BoardGameGeek News

To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, contact us at

Archive for Designer Diaries

1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5  Next »  [56]

 Thumb up

Designer Diary: High Rise, or Building Skyscrapers and Contemplating Lepidopteran Body Horror

Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
flag msg tools
Microbadge: LudologistMicrobadge: Battle Merchants fan - AxeMicrobadge: The Networks fanMicrobadge: NYC Board Game Designer's Group memberMicrobadge: Spielbany
Board Game: High Rise
In 2017, I held an event at a private convention for some fellow game designers in which we brought out some very early games of ours. My thought is that we would share a bit of a laugh at them and see how far we've come.

That didn't happen. Instead, we played a bunch of earnest games with genuinely good ideas in them that were buried in awkwardly-designed mechanisms and naive ambitions.

One of them was my beleaguered auction game called "Wag the Wolf", which I wrote about in my designer diary for The Networks. It features an amazing auction mechanism that failed to work in two different games (The Networks and Battle Merchants). If you're not familiar with that saga, I highly recommend reading that designer diary first. I won't go into detail about "Wag the Wolf"'s auction mechanism here as I described it at length there.

We all agreed that the auction mechanism was really cool and the rest of the game was pretty crummy. One of the designers at the event, Jonathan Gilmour, encouraged me to move forward. By 2017, I was, in all modesty, a fairly decent game designer. Knowing what I know now, could I take Wag's auction mechanism and actually make it work?

If you've played High Rise, you know the answer: No. No, I couldn't.

Still, the journey produced what I think is the best game I've made so far — even if it almost killed me.

The Eggs are Laid

These days, I begin making a game by looking for an interesting intersection of theme and mechanism. Once I find that join, a lot of design questions seem to answer themselves.

In this case, I knew from the jump that the players had to be greedy, wealthy players, so the first draft of the game was about stock acquisition. Players bid on a mix of cards: some face-up that were always good, some face-down that were a mix of good and bad. Most cards offered valuable stocks, but some cards did nothing (I called them "meeting" cards), and some cards were PR crises that lost the players points.

Players who folded in the auction could mitigate PR issues. Players who won the auction outright got to take two face-up cards; other players got a mix of face-up and face-down cards.

From gallery of IngredientX

This was a decent start, but as I tested it, I realized that skyscrapers were a better theme. In a couple of months, the game was about constructing huge buildings, so unlike my early designs, the game's theme was stable from the start and that helped speed up the design process.

With the new theme, I thought "Bedrock" would be a cool name, but later I realized that I had missed an excellent opportunity for a pun and switched to the name the prototype would take for a year: "Bidrock".

The Caterpillar Hatches

At this point, "Bidrock" continued leaning into the "Wag" auction mechanism. There was now a building deck with cards that came out face up and a fate deck (containing random money cards and negative-effect cards) that came out face down. The buildings had various characteristics that would award set collection bonuses. As the bidding increased, more cards came out.

Players would lap cards on each other so that a "tall" building was a series of overlapped cards. At some point, based on the style of building, the player could consider the building "done" and score points for it.

Players would place buildings in one of four neighborhoods that would give money, add floors to buildings, or create a building multiplier. There were also bonuses for being the first in the neighborhood, for having multiple types of buildings in a neighborhood, and for having the tallest building in the neighborhood.

From gallery of IngredientX

While the guts of that game were still wildly different than what's in the High Rise box, you can start to see some glimmers of the final game here. There are multiple neighborhoods, a feeling of constructing tall buildings, and tallest-building bonuses in each neighborhood.

In fact, from here through the rest of the design process, I would hang onto the feeling of constructing a building — height, verticality, dimension — as a core experience of the design.

But still, the game was far from being a gorgeous butterfly. It was still an ugly, hairy caterpillar.

The Caterpillar Munches on a Leaf

Bidding for individual buildings wasn't interesting enough. I split up the building requirements into resources that players received at auction. High bidders would receive first choice and the most materials.

From gallery of IngredientX

I had a conversion of resources to floors originally, so, for example, some buildings would require three concrete and two steel per floor, and the buildings had wildly different VP values. Thankfully NYC-Playtest hero Rocco Privetera suggested a vital maxim: Each resource corresponds to one floor, which corresponds to 1 VP. That immediately wiggled its way into the core of the game and never left. It helped the transparency and clarity of the design tremendously.

The Caterpillar Begins Spinning Its Cocoon

The "Wag" auction is a hidden-money auction. In the original game, you can't bid more money than you have. This is an okay rule; it's hard to enforce, but I've seen several games that have the rule, and player cheating isn't usually an issue.

Still, it was a loose end. I wondered: What would it be like if players could take out loans?

So I introduced a loan mechanism through which players would take out loans if they were short of money, with the loan being represented by loan cubes. This completely changed the dynamics of bidding as players could bid far more than they had. It also made bluffing interesting as a player bidding far too much money could fold for an amount they could afford and perhaps force other players to overextend.

From gallery of IngredientX

In practice, however, this change created crappy dynamics. Players would bid the maximum amount and accept a bunch of loans, and the other players wouldn't have any meaningful decisions for that auction. I tried disincentivizing this behavior, but this was the beginning of the end for the "Wag" auction mechanism in the game.

Even so, from this point onward, the game always had a negative currency. Loans were just the beginning, and even though the form and name would change, that would become a critical component of the game.

The Caterpillar Dissolves into Goo

At this point, I had a game that was working decently. Each round of the game had a "bid" half and a "build" half. The bottom of the board was the bidding track; it had lost the "Wag" bid pointer at this point, but your position on the track at the end of the auction mattered. Buildings went into the top half of the board, but you were limited in the number you could place in each neighborhood.

From gallery of IngredientX
Blueprints were across the top of the board. Anything with a bag icon was a colored cube pulled out of a bag. The "shrug" icon indicated a resource of any color could be used, and the futuristic icon at the bottom of the leftmost two blueprint spaces was a new mechanism: Elastoplastic, a fancy new resource. At the time, Elastoplastic could stand in for any resource, but you needed Elastoplastic for the blueprints that called for them.

My friend Daniel Newman, an excellent game designer who studied architecture in school, suggested the name as something architects use as a generic term — the architect equivalent of Unobtainium, if you will.

You'll also notice the big square in the bottom-left of each blueprint box. That was a neutrally-colored floor that the first player to construct a blueprint took. Another idea that survived to publication!

Up until now, I'd tried to stay thematic and give a name for each resource — concrete, steel, glass, and so on — but at this point, I just gave them colors. To handle the buildings, I took Rocco's maxim to heart and had the players actually construct the buildings out of the wood squares I used to represent the resources. One resource equals one floor equals one point.

Oh, Gil, if only you knew the trouble you were setting yourself up for...

I had tried to address the maximum-bid issue by introducing a mechanism in which as you bid various amounts on the track, you would pass boxes with bonus components. You could pick from only one box, regardless of how many you passed, so you were incentivized to make smaller jumps, not jump all the way to the end. If you've played High Rise, this should sound very familiar!

The game was...okay. It just wasn't amazing. Finally, my friend (and ridiculously good playtester, and even better designer) Ryan Courtney told me what I needed to hear: It was time to drop the auction mechanism. But maybe it would work as a Tokaido-style time track?

The Pupa Bubbles and Burbles

No designer likes to make such massive, fundamental changes to their designs so far in, but this was worth a shot. I tried a few different boards; the board pictured below is an early attempt.

One playtester suggested that removing the auction meant that I could also remove money from the game. I was intrigued by this and modeled the game currency as debt instead. Most actions would cost "favors", which modeled debt that the players could pay back by visiting spaces with the gray box and red X.

Players would start at one of the four spaces at the top and move clockwise around the board, landing on a space that gave them stuff in a one-way track. The first space (at the top-left) would give players three random resources and a favor cube. The next space gave a yellow resource, a random resource, and a favor cube.

From gallery of IngredientX

For the actual mechanical implementation of the favors, I "borrowed" the poverty mechanism from Martin Wallace's London. I didn't feel too bad about this because I figured I'd have to twist the mechanism so much during testing that it would assume its own identity — and I was right. That problematic loan mechanism eventually turned into one of the core parts of High Rise's identity: corruption.

You can also see the bonus spaces survived the auction purge. Players who crossed those spots first would get to take everything out of one box.

The white squares on the box represented Elastoplastic, which was also represented by the futuristic icon. I don't know why I had two different icons for the same thing, so don't ask. But deep inside the cocoon, the butterfly was forming.

Almost Ready to Emerge

They say that when a caterpillar becomes a pupa, it actually disintegrates inside its cocoon and reforms as a butterfly. It sounds painful. It sounds intense. And it sounds like my design process for this game.

From gallery of IngredientX

The board above shows a fundamental change I attempted. Instead of fixing spaces on the board, I shuffled cards and dealt them to spaces on the board. I later settled on a hybrid approach with some spaces being fixed on the board and others as modular "tenants" that would differ each game.

While I always had "neighborhoods" in the game, this was the first time they were implemented as modular tenants that you could build on and get powers from. Another big part of High Rise's design settled into place here.

And it's about here that another critical mechanism emerged that separates this game from other one-way track games. I noticed a lot of players waiting for other players to jump ahead, then annoyingly taking all of the spaces ahead of them one-by-one. I tried out a rule that forced players to do only one action in each block, and what do you know? It worked perfectly, serving as the stick to the carrot of the bonus spaces, and it makes the game feel really different.

I also had one more problem: I could no longer justify calling the game "Bidrock" since it was no longer about bidding. I thought about switching back to "Bedrock", but people kept thinking it was a game about The Flintstones.

I cast around for a new name (pointedly ignoring Ian Moss' repeated suggestion to call it "Buildrock"), and it was Manuel Correia who gave a name that suggested tall buildings as well as escalating tension: High Rise.

A few people have since asked me whether the game is about the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, but far fewer than The Flintstones folks.

The Butterfly Emerges, But with Wings Too Wet to Fly

Daniel had a big hand in laying out the board below, when he semi-seriously refused to test the game unless I let him help me make the board more readable.

This board is actually close to the final board, mechanically speaking. Players would start in the upper-left of the board and travel clockwise. We have fixed spaces and modular "tenant" spaces. We have bonus spaces. We have favor tokens that will soon become corruption. We have areas that cost extra favors to enter if you're not the first one in. And in the early spaces, you get a predetermined resource, and you may draw a random resource for a favor.

From gallery of IngredientX

Most importantly, the blueprints under the game title no longer have a "shrug" icon. Some clever playtester suggested folding that into Elastoplastic's abilities. It was now a two-way wild, and if players matched it exactly, they'd get an extra floor in their building. The only thing that would need to change for that part of the game was the name.

At this point, it's easier to point out the differences that still remained. Blueprints were still determined by random cube pulls, which was time-consuming and fiddly. I didn't have the trading spaces quite down; at the time, I allowed players to trade resources of one color for that number of a different color, and they could get an extra resource for a favor. And you can get resources only in the first half of the board (although Uptown still had many tenants who offered resources).

And if you look at the Construction zones, you'll see they're placed a bit weirdly. The first one is all the way at the bottom-right corner of the board. The three neighborhoods listed show the neighborhoods you were allowed to construct in from that spot. This was difficult to parse and annoyingly restrictive.

But the biggest difference was the City Center.

The Butterfly Gingerly Feels Its New Body

I wanted it to feel different than the other neighborhoods. In fact, you'll notice that the neighborhoods and the resources share colors. That's because each neighborhood was "tilted" towards a specific resource. You can see this a bit in the final game; there's at least one tenant in each neighborhood that gives a floor of a specific color.

From gallery of IngredientX

I originally wanted the City Center to feel completely different. Its buildings did not follow standard blueprints. Instead, each building in the City Center took three blue resources and as many floors as you could supply of a single different color. I wanted those buildings to be tall.

At Dice Tower 2018, Marguerite Cottrell played the game and told me at the end that if they played again, they would have focused exclusively on the City Center. I wasn't 100% sure about this, but I tried it in a playtest later that night. Another player saw me doing it and followed my lead — and we ran out of resources halfway through the game. Maggi, bless them, had broken the game. I had to pull the City Center back into line with the rest of the game!

You can see the stacks of resources standing in for buildings. At this point, I made a fateful decision: I asked Daniel to design stackable plastic pieces that I had 3D-printed to stand in for the dull wooden squares.

The Butterfly Spreads Its Shimmering Wings

The new plastic bits looked awesome. The prototype, even without art, had amazing table presence. I realized that this could be a hook for the product. It looked so good! Sure, sometimes players had to swivel their heads around past the buildings to study the board, but that was worth it, right?

From gallery of IngredientX

There was also the tiny issue that the design of the game necessitated almost three hundred plastic bits. After all, players were using the same game components for both resources and buildings, so I needed enough to last the game! But people would see how awesome the game looked, and they'd be fine with it, wouldn't they?

Other game design elements and conventions presented themselves. Favor finally got renamed corruption. The above photo shows a tile that says "13" — that's the height of the corresponding building, and I turned those tiles into flags that players could insert into the caps of their buildings, which was both more functional and looked better.

You'll notice the blueprints were now small rectangular tiles instead of cubes. I tried this to quicken set-up, while still preserving some randomness. The tiles "bunched" several cubes together, but setting them up still wasn't trivial. Finally, my playtesters pointed out that the size of the random space the blueprints offered was not important enough to require so many tiles. The blueprints became a total of 15 large cards, which made set-up infinitely easier.

The construction spaces got a huge improvement when I realized how much better it would be if players could construct on any space, but they got corruption unless they built in one specific neighborhood. It also fixed a nagging problem I had with the City Center. Until then, I had required players to gain one corruption to build in the City Center, which was an easily-missed rule. Now, players were free to build in the City Center, but the game rules elegantly forced them to take Corruption anytime they did so.

Heiko Günther, my longtime graphic designer (and quite a good game designer himself), tried the game at SPIEL and pointed out that a lot of my tenant powers were active for the duration of the game, which added a lot of complexity. With his encouragement, I made the game less of an engine-builder and more combo-riffic, with a bigger proportion of one-use and once-per-round cards. This might sound disappointing to fans of engine-building games, but it was absolutely the right call; it decreased the game's cognitive load and better focused the core challenges of the game. It was a critical improvement.

Heiko also helped me streamline the corruption track. Previously, each space on the track had three numbers: the points you lost if you had most corruption, the points you lost if you had second-most, and the points you lost otherwise. Instead, we split the first- and second-place points elsewhere and inserted gaps in the numbers in the track so it would go up faster than a plain linear progression.

Even so, the game length was starting to run very long with all my changes, almost three hours. I enjoyed this way of playing, but realized I needed a way to play in less than two hours, so I created a "standard mode" that lasted only two rounds instead of three. I've since found that several players vocally prefer one or the other, so I'm glad I put both in.

I discovered that "elastoplasticity" is actually a thing, so I decided to give Elastoplastic a fictional name, which is how UltraPlastic got its name.

I also created a three-player side of the board and started focusing on the one- and two-player game. Soon, the game was in great shape. I had people excited to back the game on Kickstarter. It was time to push the button and bask in praise of my next great game.

The Butterfly Smacks Head First into an 18-Wheel Truck

That Kickstarter lasted one day. I canceled it when potential backers balked at the US$100 price tag I had settled on to pay for all the awesome bits I thought would sell themselves.

From gallery of IngredientX
Image by Johi Smedberg from Pixabay

It was a silly unforced error. I didn't have enough art in the game and did a terrible job of communicating my vision to the public. "This is an excellent game" is not a game hook, and no amount of positive reviews and excited buzz could get backers past my ugly prototype graphic design, even though I'd already announced that I'd contracted the hugely-talented Kwanchai Moriya to handle the art.

Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

What if I replaced the cool plastic bits with punchboard buildings in plastic standees? The game would keep its awesome verticality, I could better frame Kwanchai's art, and I could probably cut the game's price close to half.

The cool factor of the game would definitely drop. I wasn't sure what people would think of plastic stands. Wouldn't they harm the bottoms of the cardboard buildings? And that core hook of the game was gone. Would it work?

Only one way to find out. I put together a prototype with chipboard and label paper.

The big moment of relief came early on. During a game, my friend and sparkling game designer Adi Slepack asked, "What space is that building on?" Before I could answer her, she lifted up the building in the way, read the space, and placed the building back where it belonged. A plastic building would have fallen apart, and this was so much more intuitive.

Cardboard buildings also handled the issue of reading a building's height. We wouldn't need separate "flags" to fly from the top of a plastic building; they came right on the card.

It worked. I relaunched, this time with a US$60 pledge level.

The Butterfly Gingerly and Cautiously Takes to the Wind Again

The new campaign started well, but when we hit the well-known "trough of despair" a few days in, people started doubting whether we would fund. I had launched the campaign at a time when I went to three conventions in the span of two weeks — Granite Game Summit, GAMA Trade Show, and GDC — and I dedicated myself to tirelessly showing off the game at all three. Thankfully, Heiko had come up with a prototype board in the meantime, so people no longer had to stare at my hideous abomination of a board featured in the original campaign.

From gallery of IngredientX

The campaign was touch and go. For three weeks, I had no idea whether the game would fund or not. I'm glad I was on the road; relentless demoing isn't as effective as you think it is — it's a lot of work to communicate to a relatively small amount of people — but it was great at taking my mind off the stresses of the campaign.

Towards the end of the KS campaign, Kwanchai's art for the buildings and board came in, god, Kwanchai, you're amazing! Posting that art gave a bunch of people confidence in the last few days of the campaign.

High Rise hit its $50,000 funding goal six hours from the end of the campaign. The Kickstarter wasn't the smash success I was hoping for, but it was a success. Despite all the doubt and frustration, the game would get made.

It was just a matter of making it.

The Butterfly Slowly Finds Its Strength

Below is a hilariously out-of-focus selfie of my friends at the Variable Player Power podcast trying High Rise at SPIEL '19 that my friends rightly gave me grief for. Somehow, it's the only photo of High Rise I can find on my social media — but it was also at SPIEL where I made an awful discovery.

From gallery of IngredientX

You remember those plastic stands I was worried about? The most critical part of this whole enterprise was ensuring those stands didn't chew up the bottoms of the building tiles, but every sample that the manufacturer sent seemed to be too thin. Finally, I gave the go-ahead when I tried a set and it worked.

However, when I tried that set again at SPIEL, it didn't! Oh, no! What happened? I frantically begged my manufacturer to stop and take a look. Thankfully, I work with Panda Games Manufacturing, and they are absolutely amazing. They wound up custom-molding bases for me that fit the buildings perfectly.

Several months later, Tom Vasel did an unboxing video of High Rise. He punched out a building and put it into a plastic stand. I held my breath.

The building fit perfectly in the stand.

It may go unnoticed by most people, but that was my proudest moment of the year.

The Butterfly Finally Soars

Three years after Jon encouraged me to adapt my auction mechanism into a new game, High Rise is now available in stores.

I'm incredibly satisfied with the end product. It's the best game I've designed so far, and I'm so grateful for all the people who helped pick me up every time I got knocked down during this whole journey.

Will I ever go back to this auction mechanism? I doubt it. I think High Rise's one-way track nails the feeling I wanted to evoke with the auction. You can go fast and pick up bonuses, but not get as many turns as others. You can go slow and be precise, but miss the bonuses. I think that's as close to the original mechanism idea as I will ever get, and I'm more than satisfied with the end result.

This print run won't be available for long, I think. There's a lot of positive buzz about the game, but because of the Kickstarter's modest success, the print run had to be pretty tiny. It will sell out very quickly, but thankfully, I have this idea for a new Kickstarter for High Rise with stackable plastic pieces...

(Thanks to Karen C. for the inspiration for this post's title.)

Gil Hova

From gallery of IngredientX
Twitter Facebook
Wed Jul 1, 2020 7:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: The Story of the Making of The Field of the Cloth of Gold

Tom Russell
United States
flag msg tools
Microbadge: Backgammon fanMicrobadge: Barry Lyndon fanMicrobadge: Hollandspiele fanMicrobadge: Vernor's: Deliciously DifferentMicrobadge: Dinosaurs, everybody!
Board Game Publisher: Hollandspiele

When my wife Mary and I started our company Hollandspiele, we chose a print-on-demand model, which I like to describe as the most expensive and least efficient way to publish games. Our higher per-unit costs and low profit margins effectively remove us from any traditional distribution model that will allow our titles to have any kind of presence in your friendly local game store, and makes our games less affordable/accessible to customers outside the United States.

But none of those are things we really care about, and the model allows us to prioritize the things that matter to us. Yes, the games cost more to manufacture, but since we're essentially printing each one when it's ordered, paying for it after the customer has paid us, there's very little upfront cost, and our break-even point is ridiculously low: Even if the game is a flop, we make a profit, which lets us publish with impunity.

It also allows us to be flexible and somewhat spontaneous. If we wanted to, we could design a game today, send the files to the printer, and start taking orders tomorrow. The game would end up on doorsteps within a week. Now, the key bit there is "if we wanted to". There are many reasons why we wouldn't. It doesn't allow much, if any, time for testing and development, we would want to look at a proof copy first to ensure fidelity, and there would be no time to build up the sort of excitement and word-of-mouth that our sales depend on.

But in general one of the appeals of the model is that at the end of the year, we will have released games that at the start of the year we had no idea existed. That's what happened with Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater. Erin introduced herself and submitted her game in the spring of 2018, and by October of that same year, the game was hitting tables and winning accolades, becoming one of our flagship titles.

Board Game: Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation
Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater

We've lost some of that flexibility, however, as our catalogue and our audience has continued to grow. We have a lot of games in our pipeline, and it's been taking longer and longer to get them out the door, often a year or two after we signed it. We've effectively stopped taking submissions while we try to muscle through our backlog until we can get to a place where we can get back to those quick turnaround times.

That sense of spontaneity is something we sorely miss. Mary and I have often discussed how we want to "do something like Meltwater", which doesn't mean that we want to publish a game that's like Meltwater — it is perhaps inimitable! — but that we wanted to make room for projects we hadn't anticipated.

Which brings us, at last, to The Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Board Game: The Field of the Cloth of Gold


In February 2020, it occurred to me that June would mark the five hundredth anniversary of the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This was essentially a very expensive three-week party in which the two young kings peacocked at each other about how great and magnificent and splendid they were. It's an event that fascinated me as a child — I was all about kings and castles and tournaments and splendor — and it's one that I had tried and failed in the past to make a game about.

Said failure was largely due to the fact that nothing really happened during that meeting. Oh, they spent an awful lot of money — England alone is estimated to have spent a third of its national wealth — and they ate an awful lot of animals, tens of thousands of them. But nothing was actually achieved, and there was no real conflict for your humble consim designer to simulate.

But the five hundredth anniversary? If I were ever going to do a game on the topic, now would be the time. Tying the game into the anniversary appealed to me, as did the topic itself. More than that, though, I was excited by the idea of reclaiming some of our early flexibility. Mary shared my enthusiasm and greenlit the project.

From gallery of tomrussell

Designing for Production

In order to realistically release the game in June, we would need to finish everything — design, testing, development, art, layout — in April, within the span of about two months. This largely dictated the parameters of the design.

First, the game had to be short, so as to facilitate rapid testing. A game that takes two hours to play eats up most of the evening, but in that same time you can play a twenty-minute game six times. You're also more likely to find playtesters who will volunteer their time for a shorter game than for a longer one.

Second, the game had to be simple so that there would be fewer problems for me to solve and fewer things for me to screw up. I didn't have time to bang my head against the wall or pull at the loose strings of some complicated knot.

Short and simple meant that it would be a filler game, and that meant a lower price point; no one's going to pay beaucoup bucks for a quick diversion. Lower price point meant fewer components; being print on demand, we do not benefit from economies of scale, and having two of something costs twice as much as having one. Having published over fifty games at this point, I have mostly internalized this, so I immediately knew that I was limited to a half sheet of counters, perhaps a few wood bits, and a letter-sized paper "board".

Here, a peek behind the curtain might be instructive. Our letter-sized components — usually player aids and such — are printed on letter-sized card stock using a printer that handles smaller paper sizes. Our larger wargame maps, however, originate as large rolls of heavier paper, printed two maps at a time, then trimmed to the proper size. The letter-sized card stock is not only thinner, but because it isn't trimmed, it leaves an unsightly white border around the art — unsightly to the point that we've generally moved away from using that size for our actual playing surfaces and made 17" x 22" our standard map size.

The letter-sized sheet is what made sense for our price point, but at the same time we didn't want this chintzy, flimsy sheet with this ugly white border around it, so immediately we were thinking about how we might try to square that circle. Over the last couple of years, we had begun offering deluxe canvas maps for some of our most popular games on special occasions. It's too expensive for us to offer it as a standard component for our games with 17" x 22" (or larger) maps as we'd have no profit margin left — but the pricing made more sense for a letter-sized sheet and would be more attractive, with no white border to contend with. And so Mary and I decided to use the canvas as a standard component for this game.

Now, all this probably sounds fairly mercenary and mechanical — like we were counting our pennies and creating artificial constraints around the game before it was designed — but it's really a lot more intuitive and organic than that. It's not like we actually drew up a list of all this and said, okay, here are the restrictions, build something that works within them. Most of this was unspoken, all of it occurring to us at the same time; the only thing we really had to talk about was the canvas.

From gallery of tomrussell

My Kind of Euro

When I first got into board games a little over ten years ago, it was through Eurogames, and when I say "Eurogames", I'm really talking about the sort of very mean, very clean, and very interactive games that had come out sometimes ten or more years prior. El Grande and Tigris and Euphrates were particular touchstones for me. When I first tried my hand at being a game designer, I assumed I would be designing Eurogames. I did one wargame as a lark — for giggles! — and it sold, so I did another, and it sold. The wargames kept selling, and the Eurogames never did, so I shifted my focus to wargames.

For this game, I shifted my focus back. Given the limited number of components, the short timeframe, and the fact that, once again, nothing much actually happened, it wouldn't make sense to create a highly thematic or detailed game that tried to seriously engage with the historical event. Research for such games takes months or even years, and I didn't have that kind of time. And so I would make a lightly-themed Euro — the sort of lightly-themed Euro, in fact, that had gotten me into games in the first place.

The theme was light, but not irrelevant. Two kings, of course, meant two players. While these two kings were eager to thump their chests about how glorious and grand they were, they were also careful to express the camaraderie and esteem they held for one another; they were competing but they weren't "competing". This suggested a dynamic that was indirectly vicious, and that dynamic informed all my design decisions.

The two players attempt to collect tiles that come in four kinds, representing tournaments, feasts, piety, and wealth. When they take an action, the random tile associated with that space is given to their opponent. Most of these actions involve scoring points for a certain type of tile, and most of these scoring actions expend the type of tile scored, removing them from your supply.

Therein lies the rub: Practically everything you do scores you points, but you don't want to score those points yet; you want to hold onto those tiles so that you can score more points later. And everything you do gives your opponent the ammo they need to score points, and somehow, it always seems like they're getting the better end of the deal! Never mind that they're thinking the same about you...

To top it off, once the game gets going, you essentially are faced with a choice between two options at any given time, neither of which you particularly want to do. This is exactly the sort of sharp, painful decisions I love in games. Someone once described my Irish Gauge as "Here are four terrible things you don't want to do. Each of them is going to damage your position or improve everyone else's position more than it does yours. Now, choose one." That's broadly my approach here.

I'd like to dig into the nitty-gritty of how the game evolved over testing, but, honestly? It didn't really change. Oh, I fiddled with the score track a bit and improved the icons, but the game I came up with in mid-February is essentially the game that's being released. Again, when a game is this simple, it's hard to screw it up.

Breaking the Rules of Writing Rules

Testing wrapped up in April, right on schedule, and that's when I finally set to work writing the rules. This is unusual for me; usually the rules get written before the first prototype has been produced, mostly because the act of writing is one that clarifies — but most of my games aren't quite this simple or this elemental.

When I started writing the introduction for the rules, I took on a somewhat stilted and grandiose tone, assuming I would abandon it when I got into the meat of the thing, but I was having such a good time that I kept on writing in a pompous, elevated style. Instead of "fifty-four tiles", the game would come with "tiles numbering fifty and four". Instead of "see the Actions section below", the player was advised to "Hark ye the chapter below, called The Actions".

I cackled like a maniac the whole time, pleased with myself but fully assuming that none of this would make it into the final rulebook. When I turned it over to Mary, I asked her to let me know if I had gone too far, but to my surprise she said that I hadn't gone far enough. And so the rulebook contains all of the above, plus such gems as "score ye 6 points" and "move now the Dragon back to the space bearing its terrible visage".

If I were working with another publisher, they'd probably be "very concerned" about the rulebook — but they wouldn't be publishing a game like this in the first place; these sorts of games aren't exactly the rage these days. One of the purest joys of Hollandspiele and its model is that it lets Mary and I do whatever the heck we want, the way we want to do it.

I had a lot of fun whipping together this quick, vicious little curio. I got to do a different sort of game — closer to the sort of game that got me started in games in the first place — and we got to relive some of the scrappiness of our early days.

Tom Russell
Twitter Facebook
Wed Jun 24, 2020 3:53 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, or Throwing out the Bathwater and Keeping the Baby

Isaac Childres
United States
flag msg tools
Microbadge: JonGetsGames fanMicrobadge: Rahdo Runs Through fanMicrobadge: I'm a fan of Gaming Rules!Microbadge: Blue Peg Pink Peg - Pegs LogoMicrobadge: No Pun Included fan
Though it is bigger than most game boxes, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion still feels small. This is, of course, due to the fact that one naturally compares it to its predecessor, Gloomhaven, the giant box of cardboard that stole this website's heart three years ago.

From gallery of Cephalofair

And while Gloomhaven may be a critical darling here among the hardcore gamers, I couldn't help but wonder what a version of Gloomhaven that appeals to a more mainstream audience would look like. Well, turns out that it would look a lot like Jaws of the Lion.

I dabbled briefly with the idea that a mainstream version of Gloomhaven would be a completely different game. I designed a simple card game that had some of the same concepts — dungeon delving, leveling up, and retiring — in which completing a scenario was as simple as matching the icons on the dungeon to the icons on your adventuring party. It...wasn't great.

Meanwhile, I'd demo Gloomhaven at conventions, I'd demo it for friends and family, and no matter who I dropped a hand of cards in front of, with proper explanation, they'd be able to play their character and have fun. The core mechanisms of Gloomhaven — play two cards from your hand and perform the top action of one and the bottom action of the other — were solid. I realized there was no need to change that.

I just needed to change all the stuff around it that made it intimidating and hard to get into, things like:

• The giant box
• The large price tag
• The hard-to-organize horde of components
• The difficult-to-penetrate rules
• The overly difficult first scenario
• The lengthy set-up time

I just needed to fix all of these issues while leaving the core gameplay intact. It turned out to not be such an easy task. A lot of these things go hand-in-hand, though. For instance, if you reduce the number of components, you reduce the box size, and you reduce the price, so let's start there.

The first thing that needed to happen was to reduce the amount of content in the box, reduce the number of scenarios, the number of monsters, and the number of characters. Gloomhaven was built on the dream of a huge, open-world campaign, but Jaws of the Lion didn't have that luxury. It would be a simpler campaign (told entirely within the city of Gloomhaven to reduce the size of the map) that focused on a single set of four characters. There would be no retirement or switching of characters. The campaign would be just long enough for a player go on an adventure with a single character class and still not be bored by the end.

But even after a reduction of content, there were a lot of components in this box. In particular, creating varied scenarios requires lots of different cardboard map tiles and overlay tiles — that is, it did until I managed to cut all of those components by translating the play area for the scenarios into the scenario book itself. Instead of the book telling you how to set up the map tiles, the book was the map tiles.

From gallery of Cephalofair

This implementation was challenging because I had to wrestle a standard book of 8.5"x11" pages into a play surface for grand and expansive scenario ideas. There were limitations on the layout due to the spiral binding in the middle of the page, but adding a supplementary book that attached onto a two-page spread in the main book opened up the design space enough to create plenty of interesting and unique scenarios. Plus it allowed for the creation of custom art for each scenario in the game, which was very cool and very rewarding — though the artist, David Demaret, did put in a lot of long hours to get everything done on time!

Playing in the book itself also solved one of the other main problems: the set-up time. Being able to open the book, drop some monsters and characters onto it, and start going was a huge boon to the system as well. This was also aided by additional organizational tools in the box such as the token tray to hold all the little bits.

With the content pared down, organized, and presented compactly in the scenario book, the last and most difficult hurdle was making the rules easier to learn. I wanted to create a tutorial system to ease people into the system slowly, and I also needed to cut some of the more complicated aspects that would get in the way of learning the system.

The biggest part of the rules to cut out was most of the campaign elements. As stated above, this game has no retirement, but it also doesn't have prosperity, reputation, or temple donations. I wanted to keep city events, but since the campaign was entirely set within the city, road events didn't make any sense.

There were also a bunch of little things to cut: summoning, retaliate, rolling modifiers, complicated monster focus tie-breakers. Basically, I had a development weekend, sat down with a group of people very familiar with the game, and hashed out which aspects of the game possibly cause more confusion than they are worth. It was hard to cut things away from something I loved, but in the end, I think we were able to throw out the bathwater and keep the baby.

And then I had to make the tutorial. Initially I thought I could on-board new players in three scenarios. There was a simple starting scenario, then a short boss fight, then scenario three was basically full Gloomhaven. Over that development weekend, though, I was eventually convinced that five scenarios minimum would be needed, so we set about doing that.

We brainstormed all the separate concepts in the game, then tried to group them together in the most logical, consistent way so that each scenario introduced a new group of concepts that made sense and wasn't too overwhelming.

Starting the game with a limited set of concepts, however, also limited what you could do with the ability cards at the start, so I decided to create basic starting cards that evolved and were upgraded as new concepts were introduced. When you're heavily concerned with reducing components, it was rough to add a bunch of cards used only in a handful of scenarios, but ultimately I think it was the right call. Making the game easy to learn was the highest priority.

From gallery of Cephalofair
A progression of cards as they introduce new concepts

Once the five scenarios were put together and the first draft of the tutorial guide was written, the next step was to playtest and rewrite over and over and over, putting it in front of groups who had never played Gloomhaven and watching how they interacted with the guide and the game. It was a long process, but eventually it got to a place where I was confident that nothing in the game would hang up new players.

From gallery of Cephalofair
Some playtesting notes

Ultimately, I started the project thinking that making a simple version of Gloomhaven would be a simple thing, but it turned into a much more complicated beast than I anticipated. Still, I am happy with the result, and as much as I hope you are as well, what I really hope is that new, more casual gamers will also be happy with their experience with the game!

Isaac Childres

Board Game: Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Twitter Facebook
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:30 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Abandon All Artichokes, or a Heartless Card Game

Emma Larkins
United States
flag msg tools
Microbadge: Abandon All Artichokes fanMicrobadge: Game DesignerMicrobadge: I drink espresso ... WHEEEEEEE!!!!Microbadge: Donuts fanMicrobadge: Heartcatchers fan
Board Game: Abandon All Artichokes
What did artichokes do to deserve this? What could anyone possibly have against them? What kind of existential crisis inspires the consternation of this particular edible flower bud?

Well, friends, buckle up because I'm here to take you on an Abandon All Artichokes journey of mythical proportions from name-first design to pitching, from mechanical development to design philosophy musings, from playtesting to publication and beyond.

What's In a Name?

In July 2017 I issued myself a challenge (dubbed #gamedesigndaily) to improve my skills as a game designer. My goal was to do one design-related thing (no matter how small) each day, for example, play a board game, brainstorm a game concept, or take a picture on my daily walk to inspire creativity.

Enter the Alliterative Game Name Challenge. I wrote the list on my bus ride to work, and later posted it on Twitter:

The names were fun and goofy, but had no mechanical underpinnings — and yet someone responded to my tweet with "Can I pre-order Abandon All Artichokes?" My initial thought was "It's not even a game! There's nothing there! It's just a silly name that I came up with on the bus!" Nonetheless, the seed was planted, and slowly took root.

Three months later...

Game-a-Day Prototyping

...I was still going strong with #gamedesigndaily. At the end of October 2017, I issued myself a particularly tough challenge: design a game a day for a week. I made sure to set the bar for these designs low; the purpose of this challenge was not to come up with seven amazing games, but instead to hone my rapid prototyping skills.

With the clock ticking, I latched onto a name from the past for one of the designs: "Abandon All Artichokes". There was no time to ponder how a game called "Abandon All Artichokes" might function mechanically, so I went with the first mechanism that popped into my head: deck-building. You get rid of cards in a deck-builder, so it meshed well with this idea of "abandoning" the artichokes.

Next, I wanted to come up with at least a semblance of a theme. Well, the artichokes were there already. Why not throw some other fruits and vegetables into the mix? And why not put funny faces on them, just for the heck of it? No big inspiration there — I'm just a big fan of adorable faces on food.

And thus, a prototype was born.

Core Game Structure

From the start, I wanted Abandon All Artichokes to be something that kids and families would enjoy, but with enough strategy that I could play with my gamer friends.

From gallery of emmalarkins
The win condition emerged naturally and is one of my favorite parts of the game. Instead of having to count up points, you simply check for Artichoke cards every time you draw at the end of your turn. No Artichokes = WIN! As you cull Artichokes and add non-Artichoke cards to your deck, you naturally progress towards the end state. However, you don't know exactly when it will occur, which is a hallmark of an engaging game.

I decided on a limited set of card powers (as opposed to mostly unique cards) and a dynamic market (instead of always-available piles of each card type). Pineapple let you blow up an opponent's hand, forcing them to discard one or more cards using an adjacency effect. Broccoli shielded you from Pineapple attacks. Strawberry trashed cards to remove them from your deck. Banana drew cards.

That was the whole game, at the start. I like to point this out because a lot changed over time, but right from the beginning, there was a simple, core loop of fun that felt worth pursuing.

The original prototype didn't emerge from my brain as a shining diamond, however. Many things either immediately got the axe or took a while to weed out.

Far From Perfect

At first, the adjacency effect of the Pineapple felt like the biggest innovation. Very early on, however, it proved too chaotic for Abandon All Artichokes.

The Artichokes acted as a currency in the original version. Instead of getting a card for free each turn, you'd have to "spend" (discard) an Artichoke to purchase a card from the market. This slowed the game down because you couldn't get rid of your Artichokes as quickly if you kept discarding them from your hand.

The game had a good hook, but there wasn't yet a lot of meat to it. It would need a lot of development to get it in working order, but I didn't have a ton of time to spend on iterating because...

From gallery of emmalarkins
Abandon All Artichokes Hits the Road

The first PAX Unplugged was in less than a month. As someone who loves PAX and loves board games, I already had my ticket. I wanted to bring a new game to demo and figured that out of all my prototypes, Abandon All Artichokes had the most potential.

I did a quick art pass using clip art from Etsy. (Rule of thumb for new designers: Don't spend a fortune on prototype art, and don't steal art from the Internet.) Then I added the names and the powers to the cards, and I was ready to go.

Next I had to decide what to do with Abandon All Artichokes at PAXU, so I signed up for an Unpub table. (Shout-out to Unpub for being an awesome place for playtesting games.) I also figured I'd send a few pitch emails. It would be good practice, even if no one responded. I used the Cardboard Edison Compendium to find publisher contact information and cross-referenced that with the PAXU floor plan to make sure the publishers I was interested in would actually be at the show. I chose Gamewright because of my long-time love for their games (I figured I'd be able to play up the "food with faces" angle), in addition to a handful of other publishers.

Much to my surprise, despite the newness of the prototype, the response was positive! I credit my marketing background as right from the start, I had pitching on my brain. I wrote these notes less than a month after making the first prototype.

From gallery of emmalarkins
Early pitch notes for Abandon All Artichokes, November 2017

I kept the following in mind as I composed my pitch email (below): keep it short; images sell; have a good hook; and understand the publisher's products.
I'd love to meet you and your team at PAX Unplugged, where I'll be pitching my light, fast-paced deck building game Abandon All Artichokes.

Attack your opponents with pineapples. Hit an artichoke with a pineapple to do triple damage!

External image

- Fast-paced
- Easy-to-learn
- Reduces deck building to its simplest components
- Funny theme
- Strategic
- Take that mechanic makes players consider card placement within their hands

Do you have time for a meeting? Happy to come by your booth if that's convenient. Love to stop by and say hi even if this game isn't a fit — I'm a big Gamewright fan, and Sushi Go! and Go Nuts for Donuts are my jam.
Playtesting at the Show

Playtesting was my main goal. I've always been a huge proponent of testing, and although I'd received some publisher interest already, I had no illusions that the game was done.

From gallery of emmalarkins
"Playtesters putting bought cards into hand instead of discard. Maybe this is okay!"

Testing proved fruitful throughout the show. For example, one player suggested that instead of "trashing" cards (a terminology common in deck-builders) you'd "compost" them.

I watched players take cards from the market directly into their hands instead of putting them into their discard piles (another common deck-builder trope). I wanted to lean into natural player behavior to make the game as intuitive as possible, so instead of fighting against these instincts, I decided to incorporate them into my game.

I also observed as one player in particular "broke" my game by making an Infinite Potato Loop using card draw.

From gallery of emmalarkins
"Will fix infinite potato."

Drawing cards in a deck-builder is an incredibly delicate power, and this started my long fight with the ability, eventually leading to cutting it completely.

Unpub was fantastic, the testing went well, and even with this incredibly early iteration I saw positive player feedback: smiles, laughter, and email list sign-ups — all good signs that I was on the right track.

Publisher Meetings

From gallery of emmalarkins
PAXU, at least in its first year, turned out to be a great event for engaging with publishers. I'd been to Gen Con a few times before, and there is so much going on that it can be hard to get a publisher's attention. PAXU was chill enough that I was able to set up some in-person meetings by handing out my card. My card has my picture on the back of it, so it was easy for people to find me.

I stopped by the Gamewright booth with my sell sheet and rules, as requested, and shook hands with Jason, but didn't actually demo. I did have a chance to sit down and play the game with a couple of publishers, and the response was surprisingly positive.

Initial Impressions

Jason emailed me back that the rules looked interesting, and he wanted to see a prototype. I sent it off December 2017.

Jason later revealed to me that he knew from the beginning that Abandon All Artichokes had something special to offer, but at the time I had no idea. Here's his response to my first prototype:
I love the premise and can certainly see the potential here. I'd say the main sticking point is that it may be a tad too difficult for your causal, "never played a deck-builder before" player... Not sure how interested you would be in tweaking the game to address some of these issues, but if so, I'd be happy to give it some serious reconsideration.
That was good enough for me! It's exactly what I was looking for — someone interested in giving me focused feedback and passionate about making the game the best it could be.

Early Development

There's no secret path I took as I started developing Abandon All Artichokes. I didn't have a clear plan of "change x, y, and z, and then it will be done." I simply put in the hard work of iterating on card powers while maintaining the core elements of engaging play that I'd identified in the first prototype.

These are the core design philosophies that guided my practice:

1. Follow the Feedback: It can be incredibly tough for a player to put their experience into words, making it difficult to distinguish between what a player says and what they actually mean. "Following the feedback" doesn't translate to "make every change playtesters suggest". It means observing and tracking the sum of play experiences over time and not ignoring how someone feels just because it's not something you want to hear.

From gallery of emmalarkins
2. Design for Delight: I learn a lot by watching people's faces. A sudden smile, a look of shock, a shout of triumph — these are the things I want to inspire. My goal was to make a game that people would discuss in excited tones during play and even after the game was done.

3. Break down Barriers: I wanted Abandon All Artichokes to be as approachable as possible. This meant leaning into players' instinctual actions and removing rules that went against their natural inclinations.

4. Players are Powerful: Although I wanted to make my game approachable, I also wanted continual, interesting actions. I didn't want the game to get boring after a few plays. That's where the obsession with tweaking and balancing cards came into play.

Growing with the Seattle Tabletop Game Design Community

I launched a local, weekly playtesting group in Seattle right around the time I started working on Abandon All Artichokes. (The idea for the group actually came out of discussions at PAXU.) However, there were already designers doing awesome things in Seattle: Joseph Z. Chen and Justin Faulkner launched their Fantastic Factories Kickstarter in May 2018. Local Point Salad designers Molly Johnson and Shawn Stankewich were also an important part of growing the group, along with Rob Newton (Shuffle Grand Prix), Victoria Cana and Alexandre Uboldi (Gladius), not to mention a dozen other designers who you'll see popping up here on BGG in the near future.

The group had (and continues to have) lots of great energy. I never would have polished Abandon All Artichokes without getting to test it with my fellow designers on a regular basis. Everyone in the group was so positive, always excited to test the game and pushing me to get it published already so they could buy it!

Moving Along

I sent another prototype to Gamewright in May 2018 and scheduled a meeting at Gen Con 2018.

The conversations with Gamewright evolved over time. As I continued to make positive changes, they got more excited, and we had more in-depth conversations about the individual cards and powers.

You've never lived until you've chatted for half an hour about whether or not Broccoli is overpowered and how it should be nerfed.

Closing in on the Goal

Weekly playtests with game designers can help to hone a game, but it's also important to get the prototype in front of new players from time to time. I had a great reception showing the game at PAX West 2018.

My pace varied over time, but I continued to slowly hammer away at the design. The more I tested, the more I realized that I needed to find a really solid pool of card powers. Cards needed to generally be good early game and late game; cards needed to generally synergize well with each other. At the same time, we wanted to have a few different strategies emerge for players to be able to pick a play style that suited them.

Most of the development involved playing around with all the zones of a simple deck-builder — active player's deck, hand, and discard pile; the market, a.k.a. "Garden"; the market deck; other player's decks, hands, and discard piles; and the trash pile, a.k.a. "Compost" — as well as combining different actions available in a deck-builder: drawing cards; discarding cards; adding new cards to your deck; trashing, a.k.a. "composting" cards; shuffling decks; and interacting with other players. Every time I made a new set of powers, I'd have to rebalance every existing card. Some cards stayed much the same throughout development, but some cards had upwards of ten iterations before we landed on a final ability.

A few key mechanical learnings:

1. Costs without Currency: Most deck-builders use points, money, or both to balance card powers. Often, cards will have a "spending power" for acquiring other cards. A very powerful card will cost more to purchase. A card worth a lot of points might not have any other mechanical effects. Without having these things to play around with, I had to invent other types of costs, such as: discarding an Artichoke, taking a risky action that might not result in progressing the game, putting a useful card in someone else's discard pile, taking only one action on your turn, having to demonstrate a certain composition of cards in your hand, etc.

2. Denying the Draw: Card draw is essential to a deck-builder. One of the key elements that distinguishes a deck-builder from other types of games is the constant drawing, discarding, and reshuffling of a player's personal deck. Purchasing cards that allow you to draw more cards accelerates your engine. Drawing cards is also fun! Abandon All Artichokes started out with card draw, and it took a long time for me to remove it. I never found a way to cost the cards that didn't make drawing more cards too valuable, even if you drew two cards and gave one to an opponent.

3. Balance, not Boredom: As I iterated on card powers, I went through many dramatic versions and many boring versions. Some of the most frustrating playtests were the ones in which I was sure I'd "perfectly balanced" the cards. Turns out that the best prototypes had a balance of "exciting" and "boring" cards. Take the Potato card (my personal favorite), for example: "Reveal the top card of your deck and compost it if it's an Artichoke." Every Potato is full of excitement! Compare that to the Broccoli card: "Compost an Artichoke if your hand has three or more Artichokes." No matter which way you slice it, there's just not much to that card. It's great early game, not so much late game. Sometimes you just can't do anything with it. I played the game recently and couldn't resist teasing my friend for choosing a Broccoli-heavy strategy, but you know what? He won the game!

Let's dig into a couple of card evolutions to get a sense of how some Abandon All Artichokes powers evolved over time.

From gallery of emmalarkins

Potato Evolution

Remember what I said about card draw? Look at the power on that first Potato: "Draw two cards." DRAW TWO CARDS. What was I thinking?!?

I love how the changes in this series of cards represents me coming to terms with pulling the weed of card draw from my game. I reduced the power by changing it to "Draw a card. Compost if it's an Artichoke." Eventually I did away with drawing and just had players compost the top card of their player decks. I loved the chaos of this card, but it ended up burning through the deck too quickly. Eventually I settled on "Reveal the top card of your Deck. Compost if Artichoke, otherwise discard it." The final form of this power struck a great balance between the exciting reveal of the top card of your deck and not reducing your deck to zero cards too quickly.

Beet Evolution

I don't want to go over every step in this evolution, but I wanted to point out how two similar card effects merged into one.

One of the core design directives from Gamewright was to encourage player interaction. It took many, many iterations to find a steal effect that didn't feel too punishing for the person being "attacked", especially after I removed the ability to block attacks.

From gallery of emmalarkins

Eventually, I merged the Banana steal effect with the Onion "two players reveal a random card" effect to arrive at the final Beet power: "You and an opponent each reveal a random card. Compost both if Artichokes, otherwise swap them." If you play this early in the game, chances are good that you'll help someone out by getting an Artichoke out of their deck. This ended up softening the potential steal effect just enough to make a "take that" action not feel too bad.

Dark Night of the Soul

It's important to share this part of the designer journey because things aren't always sunshine and roses. Bringing a game design to life can be incredibly emotionally taxing at times, and it's good to talk about that.

I got stuck in development a few times, and yes, it was incredibly frustrating. However, after accepting the frustration, I'd make some wild changes to the game, like playing all cards face-up in front of you or having people swap their entire hand with another player. Most of these drastic changes didn't make it into the final game, but they helped to get me out of design ruts.

I also found myself declaring multiple times that "The game is finished!" when there were still, unbeknownst to me, multiple months of development time left. The more experience you get as a designer, the better you get at estimating development time. Still, sometimes you really just need to take the time to explore all the potential things a game could be if you want to make a really good game.

From gallery of emmalarkins
142 things, to be exact!

For a lot of the early development, I was going to conventions, constantly tweaking the game, getting a lot of good feedback. I hit a bit of a wall at the end of 2018 and didn't talk much about the game on social media for three months. At a certain point when you're developing a game heavily, there just isn't going to be any exciting news to share with your community. "I changed the phrasing on a card from 'draw' to 'reveal'!" No one will ever be close enough to your game to understand all the subtle complexities, all the seemingly minuscule modifications that you agonize over. Designing a game can get lonely, at times.

Closing In

I got to play Abandon All Artichokes with Gil Hova (designer of The Networks and other fine games) at the GAMA Trade Show in early 2019. Gil (who I now host the Ludology podcast with) was one of the first designers who took a chance on testing my games back in 2015, and he has always been an incredibly sharp and insightful person to work with. I was happy with this latest version of the game, and it felt really good to have his support.

That was the first moment when I felt 100% confident in the future of my game.

Picking a Publisher

Board Game Publisher: Gamewright
Gamewright was a dream publisher for me. I love their games, I love how cheerful and upbeat their booths are at conventions, I love their approach to the joy of play. I had strong interest from other publishers who I pitched to because Gamewright seemed like a long shot, but ultimately I decided I was going to wait it out to see what Gamewright would decide.

It's an interesting choice to make as a designer. You'll often have your prototype out with multiple publishers at a time because it can take months (or years!) for someone to agree to publish your game. You might really want to work with someone and have to make a tough choice over turning down a yes from a different publisher. You do have the option, if you receive an offer from one publisher, to approach your other potential publishers and ask for a counter-offer, but that can feel terrifying as a new designer.

So I made my choice and waited.

They Said Yes!

Throughout the development of the game, I had a strong internal sense not of what the game would look like when it was finished, but of direction. Sometimes during a playtest, you can sense the game getting better; sometimes you can tell your changes have made it much worse. Ideally, as time goes on, you're breaking the game less, and it starts to feel solid and consistently play well with new and existing players.

After a lot of uncertainty at the end of 2018, I came into 2019 feeling like this game could definitely get to a really good place. Not every game a designer makes gets there — some you just can't figure out how to move forward — but I was committed to seeing Abandon All Artichokes to completion, and though I wasn't sure exactly where the finish line was, I felt it was close, so I mustered my courage and sent Gamewright a strongly worded email (not really!): "Overall I feel like the game is in a good place now. I'd love to discuss next steps for publication as we continue tuning."

Their response:
Overall, the game seems to be in fine shape and I think it will make an excellent addition to the Gamewright line.
It took my breath away. With those few short words, my life changed forever.

Working with Gamewright

I felt confident after my frequent communication with Gamewright that we would work well together.

The reality was even better than I expected. I couldn't have asked for a better publisher relationship. Because we'd gone back and forth a lot before signing a contract, we knew that we were going to make something together we'd be proud of.

We signed the contract at PAX East 2019.

Finishing Touches

Later that year we ramped up on getting the final game into production. Gamewright worked with me every step of the way. We were testing the game on both ends, sharing feedback, and getting the game into its final form.

Getting to see the art in September 2019 was one of the highlights of my year. I couldn't have asked for a better artist than Bonnie Pang to capture my vision for the game.

From gallery of emmalarkins
Love at first sight

Not every game designer loves writing and editing rules, but I loved being able to put my technical writing background to work to help with the rule book. It was important to me to ensure that when people opened up the game, they'd be able to figure out how to play.

It Lives!

Publishers vary a lot in how they announce games. For Gamewright, they generally prefer to just say, "It's here!" (as opposed to doing a months-long build-up). I wasn't sure exactly when it would drop. I really, really wanted to talk about it, but I figured I could stay patient for a little longer.

And then, news started to pop up. The game was first announced in Issu.

I didn't get to see the game in-person at Toy Fair 2020 in New York, but luckily I had friends there who sent pictures of the game in the wild for the first time.

Posts started showing up in different places, like right here on BoardGameGeek.

Finally I got to hold the game for the first time at PAX East 2020, exactly one year after the contract was signed. It was an amazing feeling — awed and excited and happy and release of all the pent-up expectations, all at the same time.

I had the opportunity to play the finished game with PAX East attendees, which was awesome, but it was also great standing off to the side and watching surreptitiously as new people played the game for the first time. I was already seeing what I had dreamed about from the beginning — people new to deck-building getting excited about this (for them) new type of game. Two people in particular came back to play a few times, excited to tell me how the concepts in the game were coming together for them and they were starting to see how the different powers fit together. I was witnessing someone's entry into a new style of gameplay for the first time, and it was beautiful to watch.

The reception at PAX East and beyond was positive as people started to receive their copies.

Abandon All Artichokes was listed as a "brilliant game" in Forbes, which was quite a trip.

By mid-March 2020, Abandon All Artichokes started hitting retail and online stores. I loved being able to see friends and people in the industry get their copies. Our community is very supportive, and I love seeing my friends succeed, but I emphasize that I don't want people buying my game unless it's something that they really think they'll enjoy. It's such a heartwarming experience to see your friends actually playing and loving the things you make.

In Conclusion

It's a game now. It's real. People are in the world, playing and sharing and enjoying and talking about it, and it's such a trip to see.

Want to learn more? Check out this "how to play" video from Gamewright!

Emma Larkins
Twitter Facebook
Tue Jun 2, 2020 2:35 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

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

Lines J. Hutter
flag msg tools
Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level II - If I have seen further, it's only by standing on the apex of other's dice.Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level III - Are we geeks because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are geeks?Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level I - One small step for geek... One giant leap for geek-kind!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level V - My God! It's Full of Stars!Microbadge: The Geek Citizenship Recognition Program Rolls On!
Board Game: Patchwork
Like many other players, I ignored Patchwork for a while after its release. It just didn't look appealing to me. The theme didn't grab me. Eventually it was the app that made me realize what a brilliant design this is. The button and time board mechanisms are great. You're juggling three resources: buttons, time, and space. The set of shared tiles could be considered a fourth dwindling resource with various costs in the three other resources.

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

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

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

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

Cottage Garden to Patchwork

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

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

From gallery of Lines42
Marker moving along the quilt board

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaming Automa (Part 1)

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

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

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

Tactical Variant (Part 1)

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

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

Scoring Ranges

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Lines42
Intended scoring ranges for four difficulty levels

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

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

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

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

Difficulty Levels (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beta Playtesting

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

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

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

Difficulty Levels (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Lines42
Some of Morten's statistics

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

From gallery of Lines42
7x7 special tile percentages

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

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

More Playtesting

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

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

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

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

Tactical Variant (Part 2)

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

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

From gallery of Lines42
Card back with button numbers

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

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

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

From gallery of Lines42
Late prototype card

A Few Cards

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

Thanks to Morten, David and everyone who helped.

Lines J. Hutter

Board Game: Patchwork: Automa
Twitter Facebook
Tue Apr 14, 2020 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Musical Chairs, or Take a Seat for a New Rio Grande Release!

Kelly North Adams
United States
flag msg tools
Microbadge: Veggie Garden fanMicrobadge: Rabbit ownerMicrobadge: Coke drinkerMicrobadge: Swing dancerMicrobadge: I'm a kitchen disaster
Board Game: Musical Chairs
In order to tell you how I came up with the idea for Musical Chairs, I need to give you a short backstory.

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Coming Up with Rules and Mechanisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes, Changes, Changes!

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of KingKel

More Playtesting Problems...

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

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

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

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

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Pitching the Game, and the Process to Production

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

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

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

Game Release

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

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

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

Kelly North Adams

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Twitter Facebook
Tue Apr 7, 2020 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Treelings, or A Series of Fortunate Events and Lots of Playtesting

Paul Schulz
flag msg tools
Microbadge: SAZ memberMicrobadge: Follow me on InstagramMicrobadge: Bubble WrapMicrobadge: Game Group OrganizerMicrobadge: Backstabber
From gallery of 2578
Preproduction copy
In October 2016, I visited SPIEL for the first time and fell in love with the game Arboretum by Dan Cassar. I was fascinated by what a few rules can make out of cards that feature only colors and numbers. This marks the start of the design process of Treelings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Schulz


Twitter Facebook
Tue Mar 31, 2020 1:06 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: The One Hundred Torii, or an Abstract Game Finds Its True Calling in a Japanese Garden

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

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

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Initial Brainstorm

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

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

From gallery of W Eric Martin

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

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

Searching for the Right Theme

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

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

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

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

From gallery of scottwildcatman

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

From gallery of scottwildcatman

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

From gallery of scottwildcatman

A New Publisher with New Ideas

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

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

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

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

Pitching to Pencil First Games

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

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

Polishing, Polishing 'til it Shines

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

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

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

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

Board Game: The One Hundred Torii

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

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

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

From gallery of scottwildcatman

Making Sure the Japanese Details are Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

Board Game: The One Hundred Torii

My Worlds of Board Games and Poetry Collide

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

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

The Journey

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

Scott Caputo
Twitter Facebook
Tue Mar 17, 2020 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Ettin, or Two Kens Are Better Than One

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

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

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

Board Game: Ettin
All the bits

Design Principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually I added these goals as well:

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

Inception and Early Game

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

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

I shelved the game at this point.

Two Inspirational People Change It All

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

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

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

Why Ettin?

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

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

A Real Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Right Partner

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

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

From gallery of Kitirat

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

End Product (Features)

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

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

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

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

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

Board Game: Ettin
Daemons of the Void

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

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

Playing with Two, Three, or Nine or More

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

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


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

Ken Shannon

From gallery of Kitirat
"Shadow Sea" playtest cards
Twitter Facebook
Tue Mar 3, 2020 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Firefly Dance

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

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

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

From gallery of jmallue
My first (and failed) attempt

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

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

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

From gallery of jmallue
The key component of the prototype

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

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue

From gallery of jmallue
The fireflies in full action

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

From gallery of jmallue
Front of the prototype

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

From gallery of jmallue
Final prototype

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

From gallery of jmallue
Dance cards from the prototype

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of jmallue
Playing at SPIEL '19

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

Josep M. Allué
Twitter Facebook
Tue Feb 25, 2020 3:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls

1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5  Next »  [56]