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Unpub 8 Preview

Unpub 8 is just a week away, so I guess I better figure out what I’m taking. I have a table for Friday night and Saturday morning. Since there is a completely new schedule this year, I’m interested to see how the time slots compare. I’m guessing Friday tests will be more designer heavy while Saturday will be more casual, so I’m trying to plan for that in the designs I’m taking with me. Read the rest of this entry »


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Avoiding the Sophomore Slump

A problem I’ve been concerned a lot with over the past year is avoiding a Sophomore Slump. New Bedford was my first game and a big success, and I was worried about being able to produce a second game that was just as successful and popular. There’s danger from both sides with that attitude. If I make a second game and it’s not as good, I’ve hit the slump. If I keep rejecting games waiting for that next great one, I also hit the slump. But now that I’ve officially got my second game announced, I have figured out what designers can do to avoid a sophomore slump. Read the rest of this entry »

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Variability in Isle of Skye

I had a brief discussion on Twitter the other day about whether the new game Isle of Sky is truly “variable”. [You can read my review of it.] Seth Jaffee talked about it back in November, and took the position that the variability was “fake” because it only changes the value of the tiles, not how players choose tiles and use them. After realizing I couldn’t properly express my thoughts 144 characters at a time, I wrote a defense of why Isle of Skye does include real variability, in the sense that they do more than change the value of the tiles.

I think Seth and I agree that Isle of Sky is a market valuation game first and a tile laying game second. So the value of any tile depends on how many icons are on it, what each icon is worth for scoring. Then you have to factor in how much money you have, and how much other players are willing to pay for it.

But there’s an extra piece, which is how well it fits in your region. And importantly, that is more than just the tile-laying. Each tile is a different scoring scheme. Some reward set collection, some reward network building, some reward careful terrain placement and closing regions. No two are simply functionally identical with different icons.

So when you consider the value and the placement, you have to consider how the scoring interacts, and include the income and scrolls. Route-building goals suggest more sprawling boards in favor of connectivity. But the postage stamp goal suggests a compact board. And the order makes a difference because it’s harder to re-connect a road in later rounds. Scoring most boats doesn’t care about water area size, but largest water does. Largest water also cares about closing the area while boat plus lighthouse doesn’t.

Because the scoring overlaps, the mechanisms can be in cooperation or in competition, or some mix. So from game to game, you’re doing more than just calculating the value based on arbitrary rules. You’re trying to take advantage of the rule interaction to determine what strategy to take. In all my games so far, the winner hasn’t simply been the player who prices best, it’s the player who correctly chooses what goals to focus on and when.

To look at it from a different angle, I think it would quickly become stale if you just used the same 4 tiles and only varied their order. You would be able to match up the same features again and again. With the different scoring mechanisms, you can’t rely on forming the same combinations in every game. The variability doesn’t depend on that newness, but the random draw and mixing and matching do at least make it more replayable because they make it harder and take longer to establish good rules for valuation.

Because the pricing aspect is so central to IoS, it’s easy to see it as simply variations on “value your tiles correctly”. But I think that glosses over a lot of the nuance of how you determine value from complexly interacting scoring systems, which for me is where the richness of the game lies.


Jurassic World: Everything Goes Wrong, Plus Dinosaurs

Jurassic World is its own metaphor. It is bigger, more dangerous, and simultaneously more bland and disappointing than the original movie. It is the story of a monumental achievement brought back to life struggling under the weight of corporate influence. It is still a thoroughly enjoyable big-budget summer escape, but it falls well short of what its original creator dreamed of. Welcome to Jurassic World, spoilers to follow. Read the rest of this entry »

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Plans for 10 Acres

It has been a crazy week here, having some house problems and losing power for a few days. But it’s time to move on with my plans for 2014. I’ll start with 10 Acres.

I only had two real plays of 10 acres at Unpub 4. But that was enough to show me that there is still something missing. Josh Tempkin graciously listened to my explanation of the mechanic and immediately quipped “I didn’t hear a game in there.” Right now, the “game” only consists of a neat mechanic and a conceptual theme. It’s not even an incredibly elegant mechanic.

I got some help from Eric Handler, playtester extraordinaire, to improve the actual tracking of growth, to make it less fiddly. Using each hex as a “clock face” to tell the current number of resources looks more workable.

The deeper problem is a need to increase interaction. Since the game is taking longer than expected, maybe I can just make it 20 acres, going to a shared board with 20 spaces. Competing to harvest the same space definitely would increase interaction, but that might limit the game to 2 players again. And some of the feedback I got from my quick pitch with Game Salute was to make a bigger deal out of the player boards, and give each one a unique feature or power, instead of just a different arrangement. That appeals to me as a designer and a player.

I also got some feedback that the simple farming game genre is a bit over-done. While I initially conceived the mechanic as a representation of farming, there are some other directions to go. A farming/adventure hybrid, a la Rune Factory was suggested. A new theme is something I definitely have to consider.

So I’m back to interaction in how resources are obtained and used. The action selection mechanic didn’t really work out sensibly. And the way resources are introduced, the 3rd player in a 3-player game really seemed to get the short end of the stick, when it came to numbers, so I’m back to the drawing board. I see two possible approaches. both involve bringing cards back into the game. The first is to have a common draw and discard pile, and play sets of matching cards to plant and harvest. This has a neat side effect that whenever you play a card to plant it, it becomes available for the next person to pick up and harvest. I’m not sure this is strong enough without direct interaction between farms. The second option is to return to a simultaneous drafting mechanism, but starting from a full set of cards, instead of just 2 at a time. This probably makes more sense with a single action per card, instead of two.

The real ask ahead of me is to decide whether to address the theme, rework the mechanics, or use it as a small part of something more complex. Each path gives me some good jumping off points for new directions of design. In any case, I need to let the idea steep for a while while I work on other things.

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