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Board games that tell stories

You can follow me on Twitter at @trzewik I update this blog every Wednesday. This is BGG copy of my blog BoardgamesThatTellStories.com

Archive for Ignacy Trzewiczek

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The experience

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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We grew up reading Tolkien, Howard, Herbert, Dick, Lem… We were watching Willow, Blade Runner, The NeverEnding Story, Robin Hood… And yet, we don’t write books… we don’t make movies. We don’t make those things, because we make games. We make games that tell stories.

Books and movies are a perfect chance for us to escape to new, different worlds. They fuel our imagination and dreams. They let us walk in the shoes of great heroes and have exciting adventures. With games, however, we can go further. We can experience these stories together with our friends. Gather around a table and fight enemies together. Survive or die as a group. Together, we can tell stories.

This is what we do. This is what we believe in. Do you want to defend a castle? Do you want to build an empire? Survive on an uninhabited Island? Call your friends, sit at the table and get ready for an amazing story you will all tell and share this evening.

***

That's what I wrote about Portal Games a few years back. That's what I believe in. Lately, I am even more committed to my belief. The games, the best games we play these days, are truly amazing and provide experiences you cannot compare to anything else. No movie can do this. No book can do this. No video game can do this.

***

A two hours' challenge when I play Twilight Struggle leaves me always exhausted but happy. I don't care if I won or lost, I don't care if the game was hard for me or if I got some good cards. I don't care because the only thing that matters is the experience. I always feel like I was in the middle of a cold war, like I was fighting for control over the world, like I was there, in the White House with my advisors. This is the experience, this is me being there and trying to solve a political crisis.


A five-hour-long investigation I conducted when I played Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective for the first time remains one of the most vivid memories of a gaming night I've ever had. It was back in December 2015, many months ago and yet I can remember precisely every moment of the game. I was there, looking for clues, investigating the crime scene, interrogating suspects. I was discussing with Merry many possible theories, we were browsing through the booklet looking for things we might have missed, we were totally immersed. That evening, Sherlock Holmes offered us The Experience. During these five hours, I really was an investigator. It was amazing.


I am writing about this, because a new edition of Robinson Crusoe was recently released and so many of you had a chance to live the adventure for the very first time. Robinson is a tough beast. It punches you in the face and knows no mercy. You will lose again and again. You'll get killed by a puma. Starve to death. Freeze during a harsh winter. There is a million ways for you to die in Robinson.

But one day you will win. One day you will build this damn wood pile and get rescued.

And that, my friends, will feel fucking awesome. You won't belive you actually did it. You won't believe you won and you got rescued.

That's The Experience. That's board games.
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Wed Jan 18, 2017 1:52 pm
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The New Year's resolution

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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My New Year's resolution was super simple: I need to get back to writing regularly. I need to write every single Wednesday as I used to write in previous years. I need to make Board Games That Tell Stories blog active again.

So here I am. Writing about New Year's Resolutions. Here are the five more I am going to fulfill this year. Perhaps I could inspire you to do it with me!

1. Write a review
Playing games like Pocket Madness or Millenium Blades gave me a ton of pure fun and joy this past year. Designer's talent and hard work resulted in a masterpiece and let me have a great time with my wife and friends. My resolution? This year I will write a couple of reviews and publish them here on BGG to help spread a good word about games that made me happy. Such a review will be my "thank you" to the designer.

2. Donate a game to charity
I have a ton of games I no longer play. We all have. These are some great older games I got bored with like Escape or Spot It. These are the family games my kids no longer want to play. These are the games that were replaced by new and better versions. I have an entire cabinet of great games I will never again play in my life. Resolution? Instead of going to Math Trade or ebay I will give them to charity. I will send them to schools or libraries that organize board game events. Let somebody else enjoy the games I no longer play.

3. Play a game I don't like
We all have been there. There is this game we don't like that our spouse loves. In my situation it is Ingenious. Merry likes the game a lot, I actually don't like it at all. Resolution? I will play with my wife the game she loves. I will not complain. I won't keep rolling my eyes and I will not give up the game. I will do my best to enjoy it, I will find a piece of the mechanism I enjoy in the game and we will both have a great time.

4. Create a card for a game I love
There are so many examples of fan-created content which was eventually published. That's how the Dancer army for Neuroshima Hex was published. That's how the HMS Beagle expansion for Robinson was published. That's how the new edition of Citadels came to life. Fan-created content. Resolution? I will create some content to one of games I love and I will post it here on BGG. I won't do it for the sake of being published. I'll do it to show my respect and love for a particular game and add some value to the project. Make some variant or suggest a rule change that will increase replayability and fun. That's a cool contribution.

5. I will share good content
There is a ton of great content written or recorded by bloggers and vlogers. When I see a number of views or comments under their work, I know the authors deserve better than that. Reviews by JonGetsGames or SpaceBiff are one of the best in the industry. I admire their work. Resolution? I will do more to help them win more audience. I will share the best content I find on the Internet - I will do it more often and show my respect to its creators.

What do you think? Wanna join me in some of these? Or suggest something?
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Wed Jan 11, 2017 3:06 pm
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Marketer with a downtime

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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The six most important weeks for the games industry have just began. The whole year of building our catalog and position on the market is now concluding. It’s time for our games to shine and to show up on as many shopping lists as possible. It’s the time when all good reviews of our releases will make a difference. Quarter 4: The few weeks the entire toy industry is waiting for!

Q4 is a time when our classic titles, the so called backlist games are working hard. Our evergreens that for years have been the company’s strong sellers will prove once again that they are the backbone of our budget. For Portal Games it is obviously Imperial Settlers. It’s sure to be a perfect Christmas gift for many gamers. It’s Love Letter for AEG, it’s Survive for Stronghold Games. Publishers better have their backlist games in stock now.

Q4 is a time when the year’s big releases make another great impact. The games that were discussed earlier, games that were reviewed, games that were on the BGG hotlist for most of the year, games that you were waiting to buy and now, at the end of the year, you are ready to pull the trigger. For us it is obviously Cry Havoc, the huge release and a monumental success for the company. Never before did we have such a massive hype in the summer and so positive feedback. It’s been a winner for us this year and it will most likely be strong during the Christmas season too. Stonemaier Games had their Scythe, Stronghold had their Terraforming Mars, we had Cry Havoc. Publishers, you better have your bestsellers of the year in stock in Q4.

Q4 is a time when the last-minute releases, shiny titles that just pop up in November, can grab some last-minute attention! They land in shopping carts of many gamers who like shiny new stuff under their Christmas Tree. For us it was supposed to be the brand new edition of Robinson Crusoe, but it got delayed, got stuck on customs and will reach game stores in mid-December. I am afraid it is too late, even for a 'last-minute release'. This category will be, no doubt, dominated by Arkham Horror, Cottage Garden, or Adrenaline. Publishers, you better have your last-minute releases ready in November...

Anyway, this is the six weeks that matter the most, the six weeks that will make a lot of sells in our industry. Our Imperial Settlers, Cry Havoc, Tides of Madness, and even the belated Robinson Crusoe should fly off the shelves and land in your collections. And I? And I should work my ass to promote them. I should now be at the peak of my abilities to promote these games and convince you to put them in your shopping carts. It’s like in sports, when a sportsman needs to be in his best shape exactly during the Olympics. You train for four years to be fit in these few days. For me, Q4 is the time perform best.

Well, let's face it. I am fucking losing it. I am doing nothing. I am the worst marketer ever. I am out of shape at the moment when I should be at my best.

I haven’t been talking about Cry Havoc too much lately. I haven’t posted a thing about Aztecs or Imperial Settlers for weeks. Tides of Madness? Anybody heard of the game lately? Me neither...

I did my best earlier this year. I posted a ton of content in the summer when we were promoting Cry Havoc and Tides of Madness for Gen con. I was posting articles, videos, I was at my best earlier this year. Now, a few meters from the finishing line, now, when I should do one more step, one more punch, now, when the crucial six weeks came, I have no ammo. I am done. A few weeks before the finishing line.

So guys, help me, tell your friends about our games and help me here, at the last moment of the run. I need your help this year. And for the next year... For the next year I need to hire another marketing person in Portal Games. The guy with a downtime. The guy who will get excited about our games a few months after we’ve actually released them. I need a guy like Internet Explorer. Dedicated, but a little bit late to the party. Anyone?


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Wed Nov 16, 2016 11:07 am
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My best Essen so far

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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Every Monday I play football. If you are a boy and if you ever played any sports, you know that locker room is basically a room filled with morons. Mean jokes. Bantering. Trash talk. Boys having fun. Some psychologist could probably precisely explain why 10 dudes closed in a one room start to act like a bunch of jerks.

Every Monday I hear jokes about Portal Games.

Hey, Ignacy, how's your new rulebook? Working already on a FAQ?
Hey, Ignacy, how's balance in Cry Havoc?
Hey, Ignacy, I heard you didn't finish First Martians in time. Perhaps you should stop playing football on Mondays. You are not that good player anyway.

Every damn Monday. Festival of jokes.

I literally believe these morons are spending a significant amount of time every Monday browsing forums just to find a new topic for mean jokes about Portal Games.

This Monday it was my first game after Essen.

'You did amazing at Essen, man. Congratz.' I heard when I entered locker room. I knew this was some fucking preface for another mean joke about Portal Games. I looked at the guy and waited for a punchline.

'I mean it, man. Congratz. You did great.'

That was it. No trash talk. No stupid punchline. Just respect from a fellow jerk.

Felt freaking awesome.

***


Essen 2016 was for Portal Games show like no other ever was. After those years of releasing strong titles like Imperial Settlers, Robinson Crusoe, Tides of Time or this year Cry Havoc we felt amazing. The whole booth was a demonstration of that feeling. Our booth was big, it was beautiful, it was full of fans, cookies, people from all different countries and continents. Crowded all the time, with fans asking about First Martians, saying nice things about our new releases, shaking hands with us and taking selfies. It was amazing four days. Surrounded by fans and by Portal Team volunteers (these guys are hardcore fans) I felt proud and happy. And my whole team felt exactly the same. That was our moment. That was Essen to remember for years.

I will never forget this Essen.
Thank you for being there with us.
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Wed Oct 26, 2016 11:18 am
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What does an editor do?

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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In the last #askboardgames show I asked you, guys, for some new topics for the BttS articles. The today's one has been suggested by Ben Nicholson. "Rulebook Editing with Paul Grogan." Sounds like an adventure? Oh yes, it was!

***


This Fall Portal Games is releasing a new edition of Robinson Crusoe. Well, I don't really want to call it a new edition since this is the same good old Robinson without any major gameplay changes, but at the same time everything is new in the game in terms of production. We have new wooden pieces, we have a new scenario (well, it's King Kong, so it actually is not that new), we have a new First Player token, we have nice-looking discovery tokens, and most importantly we have a brand new rulebook. It is indeed a good moment to talk today about rulebooks, Paul Grogan, and my adventures with rules for Robinson Crusoe!

It was all very simple at the beginning. We took the previous rulebook and threw it into a bin. Then we contacted Pegasus Spiele and asked them if we could use their German rulebook as a base. They agreed. So we had it translated into English. And then we contacted Paul Grogan. We told him that we had a rulebook based on a very good German rulebook, and we'd like him to take look at it. I thought we were talking about a job that would take no more than a week to complete, a piece of cake.

No such luck.

***


With Robinson Crusoe – the game already released and one that has been available for years – Paul had a chance to fix the problems pointed out by our fans. The forums and rules threads can be of great help to an editor. But with Robinson Crusoe, browsing through hundreds of BGG threads was quite a challenge. There is a ton of questions about the rules at BGG. And there is a ton of answers.

Paul Grogan: I found your official answer at BGG about moving camp.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: Great!
Paul Grogan: And then I found another reply from you in other thread about camp.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: I was pretty active back then!
Paul Grogan: The point is, they differ.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: You insidious bastard.

***


Over the years, the number of FAQ, threads, and local editions grew; the German edition had some small changes introduced to the rules. And let's face it, me answering the rules questions on the forums has never been a good idea. For weeks Paul was browsing through them, thread after thread, and finding all those small details, the small problems, the small inconsistencies, and he was fixing them. One after another.

Paul Grogan: protective amulet
Paul Grogan: old card says "remove any token from the board"
Paul Grogan: EN rules are very specific on what is a token, and what is a marker
Paul Grogan: so tokens are cardboard bits, not the cubes
Paul Grogan: but on a polish forum, back in 2012, you ruled that it was actually markers (cubes) that it should remove, not tokens
Paul Grogan: so just want to check your final ruling. Only cubes? So it can remove exhausted sources, volcanic ash, fog, etc.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: I'd like it to help players to remove any piece of shit that pisses them off on board
Paul Grogan: ok, replacing "token" with "piece of shit"

***


With every passing week, with every hour spent on the game, an editor – Paul in this case – is able to see more. He can see the inconsistencies in the rules. Not because they were written this way, but because they actually work like that! He sees the unnecessary exceptions where the game doesn't really need them. Take a look at this:

Paul Grogan: When you take an Explore Action on a card (like the Treasure Map Treasure Mystery card) and get an Event (e. g. Signs of Fire) that instructs to cover a source on the Explored tile, what do I do? nothing? take a Wound because I cannot cover a source? or cover a source on the Camp?
Paul Grogan: the german rules say something about the explore action can be carried on on the Camp tile or an adjacent one.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: Sounds legit in terms of making things simpler, but it is bullshit in terms of theme. You found a treasure map and you look for this treasure in your camp? And you draw adventure "Lost" and you will get lost in your camp? That's bullshit story.
Paul Grogan: I know
Paul Grogan: hence my suggestion about saying it is either mandatory 2 pawns so auto success. Or, you dont roll the adventure die or something.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: OK, 2 pawns will cut all bullshit. I agree

***


Sometimes Paul was mean to me:
Paul Grogan: oh, I also found that effect which you said didn't exist

***


Sometimes he was telling me that fans says I am dumb:
Paul Grogan: The Ballista (in scenario 5)
Paul Grogan: there is a lot of people apparently who say that it is pretty irrelevant for the scenario and a lot of people think it is a misprint, and should be 1 palisade and 2 weapons.

***


Sometimes I was not able to accept his suggestions of changes though:
Paul Grogan: Last time I played, I wanted the bear! I had 6 weapons and needed food and fur.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: Fur?
Paul Grogan: and guess what I drew. Bloody feckin stupid birds.
Ignacy Trzewiczek:
Paul Grogan: 1 food, no fur
Ignacy Trzewiczek:
Paul Grogan: I'm renaming the card to "bloody feckin stupid birds" btw

***


That was much more work than I had expected. And the only reason for it was because Paul Grogan is a freaking awesome editor. He has a skill and a natural talent. He is a hard-working bastard who won't leave any single sentence alone. He is a passionate gamer with only one goal on his mind – make sure you can enjoy the game. This fine print at the end of the rulebook that says "Editor: Paul Grogan" (or any other name in any other game) is quite an important line. Thank the editors for their work!

P.S. I have exactly the same respect for the team behind the German rulebook, with Simon being as super devoted to work and super precise about the rules as Paul. Kudos!
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Wed Sep 14, 2016 3:50 pm
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The opposite

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In 2011, Castles of Burgundy, Trajan, Ora et Labora, and Kingdom Builder were released. With Agricola and La Havre released in previous years, we had eurogames stronger than ever.

Me? I did the opposite. I started a little blog called Board Games That Tell Stories and I started to work on Robinson Crusoe.

Luckily, it turned out, I was right.

***

Today every publisher releases a few games per month, one announcement is followed by another, games are printed, released, forgotten, replaced by the new ones. No one can catch up, neither the distributors, nor the game store owners, nor the gamers themselves.

We? We do the opposite. We released 51st State in the Spring, Crazy Karts in the Summer and we will release Cry Havoc in the Fall. We curate our releases.

And yet, 2016 was the best year in the company's history. Luckily, it turned out, I was right.

***

These days all major publishers' Facebook pages have thousands of likes and their Twitter accounts have thousands of followers. Like our page to win the game. RT and follow to enter the contest. The numbers go higher and higher.

We? We do the opposite. We don't go for a number, we go for individual people. I know hundreds of my followers personally. I get cookies at cons, I get greetings for my wife when she kicks my ass in 51st State, I have some awesome deep relations with a small number of people. I chose to think deep instead of wide.

Every day I am reminded that I am right.

***

I have a pile of gold on my desk. It is called First Martians and is one of the most anticipated games of the year. Every publisher with at least a bit of sense would print it right now. Because of the Mars theme. Because of the legacy-style gameplay. Because of the Christmas season. Just push the Print button and collect the money.

Me? The opposite. Today, in the newest episode of the #askboardgames show, I announced we won't publish the game. Even though we'll miss the Mars-hype timing. Even though we'll miss your peak of interest in legacy games. Even though we'll miss the Christmas season.

I'll release it when it's done.

I hope I am right.
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Wed Sep 7, 2016 11:00 pm
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I didn't see it coming

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'You made a mistake. You understimated it,' she said. She sees the hype growing and she knows I am not prepared for that. She knows I made a mistake. I didn't see it coming.

***


I signed Cry Havoc (Battle of York back then) in 2013. It was three years ago. Since then it's been an ongoing struggle. It meant months of work for Grant and Michał Walczak. Finally, when my disappointment with the results could not be contained any longer, I hired Michał Oracz to join the team and help with the development. More long months of testing came and went, long months of seeing the game on the table every week, and I would repeat one sentence to my team over and over again.

'I like Kemet better. Try harder.'

***


There was Grant working on the game. There was Grant and Michał Walczak working on the game. There was Grant, Michał, and Michał Oracz working on the game. Weeks became months. Months became years. Finally, they finished. It was ready.

I gave it to my small personal playtesting team. The few people I trust the most.

'It is not ready,' they said.

So Cry Havoc was back on the table. At that point, after two years of developement I was sick of seeing this game in the office again.

Step by step, my testers pushed it to its final stages.

In November we went to the BGG.Con and presented the game. The feedback was phenomenal. Grant himself was presenting the game and people loved it. We were ready to go. A few tweaks concerning the balance and we had a smash hit.

***


'Ignacy, you should play it,' he said. This was Marek. At that time I was struggling with First Martians and Aztecs, and Angry Ocean, and Crazy Karts, and one more secret project. Playing Cry Havoc was the last thing I needed.

'I have no time. Playtesters like it, people at the BGG.Con loved it. No need for me to play it anymore.'

'Ignacy, you should play it,' he said again.

'Why?'

'I don't know. Something is... I don't know. It lacks something. You have to play it.'

I did play it.

First Martians, Crazy Karts, Aztecs, Angry Ocean, and the secret project all had to wait for their turn. Cry Havoc was not ready.

***


It was six months ago and I remember this particular day as if it was yesterday. It was winter. We were in Paris. My wife and daughter were going to Disneyland. I stayed in the apartment and kept working on Cry Havoc.

I wholeheartedly hated this game. I hated every single minute I spent with it that day. I blamed it for ruining my vacations. I will remember this day forever. I had all the skills, buildings, and decks spread out on the table and I was tweaking this shit while my daughter was having a blast at Disneyland.

I so badly wanted this game to be ready. So I could never watch it again.

***


'You made a mistake. You understimated it,' she said.

I look at her. She is right. I didn't see it coming. I grew sick of this project. I hated it with my whole heart.

I didn't see that after all these years of extremely hard wok we finally nailed it.
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Wed Aug 17, 2016 9:23 am
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That's my team

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His nickname is Multi. He’s been working with me for more than 10 years now. He is our art director. He is responsible for how Imperial Settlers, Rattle, Battle or Cry Havoc look. Fun fact: He got his job at Portal Games 10 years ago as a proof-reader for RPG books we were publishing back then.

We no longer publish RPGs and this is good news because he was terrible at that job. 

In the meantime, he learned everything about DTP. And became an artist in his domain. 

***

The other guy’s name is Marek. He helped us at cons, he never failed us and at some point I offered him a job. I needed support for our marketing tasks: managing our FB page, handling customer service, browsing forums and answering questions—that kind of work. He turned out to be a hell of a tester. Without Marek, Cry Havoc wouldn’t have been half as good as it is now. He pushed me and the whole testing team beyond our limits.

In the meantime, he learned everything about video editing. And become our movie department. Quite a talent!

***

You might recognize the nickname Scorn. He put that name on the Convoy’s single strongest card. That’s pretty self-explanatory, huh? He does all the DTP stuff for our licenses and he works like a robot running on two additional sets of batteries. It’s crazy how he just ticks the tasks off his list: done, done, done. 

Sometimes we let him do some artistic work, if the game is dark, moody, and involves post-apo themes. For example, he designed the look of 51st State. Or the new Convoy. This is his theme. His world.

In his free time he is passionate about photography and music. Quite a talent.

***

You saw her in our Crazy Karts gameplay video. Her name is Aga. She joined us earlier this year and brought a ton of talent to the team. We met her two years ago. She was in college back then and came to us for her student intership. She impressed me back then and at the beginning of 2016 when I saw we were expanding like crazy and I needed more talented people on board I said to Scorn: ‘Remember that girl who did the thing for Robinson? Find her.’

He found her. He wrote to her. She came. She is with us. The value she adds to the team is incredible. I am so proud to have her in my team. She did Tides of Madness and you will love it. 


***

Some of you met him, some of you heard about him. His name is Greg. He is our Production Manager. Two days ago I talked about Greg with Mr. Buonacore. ‘He is your Chief of Operations,’ he said. Well, it’s true.

I’ve known Greg for years. He was the guy who would take part in Neuroshima Hex tournaments and win them more often than not. At some point I offered him a job—we needed a guy to handle our webstore. 

A few weeks later he was handling the webstore and the warehouse. Then international sells. And then licensing. Finally the whole production. And now he is basically running the whole company when I shipped myself to the U.S. for 5 weeks. Knowing that Greg is covering my back, I feel much better.

The only problem I see with Greg... He really likes dry euro games. That’s a bummer 

***

Right opposite Greg’s desk we have Martin. You might have met him at Origins or Gama. Our Salesperson. The moment I met him, I fell in love with his talent, knowledge, dedication to work. I immediately offered him the job and after long negotiations I succeeded in bringing him to Portal Games. That’s the guy who won’t stop working unless you directly order him to ‘shut the f... laptop and go home’. He is passionate about what he does, he loves our company, and he lifted us to another level within just a few months after he’d come. 

Pure talent in his domain. 

His only problem is the one I actually can accept. He loves eurogames and but he cannot play them. We beat him every time he puts a eurogame on the table. It’s so funny.

***

We also have Mirek. The old guy. He’s, like, 50 years old. It doesn’t stop us from making jokes about him that he’s eighty. He literally owns our warehouse. I mean it. I dread visiting the Portal Games warehouse even though I happen to be the company’s CEO. When you enter our warehouse, you’d better listen to Mirek or you’ll be in trouble. Nothing comes in or out of our warehouse if it hasn’t been accepted by Mirek. He is the guy to keep our stuff safe. I like it that way.

Mirek hadn’t played board games before. And now he is with us, working at Portal Games. And yes, he plays now. Every Tuesday ‘the old man’ sits with us and shares our passion. 

***

Then there is Bogusia—our accountant, and as you can expect from her job position, she is less of a weirdo than the rest of the team. She keeps our invoices tight and clean. That’s a talent, huh? 

There is Chevee who sits in West Virginia, trying to talk with us in Polish through the Slack communicator, who is as crazy as the rest of the team and who tries to keep our conventions in the U.S. and our English website problem-free. Sometimes he succeeds.

And of course there is Merry, the best customer service you will ever have. She keeps our fans happy. And she keeps me alive. That’s the most important thing...


***

I left the office two weeks ago. I miss my team a lot. I really mean it. A lot.
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Wed Jul 13, 2016 3:47 am
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In search of heart

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For the past weeks we were publishing Grant's Rodiek Game Designer Journals about designing Cry Havoc. Today we switch perspective to Michal Walczak, the lead developer for Portal Games on Cry Havoc and I thought I could repost it here - maybe not all of you follow Portal website and were aware about the series.

- Game Designer Journal #1

- Game Designer Journal #2
- Game Designer Journal #3





In search of heart...

Michal Walczak


It’s possible that the best thing about being a game designer is that with every project you get to learn something new. You can’t merely rely on fixed aspects of your work because it may happen that precisely these fixed elements will lead you nowhere. Believe me, well-trodden paths are as useful in the board gaming industry as road maps from the eighties.

So what did Battle for York teach me?

First and foremost: there is no algorithm, procedure, or method known to man that would infuse a mass of cardboard, wood, and staples with a bit of heart. You can search all you want, but Google knows nothing on the subject. Yet this is this bit of heart that makes a difference between a good game and an above-average game. Without it, you will never create a game that could become embedded in people’s memory. This bit of heart in the game needs to be fought for, and sometimes you just need to work it out. With every moment of working on the game, with every rejected idea, with every moment of testing, the game can gain its heart. Sometimes you’ll find it—by chance—in an inconspicuous idea, sometimes it will stand out as a brilliant solution, but the truth is that you need to remember about it even as you begin creating the game.

So we have this project called Battle for York. The game makes sense, you can play a battle, but put it on the shelf and it will drop off the face of the earth. The chances that the game sees the light of day and hits the table ever again are as low as a dead man’s pulse.

So let’s check off all the standard solutions: Maybe the factions should be asymmetrical? No. Varied mediocrity is still mediocrity.

Perhaps the map should be asymmetrical, then? Combined with asymmetric factions, this could yield a high replay value. No. Mediocrity is mediocrity, no matter how many times and from how many angles it is observed.

Maybe we can change the cards that drive the mechanic? Add some features? We can create new tactical options for the gamers to use with their chosen factions. Perhaps we should allow the factions to develop? Perhaps we should change the way the troops are deployed, speed up the gameplay, streamline the scoring system? No, no, and no. It’s still mediocrity. Not a bit of heart in it.

***


Yet it all takes time. Weeks turn into months, and the guys are already making jokes about what I do at Portal Games. I’m sitting over Battle for York. Week after week. I’m not working on it, just sitting over it. I’m going round in circles, the game is changing, but there is no course ahead. Still, more weeks go by.

But one thing should be noted here: Battle for York is a game that Portal had been lacking for years. Portal’s portfolio of “strategic area control games with negative interaction and plenty of tools to kick your friend’s ass” is strikingly empty. And I’m sitting over Battle for York, the game I’ve longed for all my life—as a gamer and as a designer; over a project so important to our publishing house—and nothing. Time goes by and the game still doesn’t have that “something”.

A pro-tip: learn to quickly identify a standstill at work and respond to it. I couldn’t do that back then. At some point, Ignacy initiated a serious conversation about how the game was developing. We talked for a while and I explained all the changes made until then: those I applied and those I backed out of. We discussed every modification that wasn’t a dead-end street. Features, tactics, cards and other components that now littered the box, useless. There could have been many outcomes of this conversation: Ignacy could have taken over the project, he could have assigned it to someone else, he could have accepted refined mediocrity, he could have abandoned it altogether.

Instead, he clearly explained to me again what I could do with the project, what I could change or throw out. And there were many things I could alter: essentially the entire game, with the single exception of the battle board.

“Michal, for this board alone, I bought the rights to this game.” he pointed at battle board.

So I’m sitting there staring at the inconspicuously looking board. True, it works outstandingly well during gameplay. It really is a cool idea to resolve battles this way—that is, in waves. Every tactic used in the game effectively comes down to affecting the situation on this board. What about the rest of the game? What about the other 90% of the game’s mechanic? We just toss it overboard for now. You’ll look into rest later. Now focus on battle board.

In case you didn’t know what just happened: By throwing out 90% of the mechanic, Ignacy gave the game a fair-sized chunk of its left ventricle, along with a few inches of a protruding aorta. It took me a while to latch onto that, but the truth is that Battle for York was—just like any other project—a constellation of various fragments, more or less autonomous and of varying importance. The mechanic was never bad and maybe I’m a bit too harsh when I call it mediocre. Actually, to give you a better picture I can even say that most of it was cast in gold. But sometimes you just have to kick out some golden parts to make room for diamonds. For Ignacy, the game’s true gem was the battle board. It was because of this element that we worked on this game.

***


So I took the battle board out of the box. For the time being I put all the rest on the shelf.

If you want to know what it means to work on a project with only a few constraints, the first thing you need to understand is that every project is a Great Opportunity. And if you’re passionate about designing games, this is how you see it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a micro-game or a huge project with hundreds of components. So when Ignacy approaches you and says that the game is going to be published but it needs some polishing you know it’s the Great Opportunity. A chance to work on the game, gain experience, face the problems and deal with them. It’s your Great Opportunity to create an excellent game, one that will hit the tables worldwide, conquer the rankings, change the course of the board gaming industry. Because why shouldn’t it? It’s a Great Opportunity and nothing holds you back. Each project is a great dormant potential, from the first half-second of your work until the project goes to print. Every game is a Great Opportunity.

Any game designer passionate about his job knows this. And I know this, too.

And why is this Great Opportunity so important? Because you need to keep it in mind to improve the project with whatever best you have. You don’t hoard your best ideas to use them in one of your future projects, in one of the other chances, maybe in a game created solely by you—your original design. Nothing of the kind. You need to understand that as a designer, developer, test leader, or simply a tester, you must give your best. You don’t keep your best ideas for later. And it’s not about fighting the competitors in the market or increasing your sales. There’s something more to it. To be the best, the game needs to get the best from you. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work.

***


Once I was done with most of the previous mechanic, I gathered all the things I’d invented over the past years and tried to squeeze them into the game. The years of creating and remembering ideas—huge mechanics and minor features alike—bore fruit within a couple of weeks. All my dreams about board games, my demands, masterstrokes, and laborious considerations—all the best things I had—were soon loaded into this one game.

Imagine that a tactic your army can use is tied to a particular area. You’re fighting a battle for an important harbor, for a marine academy that will allow for more effective naval combat. Or you wage a battle for a fortress hidden among the hillsides because capturing it will help you train your troops in defensive tactics. Or think about extensive plains—if you command them, you can train cavalry and make it more effective in combat. Imagine that your faction behaves differently depending on the terrain you’ve conquered.

Or imagine that the game’s map is not merely flat—you can move through the tunnels and caves that riddle the entire area. Or maybe the actions you can perform will depend on the time of day—the planet you’re on rotates around its axis and while one side is enveloped in the dark, the other absorbs the scorching rays of the alien galaxy’s sun.

Hmm … What planet? What galaxy? What caves?

During these weeks, the game’s character changed somewhat. It turned out that Battle for York, originally set on an island in the Napoleonic era, had always been a sci-fi game in Ignacy’s mind. Do you know how difficult it is to change a game’s entire narrative? To transfer it to a different reality, to completely different technological surroundings? It may be disappointing but, in spite of appearances, when you begin working on the game this is just like a breeze. We gave our bayonet-wielding infantry space suits and better weapons, we turned the cavalry into machines, and cannons were now tanks. At this stage, the mechanic can forgive these things as it’s not too specific.

Battle for York sloughed its old skin and evolved into what was provisionally entitled Battle for Yrk. After all the changes the game now relied on worker placement, we could affect the planet by building various structures, we could learn new tactics and explore the planet. The game played quickly and was pretty intuitive, too. At this stage, this was no longer sitting over the project. When my rear end was in the chair, that was during rare moments of rest. For most of the time, I would run around the game cutting new components, writing down new rules, features, and tactics. Everything was still quite rough, but what began to emerge was promising.

***


Obviously, many of my splendid ideas turned out to be downright absurd. Many didn’t make their way to the final version of the game because they simply didn’t fit. Some others, however, fitted like a glove. It’s important to give the game everything you can, the best ideas you can come up with.

I did.

I don’t even know how and when, but suddenly we had the heart’s left atrium in the box. When I nudged it with a pencil, it rolled towards the left ventricle and stuck to it with a squelching sound. I had to present the project to Ignacy. We had to validate and verify it, then we’d think what to do next. One year had passed. Battle for Yrk had changed dramatically. I know that was when I was happy and could sleep soundly.

….to be continued.
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Fri Jun 24, 2016 6:00 pm
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It's quite a difference

Ignacy Trzewiczek
Poland
Gliwice
Slask
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Yes, I know, I know. I am obsessed with testing. I've written a ton of articles about this already. I spend huge parts of my seminars on design talking about playtesting. After all, this is an important part of the design process.

Here I am today, once again, talking about my recent playtesting sessions. This time—surprise!—I was playtesting First Martians.

***



It was Thursday. Rindert and Corina were able to playtest First Martians for the first time. I explained the rules of the game and of the particular scenario, sat them with Szymek, one of my trusted playtesters and I left the office. I had some things to do.

[Yes, me, the guy who claims he watches and attends every single test of his games. I just left the office.]

I returned after two hours. Szymek was as white as a sheet. 'Ignacy, I screwed up. We forgot about Low battery rules. This is the special rule for this scenario, I totally forgot about it. They won, but it was easier without this rule. I am very sorry. I screwed up.'

'You were not testing. You were teaching them the game. You will playtest tomorrow,' I said with a smile. I didn't care about this gameplay. It was not a test. It was not playtesting. It was just playing the game. I didn't care about small details like making the game easier or harder and such stuff. I was preparing the real test.

***



The real test took place on the following day. I set up the game and put a new scenario on the table. 'Today you'll play a different scenario,' I said. 'The question I will ask you after the game is simple: Was it different from yesterday's gameplay?'

And they played. My employee was with them the whole time, carefully observing the whole game and the players' reactions.

Next day I asked them: 'Was it different?'

'It was very different. It felt really different.' Rindert said. Corina confirmed.

'After playing the first two scenarios, are you eager to see other scenarios and to see what more there is in the box?' I asked.

'Yes,' Corina answered without hesitation.

Generally I don't trust playtesters. They tend to lie a lot. I called my employee and asked for the report.

He confirmed what they said. They acted differently, they were focused on different aspects of the game, they felt different emotions. These two scenarios were different enough.

The goal of the playtesting session was met.
The answer to my question was given.
I could prepare another test...

***



Many times I've heard young designers saying things like: 'We playtested the game 200 times.', 'We had 300 playtesting games', 'We've been playtesting for 3 years.'

It's not about numbers. It's not how many times you played the prototype. It's all about questions you asked. It's all about the goals you had set for a particular gameplay. It's about objectives you met in this particular playtesting session.

Each time a designer sits to playtest a game, he needs to set a goal for the test.

Otherwise he is not playtesting; otherwise he is merely playing.

It's quite a difference.
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Wed Jun 22, 2016 8:21 pm
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