Archive for category Iceburgh

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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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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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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Unpub 7 and Cardboard Edison

Unpub 7 is a little over a week away (!!!!!) and I’m busy making final preparations. I’m trying to pack more efficiently than last year, especially since I won’t be around Thursday night, so I’m bringing only the games I know I’ll need to/get to play. That’s still a lot. Fortunately most of the games I’m bringing are pretty small.

And, I’m happy to announce that One of the games I’m bringing to Unpub, Iceburgh, has been named a finalist for the 2017 Cardboard Edison Award. It’s a real honor because there are some very talented designers and really good looking games in the running. Final submissions for these games are due right after Unpub, so I will be polishing up rules and final gameplay tweaks to make sure the game is where I want it to be.

There’s a short video explaining Iceburgh on the Cardboard Edison Award page. I’ll have an upgraded prototype ready to go, so if you want to play at Unpub, it will look a little fancier than what you see in the video.

You can also take a look at the table signs/Sell sheets I’ve been working on for Unpub to learn more about the games I’m bringing.

 

I’ll have about a dozen different games with me at Unpub for testing and showing off, including those, so remember to catch me in open gaming and ask what else I’ve got! You can also find me at Table M2 on the first half of Saturday and Sunday Afternoon!

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New Year New Games New Plans

It’s been quite a while, but I’m finally back with some updates! I’ve been quite busy with the birth of my first child at the start of the year, but I’m finally getting into a routine again. Here’s what happened in the meantime:

Time Management: The Time Management Game arrived with backers and is now available in stores. This makes it my third officially published game. It’s come a long way! On the left, a very early prototype, back when it was called Human Resources. In the middle, the version I submitted to the publisher. And on the right, the final version.

humanresources_earlyproto 20170212_123740.jpg 20170212_123817.jpg

truckNew Bedford tile reprints have finally shipped out. So if you haven’t gotten yours, or you bought the game in retail, you can email contact@greaterthangames.com to get your replacement tiles.

I’ve been preparing for Unpub 7 in March. I only have a Tag Table this year, but I’ll be showing two new prototypes. These are both quick family friendly games that I’m looking to really tighten up:

  • ’52 Pickup, where players take turns collecting car parts from the junkyard in order to repair their ’52 Pickup.
  • Iceburgh. A workerless worker placement game about a town built on sliding blocks of ice

iceburghtitleAnd I’ll be working with the fabulous TC Petty III to show off a card game we’re codesigning, codename DECIMATE. It is a game about reality cooking competitions, and while it looks like a trick taking game, it doesn’t play like one.

I’ll also have several additional experimental prototypes that I might get to.

  • New Bedford expansion prototypes. A lot of different things from more buildings, to mini expansions, to big box expansions that extends the game and adds whole new routes to victory.
  • New Bedford Card Game spin-off. This is still very preliminary will still be early in testing, but it aims to hit a lighter mid-weight 30 minute mark.
  • Titusville: A big box game of Trains, Oil, Industry, and Pennsylvania History.
  • My movie game, previously Now Playing, previously Role Selection. The game is nearly in its complete form, but I still need to find the right title.
  • Rolling Through Town, a city-building roll-and-write game I’ve been working on that uses a shared board instead of individual sheets. Grab a copy!
  • Nano games for Buttonshy. I’ll be contributing some Nano games to the Boardgame of the Month and Wallet Games Kickstarter campaigns. Come check out a hint of what’s ahead.

Speaking of Buttonshy, my first “Nanodaption” was Pont d’Avignon, based on Avignon: a Clash of Popes. It was available as an addon for the January campaign for Avignon: Pilgrimage. I was really happy with the amount of theme that I was able to fit into this game, even though it’s only one card.

2015-16 was the year of small games for me. But 2017 will hopefully be the year of big games. I have at least 4 bigger games I want to get through, including Titusville and a reworked Terracotta Warriors (one of my early design attempts), and a few new ones, plus a couple of codesigns. I’m looking forward to a productive year.

Last but not least, I’ll be giving a talk at Bethany College this April about game design. I haven’t finalized the talk, but I will be focusing on the connections between my job as an eand my hobby as a board game designer. I’ll have more information for that soon!

 

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Learning New Ways to Fail

Finalists for the Buttonshy wallet game contest were announced a few weeks ago. My submission, Space Race: 1969 was not selected. The judges were crazy kind enough to assemble and deliver scores and feedback for the non-finalists.  It’s incredibly valuable just to get any feedback, and I’m going to learn a lot from this submission. The good news is that the feedback is basically what I expected. But the bad news is that the feedback is basically what I should have expected.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Give Up on Your Games

One useful piece of advice I’ve learned as a designer is “give up on your games”. No, I’m not overcome by a wave of ennui for game design. But it’s time for spring cleaning, which means getting rid of some game ideas that are holding me back. Letting go of a design is a hard thing for a designer to do, but holding on to a design long after it is viable can waste your time, energy, and passion. After some recent playtests and design sessions, there are a few games that I’m no longer going to work on. I hope that by sharing my reasons behind these decisions, other designers will find reasons to leave their old ideas behind and make way for some new ones. Read the rest of this entry »

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