Archive for category Games

Choosing a Tag Line

On the eve of my Kickstarter for Supertall (live now), I’ve been sitting here working with Buttonshy trying to find the perfect tagline for the campaign. It was very similar to some of the work I had been doing making game summary sheets (i.e. sell sheets) in the last few weeks. The goal of a tag line is to give you a quick impression of the game. People will decide to investigate further based purely on that 10 second reading, so it’s important to make a good impression. With a summary sheet, you have a little more room, because the person is already looking over the whole sheet. But you really want to keep words to a minimum and show the game rather than spend a paragraph explaining it. I thought it might be interesting and helpful to talk briefly about the process we went through in developing that tag line and how it relates to getting the most out of every word.

You might start with something like “Supertall is a 2-3 player game where you use different types of plans to building skyscrapers”. Simply saying a player count and some mechanics is a good start, but doesn’t do much to relate the experience of playing. Plus in this case, the price point ($10) is a big selling point. Lets try again. “Supertall is a 2-3 player game about building skyscrapers from a mix of plans. Only $10 for a fast and highly interactive tower building game.”

We’re headed in the right direction. First, we simplified language, instead of saying “where you use”, we made the information about plans a clause on building skyscrapers. We added the price and description “fast and highly interactive” and call it a tower building game. The second sentence is sort of awkward and we’d rather leave the reader with $10 as a point of interest. We’re also still wasting words at the beginning, by saying “Supertall is a game where…” We don’t need to clarify that we’re talking about Supertall.

In its place, we want a word that will excite players right off the bat. Tell players what they are doing in the game. “Build skyscrapers” is Ok, but build is a little boring. “Plan skyscrapers” is even worse. But “Design” is a more interesting behavior, because it’s active instead of passive, and suggests a level of skill is involved. Also, we aren’t just building skyscrapers, lets add some wording to show that these are special. “Design the next world-class skyscraper. A fast and highly interactive tower building game for 2-3 players. Only $10!”

OK, now we’re getting closer. The first part is active and interesting. The second part is descriptive, but is still a bit clunky. And rather than say that it’s fast and interactive, lets tell players why. Plus we’re just calling players “players”. So that gets us to the final iteration.   “Design world-class skyscrapers. 2-3 architects compete and collaborate in this fast and highly interactive game for only $10.”   Most of the words are now descriptive of the theme and player actions. “design” “world-class” “architects”. “Compete and collaborate” tells you it’s competitive but still strategic. The whole thing flows much better.

When you describe your game, value the reader’s time. Make the most out of your space. Get rid of all the extra connector words and be as direct as possible whether you’re describing the mechanics, theme, or experience. Don’t just say “this is what happens”. Take all the potential in the game and make it kinetic. Describe what is happening, as if players are active right now. Because you’re not just trying to get players interested to hear about the game, you’re trying to get the players interested in playing the game.

As usual, there’s not a road map, but this hopefully gives you some strategies to apply when you’re working on writing your game up, whether it’s for marketing, making a sell sheet, planning your pitch, or even explaining the rules. Try to get to the experience as quickly as possible.

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Breaking the Wallet Game Code, Part 2

Last time, in Part 1, I looked at some of the lessons I learned from a pile of failures, and how my upcoming games Garnet, MT and Supertall avoid the same problems.

I’ve also found common ground in a number of Buttonshy’s most successful games that I think really embodies what makes Buttonshy Wallet games feel like bigger games. I wasn’t really able to put this into words until after developing most of Garnet and Supertall, but it’s something I’m now starting to look for to make sure my games have, too. Read the rest of this entry »

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Breaking the Wallet Game Code, Part 1

I’ve been trying to make a wallet game for Buttonshy for about 3 years, and I’m finally about to have my first one. I’d like to say it was an academic effort to understand what makes a good wallet game and using that information to carefully design one. But I must admit that it was mostly accomplished through brute force, and a lot of failures.

Wallet games are difficult to design. The entire game must fit on 18 cards and a plastic wallet with (until recently) no tokens, which is hard enough. But wallet games should also feel like much bigger games than those 18 cards, which adds another level of challenge to the design process. On my journey to meet that challenge, I’ve definitely learned some things that are necessary, some things that help, and some things that don’t, and I’m going to share that journey and the secrets I’ve uncovered.

I’ve discussed part of this journey before, in Learning New Ways to Fail. The very first game I tried to design as a wallet was Shapeshift, a game about monsters. That gradually morphed into Iceburgh, and has since outgrown the wallet. And that was the first game I felt really could succeed as a wallet game. But then came a string of failures.

  1. Space Race 1969: my 2016 Wallet Game contest entry.
    • 2 players simultaneously play two cards to choose actions, trying to perform 3 successful rocket launches
    • Theme was a muddled combination of cold war sabotage and space race inspiration that felt detached from the mechanics
    • This might be salvageable.
  2. Dossier: the second version of Space Race
    • Draft then play your spies to hand off documents, get the right documents in your dossier.
    • Thematically way better, with more variety, but mechanically not tight enough. Space Race had a clear mental game that this version was missing.
  3. Mills of Jajce: Based around a town full of tiny water mills in Bosnia and Herzegovina
    • Grinding grain in tiny mills by rotating cards.
    • This was a bare mechanic, functional with no interesting gameplay. The game lacked any real arc.
  4. Brandywine: Inspired by Carcassonne’s River expansion
    • Place a card down to form the Brandywine river and to put your mills near the appropriate resources.
    • A waste of a much more thematically rich idea.
    • I overbalanced it worrying about the 4 player game. And once you put a card down, you basically forgot about it until scoring.
  5. Fairgrounds: Build carnival attractions
    • Build a small tableau that also makes resources for your neighbors to build.
    • I couldn’t find the right balance point, so players rarely had decisions about what to play or build.
    • And it took too many cards just to make the base mechanic work. This was probably just too big to work in 18 cards.
  6. Thousand Year Rose: Growing a rose bush for 1000 years.
    • Played sort of like Kodama, growing the rose, but with events that made parts of it die
    • This game was literally unendable. If your game is about something that grows over time, make it harder to destroy than to create.
    • Probably wanted to be a cooperative game instead of competitive.
  7. Twining Vines: Winemaking game
    • Run a vineyard, plant and age vines, sell the grapes or turn them into wine.
    • This one nearly worked, but money both felt tacked on and was a component hog.
    • It could probably work as a slightly larger game.
  8. Boundary Issues: Shift the national border between US and Canada.
    • Shift the boarder back and forth to get points for what’s on your side at the end, while granting abilities to your opponent.
    • Neat mechanic, but I had no idea what to do about the end/win condition.
    • This one might also be fixable if I can give an arc to it
  9. Surviving Everest: Climb Mountains in the 1950s.
    • Solo/Co-op with elements of memory, push your luck, and deck manipulation. Sounds great on paper
    • Successful as an artistic representation of the mental challenges of high altitude climbing.
    • But nobody liked it because the first round had no guidance.
    • Still potentially salvageable.

There are a lot of trends to pick up from here.

First, I kept bumping into the size limit. It’s really difficult to make something that needs 12 of the cards on the table at all times. Fairgrounds, Twining Vines, Space Race and Dossier needed a lot of cards in play at one time, which doesn’t leave you much room to actually play with. And putting enough variety within the game and between games is a challenge for every one of these.

Along with the size concern, don’t worry too much about making it a 4-player game. That often requires a lot more cards to work. Accommodating 4 players is almost standard for larger games, but 2 and 3 player games do well for Buttonshy. And there is always the option of adding a 4th player later through a 6-card expansion. Get the core design down first, then worry about adding players.

Next, a lot of these games were missing a clear goal. Figure out what makes the game have a beginning, middle, and end, and how they differ. Again, variety within the game is a challenge. Jajce Mills, Thousand Year Rose, Fairgrounds, Twining Vines, Boundary Issues, and to a lesser extent Brandywine, all had good mechanisms with no real long term gameplay. Just repeat until some arbitrary end.

And may of these games failed to give players choices for a substantial portion. Brandywine was often an obvious choice, Surviving Everest didn’t give the player enough information early on (although that is totally thematic), and Fairgrounds often left the player able to perform no actions. Decisions are the lifeblood of an engaging game, so it’s not enough to rely on end scoring, or theme, or clever distribution to make them occur.

After all of these failures, I finally made a game that I was happy with. I had worked on the idea in my head for quite a while before getting on the table, but it needed tokens to work for tracking resources. So when the Wallet+ option was announced, I was ready. Garnet, MT is right out of my standard playbook. Develop a 1900’s Mining town before it burns down. Historical setting, action drafting, resource management, tableau building with permanent effects. It’s totally my type of game as a designer and a player. The main concept worked, and I’ve been working on improving the balance, making the decisions more challenging, and bringing in more strategic elements, and it is scheduled to appear later this year. So that’s 1 in 10 attempts.

But wait! Next month, Buttonshy will be Kickstarting my game Supertall, about planning skyscrapers. But instead of 2 years of development Supertall took shape over a few months. It started as a nanogame inspired by Buttonshy’s Sprawlopolis. But when playtesters said “this would work a lot better if it was on cards”, I expanded the game from 1 card and 15 tokens into 18 cards.

Both of these games avoid the problems I addressed above. Garnet was designed so the 15 cards represent the 15 years the town was in its prime and contain the 13 saloons and 13 basic buildings that are central to the history. Supertall started with a limit of 15 tokens, so easily fit in the 18 card limit. I actually had more trouble figuring out which 3 cards to add. Garnet was designed as a 2 to 3 player game from the outset. Supertall was likewise designed for 2 to 3, and the first 6 card expansion will accommodate a 4th player.

Garnet also had the hard time limit from the start, and as a tableau building game, naturally has a progression. Plus there’s a great end-game twist I’m really proud of. Supertall has a natural direction as you build taller and taller. The end was a little challenging, because you can return cards to a draw pile, but I included a simple rule that cleans up the ending. Finally, Garnet loads all of the available actions onto each card, so there are always options for everyone. And Supertall gives 3 ways to use each card, plus makes any player’s skyscraper a possible placement option, so there are choices on every turn.

So after all those failures, does that mean I have finally revealed the secret for making a wallet game?

Nope.

I’ve been working with Buttonshy for over 2 years, so I had a good idea of what they look for in a game, and I knew that Garnet and Supertall would definitely fit in their lineup, but that only helps for the pitch, and doesn’t mean you’ll have a good game. The lessons from above are all absolutely necessary if you’re interested in designing a wallet game [or really any game] worth making. But these just make your game playable. Buttonshy wallet games always feel like bigger games, and I think I’ve finally figured out the element that makes the difference.

Which I will look at in part 2.

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American Steel wins the Ion Award

I’ve been working on a game over the past few months, with my friend—and designer of Rocky Road a la Mode—Joshua J Mills, called American Steel. I haven’t written much about it because It’s been coming together quickly, and wasn’t really stable for long enough to write meaningfully about it. That and I hadn’t played it myself until recently. But I am absolutely thrilled to announce that this past weekend, American Steel won the Ion Award at SaltCon.

ASTitle.PNGIonAwardLogo.jpg

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The Value of a Bad Playtest

I recently attended all 3 days of the inaugural PAX Unplugged in my home town of Philadelphia. It was great showing off my home city to people (especially Reading Terminal Market). It was also way bigger than I expected, and there were people I never even ran into all weekend. Possibly because I spent a lot of my time Friday and Saturday in the Unpub/Alpha Build room, working on prototypes. It was a good weekend for prototypes, if not for the players. Read the rest of this entry »

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Announcing Landmarks

I’m so please to share this announcement from The Spiel Press!

Right now, there isn’t much information available about the final game or release date (look for it later in 2017), but here’s a little bit about Landmarks.

It’s a roll and write game in a book, which means, you bring your own pens and markers and a pair of dice, and each page is a copy of the game.

Your dice rolls determine what areas of the city you can build in, and you develop the city throughout the game by adding buildings in that score in a variety of ways. That’s the basic premise, but that’s not what makes Landmarks unique.

Here’s what makes Landmarks stand out

There’s a lot of variety in buildings, 18 basic buildings, and 19 landmarks. Each chapter of the book has a different set of buildings, giving each game a different feel while retaining some basic elements.

Buildings can change through the game by drawing more detail. It isn’t just place a building and move on. You have to balance claiming land and upgrading the buildings you already own to earn points.

Players are playing on a shared board, and the buildings you add change how other players’ buildings score. So this is no multi-player solitaire competition for the highest score. Players are directly interacting.

The entire book plays out like a story. Each chapter tells the story of a town in a different stage of life, from rural village through bustling metropolis and beyond. And the results of each game filter into a campaign that plays out on a larger map

 

I started working on Landmarks over 2 years ago. I set it aside for almost a year and a half, but now it’s back and better than ever, so I’m looking forward to sharing that journey and its results with everyone.

 

 

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Unpub 7 Wrapup

I liked it so much I put my name on it

Last year, Unpub really took a toll on me as a designer. I didn’t feel like I rpepared well or made good use of my time. So this year, I did a lot more work to make sure I came home happy with myself. And I think that because of that, Unpub 7 was my most successful year so far.

First, let me look at my lessons from last year and see how I handled them.

Saturday is for heavier games: I focused on Iceburgh, trying to wrap it up before sending it in for judging for the Cardboard Edison award. I got playtests with several different people at several different player counts. I learned a lot about how I need to teach it (which also translated to rulebook improvements). I also found several changes I needed for balance, especially the 5-player game which is harder for me to test. Sunday, I was planning to do ’52 Pickup, which should be smaller and lighter, but because I had a lot of people to talk to and didn’t have a table until the afternoon, I didn’t get much time to test it. But the plan was good.

Table Presence. *Drops mic softly on neoprene*

Table Presence: I took my neoprene table mat, which probably got as much interest as my games. But it drew attention because it looked really nice. But more importantly, I got some Ice Cube tokens in just in time to use for Iceburgh. They were perfect, and so cool looking. I think they really took the game to the next level.

Bring something new: Check and Check. Not only were both my games on the table new, Iceburgh had more interest thanks to Cardboard Edison. But I also found time on Friday to try out a few brand new games, which both worked really well. Even though I had some older designs with me, I didn’t really get them out.

I was prepared to talk to publishers, and was able to sit down with a few to talk about everything I had going on. I’m glad I had some backup games, because I was able to pull one out after a short pitch, and that turned into a full playtest. That’s an opportunity that wouldn’t have happened without preparation.

Now for some of my highlights from Unpub.Obviously number 1 is getting to see all of my friends that I only get to see, and meeting new friends who I only interact with online. It never fails to amaze me how friendly and close the boardgame community is.

I tested a few brand new games at Unpub, and really enraged my friend, designer Joshua J Mills, when it worked first time it hit the table. [Note that worked doesn’t mean it is good or done, but it’s a good first step.] 

Barons of the Old West. Version 18 or so.

Over the weekend Dan Cassar was testing a design we are working on together, called Barons of the Old West. I don’t even know if I can call it a codesign at this point, because every time I walked over, he had made so much more progress. I’m more of a contributor at this point. But I played it once at the end of Sunday, and the simple idea we started with had become a really substantial heavier game.

I also got to play a card game codesigned with TC Petty III. I hadn’t played the latest build, and I was really happy with the whole game experience. It’s a card game with a fairly unique scoring mechanism. The theme has been light, and we’re still trying to make that shine. I think it’s mechanically almost complete, so now is sort of the fun part.

Was this a Dare, or a Dare? Late night shenanigans.

Dare or Dare Legacy made a return, too. We hashed out rules from last year and built on last year’s game (destroying some of last year’s cards, and creating new ones we won’t see until next year.) It’s the sort of game you can really only play once or twice a year. But I expect it to keep traveling with me.

We ended up closing out the hall on sunday night after a successful last playtest.  All in all, I played 8 different games that I’ve been working on, including those two codesigns. (9 if you count Dare or Dare). I got to show off a lot of things I’ve been working on to a lot of people. Keep an eye open for more news coming soon.

Closing down the hall

The four warriors leave triumphant. And Tired

In other news…

In a little over a week, I’m giving a talk about game design at Bethany College, titled Overthinking Game Design, continuing the series of game design seminars. A list of previous presenters is available on BoardGameGeek. I still have to finish my notes, but I’ll be sharing how my experience as an engineer filters over to game design. I’m sure I’ll have something insightful to say, because I still have a week to figure out what it is. The talk will be available online at a later date, but if you’re brave and in the area, stop by!

 

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