SPX: A Great Source of Art Talent for Tabletop Games


(Photo Source)

This weekend we attended the Small Press Expo (SPX), a convention devoted to independent comics creators at every level of the industry. This year was the 20th anniversary of the show and my second year volunteering alongside my wife. She's the real fan of the two of us, with a long-standing love for indie comics and creators.

I came into the fandom a bit late, but it's such a welcoming and vibrant community that I never felt out of place. After weeks of awful news coming from gamer culture, it was such a positive experience at SPX seeing diverse creators and fans in a niche community all supporting each other. It can happen, people! I've seen it!

But I really recommend SPX to tabletop game designers because it is an excellent place to network with lots of undiscovered and rising talent. You can check out the artists I talked to at SPX on my pinterest board here. Specifically for "SPX 2014" tag in the description. Also check out the SPX Tumblr and Twitter feeds for more cool arts.

Now we must sleep off our con crud. See you at SPX next year!

Pupdate Card Game?


Most Saturday mornings, I volunteer at the local animal shelter, socializing puppies so they are more adoptable and family-ready. When I come home, I post pics of the puppies I work with under the hashtag #pupdate on Twitter.

Naturally, I've been asked many times if I'll ever turn the #Pupdate into a card game, but the theme has always been a challenge to me. You may recall I was working on a dog-themed game over a year ago and never fully settled on the theme. Should it be about individual dog training? Should it be about operating the shelter as a whole? In the end, I decided to make it more about "matchmaking," in the sense of finding the right home for a dog.

Here are some ruff outlines of where the game is presently.


It's a trick-taking deck building game. Cards in your hand represent waiting homes eager to adopt a pup. While in your hand, you only look at the suit and rank. You can ignore everything else on the card.

Lay out one card per player on the table, representing puppies who are waiting to be adopted into the best  home. Simultaneously, players reveal a card from their hand and adopt puppies, if able.

From top to bottom: The first puppy goes to the player who reveals the highest red card. The second puppy goes to the player who reveals the highest blue card without going over 5. The third puppy goes to the player who reveals the lowest card, preferring red over blue over orange.

Once you adopt puppies, you can either put them in your hand (representing a happy family referring another family to your services) or into your score pile (representing the overall success of your services). If you take cards into your hand, you must discard extras.

Thus, there is a little bit of a "deck-building" element: A card in hand is useful as a currency while the score pile is actually how you win. Let's take a look at how puppies can score points. You can also try to win puppies because they synergize well with dogs you've already adopted out (or dogs you will put up for adoption later).

From top to bottom: The first puppy scores 1 point for each blue card in your score pile. The second puppy scores points equal to the lowest ranking orange card in your score pile. The third puppy scores 3 points if you have the majority of red cards.

Forgive the crudeness of my sketches. I've been sick with con crud.

Pitch Script: Tabletop Games at Video Game Conventions


This weekend I ran a table at the inaugural tiltEXPO in downtown Durham, primarily a video game show. It's my first experience running my own table for my own card games. I have a bit of experience volunteering at other booths at tabletop conventions or sharing a table at video game conventions, but this was my first solo show. Here was my mental flowchart/script:

"Howdy! Feel free to take a look at any of my card games. I'm running demos all weekend."

Pause for response. If they stick around or ask about anything in particular, proceed to a fast, clear pitch. Direct attention with body language and eye contact. Remember, you're competing with the Smash Bros tournament right next to you:

"Monsoon Market is a fast-paced economic-themed game where you're trying to get rich fast. Magic players like it because there is a lot of opportunistic combo play." (Add a line about the historical context if they seem interested.)

"Koi Pond is a competitive game where your interaction is more "passive" aggressive. (This usually gets a laugh.) You have simple choices but tough decisions as you manage your resources and gauge your opponent's strategy."

"Light Rail is a colorful path-building game where you're making the transit lines in a futuristic city. It's very popular with mixed groups of casual players just getting into tabletop."

"Ah, SUSPENSE is a special one. It's only 13 cards but it's actually my most challenging game. Hardcore gamers love it for the fast, fierce bluffing and deduction." (This was the easiest sell of the con and I should have brought more copies.)

Pause for response between each pitch or proceed to the next. If they look uninterested, offer an easy and friendly exit:

"And I have plenty more games always available on my site at SmartPlayGames.com. Here's a card! Come back any time!"

If they express interest, offer a seat and run a quick demo. Emphasis on quick, under 2 minutes. Have the table already set up for a mid-game example to cover the important ideas of play. Close with the following:

"And that's it! Like all my games, ____ is designed to be very easy to teach and learn, but there is always a deeper strategy underneath so you get lots of replay value."

If a game was out of stock, I'd offer a discount code for online orders. Otherwise...

"Yes, accept credit cards! Come back any time if you want a more thorough tutorial. I also have video tutorials on youtube."

I repeated this script many times over the weekend until my voice was pretty much shot by Sunday, but I did manage to sell out of Suspense and Monsoon Market, and almost sell out of Koi Pond and Light Rail. Overall I'd call it a successful debut!

The Stack: A Game Design Exercise


I've never been one to set myself a goal of making some huge, groundbreaking new mechanism. Instead, I like to tease out bits of mechanical data from a small set of interactions and components. So, I posted this little thought-experiment on Twitter:

How much game information can you derive from a stack of colored chips?

Check out the Twitter responses here. Some really clever stuff that I didn't think of originally, like diversity of colors in the stack, size of an individual run, and certain Poker-style combos. What comes to mind for you?

Solar Senate Rules Preview


It's done! Almost! SOLAR SENATE is just about ready to go to print, it just needs one last quick pass from the hivemind to hunt down any typos that strayed past me. I appreciate any time you can spare to read through these few rules cards and tell me if anything is unclear or flagrantly misspelled. You can download the SOLAR SENATE rules PDF here. Thanks!

August 2014 Sales Report



Every month, I share my print-on-demand sales numbers so you can keep track of my year long experiment releasing one new game each month of 2014.

The Bad News, Good News
This was an odd month because it's the first this year in which my freelance obligations forced me to miss a release deadline. I also incurred some steep expenses hiring an artist for a future release and ordering inventory for the upcoming local convention tiltEXPO.

However, these unfortunate setbacks were greatly mitigated by the joint promotional push by DriveThruCards at Gen Con and me from home on social media. On top of that, the Chinese edition of Koi Pond is far into production and the Brazilian edition of Light Rail is quickly gaining steam.

Let's look at the numbers!

Two MVPs Carry the Team
You recall last month how my skepticism about promotions was totally thwomped, right? Well, consider it double-thwomped because August performed very well. All credit to DriveThruCards' aggressive 25% discount code. In the numbers below, you'll have to disregard my own purchases, which do figure into the sales numbers but not into the earnings numbers.

The top sellers this month were easily Light Rail and Monsoon Market, both showed significant growth while the rest of the catalog dropped a bit. I suspect Light Rail's small price point and low card count helped it become an impulse buy. It may have been an add-on purchase for anyone who bought Monsoon Market or Koi Pond to save on shipping.

8-2014
6x Bird Bucks +1
34x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game -4
15x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) -12
16x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) -16
24x Koi Pond: Moon Temple -8
65x Light Rail +42
39x Monsoon Market +19
4x Nine Lives Card Game -9
3x Penny Farthing Catapult -6
13x Regime -1
18x Suspense: the Card Game -9 
3x Ten Pen -5

228 Total Sold
$1,869.86 Gross Sales
$478.98 Earnings

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
1454 Products Sold
$7,781.81 Gross Sales
$2,283.29 Earnings

Next month will see the release of Solar Senate, closely followed by Kigi so I can get back on schedule. Hopefully the good times continue!

(Photo: Ashley Humphries)

Obfuscation without Hidden Information: A Mechanism for Carcassonne Farm Fans


Lots of people don't like the farms in Carcassonne because they're hard to see in play, but I've never had a problem with it and I love playing with them. We're a rare breed, we farming fans. I thought it would be funny if there were an area majority game mechanism that was designed to be obfuscated despite being clearly visible on the table with no hidden information.

See those cards? Each has a 5x5 grid with a blank center cell. When you play a card to the table, you place it orthogonally adjacent to another card, thus creating an organic playing area. The red and blue dots indicate the presence of Red or Blue influence on the indicated card.

The grid is designed to be relative to the card just placed, not as part of an objective 5x5 grid. In this simplified example, this card adds 1 Blue to the card above and to the left; it also adds 1 Red to the card below and to the left.

At the end of the round, whoever has majority on a card will collect it into a scoring pile.



You can use dice or cubes or coins to keep track of the ongoing balance between Red and Blue on the cards, but they aren't technically necessary. That's the part that I think will only appeal to hardcore farm players. It's sort of a perception contest to see who can keep track of overlapping majorities across an entire field of play.

But let's take this a step further! Let's add some weird symbols to the grid.


How about multiple dots on a cell, to indicate that much more presence on the indicted card? Sure!






Xs mean you reduce the presence of any color on the indicated card by 1. If there is no presence on it, then remove the card entirely!


Turning arrows mean you must rotate the indicated card by 180ยบ. Using these effectively is a real test of perception amongst skilled players.

So yeah, that's the idea. I have zero ideas for a theme though. Help me out! 

What a difference color schemes make in Kigi


One of the persistent issues I have in Kigi playtesting is that players naturally want to grow branches below the implied horizon. There is no rule against it and sometimes the shape of branches just makes that formation most logical. I have two solutions.

The first, shown above, is to start trees from the edge of the table so that it is physically impossible to grow branches below the horizon. That's a simple, elegant, understandable solution. Sadly, it took a  long time for me to figure that out and lots of exploring alternate themes to make it work.

See, I first tried changing the whole perspective of the game to a top-down view.






This worked mechanically, but didn't really look like a recognizable tree anymore. I explored several different themes where these patterns and organic paths would make sense. First I started with a river.


Pretty bland at the moment, but I could see it working. Alas, this was an unpopular choice among Twitter followers, so I asked for suggestions. I didn't really get any consistent recommendations, but here's a sampling.






That's Martian canals, ant tunnels, kintsugi, lava flows, and lightning. Amongst all of these it seemed easiest to come up with scoring themes around ant tunnels (various chambers with picnic foods), kintsugi (little glazed characters), and of course the river (animal herds and settlements). I still personally like the look of the River, especially if it had some cute animals in a children's book illustration style.

I'll stick with the tree for now, using the rule noted at the top of the post. I do this a lot, taking wild detours in game development only to return to a far simpler solution that requires much less work. It's all worth it in the end if it makes a stronger game though.

Smart Play Games News: Post-GenCon Sale, Brazilian Light Rail, Solar Senate Cover


You can tell when I've had a busy month when I don't post so much, so here's a bunch of news in one big roundup!

(Photo by Ashley Humphries)
Gen Con 2014 Report
Reports from DriveThruCards booth say there was a LOT of activity this year. Though they decided not to do any retail sales this year, there were still plenty of walk-ups who had heard about my games and grabbing discount code coupons. DTC has been generous enough to extend the discount code for everyone to use: SP2014GC for 25% off all my games!


Light Rail to be Published in Brazil
FunBox Jogos has just agreed to publish Light Rail in Portuguese! You may recognize FunBox as the Brazilian publishers of the most striking edition of COUP on the market. Really lovely sense of design and art direction on that team, so I look forward to seeing what they can do for Light Rail.


Solar Senate Cover Reveal
Because this month has been so busy, Solar Senate may be about a week late to launch, but for now check out the cover! I went through a lot of revisions trying to capture the theme of the game without implying it was a 4x galactic conquest game. It's definitely a two-player abstract. Look for rules preview to be posted shortly on my Twitter feed.

Playtest results for Kigi (which may need a new theme)


I've had these very loose prototypes floating in my workshop for months and never really settled on a proper set of rules for them. I knew that I wanted it to be an "organic" game, free from a grid. I also knew I wanted it to be a game that produces a pretty picture when the game is over. Something that draws a crowd as it is played.

But finally I just decided I'd whip together the minimum viable rules I could think of, just to get it down on the table and actually in action.

The Deck

For context, there are 45 numbered cards. Each has a branch formation along with dragonflies, butterflies, red flowers and/or pink flowers in various combinations. There is roughly an equal amount of each across the deck, but I randomized their distribution. Each card also has one of five family crests, nine of each crest randomly distributed across the deck. Again, I was really aiming for an organic feel here.


How to Play

In the game, players cultivating a grove of trees, one tree in front of each of player. On your turn, you draw a card and add it to any tree. You simply place your card such that it appears to branch from the tree. Now trace the path from that card down the limb all the way down to the trunk. If your card is the highest numbered card in that limb, you can score. You score 1 point for each flower or bug on that limb that matches the card you just placed.
  • You may only overlap one card at a time.
  • You may not completely obscure an animal or crest.
  • You may not move a card once it is placed.
The game continues in this manner until the whole deck has run out of cards. Then players get bonus points. Gather up all the cards in your tree and count how many of each family crest you possess. You earn 10 points if you have the most of a family crest. 


Findings
Pretty, but Awkward Visuals: Playtesters liked the prototype art, but it needs graphic design adjustments to make branching more easy to do. It's best for the "trunk" of each card to bleed off the corners rather than the sides, so you have a broader range of rotation. However, those awkward cards did come in handy as a spatial block for opponents. Leaving a few in the deck might be handy.

Make Crests and Ranks Obvious: Instead of one family crest and one number on the corner, which may be obscured, I'm going to make a small wallpaper pattern which has the number and crest as a sort of polka dot pattern in the background. Instead of sequential numbers, I think I'll try breaking up each crest into their own sequence of ranks from 1-9. In this way, I can use a set of dots or other symbol to represent rank instead of a number, which may be obscured depending on orientation.

Scoring Works Fine: Ultimately top 3 scores range in the 50s for a 4-player game, which is better than I expected for an arbitrary set of rules with a mostly randomized distribution of "suits" across an oddly sized deck. Sometimes a minimum viable product is worth bringing to the table, I guess.

Similarities to Other Games: There was a good decision space in scoring immediate points for yourself by growing an opponent's tree or keeping a family crest on your tree even if it didn't score points right now. There was some Carcassonne-like feeling of being hemmed in to a small set of placement options, some of which may not score points immediately but which could prove useful later. Arranging the cards makes you feel like you're really cultivating a pretty garden or a bonsai tree. The organic card placement also reminds me of String Railway, too.



New Theme?
Overall good findings. I'm not sure this theme works for the game. Often there were situations when a player wanted to play a card which made sense mechanically, but which visually didn't make sense. A branch that grows down curving below the trunk? Perfectly legal, it just didn't make sense with the theme.

I could simply make a rule that you can't grow below the trunk, which is fine, or I could change the theme so this is a non-issue. Rivers? Tunnels? I'm not sure. Either way, I'm happy that the mechanisms themselves proved sound and playable.

If I do change the theme to rivers, I might revive the River Ancient theme a bit. Not sure yet. Your thoughts?
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.