Fragments of a Game


Theme first or mechanic first? Tabletop game designers get asked that question a lot, but it misses a key ingredient in any analog game: Components. In this case, I've got a component in mind that I think could be really interesting as a tile-laying mechanic. Above, each card depicts the vertices of four other cards with the same dimensions.


Assume that on your turn you may play one card onto the play area, overlapping only one quadrant of another card, as shown above.




When I'm hashing out this sort of thing, I just fill in spaces with color for the sake of experimentation without much thought as to theme. Of course when you look at this your first thought might be the paintings of Piet Mondrian or Olle Baertling. I find the audiences for those themes are somewhat limited, and I really want a theme that can inspire some strong secondary mechanics and victory conditions.




Of course there is the old standby of city-building. There's an interesting period in history during the reign of Justinian in Byzantium: After a massive riot, the city is rebuilt with astonishing speed under Justinian's direction. In a time when cathedrals would take over a hundred years to finish, the city was restored in less than a decade. But... Well, city-builders are kind of blah. Same with gerrymandering.

There are other themes I've been considering, like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold lacquer to accentuate the breaks.


Or it could simply be about making a mosaic.



So anyhoo, that's where I'm at right now. Still figuring out what this game wants to be! It'll be something though!

An Update for Patreon Subscribers



Hi patrons!

Sorry about the long wait between updates. It's been a busy few months, but honestly I've hit a sort of writer's block when it comes to making new icons for different game actions. We're sitting on about 400 icons now, I kinda felt like there wasn't enough material left for me to make a valuable bundle for you.

For icons of abstract concepts and simple nouns, you've got a lot of options already between game-icons.net and thenounproject.com. So I am broadening the scope of this Patreon to cover a wide range of tabletop game production assets.

  • Videos: It's been a few years since I released my first instructional videos on card game design on an online course site. Since that time, they've shifted to a subscription-only model that has really reduced new enrollments. It's probably time to release the videos from behind their paywall.
  • Card templates: Frames and backgrounds for cards in CCGs and euro games. Plus any more based on patron requests.
  • Page layout templates: For 8.5x11 and 6x9 formats favored by role-playing games. I have many years of experiences with this, so I'm happy to share.
  • Icons: When the opportunity and inspiration arise, I'll still keep icons in the mix, but they're part of a larger broader offering.
  • Misc. Assets from my self-published games: These will be the backgrounds, frames, occasional icons, and other bits I used in my past games. (Many art assets rights belong to their creators, though, so I can't share those.)

Anyway, I just wanted to explain why I'm making these changes and give you a chance to adjust your patronage if you don't find this expanded focus as valuable.

Then again, if you find it more valuable, then by all means stick around and I hope to bring you some really good stuff soon. :D

Thanks for your support!

Rulebooks for Trickster: Starship and Trickster: Symbiosis


Hey y'all! I've got the rulebooks for the next two Trickster sets up and ready for your perusal. It takes  a lot of eyeballs to catch the tiny typos and grammatical vagaries that creep into a rules doc even this tiny, so I appreciate your time if you can take a look.


As with my other self-published games, these rules are formatted to fit onto standard size playing cards. It's a trick getting rules concisely but thoroughly explained in that tiny format. If you have any questions, comments, concerns, please share! Thank you so much!

3 Tips for Designing Games for Parents... Maybe? You tell me.

Gezin speelt ganzenbord / Family enjoying each other's company

I sometimes say I  design icebergs: Tiny at the surface, but much more to discover with time. Now, I'm not always successful, but that's the goal. That's the kind of play I enjoy most. Well, it turns out I've been designing games for parents as well, at least according to some fan mail I've been getting lately. There's a particular spike in these comments for Trickster lately. Here are a few:

  • Gareth says: "Just received Trickster: Fantasy and played it with my sons (13 and 11). A great game that's simple to learn, but allows players to make some great choices."
  • Robert Kalajian at Purple Pawn says "I’ve played both Fantasy and Tianxia with my kids (5, 8, and 10) and they all really enjoyed them. My 5 year old took a bit more time to learn the powers, but now knows each in the Fantasy deck by the icons on the cards. The Tianxia deck is still a bit much for him, though he hasn’t given up on it yet!"
  • Seth Ben-Ezra shared this feedback with me via Twitter DM: "I’ve played it the last couple of weeks with five of my six kids. (Ages 15 down to 6.) All of them are hooked. Last Monday we busted out the Tianxia deck and were amazed at how differently it played while still being recognizably Trickster. The kids all informed me that I was required to buy the next available decks, which is how I know they’d be up for play testing. (One of them asked if I had Early Access to the new decks a la Steam.) I could see this being our go-to game for a long time."

(Emphasis mine.) So what's the common thread? Honestly, I'm just guessing here, but I can't pass up an opportunity for a catchy three item listicle.


Tip 1: Immediate Visual Appeal
Rainbows! Susan McKinley Ross (Designer of Quirkle) has said that rainbows are a very popular choice for retail-level game releases. I don't know about the retail market, but so far a rainbow color scheme sure hasn't hurt Trickster. I also I have the good fortune of having access to some really talented artists for these games. I also wonder if very simple and (mostly) language-neutral card design makes the game less intimidating to teach and learn.

Tip 2: Short Teach-to-Flow Ratio
Perhaps it's a generalization, but it seems like parents are short on time. Fortunately, you can learn Trickster after a few minutes. By the end of your first game, you're already discovering some very basic heuristics for the suit-majority scoring and hand management. I'm no child expert, but I remember as a kid feeling great when I figured out a strategy for a challenging video game and got to use that practice skill to fluency in subsequent levels. I can't imagine kids are much different today.

Tip 3: Randomness as Skill Parity
One of the tough parts about playing with young opponents is gauging how much you should hold back in your competition. Should you make a sub-optimal move just so the young opponent stays engaged in the gameplay? One of the nice things about Trickster's very random opening setup is that it puts all players at the whim of fate right up front, then forces each player to figure out how to optimize that opening hand to victory.


Parents, am I off base here? What am I missing? Set me straight in the comments.

How I Develop Trickster Sets



First, a quick head's up: As of this post (August 4, 2015), there's only a little under two weeks left in the public playtest period for Trickster: Starship and Trickster: Symbiosis. If you will be able to send me feedback before August 15, 2015, please email gobi81 at gmail for PnP PDFs of the two sets. Thanks so much!

Now, I thought it would be fun to show a peek behind the curtain of how I develop Trickster sets. Perhaps this will be useful for anyone in the future who is looking to home-brew their own Trickster sets with their own favorite themes. More likely, I'll look back at this post in a few years when I'm completely bereft of new ideas. Either way, useful!



What's the hook?

When I take on a genre or universe for a Trickster set, I try to find one mechanical thing that unites that particular group of heroes.

In Trickster: Tianxia, it was the idea of high-speed, hand-to-hand movement with little house augmentation. I liked the idea of these martial arts heroes having absurdly fast bouts with permanent, decisive outcomes. This set would be the first to introduce effects that target the pot, which I thought thematically reflected an ongoing contest between the kung fu experts.

In Trickster: Starship, I was taking a lot of inspiration from Star Trek, Farscape, and even Firefly. The general theme I wanted to capture was "pioneering" and "discovery." So I added one new effect that is exclusive and universal to the Starship heroes: The Boldly Bonus. When you lead with a Starship hero, you may resolve their effect a second time.



What are the basic effects?

After developing Trickster: Fantasy for a long time, I realized a good Trickster set is mostly comprised of very simple movement effects that take a card from zone A and moves it to zone B. Generally five or six of the seven heroes was a good number.


Above you can see the hand-drawn chart I made a while back to visualize the empty design space for Trickster movement effects. The top axis shows "from deck, your house, your hand, an opponent's house, an opponent's hand, whoever has most cards in house, whoever has most cards in hand, the pot, or the trash." The left axis shows the same zones, but replaces "from" with "to."

The big blacked out areas are "any house, any hand" because that was redundant. A few recursion spaces are blacked out as well, to future-proof against two-player variants down the line. That remaining spaces are filled in with heroes who move cards from/to the zones in question. If a hero swaps cards, they're listed twice since it's effectively two movements. If a hero, like the Diplomat, "peeks" at a card but returns that card to its original zone, that's still noted even though it would appear to be a recursion at first glance.

From this point, it would seem like you could just randomly pluck about six different open spaces from this table and make the bulk of a new Trickster set, but that doesn't really make a coherent cast of heroes or mechanics. You have to look back at the original hook and select the right five or six effects in combination to make a really interesting set.

For example, none of the Tianxia hero effects that cards directly from house to house nor do they affect the Trash. Their sphere of influence is almost entirely reserved to hands and the pot. That reflects the "hand-to-hand" concept thematically and mechanically. It also introduces a key concept for advanced play: pacing through hand management.

In Trickster: Starship, I wanted to introduce drawing directly from the deck. Neither the Fantasy or Tianxia sets dealt with the deck as a zone at all, but for a bunch of explorers and pioneers, it seemed a good way to represent "the final frontier."


What are the weird effects?

I like to have one or two weird effects in each set that don't relate to movement at all. It's important to not go overboard with these odd effects since you need a little dynamism in each set to make a functional game.

In the Trickster: Fantasy set, it was the Druid's "grow" effect that made one card count as two. That seemed like a very simple "weird" effect that would be very easy for advanced players to use as a defensive or offensive tactic.

In Trickster: Tianxia, the "weirdness" is mainly in how specifically constrained some of the normal movements are for certain heroes. The Nun moves a card from one player's hand to another, but the donor has to be the player with most cards in their hand. The Brute behaves like a Druid, but only targets a card already in the pot. The Detective reveals two cards from an opponent's hand, which may then be split between your hand and any opponent's hand.

In Trickster: Starship, the Diplomat has a similar effect as the Detective from Tianxia, except that you must look at a random card from an opponent's hand and then decide whether to keep or return it specifically to that opponent. At first blush, the Diplomat may seem like a weakened form of the Detective, but remember that all heroes in this set have a Boldly Bonus. So leading with a Diplomat gives you multiple targets and you keep that information secret, whereas the Detective only targets one player and forces you to reveal what you've learned.





Test, Test, Test

Once I have that basic line-up sorted out, then I just keep testing that deck rigorously, looking for any edge cases. These are especially important to consider when mixing sets.

For example, the Druid from Trickster: Fantasy turns a card sideways, which will be counted as two cards at the end of the game. The Medic from Trickster: Starship flips a card face-down, which will be counted as a card without any suit. Both of these individually are effective ways to control how and if each player scores suit-majorities.

But what happens when you have a Druid and a Medic in the same deck? What happens if a Druid turns a face-down card sideways, or a Medic flips a sideways card face-down? In that case, the answer is simply that the card counts as two cards, both of which have no suit. In other words, a brutal tactic, but something to anticipate and answer in the rules ahead of time.

In Trickster: Symbiosis and Starship, there are heroes who mimic the effects of another hero already in another zone. The Archive copies the effect of a hero in your house. The Captain copies the effect of a hero from the Trash (twice, if using the Boldly Bonus). I saw that it would overwhelm the system to have two mimics in the same set, and possibly cause some weird recursions. That's why I kept them separated. You can still mix them together if you like, and they're perfectly functional, but make the overall gameplay a bit flat because they have so few other heroes to mimic.

So that's basis of how I make a Trickster set. It's not all that complicated, but I figured any game design peeps out there would find this interesting. If you have any questions, please leave a comment! Thanks!

Joel Eddy of DriveThruReview reviewed Kigi! What did he say??




Joel Eddy, of Drive-Thru Review, just posted a video review of Kigi here. (Drive-Thru Review is no relation to DriveThruCards, the POD service I use to self-publish several games, including Kigi.) Now, I'd been under the impression that being a tiny game self-published on a POD site would mean Kigi would fall way below the radar of any video reviewer, let alone a reviewer from the Dice Tower Network.

I'm happy to see that I was wrong on that point! Joel has some very kind things to say about Kigi! Check it out in the video embedded above or at the link here. Please note that the scoring example has a slight error which is corrected in the on-screen youtube annotations, which may not automatically appear depending on the platform you're viewing the video.

But all that said, it's a very positive review and way more exposure I ever expected to get for one of my self-published games. Thanks so much for giving air time to the little games out there, Joel!

Announcing "Kodama: the Tree Spirits," a new tree-growing card game from Action Phase Games


Big news! Action Phase Games and I have teamed up to develop a brand new game called Kodama: The Tree Spirits.

Theme

The forest is growing fast! As caretakers for Kodama, the tree spirits, you must keep the forest a healthy and lush home for your little friends. Over three growing seasons, you must cultivate trees with the right mix flowers, animals, and branch arrangements to make your Kodama as happy as possible. Whoever cares for their Kodama best will be remembered for generations!

History

Earlier this year, I realized that Kigi was my biggest hit on the POD market. It dwarfs all my other products in sales and has been successfully licensed in several other countries now. And yet, it didn't really have much presence in the US. I debated whether I should pursue my own kickstarter or team up with a publisher.

Lo and behold, Action Phase Games swoops in bustling with energy and enthusiasm for Kigi. Turns out they've been playing it a lot in-house and had a real desire to publish something like it. They kept playing and playing and tweaking and tweaking, long before we ever had any kind of formal agreement. They just dug the game that much. If you know anything about game publishers, they rarely have time to play anything casually. I felt honored that they would commit such attention to a game that they hadn't even signed.

Well, I'd be foolish not to work with publisher that has that kind of devotion to the craft of game design. Together, we took the well-loved core mechanics of Kigi, quickly branched them out in a very different direction than the original game. Eventually we decided it was different enough to really be considered a new property with a new theme. Hence, Kodama, inspired by the little forest spirits from Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke.

Future

We have Kwanchai Moriya working on art for the game as I write these words. I've already seen sketches and they look amazing. Check out these samples of his past work:



We're in the final phases of development for Kodama right now, just a few more leaves and twigs to prune before we're ready to go. Our plan is to kickstart funding within the next three months and have the game out early enough to qualify for the Mensa Mind Games competition. We really feel strongly that it has a chance of winning.

So thanks so much for your support over the past few years! It's great to see my wacky POD business model actually bearing fruit in the long-term, but I couldn't do it without you. Thanks so, so, so much.

Follow Action Phase or me on Twitter to keep up to speed on how Kodama is growing!

Save 25% or more off all Smart Play Games until July 30th!


Woot! It's the annual Xmas in July sale over at the DriveThru network, including all Smart Play Games on DriveThruCards. Head over there now to get 25% or more on every single card game on my storefront! If you've been holding out for the past few months, now is the time to get off the fence. These are the BEST deals you're going to get all year.

Don't wait! The sale only lasts until July 30th. Go go go!

Playtests are go for Trickster: Starship and Trickster: Symbiosis!



Yay! Trickster: Starship and Trickster: Symbiosis are now ready for outside playtests! If you can play these new Trickster sets in the next four weeks or so, please email gobi81 at gmail dot com. For further details on Trickster, check out the tutorial video below.


Trickster: Starship
The theme of this set is pioneers and discovery, with art by Brian Patterson. Most of these heroes affect the visible information in the game. This set also adds a new rule, the Boldly Bonus, which only applies to heroes from this set: Boldly Bonus: If you lead with any of these heroes, you may resolve their effect twice. (The second resolution is optional.)


Trickster: Symbiosis
The theme for this set is growth and balance. Many heroes let you thoughtfully cultivate your House and manage your majorities. This set features heroes from Steven Sanders’ biopunk Symbosis universe. Find more about it here: http://www.studiosputnik.com/


If you want to playtest these sets, please email gobi81 at gmail dot com! Thank you!

Game Design Round Table Interview



This week I'm on the Game Design Round Table podcast mainly to ask advice of the prestigious hosts. The topics range from international licensing, to crowdfunding, to generally how to make a living as a game designer. I ramble a bit, as is my habit, but hopefully there are a few cogent points scattered amidst my mad ravings. Please enjoy!

Game Design Round Table Episode 129
  • 0:00:26 – Daniel’s background
  • 0:07:01 – Card counts
  • 0:11:10 – Sharing ideas
  • 0:15:27 – Playtesting
  • 0:18:31 – Kigi
  • 0:22:04 – Publishers in different regions
  • 0:33:39 – International legal matters
  • 0:39:49 – Royalties and crowdfunding
  • 0:53:58 – Upcoming projects
     
Subscribe and review the show on iTunes as well! Please support high quality game design discussion like this show. Thanks!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.