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Grand Rapids Area Boardgamers
Some things are far more obvious in retrospect. Such is the design of Stroop, a speedy perception card game with simple rules.
I can't remember exactly when I first saw a Stroop test. I feel like it was the kind of thing I would have encountered in a GAMES Magazine issue pilfered from my mom's bedside stand. I do recall being delighted by the idea and making flashcards with markers and note cards to test myself and my friends. Throughout the following years I saw it referenced time and again, most notably in the briefly-popular Brain Age game for the Nintendo DS.
The Stroop test is simple. A subject is presented with a series of words, each printed in a different color. The subject is then asked to quickly speak aloud the names of the colors in which the words are printed, and they are timed during this task.
Next, the subject repeats this task, but this time the words are the names of colors, instead of being random words.
This causes the subject to stumble and take longer to complete the task. The experiment demonstrates the Stroop effect, named after psychologist John Ridley Stroop, and shows that the interference between different systems in the brain — in this case, language and color recognition — can slow down both systems.
From Experiment to Game
Flash forward to 2013 when I was in the midst of brainstorming ideas for new tabletop games to develop, and I randomly stumbled across the Wikipedia page for the Stroop effect. This led to the immediate question: Could this be a game?
Now Brain Age had used the Stroop effect in its simplest and most obvious form. It was not really a game, but rather an activity at which you could improve; you were timed on how quickly you responded to the colors and given a score that you tried to improve upon the next time.
The clear way to transform this into a card game was to do exactly the same, but with multiple players. I would print the names of colors onto cards, with ink colors that didn't match. Then players would run through the deck like flashcards, saying the colors out loud and being timed on their effort.
Even before physically prototyping this, it was instantly an unsatisfying implementation. For one thing, a speed contest such as this is usually uninteresting. It is a solo experience that people happen to compare their efforts on, which is something I can enjoy at times but rarely gravitate toward.
But the bigger problem is that the Stroop test can be defeated. Once a subject knows what they are being asked to do, they can use techniques, like squinting, that make the words harder to read, which makes saying the names of the colors much easier. I certainly didn't want players to be able to circumvent the challenge in this way, or worse, to have to make rules against squinting!
Chain, Chain, Chain
The key to cracking this problem was, as is usually the case in design, to come up with the correct incentives for the behaviors I wanted. Need players to read the text and not just squint at blurry colors? Don't make a rule telling them to do read it. Instead, force them to use the text for something.
What purpose could reading the color name serve, then? The clear choice was to link the name of this color up to the color of another word. This forms a nice chain of words, each of which describes the next one.
For the first Stroop prototype, I lifted wholesale the rules of 7 Ate 9, a speed game involving simple arithmetic. Players would race to get rid of their cards by playing onto a central pile, and legal plays consisted of any card that was described by the center one.
In broad strokes, this worked as a game, but it had some issues. The biggest one was the number of potential legal plays on a given card; with eight colors, as in my first prototype, one in eight cards are legal to play. This turned out to be far too small. Iteration revealed that anything smaller than about one in five cards being legal made the game grind to a halt. Shrinking the color space this much, though, made the deck homogeneous and uninteresting.
The solution to this was to introduce additional axes for card descriptors. Aside from color, what else could be used to describe these words? The original Stroop psychology experiments included some other ideas, such as the position of words, but these did not tend to lend themselves to card designs. Instead, I experimented with typography and decided I could easily distinguish the case of a word and could outline it or not.
This was an improvement, but one more axis was needed to flesh out the deck. Some brainstorming surfaced the idea of counting the letters in the words themselves. To make this work, I needed to finesse my color choices, and settled on the following word list:
RED • BLUE • GREEN • YELLOW
BIG • LITTLE
HOLLOW • SOLID
THREE • FOUR • FIVE • SIX
The final list had the very nice property that each word has 3, 4, 5, or 6 letters, and there are three words of each of those lengths. This meant that, at minimum, one in four cards were legal plays on a given center card.
The Round 2 Head Trip
The 2013 prototype was workable, but the game came into its own in the run-up to Protospiel Michigan in 2014. As my testers began getting very fast with the existing rules, I began looking for ways to provide variants and new challenges. The winner was to reverse the legal play rule: Instead of playing a card that is described by the card in the middle, players now had to read the words on the cards in their hands, and play one that describes the middle card.
The fun of the game is in players getting confused, and how better to confuse people than to switch up the rules midstream? The variant became codified as round two: After the first round is over, scores are recorded and players began anew, with the altered rule for legal plays.
The rules were then simplified to reduce the need for a scoring mechanism. Instead of keeping score, I realized that performance in round one could be used to handicap round two. After round one, players keep their unplayed cards, and the played cards are redistributed evenly, so the better a player performs in round one, the fewer cards they have to get rid of in round two. This neatly determines an overall winner without the need for scorekeeping.
The possible combinations of attributes could yield a total of 192 cards: 12 words x 4 colors x 2 sizes x 2 patterns. This deck was clearly overkill, so for my working prototype I used half of these combinations, chosen so that exactly half of the cards were big, exactly half solid, exactly one-fourth red, and so on.
I went to some lengths to retain this balance throughout development. When green letters turned out to be difficult to distinguish from blue and yellow in some lighting (and as I endeavored to serve colorblind players as well as possible), I moved to black letters mostly because "black" and "green" both have five letters.
My insistence on a balanced subset of cards turned out to be a bit superstitious; once the card distribution was defined, it could be altered a bit from perfect symmetry without anyone noticing. The final deck has 65 cards, enough for a four-player game, and is slightly uneven without an effect on gameplay.
One improvement in the composition was removing as many "self-describers" as possible. It turned out that players had a reduced challenge in dealing with cards that happened to describe themselves, e.g., a blue card that reads "blue". The final deck has no cards of this type, with the notable exception of the word "four" which inherently describes itself. Now the "run of fours" that can happen in a game just gives a bit of fun texture to the proceedings.
Experiments Along Further Axes
The twelve-word list is enough for most players for quite some time, but I also put some effort into ideas for further expansion to keep the game fresh for as long as possible. Heather Newton gets credit for the seed of the idea for the expansion included in the game box, which features cards with backwards text:
Some other experiments have proved less successful, but fun nonetheless. Never will a typographer squirm so much as if you show them the following card:
And now Stroop is in print! The journey isn't over for me, though, as I'm actively working on variant rules for less stressful games and figuring out what it means to translate this game into a foreign language when word lengths are such an integral aspect of play.
I hope you'll enjoy this tiny brain-twister of a game!
When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie…
In this case, it wasn't a celestial object that struck me; it was Alan Moon. Fifteen years ago, I had officially entered the boardgaming hobby here in Germany, and I was playing catch-up with a steady diet of Knizia, Kramer, Teuber, and (especially) Moon. When I began to design my own games, this prolific quartet of the "German school" of streamlined "themed abstracts" were my inspiration.
I enjoyed playing most of Moon's games, with one of those being San Marco, co-designed with Aaron Weissblum. I thought it was a brilliant marriage of the pie-division problem with an area majority game, but the division part was possible only for 2-3 players. In fact, I almost preferred their two-player variant of the system — the tiny card game Canal Grande — to its beautiful board game parent, because even with three players, downtime was an issue.
I wondered whether it was possible to make a pie-division game that was accessible by more than 2-3 players. I thought about this off and on for a long time. Years passed and I would churn ideas through my head in those in-between times when I was on my bike, in the shower, on the subway, or drifting off to sleep at night. (Some people count sheep; I "count" game mechanisms.)
One of the issues that held me back was finding an appropriate theme. Then, quite suddenly, I had one of those revelations of the obvious, like an apple falling on my head to remind me of the power of gravity. Why not make a pie-division problem about…pies?
Suddenly, everything fell into place. It would be a set-collection game, with different types of pies worth varying amounts of points if you had the most at the end of the game; the more valuable pies would also appear with greater frequency, making it more difficult to collect a majority. To reduce downtime, the slices of the pie would be have to remain in the same order that they were revealed.
I also wanted another choice, another option to score points and a dilemma to add more tension to the game. Instead of collecting a slice, players had the option of "eating" them (i.e., flipping them over); the player would receive guaranteed points from these slices, but they would not be counted for the end-game majorities. That was it. Fifty-five slices, and five pies later, I tested the game to immediate success. It was the first and last time my battle-hardened playtesters were satisfied on the first run-though, and it did not take long to secure a contract for what would become the best-selling game of my modest career: Aber bitte mit Sahne, Piece o' Cake, Una pointe de Chantilly, Sla je Slag (room)…
The pies looked great on a table in a café and always attracted a crowd. Gamers found it to be an appropriate "filler", and best of all, scores of my friends who do not play games enjoyed it as well.
Making Games in a "Cult of the New" Industry
For better or worse, the industry has changed dramatically since I entered the hobby. Gamers have always been excited about new games, and a sharp increase in game publishers has met the demand. Admittedly, this has probably helped me find publishers for my game designs, giving me more options — but it also means that very few games remain in a publisher's catalogue for more than a couple of years. Thus, it was inevitable that sales for Piece o' Cake would eventually decline and the game would disappear from the original publisher's catalogue.
The upside to the current state of the industry, however, is that a good game can be published again, sometimes with a new theme and even new variants. With this in mind, I began shopping the game around again after it was off the market for a few years.
Shortly after releasing the original game, the publisher asked me to brainstorm ideas for an expansion to include in Spielbox magazine. Because the original game was so streamlined, it was quite easy to come up with multiple ways of adding new twists and variety to the game. The Joker Slice was chosen for the magazine: a slice that could be added immediately to any other flavor or eaten for 2 points.
The other expansions included combination slices that would count as a ½ slice for two different flavors, and slices with special actions or end-game bonuses on them, such as "You receive 1 bonus point for every different flavor you collect" or "You choose first on a future round". Since all of these ideas worked well and the publisher had no plans for a larger expansion, I posted them on BGG for fans of the game to print and play.
When I began pitching the game to publishers again, I went back and revised the expansions and included them in the pitch. The main change was that the special action slices were now tiles that could be placed with any group of slices.
A Different Kind of Pie
In 2016, Ted Alspach of Bézier Games and I were chatting about doing a project together, and he suddenly remembered Piece o' Cake and asked whether that was available. Soon he was testing and developing the game together with my expansions and was excited about the possibilities. His suggestion to change the theme to pizza was perfect and led to some brilliant production decisions: the expansion adding bonus actions and rewards would become the "daily specials", the rules would be printed as a fold-out menu, and a scoring pad would be included in the form of a restaurant check. And, of course, the game box art would look like a pizza box!
Sample score sheet and menu-style rulebook
Although the theme is based on the thin, New York-style pizza, the game is deeper due to the new mechanisms, and it also offers more variety to each game. It's rewarding for me to see it in print again with all the extra "toppings", and even more so to see the attention to detail that Ted has given the game.
I hope that New York Slice is a welcome main course for those who enjoyed the dessert of Piece o' Cake, and best of all, that many new players will want to dig into the game — and the hobby — thanks to the update.
Jeffrey D. Allers
Dinner is served — very sloppily served, mind you...
Néstor Romeral Andrés
Heptalion is a simple combinatorial tile-placement game (and associated set of puzzles) designed in 2011. This diary describes the various design problems that arose when trying to create a child-friendly game that adults would also enjoy, and the steps I took to resolve them.
This diary is an excerpt of a paper released in issue 1 of The Game & Puzzle Design Journal.
I will present a combinatorial abstract strategy game and its derived puzzles, focusing on how "keeping it simple" revealed unexpected problems and how these were tackled, while finding interesting design techniques along the way.
I describe my design goal first, instead of following an exploratory process, and how the mechanisms, components, and victory condition naturally followed. This process shows how design constraints can lead to the discovery of interesting mathematical properties and new combinations of components and mechanisms. Finally, the game is transformed into a puzzle, which turns out to be as interesting as the game itself.
Figure 1: The Heptalion set
I designed Heptalion in 2011 and published it through my company nestorgames in 2012. The published set is shown in Figure 1 above. A version for Android smartphones was released in 2014. A short description of the game:
Heptalion: Players draw an equal number of tiles from the bag at random, then place them face up for all to see. Players take turns placing one of their tiles on the board, face down, to cover a pair of symbols that match the two symbols on the tile. The last player to move wins.
Heptalion has its roots in 2010, when another of my games — Hippos & Crocodiles — was rivaling the sales of my most successful game, Adaptoid. Hippos & Crocodiles (Figure 2) is very simple. Players take turns placing one of their animal-shaped tiles, either a hippopotamus or a crocodile, onto the board until one player cannot make a legal move, thereby losing the game.
Realizing that the complexity of a game is not correlated with its market success, I decided to design another game that was even simpler than Hippos & Crocodiles to see whether its success could be reproduced. This time, though, I wanted to focus on the parents, them being the ones who buy the game and have to play with their kids, but have no time to play it themselves. I wanted to create a game that was easy and quick to learn and play, mistake-proof, short and replayable.
With these objectives in mind, the first step was to create a list of design goals, consisting of a set of obvious design problems and potential solutions.
Figure 2: Hippos & Crocodiles
3. Design Problems
The following list describes the design problems I faced when creating Heptalion and their solutions:
1. Problem: Steep learning curve and resistance to change on behalf of players.
Solution: Use an already existing and well-known game component (e.g., cards, pawns, dice, etc.) so that players feel comfortable with it.
2. Problem: Too many rules force players to check the rulebook frequently and also may lead to misinterpretation and conflict.
Solution: Move the rules to the components, in a "poka-yoke" approach, so that mistakes and misinterpretations are almost impossible.
Poka-yoke is a Japanese term that means "mistake-proofing", and it refers to any mechanism in a manufacturing process that helps an equipment operator avoid (yokeru) mistakes (poka) by drawing attention to human errors as they occur. More broadly, the term can refer to any behavior-shaping constraint designed into a process to prevent incorrect operation by the user.
3. Problem: Game length may scare young players and parents.
Solution: Keep the number of turns low (around 10–15), as well as the duration of each turn, to avoid "analysis paralysis".
4. Problem: Be able to accommodate several players.
Solution: Make it multiplayer without extending the duration of the game through a finite number of pieces shared among all players.
5. Problem: The set should be affordable.
Solution: Use a small and cheap to manufacture set of components.
6. Problem: Allow a high degree of replayability, so the players get value for money.
Solution: Random set-up based on a combinatorial distribution of the components.
7. Problem: Games that are easy to make at home lose sales.
Solution: Use components that are not usually found at home.
Note that item #7 is not a design problem as much as a business problem. However, I have to take such considerations into account when designing since I am also the publisher. Many amateur game designers seem to ignore such issues when designing their own games, even though they can be very important to publishers.
4. Problem-Solving Process
This section describes the problem solving process used to tackle the problems listed above. The key to most of these was to find a magical game component that:
* is widely known (solves problem #1),
* does not have many parts (solves problem #5),
* is sufficiently complex (solves problem #6), and
* is hard to replicate if customized (solves problem #7).
A standard dominoes set satisfies these criteria nicely. A set of standard dominoes has 28 tiles, showing all possible pairs of numbers from 0 to 6. Although a larger set could have been used for my game, 28 tiles proved to be sufficient. One tile per turn gives each player 14 turns in a two-player game, which solves problem #3.
For a four-player game, each player has only seven turns. This is a bit small, but the game nature encourages players to play several games in a row, which is a desirable feature in games, showing that the game is appealing and replayable.
Thus, problem #4 was partially solved. In order to fully solve it, I released an expansion pack called Octalion that uses a larger board and increases the number of tiles to 36 (so that each player has nine turns in a four-player game).
Octalion also solves problem #7 as a set of 36 dominoes is non-standard and thus difficult to find. The design hurdles seemed to be dropping quickly so far, except for problem #2; trying to solve it was like trying to open a matryoshka or babushka doll, in which solving each layer just revealed further problems to the solved.
I then focused on the victory condition, which for me is the meaning of a game and the most important part of the rules. The components are the tools that the players use to achieve the goal.
I decided to use the same victory condition as Hippos & Crocodiles and many other successful tile placement games: The last player able to make a move wins. This is a very powerful victory condition as it does not need to be checked every turn (as with a checkmate in chess) and avoids the need for scoring; the game simply ends when it is not possible to play anymore.
It made sense that players would start with the tiles split amongst themselves, which is simpler than players needing to draw a tile each turn or keep track of the number of tiles in hand, etc.
Players would take turns placing a tile on the board only where it could fit (which feels natural), but they must be forced to choose from several places to fit them (as otherwise the game would be boring).
The ideal board would fit all tiles and allow each tile to be placed in several different places. Each move should eliminate some other potential moves so that the number of legal moves reduces and the game converges to a result that is not trivially predictable. Moreover, the shape of the board must be roughly rectangular to fit an A4 sheet as this is the size of the boards that I print.
A 28-tile set of dominoes contains 56 half-tiles (i.e., squares) in total, so I first tried using a 7x8 grid of 56 squares for the game board. This proportion roughly matched the shape of an A4 sheet, with some room for the game title, but there was a problem.
A 7x8 grid has the desired 56 squares, but it has (6x8) + (7x7) = 97 pairs of orthogonally adjacent squares, as shown in Figure 3. These represent the places that double-square domino tiles can be placed, but in order to have the same number of available placements for each tile (for a balanced distribution), this total should be a multiple of 28.
Figure 3: The 97 adjacent pairs on the 7x8 grid
The nearest multiples of 28 are 3x28 = 84 and 4x28 = 112. Since 7x8 allows the maximum number of paired squares, it is impossible to reach 112 with 56 squares, hence 84 pairs became the target number. The problem can now be stated as:
Find an orthogonal grid shape with 56 squares and exactly 84 adjacent pairs.
Having no idea what shape such a grid might take, I started with a 7x8 rectangle and began moving squares around. Moving a border square to another place on the perimeter (except corners) reduces the number of pairs by two (-3 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Moving a border square to a side subtracts two pairs overall
But it's not possible to reach an even number by repeatedly subtracting 2 from an odd number, so I then tried the corners. Moving a corner square to another place on the perimeter (except corners) reduces the number of pairs by one (-2 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: Moving a corner square to a side subtracts one pair overall
This meant that 13 squares would have to be moved to reach the target number of 84 pairs — but there was a faster and more flexible way; moving inner squares to the perimeter reduces the number of pairs by three with each movement (-4 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Moving an inner square to a side subtracts three pairs overall
Furthermore, removing a square adjacent to a hole and moving it to the perimeter reduces the number of pairs by two (-3 for the removal and +1 for the placement), as shown in Figure 7, which is conveniently an even number.
Figure 7: Moving a square adjacent to a hole to a side subtracts two pairs overall
Playing around with these square movements for a few days, I came across the diamond shape shown in Figure 8. This shape was perfect; it was symmetrical, appealing, had 84 pairs and 56 squares, and worked well within an A4 page ratio.
Figure 8: The diamond
However, finding the right shape was only part of the solution, and the actual distribution of symbols within this shape posed a new problem:
Find a distribution of numbers 0–6 within the diamond shape such that each occurs exactly eight times, and each pair of numbers (28 in total) occurs exactly three times (3 x 28 = 84).
This new problem was a hard one for a nonprogrammer, and brute force enumeration would be too time consuming, so it had to be attacked from a different perspective. I looked for simpler patterns that might occur in a valid distribution, hoping that this easier task would allow me to build the board.
The breakthrough came when I considered the A-A tiles that contain matching numbers: 0–0, 1–1, 2–2, etc. We want each A-A tile to have three possible placements, the same as any other tile, and it turns out that this can be achieved efficiently if each number occurs in one of the patterns shown in Figure 9.
Figure 9: Tetrominoes with three adjacent pairs
These shapes, called tetrominoes, are used in many games and puzzles, such as the well-known LITS puzzle from Japanese publisher Nikoli. Note that this set includes only tetrominoes with exactly three adjacent cell pairings and excludes the fifth 2x2 tetromino with four adjacent cell pairings; the fewer the better in this case.
The trick was to then place seven of these tetromino patterns inside the diamond grid, then number the corresponding grid cells accordingly.
Figure 10: A solution for the diamond board
After a few hours' work with the help of a spreadsheet, I found the final distribution shown in Figure 10. The numbers were replaced by colored symbols (Figure 11), and after playtesting, the game was ready for release. It has since proven popular with players and does not show any obvious first or second player advantage.
Figure 11: The final board
5. Other Solutions
Shortly after releasing Heptalion, Mark Tilford and Grant Fikes used computer analysis to find other valid distributions for the diamond shape as well as other shapes with valid distributions. Two of these, shown in Figures 12 and 13, have since been released as expansions for the game.
Figure 12: Fikes' board
Figure 13: Tilford's board (with the "n" representing nestorgames)
6. Android Puzzle App
A few months later, Kris J. Wolff (designer of Pilus) proposed developing an Android version of Heptalion. Kris had previously developed an Android app for my game RED, but that app lacked something important: a set of puzzles.
We therefore included some puzzles in the Heptalion app. The rules for the Heptalion puzzle emerged naturally from the board game. The aim is to place a subset of the Heptalion pieces, according to the game's rules, to exactly cover a predetermined board shape. This is different from the board game as all pieces in the solvers' hand must be placed in order to complete each challenge.
Figure 14: A medium difficulty Android puzzle
The app creates challenges involving 3-19 randomly placed pieces such that each challenge has a unique solution. Since not all pieces are included in a challenge, there are usually some unplayable adjacent board spaces, and this adds a new twist in the deduction process for the player. The algorithm for creating challenges is described in Appendix A.
The difficulty of each challenge is estimated as the product of the number of ways each piece can be placed in the initial challenge. For example, the challenge shown in Figure 14 has a difficulty score of 983,040, which makes it of medium difficulty.
Heptalion puzzles are designed with some pieces being removed in order to have unique solutions and increase their degree of deducibility.
In finding a board of the appropriate shape and size for a certain set of tiles, acting under a certain set of constraints, I had to solve a number of design problems in order to achieve the game that I wanted. This diary describes the design steps that led to my game Heptalion and the associated Android puzzle app.
I believe that the techniques discovered along the way — the application of poka-yoke to board game design; the use of maths to tweak the board shape and define the exact subproblems to be solved, and so on — will help with the development of future games.
Néstor Romeral Andrés
Appendix A: Puzzle Generation
This Appendix describes Kris J. Wolff's algorithm for creating unique Heptalion puzzles in his Android app for the game.
1. Start with an imaginary 11x11 board.
2. Choose between 3 and 19 pieces to use. The most interesting and difficult puzzles seem to be those with 17 out of the 28 available.
3. Place a piece in a random location.
4. Place each other piece in a random location, such that its two squares each touch at least two squares on pieces already placed. This avoids single square protrusions which would have trivial instantiations.
5. Run through all possible ways to place the chosen pieces on the board. If more than one solution exists, discard and restart.
6. Check that each piece has more than one valid placement (as otherwise its placement is trivial). If any pieces have only one valid placement, then discard and restart.
7. Each level is given a "difficulty" rating, which is calculated as follows: Start with difficulty=1, then for each piece multiply the difficulty by its number of valid placements.
Special thanks to Cameron Browne and Russ Williams for revisions.
Hello, BoardGameGeek! I've already written a "first look" article on Ascension: Gift of the Elements (which debuted on March 20, 2017) on the Ascension website, but I wanted to do a deeper dive into the mechanisms and thinking behind the design.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ascension, it is one of the first deck-building games, released in 2010. As a former professional Magic player, I have always had a natural affinity for the strategy in collectible card games. My favorite way to play CCGs is draft, and in a draft, players must select from a limited number of cards, then pass the remaining cards around the table for others to select from.
My initial vision for Ascension was to put the best parts of collectible card game drafts into a single boxed experience that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg. I approached this goal by creating a moving "center row" in which six cards are available for purchase, and new cards are revealed each time a card is acquired or removed. Unlike more static deck-building games (e.g., Dominion), this creates nearly limitless permutations and makes every game different. This forces players to evaluate cards against each other based on what you've already selected, what other players might select, and the time remaining in the game.
The initial game was a hit, and seven years later Stone Blade Entertainment has now released over ten expansions, free apps on Android and iOS, and a virtual reality game available on Steam and the Occulus Store.
Gift of the Elements is the first expansion to revisit our most popular mechanism: events. Events are cards that change the game rules for all players as soon as they are revealed in the center row. Only one event can be active at a time, so when a new event shows up, the old one is removed and play can change dramatically in an instant. There are, however, always challenges when revisiting an old mechanism...
Challenge #1: Complexity and Design Space
When revisiting old mechanisms, the most obvious design space has usually been claimed. Our team spent nearly a year working on the designs for Storm of Soulsand Darkness Unleashed (now featured in our Year 2 Collector’s Edition), and we spent most of that time finding the most impactful designs without unnecessary complexity.
The first thing I did to reduce complexity was to remove the "Fanatic" references from events. In Storm of Souls and Darkness Unleashed, the Fanatic was an "always available" card whose power changed based on the current event. This idea was great in theory, but in practice I believe too complex for the value it generated.
The complexity-to-game-depth tradeoff is the fundamental axis that most designers deal with. Everyone wants a game that is "easy to learn, difficult to master". Unfortunately, those two goals are generally opposed to each other. Every additional mechanism added to a game makes it harder to learn, but (hopefully) adds strategic depth and fun. Finding good tradeoffs is the key skill of good design.
Adding a new "always available" card is a high cognitive burden for players. While I still enjoy playing with the Fanatic, looking back, I don't believe the complexity cost was worth the amount of fun the mechanism provided.
Once I removed the Fanatic from events, I had room to add more complexity to new events. Unlike the original events, events in Gift of the Elements can influence costs in the center row. This can be tricky for players to remember, but the discount makes the events more meaningful and can create some pretty epic turns, allowing players to get high cost cards much earlier in the game.
Challenge #2: Same, But Different
The second challenge with reintroducing a beloved mechanism is to balance the familiar with the new. This challenge is part of any expansion design. You need to keep the game similar enough to what players liked about the original game, but different enough to justify a new purchase. (I talked about this issue in my 2015 article on Gamasutra if you want to dig deeper.)
With the reintroduction of events, I decided to solve this problem by combining it with another beloved mechanism: transform.
By paying the transform cost on an event — 8 runes for the card shown above — you can transform it into a powerful hero for your deck. As a designer, I liked this approach for two reasons:
1. I could be more aggressive with the power level of events that transform into heroes because the previously designed cards that let you acquire cards for free from the center row don't work on events (since events are removed from the center row once they are revealed). Players have to actually earn enough runes to pay for the card, making it harder for the powerful effects to show up early and let someone run away with a game.
2. Players can now interact with an event in a new way. Before, if you didn't like an event, the only hope you had to remove it was to reveal more cards from the center row and pray for a new event to show up. Now, you have the option to transform the event and turn a card that used to work against you into a powerful hero for your deck!
The mechanical advantages are significant, but I also really enjoyed the story behind the events. In Gift of the Elements, the events are represented as mythic, almost god-like figures that influence the whole realm. Being able to recruit those creatures and make them mortal heroes in your deck felt really cool and got a great response in playtesting.
Much More to Explore!
Gift of the Elements isn't just about bringing back favorite old mechanisms. It also introduces two new keywords:
-----• Infest: "You add dead cards (Monsters) to your opponent's discard pile."
-----• Empower: "You can remove (banish) a card you have already put into play."
You can probably imagine why these two mechanisms were paired together in this set. Infest represents a pretty big departure for an Ascension expansion.
I was often frustrated by the "kingmaker problem", games in which a player who can't win gets to decide which other player wins the game based on who they choose to attack or aid. I prefer that a game is won based upon the skill of the players combined with some uncertainty from random chance. Part of the design goal for Ascension was to remove as much direct player attacking (and the opportunity for kingmaking) as possible. It's impossible to entirely remove this problem from a multi-player game, but I did my best to minimize it. Since Infest allows you to choose which player receives a dead card, it introduces a bit of direct player attack into the game.
Direct attacking has its advantages, however. For one, it helps address the runaway leader problem. Deck-building games are inherently susceptible to this concern. As you acquire better cards, the odds of acquiring even better cards increases, increasing the gap between a single player and the competition. Now if one player is far ahead, Infest gives others a chance to catch up by throwing a few dead cards at the leader. Moreover, some players really enjoy the ability to knock down their friend in a more direct way. As this is our eleventh expansion, I felt it was time to throw those players a bone (beyond our "Samael Claus" holiday promo).
That being said, my design instincts couldn't let Infest show up without some tools to combat it. Empower is a great way to get rid of Infest cards, along with the weaker starting cards that clog up your deck late in the game.
Getting rid of cards in your deck — which we call "banishing" in Ascension — is a critical and challenging part of deck-building games. If you can't get rid of weaker cards, then your deck stays diluted and you limit the opportunities to draw powerful cards acquired late in the game.
However, too much banishing can make decks too efficient, creating very long and complicated turns that make other players want to leave the table. Empower is a fantastic tool because unlike other banish cards, you can use it only a single time. This means that most players will be able to banish a few cards from their deck, rather than run away with the game through massive early banishing.
Empower also has other design implications. Since an Empower card usually replaces a weak (or dead) card, the barrier to acquiring them is very low. The Ascension center row mechanism requires that most cards we create are desirable. If no one wants to buy anything in the center row, the board becomes static and the game won't progress. Empower cards allow us to create cards with weaker effects that are still desirable to purchase because they are an automatic "upgrade" of the cards in your deck.
To that end, the original playtest name for Empower was "Upgrade" and it initially required you to banish a card when you bought it to solidify this theme of one card upgrading into another. We shifted the mechanism after playtesting proved that players didn't like the mandatory banish. We also made the decision to change the name from Upgrade to Empower since it was no longer a direct upgrade of a card.
I hope you enjoyed these insights into Ascension: Gift of the Elements!
mads l. brynnum
2400 Kbh. NV
The pitch for Madness At Midnight is quite simple: What if you're not trying to stop ancient Lovecraftian horrors from entering our world, but rather actively working to make that happen? So instead of being heroic investigators, each player controls a gang of cultists trying to summon their specific ancient evil.
The First Prototype
From the beginning of when I started working on the game in 2013, the basic design questions were: What would cultists do? What would their goals be? How can they achieve them? What will they need? And so on. By asking those questions, I found out that they of course should be able to learn powerful spells at Miskatonic U. and that controlling powerful locations in Arkham should be one of the paths to victory.
Another inspiration was how to tackle the basic concepts of the Lovecraftian mythology. For instance, sanity (or the lack thereof) is a huge part of the Cthulhu mythos, but since you're essentially playing the bad guys, going insane couldn't just be a way for your cultists to die. Instead one of the key concepts of the game is that the madder your cult gets — that is, the more sanity you lose in order to cast spells and do sinister deeds — the harder it is to control. To put it in game terms, you take actions by spending dice that can be rerolled by gaining madness, so more madness results in fewer rerolls, which means you can't do exactly what you want but have to improvise a bit.
The first prototype used for solo testing, with minis scrounged from Chaos in the Old World
A surprising amount of the initial nuts and bolts of the game is still present in the published version. You control cultists fighting for dominance in Arkham; you can learn spells, grab items, rob graves, and fight the pesky investigators. And, yes, some of this may seem familiar if you have played other Lovecraftian games. I am a huge fan of Arkham Horror, and while I wanted something that felt very different, I wanted it to retain some of the same vibe, only turned upside down.
I approached Sean Brown of Mr. B Games, and he liked the design but felt it maybe needed that last bit of oomph and asked me whether I'd be okay having a second designer take a look at it. Now, relinquishing control over a creative project is always somewhat daunting, but as a designer you must know that this is simply part of the business. However, when he mentioned he knew Richard Launius and would try to persuade him to develop the game, I was all in — and not just all in, but a bit starstruck, really.
The final prototype I made for the Danish convention Fastaval before Richard Launius started working on the game
So Mr. Launius got the game in late 2015 and started working on changes. He had A LOT of ideas, and for a moment I feared the game would change dramatically. In the end, though, he came back with something that greatly resembled the original game, but had more story elements and more variety and which was simply better. I playtested the new version, and from then on out we spent a lot of time emailing back and forth to adjust things — or rather it was usually me emailing about stuff, then him replying quickly with a ton of ideas to fix or adjust things based on his years of experience with both game design and the Cthulhu mythos.
A perfect example of a small, but important change he made was in the number of minions you have. I originally decided on seven cultists for each faction because that seemed like a good number, and it worked well enough. Richard upped this number to 13 and introduced a cult leader, which really changed the pace and feel of the game and simply added more fun. He also introduced special abilities for the minions of the different cults, along with the double-sided board locations that will ensure the game doesn't grow stale even after repeated plays.
What the game looked like after Launius did his magic, but before the final layout
Work, Work, Work
The game was Kickstarted in May 2016, and from then on Sean and I worked hard on finalizing the game, which was a ton of fun but also a ton of hard work. The amount of stuff that needs to be tested, proofed, rewritten, retested, and reproofed is honestly staggering. As an example, I think we spent the better part of two months working on the rules. No, it wasn't made easier by the fact that I live in Denmark and couldn't just pop by to go over everything, but it also goes to show just how insanely difficult writing rules is.
Part of the final pre-production sample, with specific abilities for each factions' minions and a special faction madness ability
I'm very proud to have Madness At Midnight be my first published hobby board game. (I have made and am still making so-called serious games about stuff like team leadership, chain management, STDs, and other exciting subjects.) And I’m also very happy to have Richard Launius' name next to mine on the box. Ever since I was a teen and read my first story by Lovecraft, I've been a fan of the mythos. I played the Call of Cthulhu RPG, I've played the PC games, I've written a book of Lovecraft-themed nursery rhymes, and I have of course played lots and lots of Arkham Horror, so making this game feels a bit like giving something back.
Mads L. Brynnum
I'm a Eurogamer, but I like dungeon crawls. That's okay, right? I can like two completely different things?
I play games to challenge myself, to engage my brain in solving the complex system the game presents and emerge from the experience victorious — or, if not victorious, at least feeling like I got a good mental workout and performed well in the situation. Because of this, I naturally gravitate toward Eurogames, typically known for prioritizing complex, thinky mechanisms ahead of anything else.
I also just really like slaying monsters with swords and spells, though. I grew up on Dungeons & Dragons, Tolkien, and Final Fantasy. That animalistic urge to pick up a broadsword and chop a goblin in half is buried deep down in my brain.
But, oh boy, if I don't hate dice. If I'm going to win or lose, I want it to happen on my terms, not the terms of random chance. I will sit down and play Dungeons & Dragons or Descent and love every minute of it, but I can never help but think that there must be something better; something with more complex, engaging mechanisms; something that gives me more control over the outcome of my actions; something that gives me an endless supply of tough decisions instead of just rolling dice over and over.
I wanted to make my own dungeon crawl. I wanted to make Gloomhaven.
Developing the Combat System
It all started some three-and-a-half years ago. In 2013, I was still working on my first design, Forge War, but became intrigued with the card mechanisms of Sentinels of the Multiverse. I loved how each hero's deck of cards could feel so different from each other, and I wanted to try to expand that idea to a dudes-on-a-map game of tactical combat.
My first pass, however, was a mess. Instead of controlling one individual character, players controlled different tribes that had anywhere from one to ten characters. This variance did indeed give a wonderfully unique feeling to each tribe, but it also made the game fiddly to an absurd degree. It also didn't help that at that point in my design career, I was dead-set against any sort of randomness in my games.
So I moved on, and I grew a lot as a designer. Forge War was received well, and, in early 2015, I eventually settled on returning to this dungeon crawler as my next major design. I knew that the whole tribe-based approach wouldn't work, nor would the completely deterministic combat resolution. I needed something to differentiate the game from more basic "move and roll dice" dungeon crawlers. I didn't want each character to have a single special attack they could perform once per game. Instead, I wanted every attack to feel special and every character to feel unique. I wanted a card-based system, but was struggling with exactly how to implement it.
Enter Cards Against Humanity. (You weren't expecting that, were you?) Back in 2014, they ran this sort of reality show called "Tabletop Deathmatch", and it was pretty entertaining. Not only that, but entrants on the show instilled two pretty great ideas on me that would eventually permeate into Gloomhaven's design.
The first, I believe, was in reference to the deck-building game The Shadow Over Westminster. The idea was simple: Each player controlled a character running around on a map, but these characters didn't have any innate statistics written down on a card or mat somewhere. Everything that made them unique as a character was distilled down into the deck of cards the player was building. I know it's a pretty simple concept, but it resonated with me as a very elegant way to approach the idea of character statistics.
The second was the idea of multi-use cards. Now, obviously, the game in question, Rocket Wreckers, did not originate the idea of multi-use cards, but the simplicity of its implementation really stuck with me. Each card has an action on it and a distance, and each round you play two cards from your hand: one for the action and one for the distance. It was simple, but it allowed for dynamic decision making.
From there, the game kind of just exploded. Each character could have a unique deck of cards that contained all of the various abilities they could perform. No external stats were needed aside from their hit point value and their deck size. These cards could be dual-use, so that one side contained abilities geared more towards attacking, and the other side contained movement abilities. Players would play two cards each turn, and it would simulate the basic structure familiar in most dungeon crawlers — moving and attacking — but the diversity of abilities would give each character a unique feel and allow the players lots of decisions to make on their turns.
Soon after, the player order was also built into the cards by giving each one an initiative value, and, with some tweaking, the pace of the game was chained to the idea of a character losing cards over time, either slowly through resting or quickly through using super-powerful abilities or taking too much damage. Once players run out of cards, they lose.
I also needed to come up with a system for enemy automation. I wanted the game to be fully cooperative as far back as the early "tribe" design, simply because if a player is controlling the monsters, they're never having as much fun. The monster automation in that earlier design, though, was easily the worst part of the game. Each separate monster had a whole slew of conditional rules about how it prioritized who to attack under various circumstances. In all my testing, I would be the one to move the monsters because I was the only one who could figure it out. My number one priority now was to make it simple, so I looked to Mice and Mystics. I always appreciated how easy its enemy activation was, so I started from there, with a monster on the board simply going after the closest character and attacking.
I did have a secondary priority, though, which was to make monster behavior interesting and variable, so I decided to switch up the monsters' actions every round with a deck of cards that modified a monster's base statistic. Maybe one round a monster moves a little less than you expect, then attacks for a little bit more. Maybe another round, the monster doesn't attack at all, but simply sets itself up to retaliate if you attack it. The best thing about these card decks is that, much like the characters and their own decks of cards, you could give a monster a personality based on how it behaved. Each monster has a unique deck of ability cards, and learning and reacting to their tactics becomes part of the fun.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to address the looming specter of randomness that exists with any dungeon crawl — or really any cooperative game in general. If a cooperative game is completely deterministic, it either has to be incredibly complex to hide that determinism (which is usually a disaster, as I learned in the early "tribe" iterations) or it will quickly become solvable and lose its fun.
And while I have progressed far enough as a designer to know that randomness has its time and place in a game, I still can't bring myself to include dice in a design. I know that some people enjoy the activity of rolling a die, then standing up from their chair in anticipation of what the result of the roll is, but I just loathe dice. Furthermore, I am convinced that a deck of cards is a far superior random number generator due to the simple fact that a deck of cards is customizable. You can't customize a D6 without making a mess with stickers. Plus, depending on how often you shuffle the deck, it actually becomes less random than a die due to the existence of prior information.
What I am getting at with all of this is that I implemented a random element to the attacks made in the game through a deck of "attack modifier cards". For every attack you make, you flip over a card. It may have a "+1" or "-1" on it, and you adjust your damage accordingly. Yay, non-determinism! When you first start playing the game, the deck of twenty cards essentially acts like a D20, but very quickly you find out that it goes much deeper, because you can customize the deck. I'll get to that later...
Developing the Campaign
What was important at this point is that I had a really fun dungeon crawler. Like I said, after the initial innovations with the card play mechanisms, it just exploded into this highly enjoyable system — but that wasn't enough for me. Not by a long shot.
With the early "tribe" iterations, I was content to use the system to create single, independent scenarios. You head into a dungeon with your friends, kill the monsters, and that's the whole game. By the time the newer Gloomhaven system was in full swing, though, I had experienced the campaign play of Descent and knew there was something much more epic to be done. The game play of Descent is fairly basic, but the campaign aspect — stringing scenarios together and accumulating items and advanced abilities to face harder monsters — was scratching an itch I didn't realize board games could scratch. And once you start scratching that itch, you don't want to stop.
As I said at the beginning, I am a huge fan of role-playing games, and the idea that a structured board game could emulate a full Dungeons & Dragons campaign or an Elder Scrolls game was something I was desperate to explore. I wanted to see how far I could push it. I wanted to build an entire world that would feel expansive and open and would actually react to players' choices.
It should be stated up-front that I didn't start this journey trying to make a legacy game. To me, legacy is simply the concept of altering components and revealing new components over repeated plays, and, like any other game mechanism (such as deck-building or worker-placement), it has the potential to enhance a game play experience when used the right way. I don't think a designer should sit down and say, "I want to make a legacy game," any more than I think they should sit down and say, "I want to make a deck-building game." Use the mechanisms where they fit to make your core game a better experience.
To dismiss Gloomhaven as a legacy game is highly reductive and narrow-minded. Gloomhaven is a tactical dungeon crawl with an open and expansive world. Because it is so expansive, however, I felt using some legacy mechanisms was the best way to deliver it to players. If I wanted players to keep coming back week after week to play my game, I had to give them something to work towards. There had to be a sense of discovery to the game, hidden parts that would reveal themselves over time.
The most straight-forward example of this are the locked character classes. There are six character classes players can use when they first open the box and another eleven that can be played only once specific conditions are fulfilled. Maybe seventeen classes was a little overboard for a single box, considering each one has a unique deck of around thirty ability cards, but I love them all, and it definitely feeds into the concept of a giant, unexplored world. All seventeen of these classes could be available from the start, but then you are front-loading the joy of discovery. The best feeling in the game is opening one of those character boxes and seeing what amazing creature is waiting for you inside. It is a major incentive for players to keep coming back for more.
The progression of an individual character is also a massively exciting part of any campaign game. It's hard to call this "legacy" as the idea of character progression has been around for ages, but it is still an important part of that persistent, ever-changing nature of the game. Since it has been around for ages, though, there weren't too many innovations here. Players get money, then they buy equipment that helps them kill stuff better. They gain experience and level up, which gives them access to cooler abilities, more hit points, and the opportunity to customize their attack modifier decks. (I told you I'd come back to this.) This modifier deck customization is the secondmost exciting part of character progression to me because, as I said above, it is not something you can do very well with dice. Your deck starts out as a D20, but then you start taking out bad cards, adding good cards, and it quickly becomes something impossible to represent with any number of dice.
The most exciting part of character progression, though, is the fact that characters retire and get put back in the box. As soon as you create a character, you draw a "personal quest" — a long-term goal that represents the character's sole reason for becoming a mercenary in the first place. When a character completes this quest, they are forced to retire, and this is what unlocks new character classes to be played. This whole concept was born from the fact that I wanted the game to be big. Sure, playing a single character is exciting and fun, but there are so many characters in the box and players are going to be itching to play something new long before they've fully explored the campaign. I wanted this switch from one character to the next to be represented in the mechanisms, so retirement was created.
The other incentive here is that a personal quest gives each character an official story arc. Since the campaign world itself is so big and open, I wanted the narrative to be more focused on the characters than on some over-arching epic plot of world-ending evil. Sure, there is an official ending scenario that players will reach, and the stakes are sufficiently high, but I didn't want players to feel like that was the point of the game. There will be plenty more of the world to explore even after the "end boss" is killed.
Which brings me to the next legacy aspect of the game: the actual map board, a visual representation of both the world that you inhabit and the scenarios that are available to play. The idea here is that this is not a linear campaign. It is a sprawling world full of side-paths and branching story threads that opens up the more you play. I wanted to capture that feel of playing an Elder Scrolls game. You're heading off to a mission when you see some strange cave in the distance. You head over to it, either to explore it immediately or maybe just to mark it on your map so you can explore it later. Even with all the twists and forks in the story, I'm sure there were other ways I could have created a system to visualize what scenarios were available to your party at any given time, but I don't think any could be more engrossing or visually appealing than a nice, big board full of stickers. The world starts as a blank canvas, and, as you play, you slowly start to color in the details, which is something I find incredibly exciting.
The last major persistent part of the campaign are the event cards. I think this was one of the last mechanisms to be implemented, and they emerged as a way to add even more color and immersiveness to the world. I wanted to give the players more choices and give the world more opportunities to react to those choices. Every time players return to town or head out on the road for a new adventure, they draw an event card that gives them a little story, then a binary choice to make. Once the choice is made, the card is flipped over and the consequences are revealed. This is a very simple mechanism, but it allows for a huge number of opportunities to make players feel like they are playing in a living, breathing world. Players will develop a reputation which will then have an impact on the outcome of events. Completing certain quests may cause cards to be added to the event decks, giving the world a chance to react to the players' deeds. Retiring characters will also add cards, meaning that players may run into their old party mates later on down the road. I definitely drew inspiration from Robinson Crusoe here, with the idea that choices you made in events may affect what happens in your game later on. It's just great storytelling, and I'd be a fool not to use it.
In the end, I never intended to make a 21-pound game. I intended to give players a complete world to explore, and those 21 pounds were just the natural progression of that concept. I let the story grow and expand to fill in all the cracks of the world, and I ended up with 95 separate scenarios. To fill in those scenarios, I needed a plethora of map tiles and terrain features, in addition to an expansive bestiary of monsters to make sure the game never felt repetitive. I ended up with 36 different monster types, plus thirteen unique bosses. Add in the seventeen character classes — every exciting and unique character idea I could come up with, each with their own player mat, character sheet, miniature, and decks of ability cards and modifier cards — and, well, all that card stock and cardboard started to add up.
I could not be more proud of how it turned out, though. I feel like I have delivered on my vision, and now I eagerly wait to see where my 21-pound baby goes from here. The game was designed to make additional content easy to create, so I am looking forward to seeing what unique scenarios the community creates from the core system and how the world will continue to expand and grow from here.
Constraint breeds creativity, they say. Well how's this for a constraint? My five-year-old daughter regularly pulls games off my shelf — Kingdom Builder, Splendor, For Sale — and tells me she wants to play them. These are not children's games, of course, so as I pull pieces from the box I have to figure out how to turn them into children's games — and quickly! (Patience is not a virtue shared by many five-year-olds.) This high-pressure design challenge has led to many awful games, but it has also led to the flick-and-flip mechanism that became Light & Dark.
In this case, the game on my shelf was Ding!. Ding! is a trick-taking card game in which players can opt out of a hand if they don't feel they can make the required number of tricks. This decision is tracked through a set of player-colored plastic disks that say "in" on one side and "out" on the other. My daughter and I had just finished playing a stripped-down version of the trick-taking game itself when she said, "Okay, Daddy, now I want to play a game with these", pointing to the disks. So my challenge was to create a child-friendly game using only a set eight double-sided disks, all in different colors. Fun!
As I fumbled with the disks and slid them around the table, inspiration struck. "Okay", I said, "each turn you flick one of the disks. If you hit any other disks, you flip them over. My job is to flip all the disks to their 'in' side; your job is to flip all the disks to their 'out' side." Three rules. That was the game. For the next twenty minutes, we played and, rather surprisingly, it wasn't terrible. It needed work of course, but there was something there.
A few days later I met Matt Dunstan and pitched him the idea, and we quickly hammered out the details. There should be two types of disks, one which you can flick (what became druids) and one which you can't (torches). To win, you need to flip only one type of disk to your side. This sped up the game and added some tactical variability and depth. We also added special power cards for additional variability and texture. Playing on a bar table with condiments and glasses also inadvertently alerted us to how much extra variety you can get from simply changing the amount of clutter in the playing area!
Theme was the next hurdle. It was clear that there were two factions, but who were they and what were they fighting over? Once we recognized that flipping could be "conversion", the rest came quickly: the druids, the torches, and the name. (Bonus points if you can identify the character we borrowed for our prototype druid!)
We brought Light & Dark with us to SPIEL 2015, pitched it to a few different publishers, and got very positive feedback. Perhaps not surprisingly, the best comment came from AEG. After finishing his first game, CEO John Zinser said, "If I can have this much fun with just eleven disks, I definitely want to publish this game!" We were very happy to sign with AEG on the spot, and we love what they've done with the game. (Rita Micozzi's artwork is wonderful!)
So that's the story of Light & Dark. It is an incredibly simple game, but it's a game with a heart. We've really enjoyed making it and hope you enjoy you playing it!
Trevor Benjamin & Matthew Dunstan
Jump Drive is a card game for 2-4 players that introduces players to the Race for the Galaxy universe.
Each round, players simultaneously place and then reveal cards to build their empires, discarding other cards to pay for them.
Cards placed score every round, producing victory points and card draws. For example, Deserted Alien Colony produces 4 VPs and two cards each round.
Players must balance building up their income versus gaining points. The game ends once any player has 50+ points. The player with the most points wins!
How Long To Warp Speed?
Cards are either developments or worlds.
Each round, a player may place either one development, one world, or one of each. If only a development is played, the player pays one fewer card. If only a world is played, the player draws an extra card. If both are played, the player pays the full amount and doesn't draw an extra card.
Early on, players must choose between building their empires either efficiently via these bonuses or quickly by placing two cards at once. Since cards score every round, VPs build up rapidly. Jump Drive is quite fast, typically lasting just six or seven rounds with experienced players. This increases the tension around how to build your empire.
Prepare The Drop Ships!
Non-military worlds and developments are placed by paying their listed cost in cards. Military worlds don't cost cards, but must be conquered by having as many or more +1 Military icons in your empire than the military world's listed defense.
A development's powers can affect a world placed with it (but not vice versa), so Drop Ships and the Imperium Blaster Factory could be played together for a total of six cards from hand (these two cards, plus four cards to pay for Drop Ships).
Consult The Archives
Players familiar with two previous games of mine, Race for the Galaxy and The City, will recognize Jump Drive as a cross between them. Jump Drive is not a "re-skin" of The City. While they share per turn scoring, paying for cards with other cards, and 50 VPs to win, that's it: Jump Drive has a different setting, a second card type, different placement rules, military conquest, and a totally different card mix. Many Jump Drive cards share art, titles, and game effects with Race for the Galaxy cards and have no corresponding cards in The City.
Compared to Race, Jump Drive is drastically simplified. I've eliminated goods entirely (along with Produce, Consume, and Trade) and combined Develop and Settle into a single build phase each round, while converting their bonuses into tempo considerations.
Aside from +1 Military, two other Race symbols — the chromosome and the Explore "eyeball" — can appear on the side of cards. These factor into various card powers.
A player who doesn't place any cards in a round explores instead, taking an Explore chip and drawing two cards, plus one card per "eyeball" symbol (including the three eyeballs on the top half of this chip). After mixing them with cards in hand, the player discards as many cards as their "eyeball" symbols for a net gain of two cards (before collecting VPs and income for that round).
One major different from Race is that players can place duplicates in their empires in Jump Drive. There are seven copies of Galactic Trendsetters in the 112 card deck; a player who has placed, say, three Galactic Trendsetters would score 18 points from them every round.
How Fast Are They Doing That Kessel Run?
One complaint about Race (and The City) is that they have "low" amounts of player interaction.
The amount of interaction present in a competitive strategy game isn't just about its form, but whether players can A) judge how well they are doing and B) if they are behind, adjust their play to have a real chance of passing the leader.
A game that provides direct player attacks which are often too little, too late doesn't have "high" player interaction; this interaction is just noise. By contrast, if attacks do often result in lead changes, then this interaction is real. It's not the form, it's the effect that matters.
The simplest interaction is "racing" interaction: judging whether an early leader will be able to maintain the pace and, if so, increasing your pace in response (accepting an increased risk that you get exhausted or stumble, etc.).
In Jump Drive, players have to balance efficiency versus speed. If another player gets off to a good start, then you may have to abandon your "perfect plan" and take some risks by spending more cards to accelerate your empire building and hoping that you draw useful cards.
This isn't the only player interaction in Jump Drive. Many high-cost developments enable players to score extra points based on one other player's empire (of your choice). If another player has two Alien worlds and you have just one Alien world, then placing Alien Technology Institute may still be worth it.
Trade Pact is a cheap way (unless you've already built some Military) to both get started and to implicitly make an offer to other players for mutual benefit. War Propaganda is risky: it's a 6-point net swing in VPs per turn if you lose it to another player, but it can gain you a lot of points if you can maintain the Military lead.
Scan That World
Since Jump Drive is intended to introduce players to the Race for the Galaxy universe, we kept Race's icons, but drastically reduced their number to just military, explore, chromosome, development, and the four world colors.
Most Jump Drive cards are straight-forward, with simple discounts or bonuses. Five cards have more complex powers, such as Contact Specialist, described in text on the card.
We've taken advantage of this simplicity. Mirko Suzuki designed a card template using sideways bleed to show off the artwork from Martin Hoffmann and Claus Stephan. We also added "moons" to the colored worlds as an aid for color-blind players.
Adding It Up
In addition to cards, Jump Drive comes with Explore markers and 84 victory point chips. I experimented with score boards, cribbage-style scoring, score pads, etc. as different ways to keep score. Chips worked best for most people.
If players put their chips below the cards they play each round, they can add the new VPs they earn each round to the number of chips under the previous round's card, and collect this total. This avoids having to count up VPs every round.
The cards were designed to support this, with card names at both top and bottom so they can be easily overlapped. In the rules, we walk new players through an empire's early growth, illustrating how the VP chips are used.
Finally, we provide preset hands (A-D) for players' very first game. After that, just shuffle and deal seven cards to all players, who then choose five to form their initial hands.
Computer, What Is Your Analysis?
An inevitable question is which do I think is better, The City (which is out of print with no English edition) or Jump Drive? I think both are worth owning if you enjoy quick, tableau-building games with hand management, card combos, engine building, and different strategies to explore.
Jump Drive is more "combo-rific" due to the interplay between devs and worlds within turns as well as across turns. Jump Drive's ability to place two cards in a turn and a smaller hand limit (10 vs 12) makes for tougher hand management.
Tempo is important in both games, but saving one turn to place a big card in the next is more effective in The City. This, along with sizing your engine appropriately, is where skillful play can really shine. I still enjoy playing The City and hope to see it printed in English one day.
(From a BGG point of view, does Jump Drive "reimplement" The City? I don't think so. They share per-turn scoring, paying for cards with other cards, and 50 VPs to win, but that's it: Jump Drive has a different setting, a second card type, different placement rules, military conquest, and a totally different card mix.)
While both games are about building a VP engine, Jump Drive places a greater emphasis on card engines. While one can win The City with anything from 1 to 15+ income, it's hard to win Jump Drive without an income of at least four cards per turn.
Even if you go the Military route, you still need income to build +Military devs, find military worlds to settle, and to place a "capstone" development for a final burst of VPs.
I'm excited to see Jump Drive released, and I hope it exposes more gamers to the universe of Race for the Galaxy. Enjoy!
I first started working on Greedy Greedy Goblins in about 2004 under the name "Greedy Greedy Dwarves" and later a playtester pointed out that I was missing an obvious alliteration.
I was interested in a real-time, luck-pressing game and thought the atmosphere of pushing your luck in a mine to get the most treasure possible before it collapsed was a strong one. This is not the first time I have worked on a real-time game; my first was a collaborative design, Twitch, in the 1990s. While I really enjoy the game play of Twitch, I do have trouble getting people to play because it is so intensely speed oriented. Players who stick with the game can develop strategies that could counter faster players to some degree, but in the end Twitch is a game about reflexes and fast playing.
With Greedy Greedy Goblins, I wanted to see something different; I wanted the game to be less about reflex and more about making game decisions. To this end the core game was designed as follows: Players look at face-down tiles and decide which cave those tiles go in. At any time, a player can lock down a cave as their own by putting one of their pawns there.
An early playtest version of Greedy Greedy Dwarves with gems, a monster, single and double dynamite,
some x2s (which I don't remember what they were for), and a pillar (with pillars counteracting dynamite)
At first, the pressing of luck was almost entirely about another player beating you to a cave you have played a lot of treasure on. The real breakthrough element in the design was the dynamite, which made the cave much more valuable with one or two pieces, but penalized a player if there were three or more. (You can be and should be greedy-greedy but not greedy-greedy-greedy.) With the amount of dynamite I put in the game — a lot — you can be sure that if there are a lot of tiles on a cave, it is a dangerous place to send your goblins.
This core gameplay appealed to me because a player who chooses to play slowly and be observant can often make better decisions about which cave to take ownership of than a player who just plays quickly at the expense of strategy or a better global awareness. Some of the best players I have seen make just enough moves to throw monkey wrenches into other people's plans while trying to read the best positions to take based on other people's play.
It was important that during the play portion of the game there were not many options that opened because of what you drew; the core play needed to be (1) look at a tile, (2) put it somewhere. If this were a turn-based game, I would likely have a cup of coffee tile which would make the person who played it put two tiles without looking at them face down in a single cave. In this game, though, I had to restrain myself from these sorts of mechanisms as there is plenty of decision-making simply in deciding where to put something; being forced to process more was just asking for players to inadvertently cheat or lose track of the simple flow of tiles that makes the game fun. One exception to that was the torch – which allows a player to see a tile someone else has played – but even this I made optional since so many players forgot to use the power in the heat of the moment.
Using cards to modify the game is one of my staple design tools. I didn't want the cards to be "played fast" for the same reason I didn't want to add tiles more complex than the torch; the focus of the game play had to remain look at a tile, choose where it goes. For this reason, none of the cards are played quickly; instead they are played when the tile-laying is finished. Even so, they still bring variety to the tile play since, for example, a card which makes rubies more valuable will encourage you try to do something clever with all the rubies you run across.
My favorite moment from playtesting was when my opponent realized I was beating them because I was correctly guessing where they were building their biggest treasure trove and grabbing it before they did. Anticipating that they were going to try the same to me, I put a lot of tiles in one cave and when they hesitated about taking it, fearing a trap, I faked trying to get my goblin there — allowing him to beat me to the dynamite warehouse that the cave had become.
Part I from Sotirios Tsantilas:
I should have kept real diaries. Crisis is not my first game, after all, so I should have known better. There comes a time when you want to write a designer's diary for your new game, and all the memories have gotten mixed in your head.
Crisis, Crisis, Crisis...well, I remember discussing a lot of stuff with Pantelis at a sunny Piraeus when the crisis broke up, the idea of an economic game, how pissed off we were with the politicians, adding things to the game little by little by taking ideas from the global situation — but is it possible to get things in order? Hmmmm, I may be able to take advantage of the oldest Crisis files in my computer. Yes, that's it. I will try to recreate the timeline of the designing through the dates of the files!
Let's see now where are we...
22-06-2011: Building Cards – Industry1.doc
Well, there are two files in my computer named "Bailout" and "Bailout Elutopia". That was originally the name of the game. They are dated to June 2011, so that's where the sunny Piraeus memories came from. Obviously, Pantelis and I started designing the game at that period. "Bailout Elutopia" includes the Oldstuff subfolder. I think we found the source.
In this subfolder is the oldest file of the game I managed to find: "Building Cards - Industry1". It is a collection of some level 1 industry companies. I can see they are not so different from the final prototype we used until the last couple of years.
On the cards we have printed the minimum and maximum values that this company can produce to help us balance the game. Remember, guys, balance is everything. Also, there is a mysterious (L) and (F) on the production...
In the Oldstuff folder there are more Building type files, the Export Deals, the Specialists file, and most importantly the Player Board, dated 27-06-2011. In this file, other than some aspects that have survived until today's final version, there are long tables with numbers: (L) or (F) money and VPs. Our first concept was to divide the income produced by each company into two categories: Local (domestic) and Foreign. Hence, you had to keep your money in two separate vaults. That's because after the production phase came the taxation phase. According to your contribution to the state, you earned VPs, and if the income originated from abroad, you got more VPs. Thus, we had prepared long tables to assign VPs according to your taxation income. A really fiddly job.
Thankfully, quite quickly we realized that we could incorporate the VPs in the production of the company, so we eliminated the taxation phase completely. The first player board file without taxation is dated 19-01-2012. Of course, until then the game had already been balanced in the previous version which, although fiddly, played really nicely, so we had to work on the mathematics of the game in order to make the new version as good as the previous one. Remember? Balance is everything...
It's time for some heavy playtesting. We have prepared a file with tables in order to keep track of how players are doing in each round, so we can adjust the austerity plans, which is a very tricky part. As in real life, the derivative of the Situation Function is not constant. Hah, gotcha there!
I mean, when things start to go wrong, they go faster and faster, so it's not easy to set financial goals for each round because they don't follow a linear rule. The same holds for growth, too. That's why we had to monitor a player's progress round by round.
(Does this table looks like Greek to you? That's because it is!)
In the meantime, every day something new was actually happening and most of the time it was really easy for us to find material to enrich the gameplay theme-wise. That was the time we thought about the Event and Influence cards. Politicians and economists throughout the globe did their best to provide us with so much material that we had to choose the more intriguing ones and discard the rest. This game was actually built on the theme.
Did I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name? Well, it really was.
First, we got rid of Elutopia. With the name of "Bailout" we participated in the 3rd Greek Guild's Game Design competition, and guess what: We won! Both Judges' and Peoples' Awards. Woo hoo!
After that, the road to success had opened before us, and after ONLY six years, publishers rushed to our doorsteps with amazing contracts — but enough with this success story, let's get back to the diary.
When the celebration was over, we thought it was a good time to move to the next level, with more professional artwork that would skyrocket us to the top of BGG's Hotness aaaaand a new extra cool sci-fi name: "Orion Inc."
Have I mentioned that "Bailout Elutopia" was a lame name?
You know, Pantelis is a crazy Trekkie, like me, so we immediately agreed on the new name and theme. In this form, we developed the game even more, tweaking some numbers and expanding the Events and Influence Cards.
The first rulebook of the "Orion Inc." version. The game is pretty much as we know it today, but without difficulty levels.
What the heck is that?? I don't even remember discussing, much less writing it. Wow! Radiation poisoning...drifters...zombies????
Okay, let's not talk about that ever again.
17-09-2013: It's an email
Finally, the game is going to be published! Helloooooo, LudiCreations! This is not the first contact between me and LudiCreations, but it is the first time where the name of Crisis is referred to. Everybody seems to be happy with it and with the dieselpunk re-theme, too, that was decided a few months later.
I can't believe the date! Get a life, man! It is New Year's Eve, and I'm writing the first Vassal module of the game. I hope it was just a copy-paste, rename, or something else. I can't really believe it...
Last changes to the game. We changed the numbers of Export Contracts and the way they come out. This way we maximize the possibility of getting almost every combination.
For the first time we introduce difficulty levels.
28-11-2015: Crisis_rules_EN_000.2 orion_rulebook.pdf
The first semi-official rulebook of the game under the supervision of LudiCreations.
The last year was a frenzy of spreadsheets, playtesting, corrections, etc. Believe me, you don't wanna know.
But, the result of this six-year odyssey is the board game named Crisis. I hope you'll enjoy it!
Part II from Pantelis Bouboulis:
In mid-June, during the summer of 2010, the Greek financial crisis was just starting to show its jaws, although few could anticipate its deep and catastrophic impact on Greek society over the following years. A few months ago, following a large period of political inactivity, the Greek government was forced to sign the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with its partners in the EU and the I.M.F. As a result, Greece had pledged to implement reforms — such as a 30% decrease of salaries in the public sector, the increase of taxes, and a large number of privatizations — in return for a big loan that would keep the country from totally collapsing and shaking the troubled EU economy. As it is well known by now, the first MoU triggered a deep recession of the Greek economy leading to very high unemployment and a new debt crisis. Seven years later, the situation doesn't appear brighter.
It was in this political turmoil where the idea of the board game Crisis was inspired. I was thinking that it would be interesting to simulate a real economy in crisis, one in which players (playing the role of investors) are trying to save the country following an austerity plan (such as the one enforced by the MoU). That summer day, during a meeting for coffee with my dear friend Sotiris (an experienced board-game designer), I unfolded these ideas (rather crude at that time) and asked for his opinion. Sotiris was thrilled and soon after we began shaping the mechanism of the game, which we agreed to make as realistic as possible. Our main idea was that the investors would buy companies and services (taking advantage of the privatizations), hire local employees, produce goods, and finally earn money, while at the same time paying their taxes to the state.
We wanted these taxes to be very important for the survival of the economy as they represented state's income. In any real economy, if the state's income is low, then the financial situation worsens and this had to be reflected in the entire game. Furthermore, to link the game with the Greek memorandum era, we decided to add specific budget goals, i.e., at the end of each round the total amount of taxes gathered by the state should be greater than a specific number. In order to implement this philosophy we employed a financial-status indicator bar on the board, which actually represents the total tax revenues. If the total amount of taxes gathered is greater than the required goal, then the indicator moves forward, as the financial situation improves. On the other hand, if the players don't pay as many taxes as they should, then the indicator moves toward zero. If it drops below zero, then the country is declared bankrupt and all players lose.
Besides the obvious thematic flavor, the different thematic goals allowed us to simplify the set-up of the game for different player counts. Instead of blocking out options, or varying the available buildings and employees for different player counts, we simply set different budget goals. Thus, although fewer players have all the options available, they also have tighter goals to accomplish. This has the additional advantage that the game plays differently for various player counts (thus increasing replayability).
The first few months of the development we used paper money (similar to that used in Monopoly) for all purchases and tax payments. Each time a player sold goods, we computed the respective taxes (using a simple algorithm), which the player gave to the state, and moved the financial status indicator respectively. As you can understand, this was a tedious mechanism involving a lot of algebraic operations (which posed no problem to Sotiris and me, however, as we are both mathematicians).
Sotiris suggested replacing this mechanism with a simpler one using victory points. Thus, whenever a player sold goods, they gained money together with victory points. In a nutshell, we pre-computed the respective taxes and replaced them with victory points. For example, in the first version whenever a chemical unit was sold, the player earned 6 credits, then paid 3 of them to the state (taxation). In the new version, the player gains 3 credits and 2 victory points (which represent the player's contribution to the state's revenues). Of course this wasn't as simple as I describe it here as we had to convert the money to victory points in such a way that it was reasonable and didn't mess up the rest of the game. However, it is interesting to keep in mind that whenever you gain victory points in the game, this is because you are paying taxes! Don't you wish that taxation was that fun in real life, too?
During this period, we decided to call the game "Bailout", inspired by the famous term that dominated the news all around 2010-2012. Sotiris never liked it, but since he couldn't find anything better, he settled until the mechanism was finalized.
Another important issue was to find a hiring mechanism for the employees and a way for each company to benefit from specialized ones. I wanted the game to reflect that if you hire highly specialized people, then the company will flourish. Sotiris liked the idea, and we decided to incorporate this into the game. Thus, we came up with different employee types (workers, farmers, engineers, bankers), the modifier mechanism, and the employee's area, which is actually one of the most crowded areas of the game (as you probably have realized if you have played). We decided each employee would have a specific modifier that reflects the employee's specialties. Thus, highly skilled engineers might give a +3 boost in your company instead of the +1 you get by employing the average engineer. Of course not all employees need to be highly skilled as any factory requires a workforce for the "menial" tasks. This is why each company has slots for various types of employees (ranging from unskilled workers to highly specialized engineers and bankers).
Aside from the local employees, we added two more employee-related actions: the Temp-Employee and the Foreign Employees. These were added to ensure that all types of employees will be present in each round, although with a +1 modifier. As the economy is in crisis, no reasonable highly specialized people are expected to come and work. In many playtests during those early days (mainly between Sotiris and me) we experienced a phenomenon in which available companies required engineers to work, but no engineer was present in the employees section. Although this was not a major problem, it could seriously hurt the strategy of a player. Sotiris (having experience from the other board games that he designed) always felt that the players shouldn't get frustrated with the game if they were to love it.
Every economy that wants to flourish must take care of its export deficit. In the game, this is represented by losing VPs when you import goods (since currency is leaving the country) and gaining VPs when you export goods (or equivalently paying taxes). Initially we thought about leaving the exports free, which means that each player could export as many goods as they liked (provided that a manager was present in the Imports section). However, later we decided to add a more competitive mechanism that would incorporate some kind of risk (meaning that it's possible to produce chemicals and not be able to sell them). We came up with the deal-acquiring mechanism after a lot of playtesting. The basic idea is that the needs of the global market are time-varying. Thus, we placed different deals (now called export contracts) in each round, ensuring that there is a higher probability to export units of the primary production (e.g., food, minerals) than those of the secondary (chemicals, industrials) or tertiary production (machines). Furthermore, we added a first-in-first-out queue so that players with similar production chains would compete for a spot. Hence, the commitment to industrial production might be risky, but it may also lead to significant profit.
Aside from the traditional legal exporting action, we decided to also include a black market. This action represents outlaw exports that are conducted without taxes. Hence, although the player might gain significantly more money, no VPs are gained since no taxes are paid. The idea for this kind of business came from the tax-evasion problems that we have been facing the last decades in Greece. Although a lot of people became quite rich by not paying any taxes to the state, Greece's economy suffers from these practices.
Up to this point, the game was a collection of solid rules that emulated a real-life economy under crisis, plus some standard board game actions (first player, etc.). However, we wanted to add a spicy twist into the game. Real life situations in Greece became a source of inspiration once again. Regularly in a global economy minor events can shift the economic status. The Event cards were designed to emulate these kinds of effects. Examples are:
• Emergency taxes (out of the blue); this is becoming a daily routine...
• Being downgraded by international agencies
• Corrupt politicians
• Scientists leaving the country
• Strikes and riots
• Real estate taxes
In addition to these "minor" events, we added the influence cards to emulate the real fact that every businessman needs connections within the government to succeed. Not surprisingly, many of them originate from (but are not limited to) the Greek situation as well.
• Corrupt union leaders
• Politicians that are sponsored by investors
• Loans given without proper assessment
II. The Greek Guild's Contest
During the last months of 2012, we decided that the game was almost complete and decided to show it to our friends in the Greek Guild of BoardGameGeek. A lot of those guys were enthusiastic about the game and helped us a lot in the final stages of development with their ideas and their long and many playtests. Many of them are still eagerly waiting for the published edition.
During this time the game was called "Bailout" (yes, Sotiris was still struggling to find a name that he liked) and the hypothetical country in crisis was called "Elutopia" (from the names "Hellas" and "Utopia"). With this name the game took part in the 3rd Greek Board Game Contest, where it won both the reviewers and public awards. The following photo is from a playtest during the competition when the public had the chance to play all games. The guy explaining the game is Sotiris, while I was enjoying my cheeseburger.
Of course, during this stage we didn't have any artwork at all. The game was printed on white papers and we had colored cubes to represent the materials. You can also see the printed money and the small employee cards. There was some amateur artwork involved with the buildings and the event cards that was done by me and Sotiris. It is worth noting that the game that won second place in that contest was Among the Stars...
III. The Orion Era
One morning after the contest, I had a call from Sotiris. This was perhaps the hundredth time that we had contacted each other to discuss the name of the game (although we didn't have any publisher yet). Sotiris had the epiphany to give a sci-fi theme to the game and rename it "Orion Inc". The storyline was that a planet (Valdor) that belonged to a large federation (Galactic Consortium) had financial problems and the federation had devised an austerity plan to save its economy. Being a dedicated Trekkie myself, I was happy with the idea (although I think that I was happier that Sotiris had finally found a name that he liked). We had a good friend draw us some sci-fi themed cards and uploaded both the photos and the rulebook to BoardGameGeek, where the game entered the "Hotness" list.
This is the storyline that we devised back then:
Valdor is a prosperous planet of the Orion Arm that's inhabited by a developing humanoid race. During the last century, the Valdorians have made vast technological and economic progress. Valdor, located relatively far from the economic center of the Galaxy, has asked to become a member of the Galactic Consortium, a large economic union of numerous races occupying the greater portion of the Sagittarius Arm, closer to the galactic center. But it is necessary in order to be accepted into the community to achieve certain difficult economic goals during a tight time frame consisting of seven years. Now it's Valdor's time to shine...or not? Corruption has begun to poison the members of the High Council, while other races would be more than happy to see their effort fail…
After about a year, we learned that LudiCreations was interested in publishing the game. They had seen the game in Greece and liked it a lot. Of course we were more than happy to have them handle its publication.
More than that, they embraced the game and enriched it with their own vision. The game was renamed Crisis and received a dieselpunk sci-fi theme. The LudiCreations team worked hard not only on the illustrations, but also to rearrange the board and the company cards in order to enhance the playing experience. Also, they were kind enough to allow us to take part in all production phases, asking our opinions on all matters. Now, we are very excited to have an actual hard copy of Crisis in our hands!
Crisis at SPIEL 2016
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