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Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, and Me: Part 1

I haven’t been writing very much in the last few months. Part of that is due to my putting time into preparing for and recovering after Unpub6, finalizing New Bedford for printing, and preparing some games for design contests. But another part is that I’ve been putting a lot of time into playing Stardew Valley, the recent smash hit indie video game about farming. There’s something about farming that really speaks to me as a game player and a game designer, and it’s probably safe to say that I wouldn’t be where I am without farming games.

My history with farming games goes back to Harvest Moon on the Super Nintendo. I don’t remember reading about it in Nintendo Power, but I enjoyed gardening with my grandfather and gave it a try. It was a completely new experience to me, and it was remarkably fun to simulate chores. The game was a constant balance between how to use your limited time, energy, and money, that somehow captured the feeling of country life. You want to keep playing because you see things change every day. It compresses the hope, excitement, and best aspects of changing seasons into an accessible package.

Looking back, the game was remarkably simple. For two of four seasons, there wasn’t a single crop to plant or harvest. Inventory management was severely limited. There was little customization, and barely any story. But maybe the biggest flaw was that time doesn’t pass after about 8 at night. You could repeatedly restore your energy at the hot spring, clear your entire farm on the first night. But the game still worked.

Harvest Moon 64 basically fixed all of those problems. [In my experience, the prevailing opinion is that HM64 was the pinnacle of the series.] I know consider it the It kept the formula that worked so well. But now you had an actual inventory (albeit a clunky one), there were more crops, more things to do, and lots of little secrets to discover. The townsfolk had their own troubles and lives, and your relationships with them invisibly influenced events, and  if you just focused on your farm, you might not even notice some of them. People would seem to arrive and depart randomly.

The next several iterations veered more towards being life simulator. A Wonderful Life focused more on building relationships and growing your family over time. Farming was a very limited aspect, and the game didn’t grab me (although the weather and seasonal transitions were amazing). Magical Melody turned the customization up to 11, and added people arriving or leaving based on what you shipped, with an “achievement” system to guide players with objectives while keeping a lot of the basic mechanics.

I skipped a number of the intermediate games because of lack of time and interest and poor reviews. But the latest games have really tried to be life simulators than farming games. Animal Parade had a lot of promise, but everything was locked behind friendship and scripted events, making it too mechanical. The 3DS games have have fallen victim to Minecraft, with a huge “crafting” system required to do anything. The last Harvest Moon title (Lost Valley) borrows very heavily from Minecraft. And the series has fractured with the developers now publishing under the Story of Seasons brand. Story of Seasons, like A New Beginning fail in playability. You constantly run out of energy too quickly, leaving you with nothing to do but forage for items, which you have to keep all of because you need everything for crafting.

The fracture in the series is symbolic of the fracture taking place within the game. Each one adds on more and more things that you have to do to play the game “right”. You can’t just own cows, you have to take them out to feed in the special place or they’ll never grow. You can’t just plant crops and harvest them, you need to unlock farming areas and compete for them. Mining is a wholly random process. As a result, the games seem disjointed into several game-like activities revolving around farming, without any of the joy of the original Harvest Moon games. The real goal seems to be forcing the player into specific curated events to tell a story, rather than letting the player create the story themselves, which is something I identify as the core of the Harvest Moon experience.

The original Harvest Moon took chores and made them fun. The recent games some how manage to take fun and make it a chore. The work itself used to be interesting. Now, I have to work as a player in order to do anything interesting. Farmville (and mobile gaming in general) has poisoned the whole concept, where the “game” is about filling your time between things happening. I’m still drawn to farming, but I want something that follows the original formula without all the extra baggage that the series has collected.

Enter: Stardew Valley.

Part 2


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Design Philosophy

Three plus years into designing games, I’m starting to really find my own identity as a designer, and I’m ready to set out my design philosophy. I was initially inspired by a few posts last year by Grant Rodiek and Gil Hova, but I never quite completed writing my manifesto. I think I’m ready to try. Read the rest of this entry »

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Unpub 6 Wrapup

I’ve recovered from my trip to UNPUB 6, so it’s time to look back, talk about the fun I had, and the lessons I learned.

We got in Thursday afternoon. After a big dinner and relaxing, we went to the hotel bar, where I taught some Oh My Goods, a published by Alexander Pfister, one of my current favorite games. By the time we finished, the baseball game let out, and a big group joined us. It was mostly talking and catching up.

One Card Wonder at UNPUB 6

One Card Wonder at UNPUB 6

Friday started with the designer breakfast and panels. We decided to play some games instead, so we left the main hall and sat down to play the postcard game I’ve been working on for the Board Game of the Month Club from Buttonshy. After the first game, we stripped out a lot of the extra complications and made it much more streamlined.  I think we might keep the extra rules and only make them available online as the expert version. Sort of a director’s cut. Next I played the prototype Five Elements by Mark McGee. I missed a key rule, and once I figured it out halfway through the game. I really enjoyed it. It’s got a neat hand-management and slightly spatial element. It was late, after running out for lunch, we sat down, and I taught a quick game of Dead Man’s Chest, a bluffing game from Eagle-Gryphon. We also collected some prototype parts that didn’t arrive until after check in. We had the option of Trucks or Dudes. #TeamTruck.

I got a few minutes to try out an 18-card hand/deck building game I’m working on late in the afternoon. It kind of fell apart, so I need to figure out if it’s fixable or not. After an amazing dinner, we returned to the hall. I mostly chatted with a few other people, but got to play another postcard game prototype from Doug Levandowski. I’m pretty sure you haven’t played a game like this, so it’s fun to see postcard games pushing boundaries. We returned to the hotel a little after midnight. I got one more game in, Unpub the UnPublished Card Game (so I guess it was Doug Levandowski night).

I was splitting my table with Dan Cassar for the weekend, and I started off with a 2 1/2 hour shift Saturday morning. As usual, it was a little slow at first, but it started to pick up between 11 and 11:30. I got two games of One Card Wonder in before we swapped. I ran into friends during the off shift, and we sat down for a light lunch. But honestly, I didn’t accomplish much in the meantime. Mostly, I walked around and looked at what else was popular. I started my next shift at 3. Although the floor was busy, it felt a little slow to me. I only got 3 games of One Card Wonder in in the second shift. I think there were a few contributors to that. First, OCW was running a little long (45 minutes with rules and discussion), so I got fewer games than I expected. Also, it seemed that there were more longer games this year, so there weren’t as many people looking for games after I finish a half hour game. And swapping out makes you lose your momentum with playtesters. Both times I swapped out, I had to leave people who would have played. If you keep playing the same game, people will tend to gather, and they’ll be able to find you. And of course, One Card Wonder wasn’t as flashy or well known as New Bedford was last year, so it doesn’t immediately grab you when you see it. That’s something I definitely plan to work on for next year.

Dare or Dare: Legacy

Dare or Dare: Legacy

I made my game trades Saturday evening. I took a big bag of games and came home with an even bigger bag of games. I’m not wild about every single game (some were part of a package), but I’m overall really happy with my haul. In the evening, I got to sit and play Daniel Newman’s Station. It plays mostly like a worker placement game, although the economic balance made it play a bit differently. I think some minor tweaks to the action rewards will tighten it up. After a delicious dinner at Nando’s Puri Puri and some excellent conversation, we returned to the hall. I watched friends play a quick game of Dancing Eggs. When that was over, we wanted something loud and goofy, but didn’t have anything with us, so we made something up. Dare or Dare: Legacy. The main gist is that everyone gets some blank cards and writes down a dare (anything you’d be comfortable asking your child to do as a boundary). Then everyone gets one card at a time and either does the dare, or bluffs and makes up their own dare. (Hence Dare or Dare.) Everyone else has to guess whether they were bluffing or not. We gave out star stickers for performance, but we decided it should be more of a group judging thing. Depending on the results of the bluff and whether you get called or not, you gain a couple of points. There’s no real score or objective besides having fun, which it did extremely well. Next big convention, I’ll pull it out again, we’ll rip up a few cards and make a few new ones. Hence the Legacy aspect.

Sunday was a little more hectic, trying to pack up and leave. Since Dan was leaving early, I let him take the whole morning shift. He had a very successful weekend with at least 40 tests by my count, and he handed out about 10 playtest kit. In the afternoon, I got 3 more tests of One Card Wonder in. The latest round of mechanic changes seems to be very positive, and accomplished everything I hoped. I just need to re-balance the new parts now, but it’s a much stronger game, so I’m looking forward to wrapping that up.

Overall, I spent a lot less time playing games than I expected to. Last year was too much, this year swung the other direction, so I’m hoping to find the right balance next year. I think one challenge may have been the timing of my shifts. First thing in the morning is always slow. And it seems like mid afternoon is a good time for people to go get lunch after they’ve been playing games all morning. Sunday is always slower, but it also starts to really slow after 3, as people pack up and leave. I think there’s still a challenge there to balance the table schedules across Unpub. One thing I’m really disappointed in is that I didn’t play any Role Selection. I made some improvements since the Meta game contest, and really wanted to see how they pull the game together. There’s always the next event, and hopefully I can put One Card Wonder to bed now.

Finally, here are my main takeaways from this year’s UNPUB.

  • Chap Stick. I’ve talked about water and drinks before, but one thing I’m now noticing is that even when I drink enough, I’m talking all day, and my lips get chapped. It’s a problem that is easy and cheap to solve.
  • Saturday is for heavier games, Sunday is for shorter games. From my unscientific survey, everyone (both designers and players) was pretty exhausted by Sunday. So get those heavier games out Saturday when people are fresher. Pick something shorter and lighter for Sunday. People will be more likely to jump into something that doesn’t require as much energy. And, it makes it easier because people leave on Sunday, if you have that one last game they can play for 20 minutes.
  • Table presence is so important. There are lots of games in various stages of completion, and Table Presence can mean different things to different games. Size, color, artwork, polish of components goes a long way. But it goes beyond that, too. A tablecloth can make your game look even nicer. have good signage, including Sell Sheets, previous games (if you have them) to attract attention.
  • Bring something new. Yes, sometimes you have that game you’ve been working on for a long time, and you really just need to put in front of a bunch of people and see a lot of playtests. But a lot of people (especially the other designers) go to these events again and again, and if you show the same game, you’re competing with lots of new things.
  • And as a corollary, bring something to talk to publishers about. UNPUB isn’t really a pitching event, but if you have a chance, take it. If nothing else, you build your relationship with them, and that’s great professional development.
  • Know *specifically* what you’re looking for. Players asked me what kind of feedback I wanted, and I didn’t have a good answer. I’m working on balance, but I didn’t think about how exactly to find out about balance.
  • Talk to people. Walk around. Be your own advocate. I’ve got a, shall we say, “subtle” style. Don’t be subtle. People want to play games. Like pizza toppings or ice cream, people don’t want to make the decision. So if you go up and talk to people, that gives them a reason to say yes.
What happens at UNPUB is usually posted on Twitter

What happens at UNPUB is usually posted on Twitter

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Rules for non-readers

I’ve been writing a lot of rule books lately—polishing up the rules for New Bedford, writing and updating rules for submissions to the Greater than Games Metagame contest—and I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about rulebooks. Back in June of last year, Foxtrot Games talked about the challenges of writing rulebooks. This is a perfect reminder of why it’s so hard to write rules. You can’t just write rules for people who read them. You also have to write rules for people who don’t read them. I’ve also been teaching some new games lately, and so I am forced to admit that I rarely teach a new game without missing at least one important rule, so I must include myself in the latter group. Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s just a game

Something new happened to me over the holidays. I got my first hate mail about New Bedford.

Sure, there had been plenty of discussion of the game and criticism of the choice in theme, but until now it had all been directed at the game. This was a direct message to me, telling me to be ashamed for my creation. I knew I needed to write about why this person was completely wrong.  But this post isn’t about someone else, it’s about me and my relationship with boardgames. Read the rest of this entry »



Lessons Learned from the New Bedford Relaunch

What a wild ride. Thanks to over 2000 backers, New Bedford‘s second campaign earned over $100, 000, making it the third most successful Dice Hate Me Games Kickstarter, behind Compounded and its expansion. Admittedly, the campaign was a bit of a Nantucket sleigh ride, where we grabbed on at the beginning and just tried to hold on for the rest of the campaign. There were a few course corrections mid-campaign, but in the end, I’m really proud of the product we will be able to bring to the backers.

I sat down earlier this week to talk to Isaac and Stephanie on the On Board Games Crowdfunding Edition, and we talked about what it was like to relaunch and what made the campaign different. That episode should be available this weekend, here. But I wanted to spend some more time going through the details of what we learned from this second time around. In no particular order:

  • Nobody knows nothing about nothing. After the first attempt, we didn’t know what to expect. We still thought there was a lot of support and that the changes would help it to fund. We were taken by surprised when we woke up to discover it had funded in less than 24 hours.
  • Don’t rely on one silver bullet to make your project successful. Because we made so many small changes, that also means that we don’t know exactly what made it work and what didn’t. But it’s important that whether it’s your first time or your 10th time, you can’t count on any single thing to get people on board. Don’t overlook any avenue that can encourage backers to support you.
  • Simplify Shipping. Last time, there were three pledge levels, depending on shipping, but Kickstarter added the ability to calculate shipping separately since the first campaign. This means we could set the base price to the retail cost (actually a little better). Hitting that $29 price point is big, and even with $9 US shipping, it’s less than the first campaign’s price.
  • No really, Simplify shipping. Shipping a single copy internationally is very expensive. But shipping costs on the New Bedford campaign were fixed no matter how many copies you pledged for. This means domestic shipping, too. There were still several comments asking to reduce the international shipping, but there was also a lot of interest in international group buys. This will be a bit of an experiment, so we’ll see how it works. I’m curious to see how many backers ordered multiple copies.
  • Art is what people see. People want to see what they get. And the art for the relaunch is so striking. The artist, Nolan Nasser, really did a great job making it stand apart from your typical bland euro, while still capturing that feel. With the art in place, we got a much bigger reaction from the community.
  • Feedback is Engagement. When we posted an early version of the cover art, some comments made us go back and reconsider the cover. We made some changes based on feedback and got an explosion of support for the updated art, sitting on top of the BGG image hotlist for a week. And we continued to listen to backers art as we go through the campaign. Many said the town board was too bland, and we added more detail to make it really outstanding. Like any feedback, you have to choose what to use, but by showing backers we were listening, they were more invested in continuing to support the project.
  • People Love Custom. This wasn’t something I didn’t know before, but the level of enthusiasm for the custom resource tokens was more than expected. Sadly, it means that the mnemonic of disks=$1 and cubes =$2 is lost, but that’s a small price to pay for awesome pieces. However, this goes both ways, because there’s also a lot of enthusiasm behind custom whaleeples (whale shaped wooden tokens instead of the cardboard bits). This was something we encountered on the first campaign, and it just doesn’t work with the design. But I don’t think anybody is dropping their pledge or refusing to back over it, either.
  • Player Count Counts. For one thing, people will ask how your game scales. Lots of people play primarily with 2, and it was important that those people knew that the two player game wasn’t a hack or tacked on; it was part of the design from the start. For another, between the first and second campaigns, I really took note of how important player count is to a Kickstarter campaign. I read about a poll that showed that something like 50% of players cite the inclusion of a 5th player or solo game as the most important factor in picking a game. Not every game can support that, but it’s worth considering. I’ll share more about how the fifth player and solo games came about in a segment of Notes from New Bedford.
  • You don’t create buzz. At least, not directly. Before the first launch, we were hitting a bunch of podcasts to spread the word, and I was doing several interviews on other designers’ blogs. I was worried we had used up all of that energy or good will, since we couldn’t do it all again. But it didn’t seem hurt the second campaign any more than it helped the first campaign. This is a bit of a surprise, since I frequently hear other designers doing the same thing on multiple podcasts ahead of a launch. I don’t know exactly what this all means, but I suspect the lesson is that a media blitz needs time to develop into a buzz. From small ripples, mighty waves grow.
  • Prepare for more than your Expectations. We had updates ready for all the listed stretch goals to 2x funding. By the time we realized we were going to hit the last stretch goal during GenCon, we were already in the middle of preparing (which was a lot more work for GTG than I realized), and it was too late. We appeared to go silent after hitting the last listed stretch goal, but there just wasn’t time at GenCon to plan for new goals. I’m sure we probably lost a few backers who were expecting updates, and we might have lost a little momentum, so it’s important to have that stuff in place, just in case.
  • Make component quality clear. DHMG always goes straight to the thick cardboard and premium component quality. Never any “upgraded card stock” stretch goals. That wasn’t clear on the page, and a lot of comments were asking for increases in quality. So if you’re already at premium component quality, make it clear.
  • People Don’t Read Updates. Even people who are enthusiastic about your project like to “Set it and Forget It” after backing. We added Nantucket as an add-on around 60k, but even many friends didn’t realize it until we mentioned it. So if it’s not automatically included in stretch goals or pledge levels from the beginning, people might miss it. We ended up talking about it in three separate updates, and there were still people who discovered they missed it after the campaign ended. Fortunately, it looks like those backers will be able to get copies, too.
  • Know when Enough is Enough. Our last stretch goal was at $80k. There were a few ideas that we could have added, but we had already made the game everything we wanted it to be. A big part of the DHMG philosophy is that you increase value by making the best game possible, not by just filling a box with stuff.

This campaign was bigger than I had expected, but was what we thought New Bedford deserved after the first campaign. I don’t think you can ever do everything perfectly, but our experience relaunching helped us get a lot right. So here’s a big THANK YOU to all of the backers, the GTG team, everyone who stopped by at GenCon, and really everyone who helped make this one of the most successful Dice Hate Me Games projects. This literally could not have happened without all of your help. My final piece of advice comes by way of Mark Twain:

“So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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The Role of a Designer

Today I read an article about a game announced at E3, the annual mega convention for video games. And it made me realize how little people consider the role of the designer in developing a game. A commenter complained about the decision not to add guns into the game. When someone made the good point that adding guns meant you needed to design the game for them, someone simply replied that you didn’t.

Now, I understand where this last commenter was coming from. Adding guns doesn’t mean you have to create an entire game where using guns is the point. But this completely misunderstands the role of a designer in the game. The designer isn’t just deciding what players should be able to do. It is making sure that when the player wants to do something, the game can handle it. (And conversely, if the game can’t handle it, then make sure the player doesn’t do it.) The designer’s role is much more than simply choosing how a player will shoot.

On the surface, many of the decisions may seem simple. Are there different guns? Do they need different ammunition? How does the player acquire a gun or ammunition? To a player the answers to these questions seem very natural, if a designer has done his or her job. But in this situation, there is so much more than just choosing to include guns. There are deeper consequences. How would guns change existing portions compared to the default? If it makes them too easy, everyone will go for the gun, except for some percentage of people who want to make it harder. So a big portion of people miss out on an experience. That also influences the rest of the game. Why should players ever avoid guns if they’re going to wish they hadn’t for a certain level. It breaks continuity of experience.

On the other hand, players who choose the gun route will almost certainly encounter portions that must be played in the default mode. Even if we are content as designers to force the experience towards the default, players are still going to complain that the game took away options. [See the original boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.] And even without adding content specifically intended to make use of the guns, the designer also has to decide how the game will react to guns. Perhaps we can assume that enemies already have guns in the game, so there isn’t additional work to give guns to enemies. Even so, AI has to be changed to understand a possible player with a gun. That introduces an entirely new set of questions. Do enemies take cover? Do they react differently if the player has a gun? Do they assume the player has a gun, or wait to be shot at? If enemies aren’t expecting them, the game will play like the scene from Indiana Jones. Funny when you aren’t expecting it, but not when it happens over and over again.

Again, if the designer does his or her job, all of these decisions will be invisible to the player. Because the designer’s role is shaping the entire experience, not just adding things to the game. In fact, sometimes choosing what to leave out is sometimes an even more important part of the job.

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