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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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Questions to Ask Before Making a Game

Deus Ex is right at the top of my greatest games of all time list. It’s a crowning achievement in game design that I still use as s point of reference for other games. A recent article on Gamasutra covers some remarks that the designer of Deus Ex, Warren Spector gave at GDC earlier this year, looking back at Deus Ex after 17 years.

The article includes a list of questions that he always asks before making a game. It really leapt out at me because I’ve been struggling to figure out what games I want to make recently, and these were some of the same questions I was asking myself about my games. So I wanted to look at the list of questions in detail to figure out whether I was making the games I really wanted to make.

First, there are 6 questions about the game you’re making.

  • What’s the core idea? Can you describe the core of the game in 2-3 sentences?

A straightforward, but deceptively difficult question to answer, because you need to narrow your focus to give the game shape. You can fill in details as you go, but it’s really important to have that structure to build the entire game around.

  • Why do this game?

“Because I can make it” isn’t good enough. I’ve made plenty of games because I was capable of it. Every single one was bad. “Because I can get it published” is almost the same thing, but even worse because it’s usually wrong, too. Find the reasons you’re excited to make the game, in order to be motivated to make it great. As a bonus, those will usually translate directly to the reasons someone is excited to play the game.

  • What are the development challenges?

This is probably less of an issue because boardgame design is so rarely held to a release schedule or budget, but it is still an important part of the development process. From the very start, you should figure out what is going to be hard. It could be on the design side, such as scaling, balance, or manufacturing, or it could be on the play side, such as down time, or ease of learning. Know these things early and you can design around them without getting stuck.

  • How well-suited to games is the idea?

This looks liks a sort of pointless question, because your idea for a game is sort of by definition suited to games. But the subtle issue it raises is whether it is something that ought to be represented in the form of a game. Boardgames, even more than video games, still carry the connotation of being an object of “play”, and not every subject matter can be carried as well. Some ideas would also benefit from elements that are infeasible in cardboard, leaving you stuck with a hobbled implementation or an overcomplex mess.

  • What’s the player fantasy? (If the fantasy and goals aren’t there, it’s probably a bad idea)

This is something I’m trying to consider more often, because it a applies at two different levels. On the first level, it asks about the role the player takes on internal to the game. That tells you something about what players will want to accomplish in the game. And on the second level, it asks about player goals. What do players want to get out of the experience of play? Spending half an hour chatting and laughing with friends can be that “fantasy” the player wants just as much as leading a civilization through history, running a 17th century farm, or defeating an army of monsters to claim some loot.

  • What does the player do? (What are the “verbs” of the game?)

I have always loved the idea of games as a collection of verbs. It can be very challenging to translate a lot of ideas about a player’s experience in the game to paper. But the verbs you choose give you a more direct route for defining that experience. They act as building blocks that give you a framework for how players interact with the game.

Then there are two more questions about the game as a product.

  • Has anyone done this before?

This requires both honesty and research. You can’t know about every single game ever created, but there are resources, especially BoardGameGeek, that make this easier. And it’s just generally a good idea to go out and play a variety of games that might do similar things, to learn about how they work and make your game better.  It’s tempting to think that your idea is original and to lie to yourself to preserve that feeling, especially if you’ve already put in a lot of work. But to do so is to waste time that you could be using to do something new.

  • What’s the one new thing? (“You can always find one thing that hasn’t been done before [in games], even if you’re making a My Little Pony game.”)

And it’s not enough to just not be duplicating something. Different is good. New is better. Seek out those new twists and original ideas that make your game stand out. Yes, it’s a marketing tool and a way to make sure it’s different, and a reason to make the game. But it’s also a part of what makes being a designer fun, creating something entirely new. It is the spark of life that keeps games moving forward.

And finally, there is an existential question.

  • Do you have something to say? (“In Deus Ex I wanted to explore all sorts of big issues,” said Spector. “And I wanted players to explore those things in ways that only games could do.”)

Of all of these questions, this is the hardest, because everything else is sort of tangled up in this one issue. At the risk of sounding cheesy, you bring a unique perspective to the world. Games are a way to share that perspective. It doesn’t always have to be some profound statement, or something you can make into a slogan. But remember that as a form of art, games inherently carry a message, so pay attention to what you want to say and what the game is actually saying. I know that my own games are better when I knowing what I want to say.

As I organize my designs, now, the answers to a lot of these questions are already part of the data I’m entering from the start. I think they really help define what you want from your design. I always want players to have meaningful choices in a game, and it’s probably no coincidence that that was one of the main goals for  Deus Ex. I played it at a very formative time in my life, and it has no doubt shaped my game design choices since then. I think it’s a real testament to Deus Ex that the design lessons remain so universally relevant.

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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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One Card Wonder and Sale on New Bedford

It’s been a while since I checked in, but I am pleased to finally announce that One Card Wonder will be coming next year from APE Games! This has been in the making for a while, and after a great development run, it is finally official. You can learn a little more about it on the APE Games website. I am looking forward to writing about the design and development process.

And if you follow me, you might already New Bedford, but if you want to pick up a copy, Greater than Games is running a month of deals throughout December, starting with New Bedford.

There hasn’t been much to report since September. I’ve barely played a published game in that time, but I’ve had a few great opportunities for playtesting, including Metatopia in November. I’ve been chasing around 3 or 4 designs in various levels of completion, and all this playtesting is showing me that most of the designs are still far from ready. The bad news is that it means I’ve got a lot of work ahead. But the good thing is that it looks like I’ll have a number of great designs getting close to completion next year.

I hope everyone has great end of the year holidays, and I’ll hopefully be back with more news soon!

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Literary Game Design 1: Games as Stories

I’ve always wanted to talk about the relationship between games and literature, an idea that will probably make all but the geekiest of game design nerds roll their eyes. But for those of you who haven’t left yet, literature provides a great lens through which to examine game design. Each game played is like its own story, that the designer and players craft together. And if I learned anything from high school English class, there are five basic elements of any story: character, setting, conflict, plot, and theme. And if a game tells a story, these elements must be present as well.  But there are sometimes two different levels of story. The first is the story being told within the game. And the second is the story being told about the game. This second level is the one I’m interested in examining. Read the rest of this entry »

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