Spatula, a Silly Game Idea People Seem to Like

I was talking over some challenges with a current design with my wife over breakfast. I'm working on Solar Senate and I wanted to avoid any mechanisms that called for players to pick up cards. Picking up cards from a hard flat surface is a pain in the butt and often marks the edges of the card in the process. I try to make the physicality of cards a feature of play, or at least not an obstacle.

Then I got to thinking about this very old game idea I had during a bout of brainstorming dexterity games that could be played with only cards. The game was called "Spatula." It was a real-time dexterity game similar in structure to La Boca. You can see the basic gameplay in the vine above. It goes like this:

  • There is a big pile of food cards in the middle of the table called your grill. Food cards have a raw side and a cooked side.
  • There are plates on the edge of the table awaiting specific combinations of food, like "bacon and eggs."
  • You have one card in your hand; it is your spatula. Your job is to flip a food card with your spatula from the raw side to the cooked side and lift cooked food over to the plates that are on the edge of the table.
  • The faster you can complete a plate, the more cash you get in tips. The player with the most tips after 3 shifts (rounds) wins.

After actually testing this out a bit at home, I was wary of further development. Ten Pen has its fans, but its sales performance tells me that dexterity games might not be the best product for a POD market. Seems like a more of a mass market retail opportunity. But then I saw the response on Twitter to this vine from yesterday and I'm actually considering it now. I've got plenty of stock food art I can use. Might be worth a shot. I'll report back on this soon.

Light Rail, and Translating In-Person Tutorial to Print Instruction

Here is the rules doc for LIGHT RAIL if you'd like an early look. I appreciate any clarifying questions or notes you might have since this was a very tricky game to present in print.

Explaining the city limits was the hardest part since I'm so accustomed to explaining it in person, where I can use body language and verbal cues to communicate much more easily.

Here is a screencap of the two pages which explain city limits:


I tried to convey a physical space first by using one human hand as a frame of reference. From there, I introduced a simple, legal placement. Then I examined two other options for placement and explained why they were illegal. Finally I wrapped up with two other legal placements which would have more complicated consequences for other spaces on the board.

I imagined this as a spiral, taking the simplest situation and spinning out to progressively more distant edge cases. I hope that was all clear! Again, if you'd like to review the whole rule doc, I'd very much appreciate it!

Interview on the Escapist Podcast

I just did an interview this week with the Escapist's Tabletop Podcast, hosted by Jon Bolding! We chat about the history of Smart Play Games, odd business models, microgames, card games, my design philosophy, and what's coming in the future!
Or watch the video below! Watch Jon and I get progressively sweatier as the interview goes on. IT WAS THAT INTENSE.

Sudoku as a City Building Game

Since playing Qwirkle, Iota, and lots of trick-taking games, I've been interested with the idea of denial-by-set. In other words, "you can only play X, Y, or Z onto this space based on what has already been played." In most games, the rule is that you can't play duplicates. For example in Guildhall, you build columns of cards with identical titles, but they must all be different colors.

Sudoku uses this rule as a way to make puzzles for you to solve. So I thought about Sudoku puzzles as a mechanism for city-building. Here's the quick outline:

  • Assume this is a game about building Rome for now. I'll think of something better later.
  • There is a 9x9 grid, but that may change later. I'm only assuming that now because of the Sudoku inspiration and I prefer to change one thing at a time.
  • There is a general supply of tiles. All tiles are colored corresponding to a particular player, though they are not "owned" by that player. Any tile from the supply is accessible to anyone.
  • Tiles feature buildings like like Bazaar, Temple, Park, Arena, and so on. These buildings also allow you to take an action at the moment you build it. For example, the Bazaar lets you buy stuff.
  • Environmental tiles are placed outside the grid that grant conditional effects to certain rows or columns.
On your turn...
  • Take a tile from the supply, then play any tile in your hand.
  • To build a building, you just take a tile from the general supply and place it onto the grid. You sometimes must spend tiles from your hand as construction material.
  • The most important rule is that you cannot put it in a row or column which already has that building present.
  • The length of the row or column on which you place your tile grants bonuses to the action you take on that turn. For example, placing a Bazaar on a long line lets you buy more stuff than if you place it on a short line.
  • The endgame is triggered when there is no longer a legal play to be made.
  • Players score bonus points for having the majority of tiles of their color on a row or column.
  • Environmental bonuses may also grant extra points.

That's the loose outline anyway. I imagine you could further complicate matters by granting synergistic effects to surrounding tiles or tiles in the same row/column. It can get kind of nutty.

Light Rail Progress Report

Light Rail will be one of the more simple and elegant games in my catalog. Fast gameplay, approachable but difficult decisions, tricky spatial strategy elements, and a fair bit of luck.

Playtest comments have all been positive for a light filler. Experienced gamers like the twist of sharing routes as an area majority mechanism instead of routes being exclusively one type. Puzzling out the logic of the emergent game board has been the most difficult hurdle, but that might be the one little fiddly rule that makes the game a satisfying challenge of mastery.

My aim from the earliest iterations as "Train Town" was to make a tile-based path-building game as approachable as Tsuro, replayable as Carcassonne, using no components aside from cards. I think it's pretty much baked!

The only rough edges are some graphic design issues to make the Building icons distinguishable against the background at a distance and wording the Objectives more clearly. Minor photoshopping will aid the former. Diagrams will aid the latter. The Objectives I've got so far include:

  • City Line:    There must be a route at least 6 segments long.
  • Downtown Loop:    There must be a COMPLETE route with no terminals.
  • Last Stop:    You must have three of your cards in the corners. (Two corners in a three or four player game.)
  • Central Station:    You must have the most cards in the longest column.
  • Tourist Line:    There must be a route with five different buildings.
  • Transfer Station:    There must be two COMPLETE routes that share at least one card.
  • Shared Line:    There must be a COMPLETE route with an equal number of each player's color.
  • Cross-town Express:    There must be a route connecting opposite sides, with no terminals.

I'd love to include more, but I want to get these core eight really polished before I add anything else.

I'm also considering revising the terminals to be a bit less imposing. A simple rounded endcap might look cleaner without reducing gameplay value. Look for more soon!

LIGHT RAIL: A Route-Building Game

Last year, I was tinkering with a game called Train Town that made the short list in a Korean board game contest, but ultimately didn't make the cut. I've been polishing that concept off lately and trying to trim out all the awkward gameplay while still keeping the core route-building thinkiness that I enjoyed. All this on top of the constraints of a standard deck of cards made for a curious challenge. I've got this core system pretty nailed down and ready for some more thematic twists. For now, here's the basics.

Take turns playing cards of their own color in a staggered brick pattern.

If you complete a route, check who has the most segments of their color on that route. That player will score points equal to the number of different symbols on that route. In the final version of the game, these symbols will be building icons.

If two or more people share majority, they both score. In this case, pink and blue both have an equal number of segments, thus score 3 points each because there are three different symbols. (The + appears twice.)

A 2p game is constrained to this diamond shape.

A 3p game is constrained to this triangle shape.

A 4p game is constrained to this large diamond shape, which barely fits on my coffee table!

In all of these shapes, the "center" is not defined at the beginning of the game. The field can grow and sprawl in any direction, but soon the final shape begins to emerge and choices get progressively narrower as the game extends to its outer points.

There is one special rule in a 2p game, which occurs at the end of the game:

Players also score "wraparound" routes that extend from one edge of the field to the corresponding opening on the other side. In this example, the route at the bottom wraps around to the top. Pink has the majority and scores 1 pt.

And that's the game! Pretty elegant, eh?

Next Steps: I want to add more of the train theme into the game without breaking this essential simplicity. I think adding objective cards might do the trick, like in Ticket to Ride. Things like "A complete route with these three buildings" or "One complete loop with no terminals." might be just enough theme to be interesting.

June 2014 Sales Report

Each month, I share my sales numbers for my print-on-demand card games available from DriveThruCards. Here's June's performance!

After last month was pretty rough, I must admit. The third in a series of down-trending months from a small peak in March. But boy howdy did convention season turn things around. I held a deep sale during the duration of Origins, which you can read more about here. Those five days outsold the entire month of March!

Granted, those five days didn't out earn March because of the deep discounts, but I hoped the momentum of that sale would carry the remaining full-price products for the rest of the month. It sure did!

On top of that, I started my early bird discount program with Monsoon Market to encourage early buyers. From now on, any new products are going to be at a reduced price until the next new product release. That plus a lot of built up anticipation for Monsoon Market boosted June's numbers quite a bit. Take a look!

20x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game +11
9x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) +3
19x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) +14
11x Koi Pond: Moon Temple +5
9x Suspense: the Card Game +2
13x Nine Lives Card Game +10
13x Penny Farthing Catapult +11
13x Regime +8
8x Ten Pen +3
5x Bird Bucks +1

18x Monsoon Market (new!)
138 Total Sold
$1,125.68 Gross Sales
$336.41 Earnings

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
939 Products Sold
$3,822.48 Gross Sales
$1,317.34 Earnings

So yup! Great numbers this month. I'm glad I didn't take a few months of negative growth as a sign to do something more drastic. All it took was a little sales promotion got many potential buyers off the fence.

Gatekeeping: Worker Placement Mechanism

Here's a little game mechanism to chew on. Let's call it gatekeeping. It's a model for one group getting access to a resource first, then establishing the terms by which any newcomer may get access to that resource.

This is a heavy, complicated topic and definitely not my normal design space. Instead of a heavy-handed metaphor, I wanted to explore the mechanisms so that you understood the phenomenon without predispositions and a real-world bias. I find a safe comfort in the abstract.

So here's the idea: Place a worker. That worker establishes terms for the subsequent workers placed there. Those terms are inspired by any number of other worker placement games like Keyflower, Bruxelles, Coal Baron. Terms might be:
  • Placing a worker costs $1.
  • Must place +1 worker here.
  • Must keep workers here an extra turn.
  • Workers must be same color.

I think it would be easiest to translate this to card play, with each card representing a "worker" and its terms printed right there. In fact, it led me back to this old pinwheel planet idea from a while back. I can see a game about a group colonizing a planet, then setting the terms for immigrating to that planet.

Worth exploring!

Monsoon Market now on sale at DriveThruCards!

Good news, everyone! Monsoon Market is now available from DriveThruCards! I've been working on this game in various iterations for a long time and I'm glad to see it finally seeing the light of day.

This is also my first experiment with early bird pricing. Here's the deal: Each new release will be deeply discounted until the next release comes out, however long that takes. So from now until my next game, Monsoon Market costs a clean $9.99. Get it now!

Good with Faces: A Mental Dexterity Game?

Playing a handful of dexterity games in the past few months has really given me some inspiration for how to apply these mechanisms to a game that doesn't require such able-bodied play.

My first thought is the Memory genre, which doesn't get much of a spotlight outside of some kids' games. It seemed to me that the tension of a rising Jenga tower could be translated to remembering a long sequence of randomized data.

Tonight I'm testing a little party game called Good with Faces, which aims to do to the memory mechanism what Wits and Wagers did for trivia. Namely, you don't have to be good at the actual mechanism, but recognize which players are good and bet for or against them. Below is one of the variants I'll be trying out.

  • A random player takes the first turn.
  • On your turn, you shuffle the face cards and set the deck face down.
  • Reveal the top card, look at it briefly, and set it it face down in a central lane.
  • Continue this until you've seen the whole deck in order and placed all the cards in the lane.
  • All other players secretly bet how many faces you can remember in the proper sequence.
  • Whatever number each player picks is the payout if correct, or penalty of incorrect. If you bet exactly the number that the active player got correct, you get double the payout.
  • Now starting from the first card, state out loud what you believe it to be, then reveal it.
  • Continue revealing cards until you get your first face wrong, thus ending the round.
  • Pay out bets.
    • For example, at the end of this round you remembered three faces correctly.
    • Bob bet you could remember five faces, so he lost five points.
    • Jane bet that you could remember one, and you did, so she gets one point.
    • Alex bet that you could remember three faces, which is exactly right, so she gets double the normal payout, which is six points.
  • The next player takes their turn in the hot seat to begin the process again.

For advanced variants or future rounds, there are first names and last names to remember in the sequence as well. In the examples above, those would be Tasha Ellis and Janie Carne. I'll try it with just faces first and see how it goes.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.