was still getting notes (too many cards in-hand for a two-player game, too much math in scoring), but I didn't think any of them were solvable — at least not without making the game significantly worse in other ways.
I'd shown "Net It" to my team at Jellybean Games, but the theme didn't grab our art director (and I wasn't interested in changing it), so for the first time since starting my company, I decided to try my hand at pitching to outside publishers. Kids Table Board Games was also based in Toronto, and I was a huge fan of their aesthetic — the look of a game is so important to me as you'll know if you've played any Jellybean title — so I sent them a prototype and waited to hear back.
To my delight, they loved the game and immediately signed it.
I consider myself a good designer, but a better developer. I'm also handsome, witty, and extraordinarily modest — just spectacular on all fronts, basically. As a result, I (arrogantly, I now realize) wasn't expecting to see many changes from the prototype I sent them. I'd spent two years developing it, after all. What else was there to fix?
Helaina Cappel (the woman behind KTBG) and I live in the same city, but we mostly see each other at conventions. At Origins, we made the time to sit down and play "Shutterbugs" (as she'd renamed it), and I was absolutely blown away by the changes.
One of my design weaknesses is this obsession with things being fair. Fairness can obviously be a good thing, but I almost always take it too far, adding unhelpful rules and restrictions in pursuit of Ultimate Fairness.
Each of the bugs in the game had its own unique scoring mechanism, and many of them relied on collecting the same bug repeatedly. Seeing every card in the deck, I reasoned, was vital. What if you started collecting one type of bug, and it came up less than the others? So I had added butterflies. Eighteen of them were placed at the bottom of the deck, and they served as the endgame trigger. You'd reach them only once you got through every other bug, and I used eighteen of them because I'd sat down and done the math; it was the exact number that meant even in the worst-case scenario, you'd never run out the deck.
Did I mention I tend to over-design?
Helaina (and her husband Josh Cappel, who did the graphic design) had very wisely taken that mess of a mechanism out and simply added a card that triggered the end of the game. This may sound like a simple change, but it more than tripled the speed of set-up ("Shuffle the deck, then add the 'Game End' card" — no more sorting out butterflies) and fixed the problem that I'd falsely seen as unsolvable, that is, each player having too many cards at the end of a two-player game.
They'd also swapped out the words for icons — which makes the first play a little confusing, but by the second play you'll know them all by heart — and cleaned up basically every card in the game, reducing the amount of math at the end of the game and removing a bunch of rare, unfun interactions.
Here's an example: In the draft I submitted, flies were worth 2 points and spiders 3 points for each fly in your hand. This was a lot of fun, but it made two-player games really cutthroat. If one player got all the spiders and flies, they won. Every time.
When I'd been developing, I'd thought this was interesting, but Helaina decided that "mandatory hate-drafting" wasn't well-suited to a light, family-friendly game. In retrospect: Duh. They kept flies at 2 points apiece, but bumped spiders up to 7...but only if you discard a fly. No more multipliers, no more out-of-control point engines. Simple, clean, and much more fun.
I could spend pages listing the changes they made, but by the end of the process, Helaina and Josh had solved every problem I'd seen as unsolvable. It was a genuinely humbling experience; the amount of time and love Helaina and Josh poured into this simple card-drafting game has put KTBG (and their Burnt Island Games studio) at the very top of my list of publishers to work with.
They love their games, and they know what they're doing.
The final step was to come up with a name. "Net It" was a fine working title, but it hadn't tested well with her retail partners. For a while the game was "Shutterbugs", but another publisher had a game of that title in the pipeline. We spent some time brainstorming:
Finally, they landed on Bugs on Rugs and brought Shawna J.C. Tenney on board to bring the gorgeous bugs to life, while Josh provided the titular rugs.
I took the game as far as I could, and Kids Table Board Game took it much, much further.
I'm the credited designer for Bugs on Rugs, but without Kevin Carmichael, Allysha Tulk, Eric Lang, Cardboard Edison, Jonathan Gilmour, Joel Colombo, dozens and dozens of playtesters, and — most of all — Helaina and Josh Cappel, the game would be one-tenth of what it is now.
Fortunately for me, there's not enough room on the front of the box to list everyone, so I get all the credit!
The reviews for this game have been overwhelmingly positive, and I was thrilled to notice that so far, each of them has specifically mentioned that the game stands alone from Sushi Go. It started as a simple concept in an idea cocoon and, thanks to the tabletop design community, has become a beautiful butterfly of a game.
Thank you, village. I'm extraordinarily proud of this game and literally couldn't have done it without you.
If you add a new and good game design, old mechanisms can be revived and get a new lease of life. The best example here is Kingdomino by Bruno Cathala.
Let me begin by saying that Foggy Island is my first game as a designer. A few dozen times I have tested prototypes, sold games, recorded game reviews, and organized conventions, but the emotions behind those activities are way different from the ones you experience when creating something new.
The basic idea was simple: While working with children and youth, I often make up games for them to play, and the easiest way to do this is to offer them something with which they are already experienced. Foggy Island is a game that uses your previous experience of playing Tic-Tac-Toe.
But the algorithm of this game is so well known, why drag it up?
I couldn't help it; I went on. The first idea was to expand the gaming field. Playing on a 6x6 grid was far more unpredictable. The algorithm grew like a snowball, and it became impossible to put it out as a single scheme. Moreover, adding more spaces opened lots of new possibilities for players. I am sure, however, that many people have played this version, or even on a larger grid, on their own. But what if the goal is different? What if your aim were not to put three in a row, but to fill in the whole field? What if long lines were more valuable than short ones? Well, this requires an absolutely new approach. All your previous gaming experience is irrelevant for you have to change your strategy completely.
The mechanisms worked perfectly, and players found it easy to get into the new game as it took almost no time to explain the rules: "Have you ever played Tic-Tac-Toe? Do you know how to build three in a row? It's something like that, but...."
At this point, I became adamant about developing this game — and to develop it so that it may be of use not only to me but for other people as well. But the roll-and-write mechanism is not my cup of tea, and back then it was not that popular. I decided that we will use tokens, some of which would be more valuable, thus increasing the interest. By "more valuable", I mean they would have unique kinds of features. Tokens that double the score were obvious, but spies turned out to be a real treasure. These tokens count for your opponent's score, and you must play them, although depending on the position they may become even useful for current play.
At this point, our idea started transforming into the game and product. I started posting hints, designs, and ideas on the Kozak Games Facebook page to show the process of making the game step by step.
By then, testing had already spread outside our workshop. At least a dozen activists, clubs, and bloggers were interested, and it was an incredibly strange feeling to understand that now total strangers will try out your creation. What if they dislike it? What if they fail to experience all the profundity of your game? What if they don't get the rules? Or don't like the setting?
While presenting a prototype at a convention, I met a very interesting group of people. We talked a lot about the mechanisms, about what these people would have added or changed, and everyone had completely different ideas of how this game may evolve. We tried experimenting with the board, adding players, changing characters abilities, and going blind.
Then I came up with the idea of making the game as a kind of "game constructor", something in which you can easily change the rules, add something, or omit something. The game-constructor idea allows other players to construct a new game. That's how weather cards, which set the rules for the current round, were added. They determine whether we play on the whole field right away or open it quarter by quarter, whether we play with open tokens or play blind.
I turned on the heat with my idea of a game that can be constantly improved, a game in which the rules can be modified or added to, a game in which you can add new tokens. But how to proceed? If you were joining this project, what would you add as an expansion or as promo cards or tokens?
Aerion started with a simple (and rather mean) idea: Create a solo/two-player co-operative dice game in which you had to acquire resources by rolling different results (double pair, full house, street, etc…), but without getting any free re-rolls to improve the results of your dice. Instead, you'd have to pay for those re-rolls by discarding the very resources you were trying to acquire!
In Aerion, you are an air-shipwright tasked to build a new fleet of ships to traverse the skies of the Oniverse. The object of the game is to build six airships before your resources run out. You need three different resources (cards) for each ship: a blueprint to work off of, materials to build it, and a crew to fly it.
You have to manage your resources carefully as you construct each ship: There are two different crew types (each crew can man three types of ship), three different material types (each material allows you to build two types of ship) and six different blueprints (each ship has a specific blueprint).
You also have one more powerful asset that won't directly help you build ships, but does have multiple powerful effects: books. Book cards can be used to re-roll dice, recover discarded resources, or stockpile resources for later.
With the right roll, you can acquire one of the six available cards in the display. If you need a different roll to acquire the card you want, you can discard cards from the display to re-roll. You can keep trying until you either acquire a card or burn through all the cards currently in the display trying! The display isn't refreshed with new cards until the end of your turn, so you need to work with what's in front of you. Discarding cards from the display doesn't just limit your options; it brings you closer to defeat. If all the cards run out before you complete your task, you lose the game!
The airships take shape in your workshops, where you place the resources you've acquired. You can gather the materials and blueprints in any order you want, but your crews won't sit around waiting for the ship to be skyworthy, which means that you need to recruit them last once your ship is built (unless you have a game room, but more about that later). Note that you have only two workshops, so you won't be able to haphazardly accumulate resources that don't fit together.
For an example, let's say that last turn you acquired the cocoon material card and put it into one of your two workshops. Now you roll the dice, and this is what you get: 2/2/5/5/3/6. What should you do? Your dice result has two pairs which lets you acquire the incubus crew, but you don't need it yet as you would have to get a fitting combination of blueprint and material in one of your workshops first — and so far you have only one material card (the previously acquired cocoon).
If you could roll another 5 or 2, you could get the blueprint that goes with the cocoon you already have. Or if you could just roll a 4, you would have the series of sequential numbers necessary to acquire a different blueprint to put in your second workshop space. Or you could even try to get four of a kind to take the always useful book card.
Now, which dice should you re-roll? And, more importantly, which card from the display should you discard to do so?
Divide to Clarify
From the start of the design process, it was clear that I did not want to have all the resource cards in one single deck since this could lead to cards being drawn in unwinnable or unfun combinations, so I separated the cards into several pre-determined mini-decks, based on the combination of dice needed to acquire these cards.
As expected, this led to a much smoother and regular distribution of the cards into the display.
A happy side effect of this decision was that Aerion became something more than just a dice game. The decks are quite small, their composition is known (the symbols on the back serve as reminders), and the discarded cards visible, so the discard-to-re-roll decisions are made not only by determining which card on the display you want, but also which are the most expendable, which cards you could hope will appear next, and the general compatibility of the cards in the display (and, possibly, in the workshops). Aerion is a dice game, certainly, but also a game of...
Should we call this "deck management"?
Expanding: It's About Time!
When designing Oniverse games, building the expansions is always a fun and stimulating challenge: How far can I push the game's core mechanism and add (or, in certain cases, remove) elements without the whole thing falling apart? Aerion includes six expansions to present new challenges for players to conquer.
One of the first elements I wanted to explore was time. The game may put you in some excruciating situations, but it never really puts you under time pressure. If the dice don't seem to go your way, you can often adapt by getting another card than the one you were aiming for, then trying again later. None of this with The Hourglasses expansion! Now you must also acquire the six hourglass cards that remain on the display for only one turn!
The Hourglass expansion elicited its mirror concept: What about cards that you would like to keep in the display as long as possible? This led to The Stone Clouds expansion: Clouds (in the form of tokens) block the skies, and you have to get rid of them! To help you, you have the faithful hammer birds, but these bird cards cannot be acquired, only discarded, either to improve your rolls (so, basically, more free re-rolls here) or to destroy the stone clouds.
And here's the twist: The more hammer birds you use, the more stone clouds you can destroy — exponentially! But how long are you able to play around those bird cards without discarding them for a tempting re-roll?
Expanding: Highs, Lows, and the Villain!
Aerion's base game presents the player with this fundamental dilemma: Which card should I try to acquire, and which cards can I afford to discard for re-rolls to make that happen? The Stone Clouds expansion introduced an incentive for keeping cards in the display until you had multiple copies available, but I wanted to try a different twist on this dynamic as well: What about a card that you could discard for a more powerful re-roll, but with a cost?
The workers featured in The Piers expansion can work overtime to give you three re-rolls instead of one when you discard them, but you must give them their payday later in the game with a roll totaling 26 or more. The workers come with their own additional challenge: Building the piers necessary to properly launch the airships you've built.
The Piers expansion (and, to some extent, The Stone Clouds expansion) make high rolls valuable. But one quality I've always admired in dice games is finding ways to make low rolls useful in their own way. In Aerion, your low rolls can be used for one of the most difficult tasks of all: Hunting our newest villain, The Hellkite!
This vicious predator of the skies lurks in far-flung outposts, preventing you from acquiring the card type shown on the outpost where he currently sits. Fleeing from your hunt to lairs packed with the plunder of past raids, the Hellkite must then be confronted in the heart of his domain where you can reclaim stolen resources and liberate captured crews.
Expanding: Digging Deeper and a Bit of Cheating
When designing expansions, I always aim to ensure that they are fun to play in any combination — including all of them at once! Playing with the workers, hammer birds, and hourglasses together almost doubles the card count in each deck, so a bit of judicious deck manipulation was in order. Plus, there was another facet of the design I still wanted to explore: cards that could never be discarded from the display (in contrast to all other cards of the game, which can always serve as re-roll fodder).
Your friends, the hammer birds, have now laid Eggs all around. You have to retrieve them, being careful not to break a single one! Egg cards can never be discarded (on pain of losing the game!), but once acquired, you can use them to look at top cards of a deck, allowing you to chose a better card to put on the display. You can even do that after a dice roll to try to adapt the display to your roll!
(Thematic — and moral — footnote: Obviously, you are not holding the poor eggs for ransom! You give them back to their parents right away and, later on, the grateful hammer birds will help you see what is coming next. It is only the in-game mechanism that translates into you keeping the cards and using them when needed!)
Once I established a core concept and a series of variations on the central theme, it was time to throw all of that out the window and let players cheat!
The obligation to put acquired cards into the workshops? Gone! (Well, almost.) Now you have a seventh ship to build: The Flagship, which serves as its own workshop and blueprint. All you have to do is gather one copy of each material and of each crew. This additional ship clearly makes the game harder, so players get two cards that let them bend the rules a bit: the factory cards.
Each factory card gives you new capabilities that let you break some of the core rules of the game. No free re-rolls? The geniuses down in the Research Lab can shake that up! You must continue to discard cards until you can acquire something? The Security Department can put a stop to that! The crew has to be added last? Not if you can keep them entertained in the Game Room!
Other factory cards can make your books more effective or modify your re-rolls to let you turn a die to its opposite side. (This one's a special treat for players who prefer a little less randomness in the game.)
Final Destination, or the First Step of a Journey?
With six expansions (each with an optional difficulty setting), one could think that I explored all aspects of this "deck management" system. I actually had just got started. The next idea: What about getting rid of the dice altogether?
But this led to another chapter in the Oniverse and may (hopefully) be the subject of another diary someday.
For now, the skies are waiting! Grab your dice and build some airships!
bgdev.club is really a site address, no www or .com needed :)
Rise and fall of Anvalor, designed by me!
Like most gamers, I am part of the wider gaming hobby. Over time my focus has varied among RPG, LARP, computer games and miniatures games, in addition to board games.
Twenty years ago, my main gaming hobby was Warhammer; I played Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles (6th Edition) (Dark Elves), Warhammer 40,000 (Orks) and Epic Armageddon (Orks), first as a home player, then a club player, then a tournament player. Over the years, I transitioned into tournament organizer, then convention organizer, then to working directly with Games Workshop as distributor of miniatures games, board games, RPGs and puzzles. I visited Nottingham, worked with stores on how to grow their business and was deeply involved in using, playing, promoting, reading, selling and enjoying the games and worlds created by Games Workshop.
Miniatures gaming is a very creative hobby, and if you do not enjoy painting, you will not be involved for long. I especially like to create terrain and buildings, most likely due to the model railroads I played with and built buildings for as a kid. As a RPG game master I built experiences, using existing worlds. I had made Risk clones and enjoyed custom roll-and-move games my dad made when I was small, but to create published games still felt like a completely separate thing, something for experts.
I am now a full-time freelance board game designer. While I am not listed on any top designers list, I must consider myself an expert after working in distribution, in publishing, at BGG, and after designing a bunch of games, such as Nations, Tribes: Dawn of Humanity, and HexRoller.
Being a designer is not only about the game itself; you need to know the industry. One thing most new designers do not consider is that their design must participate in a wonky sort of word-of-mouth game in which it must be presented by people with incomplete information to other people in a long chain, most of who will not have played the game. The designer must present it to a publisher, the publisher to distributors, distributors to stores, stores to customers, customers to their friends. If the game fails to grab attention at any of these points, it does not get played. Thus, it does not matter much if the game is great after three plays if it never gets played once.
When I got the chance to work with WizKids and Games Workshop on a new game, I was very excited! Creating a custom new game of your own with complete freedom is great, but it is wide open. I like to do it, but I also like to have constraints of as many types as possible because it makes the options clearer and forces me out of my usual paths of thinking. Testing unusual things that have not been done before most often leads to something that does not work, but once in a while you can find something that works great.
So one of my constraints for this project was to not use miniatures. How could I make maximum use of the rich background material for what is normally miniatures-heavy games, without the miniatures? I realized that using miniatures was in fact the real constraint as it limits both the number of different sculpts you can use, as well as the total number of units available, so I made a prototype using an absolute ton of different units — then had to suffer the consequences of that decision during the whole development as I created a matching ton of different abilities and effects that all needed to be interesting, balanced, and thematic.
Another important factor is the common separation of miniature and the description of the miniature on a card. It takes effort to understand the game state of ten individual miniatures on a board when all miniatures have their own details. Huge Warhammer armies usually have large amounts of identical miniatures to make it manageable, but an experienced player who knows all the hundreds of values and effects by heart has a huge advantage and can understand the real game-state and make informed decisions.
Miniatures and their reference cards from Shadespire,
painting and photo by Peter Cooper
So my no-miniatures constraint actually creates a higher complexity budget for units on the board, compared to if each unit had been a miniature. Even with this, I (as usual) overestimated the total complexity budget at first, and I had to cut and streamline a lot. This is extremely common for designers; I know of no one who starts with prototypes that are too simple.
I believe the reason is that when a game is too simple, it is not fun, and it is extremely hard to see that some small addition could turn it into something fun. When you have something large, it is easier to see that reducing it a bit could make it better, so you test until you find what can be removed. When you cut something, test, and realize the game is no longer fun, you put the thing back and have learned a valuable lesson. The thing is part of the core of the design, at least right now, and you need to test to cut other things.
I like to try to cut most parts of a design to find the core of the game. It is a lot of work, but some of my best breakthroughs have come from this process. I have now done so many complete projects that I start to recognize breakthroughs as they happen. I think of them as the point when I know a game will be published in a format where the core is close to what the core of the prototype is at that point. A breakthrough is a fantastic experience; for me it is comparable to holding the actual finished physical box in my hands.
For Warhammer: Age of Sigmar – The Rise & Fall of Anvalor, the breakthrough was when I made all three types of enemies attack when there are three enemy units on a side. The enemies are Skaven, Khorne and Orruks, and I wanted each of them to feel as distinct as possible, so I had made them attack when they had five, three, and four units on a side. This was different, but it did not make the game more fun.
Khorne worked best, with three units. Many, many tweaks and tests to make the other enemies work better failed. I had invested so much into trying to make this 3/4/5 structure work at this point that it was hard to look at the situation with open eyes. But instead of trying to improve the non-fun enemies, looking at why Khorne was fun provided the breakthrough. After one test game with three-tile attacks by Skaven, this was clearly a huge improvement. Variation could be provided in other ways, and after a big restructuring the horde feeling of Skaven was back.
Example Skaven, Orruk and Khorne enemy tiles
I believe the most important reason that five-tile attacks were no fun is because they reduced player impact on the game. With five slots per side, filling it up meant that there would be enemies on all slots regardless of where an enemy was placed first. The enemies were placed face down, and I provided various ways to look at enemies, but keeping this information in your head did not work as well as I had hoped, especially with so many enemies all around.
In the game, players are building the city "together" as one of the six player factions, defending it against enemies. You try to make maximum use of what the other players do, hindering them and placing enemies that will hopefully crush them. The reverse deck-building process is fun, easy to learn, with a long learning curve. The replayability is enormous. But it is balanced on the edge of being just as complex as it should be, so unintentionally removing a critical element of player interaction with Skaven completely filling up a side with enemies crashed the game.
Reverse deck-building might be a strange term for what you do with your deck of tiles in the game, but I think it is fitting. You start with your full deck, have tiles in hand, and play tiles to the table by discarding other tiles as resources. Your deck shrinks as you get more and more tiles on the board, and the decision about which tiles to place has a big impact on what you can play later as the resources represented by the played tiles are no longer accessible to you until they are killed or destroyed.
Tuning and tweaking was a long process, but after the breakthrough I felt confident in the core game. I hope I have made a game that will bring a lot of enjoyment to both Warhammer players and those who have no idea of what Warhammer is! After many more tweaks and changes The Rise & Fall of Anvalor will be released on April 3, 2019.
Rivalry is the second expansion for Roll for the Galaxy. In many ways, however, Rivalry is three complementary expansions in a single box.
First, Rivalry adds more variety to the base game, with a new die type, factions, start worlds, and new game tiles.
Second, Rivalry adds an optional Deal Game in which players who assign dealers to the deal phase can trade virtually anything for anything, depending on which Deal die faces are showing.
Figuring out what you can temporarily "loan out" from your empire to gain other items to kickstart your growth adds new considerations and strategic depth to the game.
Third, Rivalry adds an optional Alien Orb Game in which players each get a customizable die whose faces can be upgraded by assigning researchers to the research phase.
This adds a whole new "tech tree" to enhance the standard Roll actions. Plus, dice crafting is fun!
Expanding to the Galaxy's Edge
The new Pioneer die (dark blue with white symbols) strongly supports Settle, strengthening colonization strategies.
Pioneer dice, like Novelty dice, match novelty worlds as goods or shippers, enhancing Produce-Consume strategies.
Rivalry is fully compatible with, but does not require, Ambition, the first Roll expansion.
Rivalry adds eight new factions and ten start worlds to add more set-up variety to the base game. Many of these feature the new Pioneer die or the Entrepreneur die introduced in Ambition.
Rivalry also adds thirteen unique game tiles to the bag (compared to just five in Ambition), including several worlds that score variable victory points.
Thematically, many tiles include various "forecast" and "prediction" powers, a homage to Issac Asimov's classic Foundation stories. As an "Easter Egg", one other tile's artwork also pays tribute to the series.
Many years ago, Tom considered adding deals to Race for the Galaxy. The idea was to allow players to trade cards with each other, allowing both players to benefit. Tom developed, and Wei-Hwa tested, several versions before we decided it just didn't fit Race's aesthetic.
What Wei-Hwa found fascinating was how its "win-win" deal approach simulated trade on a large scale (say, between countries). It is common for individuals to think of a deal as a zero-sum game in which making a deal with another person results in one side "winning" and the other side "losing". In reality, both sides win when a deal is voluntary — even if you don't get as much benefit as the other side, you'll get some benefit, or you wouldn't have made the deal in the first place!
The idea of increasing player interaction in Roll in a "win-win" way — as opposed to how many other games handle player interaction with attacks or competition for limited resources — was attractive to Wei-Hwa.
Unlike Race, where almost everything in the game is represented by cards, Roll has many different items owned by players — dice, money, tiles, etc. — to trade. Further, these items have varying values based on their location; for example, tiles in your construction zone are different from tiles in your tableau.
These ideas were in Wei-Hwa's mind during Ambition's design, so even though the Deal game didn't exist yet, the "$" symbol on the newly-introduced Leader and Entrepreneur dice were designed with the idea of possibly adding a new phase later (where $ symbols would now match the $ phase instead of being worth +1 credit when modifying the other symbol on a $ face).
To make this new phase work in two-player games, Rivalry uses a Leader die as the "dummy" phase selector. To ensure that players without $ dice still have easy access to the Deal phase, we added a new Reassign power so that every player, by choosing the phase and using both Dictate and this power, can always assign at least three dealers to it.
The original concept, where players made deals by trading items with each other during this new phase, failed. A completely open forum, with everything open to negotiation, slowed the game too much. The next step was to restrict what players would be allowed to trade. Wei-Hwa experimented with cards and tokens until realizing that wait, Roll is a dice game, so why not put the "dealable resources" on dice?
This created a new problem: Players might be inclined to make a deal, but the timing would be off. Having the Deal dice reveal exactly the things players wanted to trade to each other, with both players rolling $ faces at the same time, wouldn't occur often enough for the Deal phase to be an integral part of the game. Having multiple "markets" where at any time there could be up to three deals in progress helped, but it wasn't enough.
The solution was to make deal-making asynchronous. Instead of having two players make both sides of a deal at the same time, let the supply be a middleman holding assets traded away in a deal until another player "closes" that deal by adopting its other side. To encourage the closing of a deal, extra incentives "sweeten" the deal over time. These extra incentives for both players involved in a successful deal capture how large-scale trade creates increased opportunities for mutual benefit.
This approach led to new issues: What happens if a deal doesn't get closed, even with extra incentives? Can a player do a deal multiple times? Can a player broker both sides of the same deal? Eventually we realized that these were actually features, not bugs.
By creating a market, players often make more deals with the supply than they are making with each other. The same player can even reverse a deal that they made a few rounds earlier, pocketing the bonus for both sides and effectively loaning out their spare resources for more useful items and a future profit. Without setting out to do so, we had invented (a simple form of) credit-asset swaps.
We reused the talent counters — flexible "one-shot" workers — from Ambition, making them the main reward for closing deals (as opposed to creating them). Adjusting the deal-closing incentives to give just the right amount to entice players to engage in the Deal phase (since, after all, most dice in the game don't have "$" faces) but not so much that the Deal phase dominates the original five phases was the final piece of the puzzle.
For example, in the deal above, last round Blue traded away two tiles from their construction zone and 1 credit to obtain a Military die. Blue intended to reverse and close this deal two rounds later, returning the Military die — after using it twice — for 2 tile draws and 1 credit, plus 5 credits and 2 talent counters (i.e., the incentives on both sides shown above the current Deal dice position). However, this round, before this deal matures to the next position, Yellow calls Deal and closes this deal, spending 1 Military die for 2 tile draws and 1 credit, plus the closing side's incentive this round: 2 credits and 1 talent counter. Blue receives 2 credits, the creating side's incentive for this deal closing this round.
Another issue was timing. Roll's style, inherited from Race, is to encourage simultaneous play as much as possible. With a finite number of Deal dice, we needed a player order in creating deals, hence the Deal priority track. We experimented with allowing deal player order to be a deal item, but that was too complex. Instead, we push deal-creators to the bottom of the track, which means that if you pass on making deals for a while, you'll gain deal control for a future round.
It was fun thinking of different items to put on the Deal dice faces. In addition to trading dice, money, and tiles, players can use deals to search for developments with a given keyword or worlds of a certain color or change how much money their treasury can hold.
The challenge was that anything that could be given or gained had to be capable of being "reversed". For example, if we gave players the ability to give up tiles in their tableau, thereby affecting game tempo, we needed "generic" worlds and developments that could be gained as well.
The Deal Game is a deeper, more interactive Roll experience that challenges players to identify what they don't need and to create deals that leverage these unused assets to gain items that will speed them to victory.
Alien Orb Game
While developing the Deal Game, Wei-Hwa used prototyping dice with removable die faces to try out different deal faces and test how to distribute them among the various Deal dice. Tom saw them and wondered whether using customizable dice to create a "tech tree" for Roll for the Galaxy would be interesting.
What if each player had an Alien orb die, representing unknown artifacts taken from the Alien Orb, that they could upgrade during play?
Just as in the Deal game, the Orb Game uses $ faces and a sixth phase for Research. When someone calls Research, each assigned researcher does two "dots" of research: for one dot they can upgrade a die one level (from a starting face to a "1-dot" face); a second dot could upgrade that face to a "2-dot" face; and two more dots would upgrade that face to a "4-dot" top level face.
The 4-dot faces are expensive and should provide large effects. Suppose one was -2 dev cost (min. one die) to all developments built that round? Rolling it would enable a player to potentially build a stack of developments all in one round.
However, arranging to roll that face when you're ready for it is tricky. What if you could also invest in cheaper "arrow" faces, an idea introduced by Stephen Glenn in his customizable dice game Rattlebones? If you roll an arrow, you "follow" it to the die face it points to, turning the die.
Slap two arrows and a 4-dot face on a die and that face is 50% likely to be rolled each round. Even better, what if after using a -2 dev face, you could cross-grade it to a new tech line, such as -2 Settle, that the arrow faces now lead to? That's pretty sweet.
Tom wanted several viable approaches to the orb game: • Never assign any dice to research. • Do some early research for a more useful orb die. • Invest moderately in research. • Invest heavily in research.
Tom also wanted to increase player interaction. Since the orb die itself is never assigned to a phase (unlike Roll dice), why not roll it in front of the screens? (If a player is working out their next turn while another player is finishing the current round, the first player can roll their orb die behind their screen, then shift it forward once everyone is done.)
These thoughts gave him the initial orb faces:
• Two virtual Explorer faces. If you roll them, will you call Explore? Will other players, seeing it, try to "leech" off your expected call?
• Two upgrade faces that each improve orb faces 1 dot. Players who never assign researchers are now automatically involved in the orb game.
• Two reassign faces to help players in the early game when players don't have many dice or reassign powers.
Rolling in front of the screen also enabled Tom to tackle a "group think" issue that some players encounter. In Roll, Produce-Ship is most effective when you have an an implicit "partner" so that both phases are called in the same round. Doing Produce-Ship on your own over two rounds against several other players doing Explore-Develop strategies can be too slow.
By having the top-level 4-dot Ship face result in Ship being automatically called (with all players knowing this), a player who rolls it can then call Produce and do an entire Produce-Ship cycle in one round.
Adding several "utility" faces allowed players to successfully leverage a small amount of initial research. However, the moderate research strategy didn't initially pan out; players found it was better to either invest just a bit or a lot in research. By adding a tech that grants talent counters, which can enhance any Roll strategy, the moderate strategy worked.
One issue with dice is that a given face may never be rolled during a game. To ensure that players always got something for upgrading to the 2- or 4-dot levels, these faces are worth 1 or 2 VPs, respectively, at game end. (To balance things, arrow dice are not worth any VPs.)
Players naturally pop out all their faces to score them, which makes resetting the orb dice for the next game easy.
The Orb game now worked, except that it was too short; there wasn't enough time for the improved faces to have a big enough game effect. By extending the game's victory conditions to fifteen tiles in the tableau and the initial VP chip pool to 15 VPs/player, we addressed this issue.
Value for Money
At this point, we were happy with Rivalry. It adds variety to the base game and extends ideas introduced in Ambition (new dice and talent counters), and its two optional games complement each other: The Deal game adds strategic depth, while the Orb game is more accessible and enhances existing Roll strategies.
For the truly adventurous, the Deal and Orb games can be combined with each other and with the goals added in Ambition. We don't recommend this until players are quite experienced!
The issue was cost. With over sixty Roll dice to support both the new tiles and the Deal Game, twelve customizable dice, over two hundred die faces, plus tiles, a deal mat, talent counters, credit slips, new phase strips and screens, and more, Rivalry is packed with components and comes in at $80 MRSP, more than the Roll base game!
After we got the quote, Wei-Hwa, Tom, and Jay Tummelson, the head of Rio Grande Games, debated whether to break Rivalry into three expansions. However, separately these would cost $125 for players who wanted all three.
Without the Deal game's needed Leader dice, we wouldn't have them for just the tile expansion and would have to supply different rules for players with and without Ambition. Supplying the Deal and Orb games together lets them share components and rules (new phase strips, talent counters, etc.). By combining the various expansions, we could also produce a new unified player screen that works for all play modes (including Ambition), avoiding stickers.
We decided that splitting up Rivalry just didn't make sense — we lost Rivalry's complementary nature without producing any cost savings for players who liked two of its parts and increased the cost for players who liked everything.
So Long and Thanks for all the Dice
We're vary happy with Roll and Rivalry. One of our goals with the various games in the Race universe (currently Race, Roll, Jump Drive, and New Frontiers) is to have each game feel and play differently, despite sharing a setting.
With Rivalry, we feel that we are making full use of Roll for a Galaxy being a dice game. Dice are used in new ways to produce a constantly shifting selection of trade items in the Deal game and a "tech tree" to explore in the Orb Game. Enjoy!
(Photos by Tom Lehmann, with some including prototype components. Says Tom, "I haven't got my copy yet! I apologize for their amateur quality.")
Res Arcana is a fantastical card game of resource transformation and growth for 2-4 alchemical mages.
In Res Arcana (arcane things), players use magical essences to craft artifacts to produce more essences and gold.
These, in turn, are used to claim ancient monuments and Places of Power, which provide victory points.
Sample Places of Power
The goal is to have at least 10 and the most victory points when victory is checked (typically, at the end of each round).
Each player begins with one of each essence, three cards drawn from a personal deck of just eight unique artifacts, plus a mage and magic item chosen during set-up.
During a round, players collect essences, then do actions one at a time, clockwise, until all players pass and victory is checked.
Actions are placing a card from hand or claiming a monument or Place of Power from the center by paying its cost in essences; using a power; passing; or discarding a card from hand to gain one gold or any two essences.
This last action is crucial as it allows a player who draws an artifact whose powers don't fit with their other artifacts to spend it to place the rest of their artifacts more quickly.
Many card powers involve turning a card. Once turned, its powers cannot be used again until it is straightened (typically, at the end of a round).
Thus, some cards, such as the Horn of Plenty, force a player to choose which power to use. Other powers, such as Dragon Teeth's first power, can be used multiple times, enabling essence growth and accumulation until these essences are taken during next round's Collect step.
Players interact not only by competing for items, monuments, and Places of Power, but also via powers that give essences to other players, copy essences in a rival's essence pool, or inflict life loss on rivals.
Some powers prevent life loss. Players who have already passed are immune to life loss. The first to pass becomes first player for next round. Each player who passes must exchange their current magic item for a new one from the center, then draw a card.
These rules create timing interactions as players may want to pass early to become first player and avoid life loss or pass later to do more actions, not be interfered with, and obtain a magic item given up by an earlier passing player.
Building a Setting
I drew on three different traditions when I designed Res Arcana's setting: medieval alchemy, classical antiquity, and western fantasy. This led to items such as athanors, Solomon's mine, dragons, a dancing sword, a dwarven axe, an elvish bow, and a cursed skull.
For the essences, I considered and rejected using the classical (Western) elements. Instead, I used Elan, inner vitality, to suggest energy, fire, war, and forging; Calm, with its associations with water, mind, visions, purity, air, and contemplation; Death, with its connotations of decay, destruction, and necromancy; Life, to suggest creating, healing, nature, forests, and growth; and Gold, for its associations with wealth, greed, and precious metals.
All That Glitters
In a setting inspired by alchemy, I wanted gold to feel special and different from the other essences, so I made it the key to obtaining monuments, all of which cost four gold and range from 1-3 victory points.
The monument strategy is an alternative to gaining a Place of Power. Most Places of Power convert and store essences as victory points.
Some artifacts are also creatures or dragons...
...and several Places of Power interact with creatures or dragons.
Finding a Partner
I originally pitched and designed Res Arcana for one publisher. However, by the time I had the submission ready, their product manager had changed. The new product manager, while liking the game, didn't feel it was something that could be easily demoed at SPIEL.
This game then sat in limbo for several years. I showed it to other publishers, but they insisted on completely redoing the theme, which I didn't want to do.
Then, Cyrille, Maud, and their close friends played it. Cyrille Daujean is an industry veteran, having worked for Days of Wonder, and Maud and he were considering starting a game company, Sand Castle Games. I am deeply honored that they chose Res Arcana as their first product.
Cyrille is a graphic artist and art director, who worked closely with the illustrator, Julien Delval, to achieve a look which both suggests historical alchemy as well as fantasy, while keeping my intended theme.
The five Places of Power are double-sided. The more straight-forward ones are used, along with pre-set mages and artifact hands, for the players' first game. In later games, everything is determined randomly.
Between forty unique artifacts, ten mages, ten monuments, and eight magic items, Res Arcana provides lots of variety from game to game.
But, wait, there's more! Once players become familiar with the game, two drafting variants add another layer of player interaction and strategy. Enjoy!
The Game Designers is a new feature-length documentary film about board game designers. My name is Eric Rayl, and I am the director of the film. In this diary, I go behind-the-scenes to describe some of the events that helped shape this project.
This film has been three years in the making and has been, as clichéd as it may sound, a "labor of love". From the outset, I knew that I wanted to show the world how difficult it is to make these tabletop games, and I hope that this film highlights some of the specific and nuanced challenges that perhaps the everyday tabletop gamer who is playing these games may not even realize. A lot of hard work and dedication goes into making these tabletop games, and only through the "blood, sweat, and tears" of the talented game designers out there do these games come into existence.
Thanks for your interest in the project, and I hope you enjoy the journey I went through to get this film made!
The initial inspiration for The Game Designers documentary came in 2007 after I watched another documentary called The King of Kong. This movie blew me away, and I just loved the quick and dirty filming style that Seth Gordon, the director of that documentary, employed. He just grabbed a camera and started filming everything he could about the race for the best Donkey Kong player in the world. That documentary was incredible; I had never seen anything else like it before, and it inspired me to create my own documentary.
Fast forward to a few years later, after I graduated from college and all that, and now I am just starting to get into tabletop gaming. I quickly devour a number of games and get to playing some of the mid-heavy "Eurogames" out there since that is what my game group tends to favor. I love them all, and after a year or so, I decided that I want to make my very own board game. Naturally, I set out to create a rather meaty Eurogame for my first game.
Let's just say that game didn't turn out so well! After developing this game for a period of about nine months, I ran into so many design issues and problems that I thought I was never going to get it finished. I playtested it with my game group about six or seven times, and no matter what I did, I couldn't get it balanced. A little tweak here and an adjustment there would throw off the entire symmetry of the game and render it unplayable. One particular playtester exploited the same broken mechanism three different ways on three different playtest nights to win the game outright each time, and I could not seem to fix this broken mechanism no matter what I did.
It was from this experience that I began to appreciate what game designers actually do. I had spent so much time holed up in my apartment trying to make this game of mine, constantly tweaking, reworking, and retesting it to make it just right. Some days I would spend from the time I got up to the time I went to bed working on this game. Trying to get this game made became an obsession — my private obsession that no one knew about, or even cared about, as I toiled relentlessly night and day to complete this game in my own home.
It was from here that the idea for The Game Designers documentary came to life. How could someone spend so much time and hard work on something and no one even know about it, I wondered. Are all games this difficult to make? Is it always a Herculean struggle to make these games? Does anyone who plays board games even know what it's like for these game designers who make these games? I thought about it a little and decided, no, probably not. Playing games is relatively easy, and I think people who play games automatically think that designing a board game is equally as easy because it's fun, right! It must be fun to design a game!
I thought back to the time I wanted to make a feature-length documentary and decided that this was as good a time as any to dip in and try my hand at doing so. By that time I had made a number of short documentaries (typically 3-5 minutes in length), so I thought I should give the longer format a shot.
When I first started this project, I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, where a rather active board game design group — The Game Designers of North Carolina — met (and still meets) every other week. Attendance is rather healthy, with 8-12 designers showing up every meeting. It was with this game design group that I started filming the first sequences for this film.
The early stages of filming this documentary were a bit of a mess, mostly because I didn't know what I was doing. I figured that I would just start bringing my camera to this design group and filming anything and everything that looked like it could potentially be a good story. I figured that this was how Seth Gordon did it with The King of Kong and that turned out all right, so what could go wrong?
Well, it wasn't entirely a bad decision, but I did end up filming a lot of stuff that didn't end up in the final film. I did, however, get to meet and whittle down the main characters that I wanted to follow in the documentary. From the group, I met Chris Faulkenberry and Doug Schepers — two of the five main people who are in the final version of the documentary. I also filmed two other designers extensively who are now almost absent from the documentary entirely. (Just a couple of shots of them still remain in the rough cut.)
Long story short, this period of filming lasted about six months and was a huge learning lesson. The main thing that I learned was that I needed a storyline for each designer in the film — or, at least, an idea of what each character brought to the table in terms of traditional storytelling.
Enlarging the Scope
After filming The Game Designers of North Carolina for those months, it occurred to me that my sights for the documentary were too limited in scope. In 2016, I traveled to Unpub with the group and filmed them there, but the story still didn't have enough punch to be interesting, so I decided to expand the scope of the project beyond the local game design group, reaching out to tell the story of all the tabletop game designers out there!
Where would I start with such a monumental task? Who would I ask to be in the film? I punched up a list of some of the most well-known or otherwise noteworthy designers that I could find or think of, then I started reaching out to each designer to ask whether they would be interested in participating in the film. Luckily for me, I had a healthy response rate and the majority of the designers that I contacted said that they were willing to meet for an interview.
The next step was to film these designers, and the most logical place to do this was at game conventions. Every convention has a certain draw, and the real big ones tend to get a good, if not great, cross-section of well-known designers attending them. In 2017, I went to CMON Expo (local to me in Atlanta), Origins, Gen Con, and the SPIEL convention in Essen, Germany. It was at those conventions that year that I filmed the majority of the interviews for the film.
In 2108 I attended the Festival International des Jeux (in Cannes, France), CMON Expo again, Origins again, Gen Con again, then finally Lucca Comics & Games (in Italy). At these conventions I filmed extra B-roll content, followed the main characters now in the film, and also did a few pick-up interviews.
Setting the Tone
The initial vision for the film was to have it be a "fly-on-the-wall" experience in which I observed with the camera in a cinéma vérité kind of way. I had this vivid image of filming Uwe Rosenberg by hanging out at his house/office in rural Germany, while he doodled on his game and tweaked it here and there and talked to me about making games and such. This was the tone that I initially wanted to have in the film.
However, I soon realized after doing a bit of editing that I needed to employ a more traditional type of storytelling. I needed to make the film engaging, interesting, and exciting. The characters in the film needed to have certain goals for their respective projects, and they needed to try to reach those goals. The film would be there to follow them as they strived to develop their game, playtest their game, find a publisher for their game, Kickstart their game, etc. The film would document and illustrate the real and personal struggles that each designer went through to accomplish their goals. This was the engaging way to tell a story, so I set out to find the people who could deliver this type of traditional narrative storytelling arch.
I should note, however, that I did try to remain true to my original vision of the film: the "fly-on-the-wall" experience. I do have that element in there, but that wasn't enough for a feature-length project, so I also incorporated the latter part (the traditional storytelling aspect) by finding and selecting the main "characters" in the film.
Selecting the Main Designers
The first two designers who I decided to follow were Chris Faulkenberry and Doug Schepers (from The Game Designers of NC design group). Chris was in the process of Kickstarting his second game, and Doug was starting out with the design of his first game. I wanted to follow these two specifically because I felt that they represented a good frame of reference for the audience who wasn't super familiar with board game design. In this regard, Doug may be one of the most relatable characters in the film for the general public audience.
The next designers to come on board with the project were Antoine Bauza and Matt Leacock, both of whom I met and pitched at Gen Con 2017. I like the easy-go-luckiness of Antoine, and Matt seemed like a super smart dude (and reminded me of John Carmack, the video game pioneer, by the way he looks and talks). Both of these designers were selected because they were part of my "expanding the scope" campaign. I wanted to show the perspective of designers who had been doing it professionally for a number of years to give balance to the local designers that I was following at home.
We also wanted to add another storyline to the main line-up, so after Gen Con I set off to find a female designer who would be a good fit and complement to the other four main designers in the film. After a bit of research and talking with a few female designers over the phone, we found and decided to work with Kelly North Adams.
Kelly was a great choice because her personality really showed through in our telephone conversation. Not only that, she complemented the other designers in a nice way because she was the only one who was actively looking for a publisher at the time when we were going to be filming. That was an important aspect to highlight in the film as well. She also had made several fun and engaging games by that point, so everything seemed to come together after getting her on board for the project. She was the glue that made everything work (especially in the edit as the movie seemed to now flow a lot better than it ever did before).
Creating this documentary was a challenge. Not only was I directing the film, but I was also doing just about every other task on the production side short of acting in it. Finding the designers to work with, selling them on the project, scheduling all of the interviews, purchasing flights and airbnbs, coordinating logistics, doing the filming entirely by myself, then finally building the story and editing all of the hours and hours of footage was a huge undertaking! Not only that, but the entire project was a rollercoaster ride with many ups and downs. At one moment, I would think that I had someone on board with doing a certain scene (such as a playtest), but then they would postpone it indefinitely. Or another time I thought that I was going to film one designer, but then they moved to the other side of the world (literally) and I had to rethink an entire storyline. Things like this happened constantly throughout the entire project.
Filmmaking is a challenging endeavor, but all of the designers were great to work with. Despite the numerous logistical issues, the film prevailed in the end due to all of the designers being so open and willing to lend their time and energy towards helping to create it. When I reached out to designers, I had nothing to show them as far as relevant work that I had done (since this is my first feature film), but the vast majority of them were still interested and extremely helpful in participating in this project. For that, I am eternally grateful. The whole project was worth it because of that (and because it was great to meet so many awesome people and see so many cool places). I wouldn't change any of the experience I had looking back on it now!
In one of the interviews that I had with Bruno Faidutti, he said, "It is difficult to start simple when designing a game. You have an idea and then you add and add and add to it until it becomes this overwhelming thing and then you have to trim it down until you can arrive at the place where the idea works nicely again. Keeping things simple is the most difficult thing to do." I'm paraphrasing here, but this was the general idea he portrayed to me in the interview.
This comment has stuck with me over the last year-and-a-half as I have been editing this film. It stuck with me because, looking back on it now, I feel that I fell into that same trap. I started off with a simple vision for the film, then collected way too much footage without a clear path for the film, so the project just grew and grew. I had too many potential storylines, and it wasn't until I started thinking about which storylines would be the most compelling (and why) that I started to make headway with the project.
There is a reason why a traditional storytelling arch exists and is the same for all mediums. It exists because it works. Through the process of editing the film, I had to take a lot of footage and cut it right out of the movie. This included cutting several storylines (designers) and many minutes of nicely edited content. I had to focus on finding the core of each designer's story to make sure that I was telling the most compelling story that I could. If I had been aware of Bruno's advice — and perhaps if I had had more experience — I would have started by concentrating on the storylines that I wanted to have in the first place, then built the film from there.
A Wealth of Knowledge
Bruno Faidutti was just one of many designers who shared great knowledge with me, and one of the unexpected byproducts of making this film was that I got to learn so many great things from interviewing so many great individuals.
All of the designers who I interviewed provided what I call "gold nuggets" — tidbits of information that are invaluable when developing a creative endeavor. Since a good bit of my questioning revolved around game design itself, I learned many things that relate not only to making games, but also to any type of creative project. These are the little things that I hold on to and will try to remember and apply to my work in the coming years.
Reaching the Audience
Finding the audience for this project was pretty straightforward and obvious. Trying to reach this audience, however, was a bit more challenging. I always knew that the main audience for this film lay in three categories (in no particular order of importance): 1) board game designers, 2) people who play board games, and 3) friends and family of board game designers and board game players. So this audience essentially reached anyone who has ever played a board game or is aware of board games (which is a very wide section of the public).
Now, the challenging (and dare I say even frustrating) thing about this was that I was attending conventions and seeing a large portion of my core audience before my eyes, but somehow I had to reach them and connect with them. Well, I thought, I'll make a website talking about the project, then print off business cards and hand them out to everyone at the conventions — simple enough. Once they see what the project is all about, they'll sign up and that will be that.
I got the website up, got the cards together, went to a local convention (CMON Expo 2018), and started telling people about the project. I probably told 150+ people about the project that weekend, and they all seemed interested, so I figured I'd have a great portion of those people sign up for the mailing list. I checked Mailchimp a few days later to discover that a total of two people had signed up. Two! Apparently this wasn't the way to go about it, so I reconsidered my strategy.
I have a buddy who is very good at social media, brand development, and film production, and I had been watching his Facebook page, Legend of Micah, grow from 0 to about 35,000+ followers over the last year. I figured that he may be on to something, so I talked with him, then concluded that I needed to emulate his strategy, the basics of which involve the creation of short, square-shaped videos about interesting and offbeat topics. His primary focus is Facebook, and he uses it to help share his videos. The core concept behind the videos is that they are "shareable" and that people will want to share them after they see them.
I came up with some ideas about what would be good, fun, shareable topics in the board game world and made a series of nine short videos for Facebook. These videos were typically about a minute-and-a-half in length and some of the topics included Eurogames, miniature gaming, Gen Con, SPIEL, the huge number of games being released, and elaborate games. On each of the video descriptions, I had a link to the website where viewers could learn more about the documentary itself.
These videos all did pretty well and got shared a good bit, so this strategy turned out to be a lot more effective for reaching the audience that I needed. Instead of going to conventions and trying to tell people about the project on an individual basis, I created these videos and let them spread the message organically. You can find these videos on the Zoom Out Media page on Facebook, "Zoom Out Media" being the name of my production company.
Kickstarter and Beyond
I hope that this has been an interesting and insightful look into the production of this film. Like I said before, it's been a wild ride to make this film almost entirely by myself, but again, it's been worth every minute of it. There were countless obstacles to get this film made (just like any film), but I think it goes to show that if you stick with something long enough, you'll eventually get to where you want to be.
Scott Alden (the executive producer of the film) and I are now launching a Kickstarter for the project, which goes live on February 5, 2019 and runs until March 7. We are hoping to get the remaining funds necessary to complete the film and get physical copies of it into everyone's hands.
Thanks so much for your interest in the production of this project, and I hope that everyone enjoys the film. It was made as a "labor of love" for the board game world, and I think that comes across in the documentary. Thanks again for your time.
Now that the school year is almost half over, I am reminded of my years spent at St. Dominic's Catholic School in Baltimore, Maryland. Like many kids of the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was fanatical about Star Wars, liked to bike, and played pickup football. I also loved Dungeons & Dragons and wargames. In many schools, I would have been a loner, but fortunately I had a core group of friends that also liked the same thing. Shane, Dave, Fred and I would get together for marathon D&D sessions or take over our parents' dining room table with Axis & Allies. It was a fun time that unfortunately did not last long. My desire to be "cool", to get dates, and to fit in overrode my desire to just have fun playing games with my friends. We all slowly grew apart through high school and college and afterwards began our careers and families. For me, sadly, there was no time for games.
Twenty-five years passed. I slowly started to reconnect with many of my grade school and high school friends through Facebook. I noticed that many of them were still playing games, and I really wanted to get involved again. I was no longer concerned with the silly notion that playing games was somehow "uncool". I joined a weekly game group and also started to play games again regularly with my elementary school friends. I introduced them to the games I was playing with my weekly game group, and they reintroduced me to the wargames that I used to love as a child.
It was during one of these wargame sessions in 2016 that Dave Shaw and I discussed creating a wargame of our own. I had already been working on a small filler card game now known as "Space Race", but I was very interested in working on a wargame. I floated the idea by Dave and he mentioned that there was an idea for a game that he had been thinking about ever since he and his wife took a trip to Belgium. He wanted to make a game that would cover only the struggle for Belgium at the start of World War I. He even had a title for the game: Brave Little Belgium.
I was quite intrigued by the idea and told him that I would begin working on some concepts. I had never designed a wargame and had no idea where to start. I did have some background in graphic design, so I figured I would start by putting together a basic map and some counters. That is probably a backwards way to proceed, but it felt right to me. Dave provided me with some good resource books and I began to work. I made certain that I understood the basic nature of the conflict and I created a basic order of battle for it.
Before I could do anything else, though, I needed to decide on the format for the game. Based on the research that I had done and the geography that I was looking to cover, I quickly decided that I wanted to do an operational game with a point-to-point map. At the time, I was very much into the game Fading Glory; I really liked the size of the maps in the game (22"x17") and the small number of counters. I did not think I could keep the game under 20 counters, but still wanted to strive for as few as possible.
I suggested these concepts to Dave and he was quite surprised. He also wanted a small board with a small number of counters, but said that he always imagined the game as a hex-and-counter game. We discussed it a length, and we both concluded that point-to-point would work perfectly given the nature of the game.
I now had my marching orders and began to work. I found an old map on the internet that covered just Belgium and France during the war. I loved the look and feel of the map, and decided to try modeling Brave Little Belgium's map on this. I wanted to create something with a similar color scheme and give the map an old-time feel with texture. The early prototype maps left much to be desired, but at least they were a start. I continued to add more and more points, researched and added in train and road routes, and eventually had a fairly decent prototype for a map.
While working on the map, I also needed to figure out the basic mechanisms for the game so that I could create the necessary counters. Despite the fact that I enjoy playing IGO-UGO style games, I knew that mechanism would not work for this game. In addition, since I had already decided to create an operational game with a low counter number, I definitely did not want to create anything smaller than the divisional level for the units. Finally, I knew that I wanted to include special events like the Belgians blowing up the bridges over the Meuse and the potential use of Zeppelins by the Germans for reconnaissance or bombing.
One night while trying to get to sleep, I had a brainstorm. (For some reason, many of my best ideas come while I am trying to get to sleep.) I was thinking about the counters, how I wanted to activate the units, and what to do with the special events. I suddenly came up with a random chit pull mechanism, one in which the player could pull an army chit and activate all of the divisions within that army, or pull a special event chit that could be used to help the player or hinder their opponent. I also included three "end of day" chits that would end the turn when all three were drawn. I thought, "What a neat, novel concept."
Since Dave worked a night shift at the time, I texted him and told him my idea. He really liked the idea and informed me of a bunch of games like Eric Lee Smith's Across Five Aprils that had successfully used chit pulls in the past. Although I was humbled to learn that my not-so-novel "concept" had been done many times, I still knew it would work well for this game, so I started designing the unit activation and special event chits.
Two things were still missing. I needed a way to address the Garde Civique (Civilian Guard) that existed in the towns and cities of Belgium, as well as the atrocities committed by the Germans in response to the Garde Civique. I knew I wanted the Garde Civique to be separate from the Belgian Field Army, and I knew that I wanted their appearance and strength to be randomized. As for the atrocities, my initial thought was to either connect them somehow to an overrun mechanism or to the Garde Civique. I ended up producing twelve Garde Civique counters and had them randomly appear via a dice roll as the Germans enter a town or city, and I included the atrocities as an event that could be randomly pulled.
Beyond that, I really had no idea how to proceed any further. I did not know what to do for combat, for besieging the forts, and for movement. I printed up the maps and the counters, then set everything aside in hopes that Dave and I could start hashing out the rest of the game. It sat that way for close to two years.
During the winter of 2017, I noticed that quite a few of my friends on Facebook were creating and submitting wargame designs to publishers. In particular, my Facebook friend Ray Weiss had created several interesting games on a wide range of topics over the course of only a few weeks and had submitted several of them to publishers for publications. (Since then, he has created his own publishing company, Conflict Simulations, LLC, to publish his games.) Seeing what he was able to accomplish in such a short time inspired me to go back to Brave Little Belgium and complete it.
The big problem that hindered Dave and me from working on it over the last two years was the distance between us. Dave lives in Pennsylvania and I live in Maryland. Dave works nights and I work days. We needed some way to work together on the project without always having to get together in person. Enter Vassal. Dave and I had played games on Vassal throughout the years, but we never had used Vassal for design purposes. Still, I knew that other designers had used it successfully, so I figured I could as well.
I thus quickly modified the unit counters, adding in movement and combat ratings based on the order of combat I had created earlier. I also modified the prototype map, simplifying the movement lines. I then designed a quick Vassal module that included the basic prototype map, the random chits, the revised units, and the Garde Civique counters. After typing up some basic rules, we had enough to play with and to push around counters to see if the game would work.
To our great surprise, it worked fairly well from the start. The random chit mechanism created an interesting random dynamic, the unit movement and combat values were fairly close to what would make sense historically, and the events provided intrigue and tension. It still needed modification, however. The combat losses were way too high, the game was not very balanced, the Garde Civique mechanism was too fiddly, and we still needed to figure out a siege mechanism for the forts.
With the Vassal module already created, it was easy to modify the graphics for the map and counters and reinsert them into the game. I turned the unit counters into double-sided counters with a reduced side. That helped to lower the combat losses and balance the game more. I added a random roll mechanism into the set-up to determine the placement of the Garde Civique counters. Finally, I developed a siege mechanism inspired by block games in which the fort's counter would rotate as hits were applied to it until it was eventually destroyed.
Dave and I continued testing and liked a lot of the changes but still had some difficulties with the random atrocity draw, which could lead to a quick German defeat, and the fact that the forts were still not powerful enough. At that point, I also started demonstrating the game to some of the other wargame players I knew, including my friend and fellow designer, Sean Druelinger (creator of the upcoming Lock 'N' Load game Point Blank). He felt the game was solid and fun, but did not like the randomness of the atrocity draw and the fact that the player may not be able to move all of the armies due to the random end-of-day mechanism. Based on his feedback, we began to refine and redesign.
Another late-night brainstorm brought the game to its final form. The fort modifications were easy. I took another idea from block games and had the player roll a number of dice equal to the strength of the fort. The atrocity and end-of-day mechanism was a little trickier, but I was finally able to resolve both issues by linking the mechanisms together. The turn would still end if three end-of-day chits were drawn, but now the German player still had the opportunity to move his armies. The only thing is that, by doing so, the player was risking the possibility of atrocities being committed.
Now that we had a solid game, it was time to submit to publishers. We submitted the game to two publishers, both of whom quickly made us offers to publish the game. Dave and I were in shock. As much as we loved to play the game, we knew that most first-time designers did not receive offers. After much discussion, Dave and I finally decided to accept the offer made by our first choice company, Hollandspiele. Not only did we know that Tom Russell and Mary Russell at Hollandspiele would do a great job developing the game. but we had designed much of the game with Hollandspiele in mind.
We made the right choice. Hollandspiele has done a remarkable job developing the game. They hired one of the best graphic designers in the industry, Ania B. Ziolkowska, to redesign the map. She was able to take the utilitarian prototype map we designed and created a true work of art. Tom Russell designed the box and counters, and Mary Russell laid out and formatted the rulebook. The final product looks amazing, plays smoothly, and is very fun. We hope that you will enjoy Brave Little Belgium.
Ben Pinchback here, one of the co-designers of Beta Colony. I'll be doing the main writing on this designer diary, with Matt Riddle, Beta Colony's other designer, chiming in with his comments, such as this:
Did you hear the one about the monk who walked into the bar? Ouch!
For real, hey everyone. In this post, Ben spends about five thousand words exploring the journey that brought us to one of our 2018 releases — Beta Colony from Rio Grande Games, with Piepmatz and Fleet: The Dice Game being the other two — and I will pop in randomly to break up the monotony of Ben's prattle.
Also, it is interesting how themes change over time. Each step, we did work to make sure the current theme is integrated and made sense. Even though this game is a Euro, there are thematic elements throughout Beta Colony — even a cool backstory written by our buddy Mike Mullins.
If you've heard of me and Matt up to this point, it's most likely from our card game Fleet from 2012 or from our 2017 post-apocalyptic romp Wasteland Express Delivery Service (a.k.a., WEDS). WEDS is kind of like a sibling to Beta Colony in that they both share the same parent — "Space Vikings!!!". Technically Beta Colony is from "Space Vikings!!! 2.0", as we had dubbed it, so I guess that makes Beta Colony a nephew or niece to WEDS with "Space Vikings!!!" proper being the granddaddy. The "Space Vikings!!!" family tree also includes unpublished sibling "4 Brothers of Love", who begat published cousin Morocco, as well as crazy cousin "Alcazar" and his sister "Wolf and the Fox", both of which have been committed to the shelf of misfit protos.
So why do you care about "Space Vikings!!!" and all of Aegir, God of the Sea's children and grandchildren? Well, you don't and you shouldn't. It's just the long way of explaining where the central idea for Beta Colony — the "Rolldel" — came from. In short form, the Rolldel is a dice rondel. Players use sets of rolled dice in pairs to first move their token around the action circle with one die, then activate the spot with the other die.
But we're getting way ahead of ourselves. To properly explain the Rolldel, we need to start back at the beginning, with the vikings in the Baltic sea when Chief Forkbeard passed on and his five worthless sons were left to carry on his legacy. (We'll soon be getting to voyagers constructing colonization pods on the chosen planet, Victus, I promise.)
Get it? Roll... like dice... plus rondel = Rolldell! Boom. You're welcome. Also, the "Space Vikings!!!" tree is like the Belichick coaching tree: mildly successful, but better in theory than in practice.
Back in the Baltic Sea, the brothers Forkbeard went about their business pillaging and expanding with great abandon, forgetting their roots and also forsaking tribute to Aegir, God of the Sea. Enraged by their behavior, Aegir banished them to space, where they would be forced to work their way back into his good graces on their quest home.
This was 2012, and Matt and I would spend the better part of 3-4 years trying to make this ridiculous premise into an actual functional game. Mechanically it had this cool octagon- and square-patterned modular board with an action-selection player mat and upgradeable ships, but thematically it was a mess. I can't imagine why. Also, if this sounds kind of like Wasteland Express Delivery Service to you, then you've cracked the code — but that was not until waaaaay later.
During this journey, we took a left turn at one point and created "Space Vikings!!! 2.0". We had decided that the Forkbeards needed dice to spice things up and that gameplay needed to be cut down to 60 minutes tops. "Space Vikings!!!" was inherently a pick-up and deliver game, and 2.0 would be the same, but instead of a sprawling modular board, the game would take place on a circular array. Players would use dice to move around the galaxy clockwise in a circle and stop on the different planets to perform actions. Players would use dice in tandem; one selected die would move a player around the circle, and a second selected die would be used to perform the action at that location. The Rolldel had been born!
Even so, the Forkbeards were not doing so well. The pick-up and deliver in a circle was a little too on the nose and lacking in dynamics. Everyone who played the game loved the dice mechanism, but the game as a whole was just not working. And, shockingly enough, the theme wasn't making any sense. But again, everyone loved the dice thing.
The dice thing then went on to spawn a few other games that didn't quite make it to the finish line, crazy cousins "Alcazar" and "Wolf and the Fox" among them, but in the end it became just a cool idea in our tool belt, waiting for the proper time to come out again.
I really liked "Wolf and the Fox", which is still my favorite shelved proto. It even has cute art courtesy of Eric J Carter (the now retired Fleet artist). It is just a simple rolldell game — pick a die, move that many spaces around the rondel and take cards where you land — then later the cards score Ra/Sushi Go-style set stuff. (PWH isn't the only one who can borrow from the good doctor. He just does it way, way better.) Seriously, though, "Wolf and the Fox" is a totally fun 20-30 minute family game, but alas, it just never quite found a home.
In a parallel world, Matt and I traveled to Baltimore in January 2013 to attend our very first Unpub convention. Unpub is an amazing event in which rooms full of designers play their prototypes with the general public, who show up in droves to test these games and give critical feedback. In the winter of 2013, Matt and I were showing off/working on Monster Truck Mayhem (which deserves a Shakespearean tragedy written completely unto itself) and a mid-weight Euro called "Bagan".
"Bagan" used a hex grid, tiles, and a little resource acquisition mechanism to have players control monks building a temple. The tiles had fun powers on them when built, and the tile-laying had a cool double area control type of scoring. Throughout the weekend, players super enjoyed the tile portion of the game but were continually left feeling flat regarding the resource acquisition. It was too direct and didn't feel clever at all. The game needed a slick layer to pair with the fun tile building...
Fun note: The resource acquisition in "Bagan" was the draw mechanism in Fleet Wharfside. Two piles/queues of three cubes (cards in Wharfside) and you can take two but from only one of the piles. I do not honestly know whether it was in Wharfside first or "Bagan" first — but it worked way better in Wharfside.
Matt and I generally don't add more content to "fix" game designs. Our typical pattern is that we start with way too much fun stuff and end up sculpting the final game down like a statue as opposed to building it up from different pieces. "Bagan" was different. It totally worked but was begging for another layer. It was begging for what Matt and I call "The Feld", that is, the first part of most Stefan Feld games, the clever thing you do which then allows you to do the basic Euro stuff later. Think of the mancala in Trajan, the card drafting in Strasbourg, the dice placement in Bora Bora, the dice trick in Macao, the card play in Bruges. All of these slick things define the games they're in, then give way to otherwise familiar Euro mechanisms. "Bagan" had fun, familiar Euro tile-laying, but it needed — say it together now — the Rolldel.
Combining "Bagan" with the Rolldel made perfect sense to us. Once united, the game began to sing and players were having a blast. The puzzle of the dice selection with movement around the circle, then activation coupled with the tile-laying was perfect. We continued to work the game and ended up with three different areas to in which to build, each with a unique rewards track as players level up in those particular areas. Everything was making sense except the theme. We were still monks building a temple, but for some reason...three areas of the temple. We kinda liked the theme though, so we stubbornly stuck with it when we started to pitch the game around 2015-ish.
It was a pretty good theme. We even explored a two-phase mechanism in which an earthquake happens and the second phase builds off the remnants of the first phase. It was interesting and worked and was historically-based as Myanmar is located in an earthquake zone, but it was not salable as it turns out and, in retrospect, not socially something that Ben and I would embark on now. We have learned a lot over the years from our great gamer and Twitter friends about social consciousness and something with the depth and history of this theme should be handled carefully, if at all. Also, yes the monks have guns in that proto.
Matt and I had always dreamed of having a design published with Rio Grande Games. After we got deep into the hobby as players, seemingly half or more of our initial collections were Rio Grande titles — all the huge ports from Europe like Power Grid and Puerto Rico, plus favorite originals like Dominion. Add to that Rio Grande's presence at conventions like Origins and Gen Con, and they always felt like the big leagues to us.
Adding to this dream was the fact that Rio Grande's owner, Jay Tummelson, was always very responsive to Matt's inquiries for meetings at those conventions. We pitched Jay a minimum of twice a summer for years. He had taken some of our games overnight to further evaluate, but we had never reached the finish line with him and his team. Ever persistent, we showed him "Bagan" in the middle of 2015. Jay liked the game enough to keep it overnight and have his team evaluate it. The next morning we came back, and his basic response was "Pretty cool game, but it needs some development. Oh, and it should be in space."
Space monks!!! No, not this time. We'd play it a little more straight this time around, especially since space made total sense in this context. The Rolldel was an orbit around a central body stopping in at the moons, etc., and the tile-laying created different settlements. It was a perfect fit, so we worked on integrating the new theme and changing things around over the next year.
You read that correctly: the next year. A year sounds like a long time, but consider that for a 60-ish minute game, two designers working full-time jobs who get together once a week are getting one, maybe two, reps a week. When you start making changes and need the plays, it just takes time. During this time, we had loose contact with the developer from Rio Grande, Ken Hill, who encouraged us to keep working the changes and bring the game back in 2016 to show Jay and the team.
The summer of 2016 went well. We showed the new game to the Rio Grande team, and they were very excited about it. Ken began his development, and we embarked on another period of testing and changes. Like the sculpture mentioned before, extra tasks and scoring opportunities that we felt were fun got chipped away as Ken and the dev team trimmed the fat. (We had additional contracts to complete that you could pick up at the Ridback and a convoluted auction for player powers.) When as a designer you play some form of a game for the better part of four years, you get really good at it. As you get better, the tendency is to add more and more to keep it challenging, not realizing that you've outpaced your audience. This is why testing at events such as Unpub as well as with the dev team are so important. You get the impressions from real players playing for the first time. Inevitably you end up trimming things out you thought you needed.
All the bits
I miss the contracts...maybe for an expansion if it sells well? They were basically dice puzzles that you had to complete while doing other things, so you needed to, say, drop off an orange cube at The Ridback with a green die range 4-6. I realize that unless you've played the game that makes no sense, but they were fun — and unneeded for the target audience. But honestly, super fun, at least for me...
Also, I want to piggy back on what Ben said and thank Ken Hill. He did make some great strides on Beta Colony. Originally the tile-laying influence was disappointingly mathy. It was similar to the system in Santiago (tiles • your markers), but you had to do it constantly instead of just at round's end. It worked and added some nice depth, but was work. Turns out not everyone likes doing algebra.
Ken did a great job over that next year working with his testers and going back and forth with us, and we got the game nailed down enough to begin art assets, graphic design, and production talk. A long story short on this effort is to say that this took longer than we expected for Beta Colony. There were some specific challenges with the tiles, colors, the Rolldel, symbology, clarity, the board layout, and tracks that required a couple go-rounds.
To Ken and Rio's credit, they never settled with good enough. When it was determined that the board wasn't going to be usable by most players, they went back and worked it to make it better. The end result is that Beta Colony is a beautiful production with nice, chunky wooden bits and bright colors reinforced with fun symbols. The dice puzzle leading into the tile play has been well received, and we super hope you enjoy it, too. From "Space Vikings!!!" to "Bagan", Forkbeard to the Rolldel, to the marriage of it all on Victus — our new chosen planet to colonize — thanks for reading and enjoy the game.
Yes, thank you to everyone who read this, or even lightly skimmed it, or just read my parts. Consider checking out Beta Colony as it is in retail now. If you ever have any questions, hit us up in the forums or on Twitter because we will always answer. Matt = @mdriddlen, Ben = @pinchback21