"Gamer's Tic Tac Toe" #GTTT


Picking up on yesterday's thoughts about converting classic games to something gamers might enjoy, let's talk about the one game possibly more dismissed than roll-and-move: Tic Tac Toe. It's a solved game, as any fans of Matthew Broderick movies will know. The only way to win is to not play.

Then I recently learned about Ultimate Tic Tac Toe. It's played on a 3x3 grid, with each cell containing a standard 3x3 tic tac toe board. On your turn, you place your mark on one of the tiny boards, which in turn forces the next player to make their mark on the corresponding big board. Whoever wins a tiny board lays claim to that entire cell. If you're forced to play on a cell that is already won, you can play in any cell. If you claim three cells in a row, you win! You can see why this is also called "Inception Tic Tac Toe."

Alas, like regular TTT, UTTT has been sort of solved. There are optimal moves that will eventually lead to a tie. The trick with any "Gamer's" version of Tic Tac Toe will be to un-solve it. That is, find ways to introduce random initial states and offer alternate options that make traditionally sub-optimal choices actually worthwhile.

Unexplored Emergent Properties

I wonder if there are some emergent properties yet unexplored by those mathematicians that could be tapped for deeper gameplay. I'm thinking about this in terms of yesterday's post on "Gamer's ____" games. So in this case, it would be "Gamer's Tic Tac Toe."

For example, red is losing this game but in the process has created a few long lines of five-in-a-row. Should that be worth something? Blue has also created long lines. Should that be worth something, too, or is that only the privilege of the player losing the cell strategy? What happens if a player makes a contiguous line that extends across the whole 9x9 game board?

In another scenario, Blue has managed to create a perfect square that traverses two cells. Should that mean something? What if it traverse three squares? What if it was a 4x4 square? Does that have some effect on the marks within the square? Is there some kind of Go-like surrounding mechanic? What about other shapes, like Xs or triangles?

Presently, the only effect of being forced into a claimed cell is that you may then play in any cell. This acts as a deterrent to for your opponent to give you an advantage. I rather perfer incentives over deterrents though. What if you wanted to play in a claimed cell? What if there was some value still left to tap in that cell, despite you not getting the first three-in-a-row? Does having more marks in that cell give you some other reward?

And what if each cell had its own variable reward for being the first to 3-in-a-row, majority, or to be traversed by a long line? Imagine each cell is its own card, with its own stats.

Any discussion of n-in-a-row games and area control games has a long, long history to tap. For now, let's just find a theme so these weird emergent behaviors make some kind of sense as far as gameplay goals.

Gamer's Tic Tac Toe (GTTT)
Once more, the basic gameplay is as identical to Ultimate Tic Tac Toe. The new stuff comes in assymetric mid-game goals and long-term goals.

The board is comprised of nine randomly drawn cards. Each card is a city block with a real estate-sounding name. Each cell of the card represents a building up for sale. The numbers alongside the bottom of each card represent rewards based on certain conditions as described below.

The first player to get three buildings in a row on a card gets the first reward noted on the card. In this case, blue gets 2 points.

The first player to get five buildings on a card gets the majority on that card, but don't score that until the end of the game.

The round ends as soon as there is a continuous line of nine buildings. Whoever has the majority of buildings on that line gets a 3 point bonus.

Any remaining area majorities are scored for each card. Blue earns a total of 7 (3+0+4) points. Red earns a total of 10 (2+2+3+2+1) points. The tied card is not scored by either player.

Now here's a twist. That player who did not get area majority on a card collects that card. In essence, the player who loses the area majority contest wins the card, which itself is worth points as a set at the end of the game. At the end of the game, organize your collected cards by their symbols. Score the highest value of each set, plus 1 for each extra card in that set.

Or maybe islands?
I'm not really feeling the real estate theme, so maybe Islands would work better? Each cell is an island and the goal is to populate islands, building "bridges" of straight lines across the archipelago.

This suggests one more secondary mechanic. Imagine if each island offered its own resource, as shown above. I imagine these would be more island-themed eventually, so Taro, Coconuts, Mangoes, Bamboo, Shells, Fish, Pigs, Obsidian, and Water. Think of this as a worker placement game. Each time you place a stone, you acquire a resource from that island.

Resources would be noted on a separate board as shown above. Collecting the first of any resource starts you at a deficit, but eventually the reward is greater than any potential area majority or three-in-a-row.

So when your opponent leads you to one of the boards, you're not only thinking about area majority or getting three-in-a-row, you're also thinking about the resource you want to get and which one you want to avoid. Being too diversified eventually leads to a wash, as shown above. Sometimes you want to sacrifice valuable lines or areas just to make sure you don't set forth on too costly a quest for mangos.

And in conclusion...
That's my first stab at a GTTT of some kind. Un-solve the original game by adding the following ingredients to make otherwise sub-optimal choices more enticing.
  • Random starting layout: Makes memorizing opening moves less useful.
  • Points as victory condition: By removing the original victory condition and using points instead, we remove the whole logic behind the solution to the original game. Now you're not just seeking three-in-a-row, but any number of other ways to score points, which includes three-in-a-row.

The methods of scoring points are pretty standard ingredients for eurogames. The minimum and maximum possible values are noted as well. The maximums assume a very extreme circumstance though, like the game continuing until the board is full or all the cards having optimal set-collection.
  • First to Three-in-a-Row from Cards (Variable 0–45)
  • Area Majority for Triggering Endgame (3)
  • Area Majority from Cards (Variable 0–5)
  • Set Collection (Variable 0–21)
  • Worker Placement on Resources (-18 – 25)

All that being the case, three-in-a-row is still a pretty strong incentive. It's tactically easier to do and leads to higher potential rewards depending on the board layout. That keeps in the spirit of the original game, but may still be unbalanced. I hope the other bonuses and considerations would make the decisions more satisfying though.

There are plenty more directions you could take this, of course. I recommend checking out Kory Heath's Blockers as a fine example of how to shape a 9x9 grid into a fiendish puzzle game. Whether mine is any good, I don't know.

For one thing, I have this loosey goosey idea of centering the grid on each card, thus making room for two unique sets of values for either player. So one player would find it more valuable to get area majority on a card while her opponent would prefer the first three-in-a-row.

And that's not even taking into consideration background art to add yet another level of information. But for now, five ways of scoring seems like enough.

Augustus and the Search for the Next "Gamer's Bingo"

Augustus as Priest, Palazzo Massimo

Paolo Mori's Augustus was nominated for this year's Spiel de Jahres, and rightly so. I found it a clever and satisfying evolution of classic Bingo. In fact, it's often called Roman Bingo or Gamer's Bingo around my local gaming circles. Neither label has quite been intoned in derogatory manner, but I get the feeling it's sort of a dubious honor.

You hear that term, "Gamer's ____," applied to any game that has a mass market central mechanic at the core of otherwise more modern gameplay. You might describe dice games like Alien Frontiers or Roll Through the Ages as "Gamer's Yahtzee" for example. These "Gamer's" versions of classic games are chimeric beasts, with the heart of a mainstream game and the body of gamer's game.

Here are a few common tips for making a "Gamer's ____" game, in terms of Roman cliches for your entertainment. (Are you not entertained?)

All Roads Lead to Bingo.
Take an existing mainstream game (ideally one in the public domain) and apply a typically hobby-oriented theme. The challenge is finding the theme that complements the emergent properties of the core game. In Augustus, Roman conspirators (bingo players) are seeking clues (bingo calls) in order to effectively execute their conspiracies (bingo cards). Yeah, it's a very thin theme, but it doesn't contradict the gameplay. Bingo lends itself well to ratcheting tension, multiplayer groups, and a satisfying climax when you can yell "Bingo!" or "Ave Caesar!"

Bingo as the Romans Bingo.
Your game may be clearly based on a pre-existing classic game, but the theme is what drives all the other secondary and tertiary mechanics. For example, the cards in Augustus represent either a military campaign or a senator's influence. Each card requires a certain combination of Roman-themed bingo symbols to complete. Once complete, each is worth points and each has a unique effect that can cascade into other effects. It's easy to write a fiction around these outcomes, too. "I finally got that last legionnaire, which won the favor of this Senator, who in turn supported my campaign in Britannia."

Veni, Vidi, Bingo.
Keep the game compact. You want to be in and out within 45 minutes, including any setup/breakdown time. Longer than 45 minutes or bigger than a chess board starts going outside the bounds of a casual play experience. Augustus lasts about 30 minutes and all the components can fit in the velvet bag that comes in the rather oversized box.

Naturally this has me thinking about what the next "Gamer's ____" will be and how successful it might be in the game market. Will a gamer theme turn off anyone interested in the original inspiration? Will the original inspiration face profound disinterest among gamers? Are good production values and marketing enough get a first play? Is the game satisfying enough for its target audience to keep them coming back?

Class has started! Design Cards for Tabletop Games on SkillShare!

Want to learn how to design a whole deck of cards really efficiently in InDesign using DataMerge? Awesome, 'cause I just wrapped production on my SkillShare class! The goal of the class is to get you comfortable enough with InDesign that you can bang out a deck of readable prototype cards for playtesting. You don't need to be an experienced graphic designer!

ENROLL HERE for over two hours of detailed video tutorial.

First, we start with an overview of the context for any card design. Is it held in hand? How many are held in hand at once? Can the card be oriented in either direction? Can it be seen from a distance? How big should my icons or text be?

Then there's a close-up instruction on the best practices for cutting your card prototypes with an x-acto or with a paper cutter. If you love close-ups of my hands, you'll love this segment.

But for the vast majority of the class, we focus on InDesign's DataMerge functionality and how you can use it to design dozens of cards at once. The heart of it all is the spreadsheet, which if you're like me was very intimidating at first, but hopefully I make it a little less scary for you.

The remaining lessons go over how to use DataMerge to set up a deck of euro-style resource cards, a deck of fancy playing cards with dual-suits, and a deck of CCG cards with in-line icons.

This is very much a technical class. The cards I make in the tutorial are kept very minimal (and pretty ugly) so you can follow along with the process without worrying about your design skills. Come, join us!

"What if someone steals your idea?"


People ask this of me a lot. I get it, you're really proud of your new game mechanic or your original theme or some other thing about your precious IP that is gonna be worth bajillions. Pride in your work is good! It keeps you going in the dark times when you wonder whether you'd be better off with some other hobby, like extreme ironing or tortilla golf.

But that pride can also give you some weird expectations, like that anyone else cares nearly as much about your idea as you do. That's not meant as an insult against your idea specifically, it's just an emergent property of the creative field. If anyone cares as much about your game idea as you do, they'd already be spending the late nights and long hours it takes to playtest, develop, cry, revise, cry, and playtest again until the idea is a proper game.

Wait, you are putting in those long hours, right? Please don't tell me you're worried about someone stealing your idea before you've put in that development time. Please don't tell me you've researched patents, copyrights, NDAs and trademarks before you've even tried playtesting. Please don't tell me you're only playtesting with people closest to you, who therefore have a vested interest in not breaking your heart. You're not doing all these things, right? Of course not, that would be foolish.

That paranoia is just an excuse not to do the work.

Ideas aren't that special.
Seriously, a cool idea isn't a game in and of itself. Antoine Bauza didn't just roll up and say, "Hey, I want to make a game where you hold your cards backwards and have to work together!" and get the Spiel de Jahres handed to him. No, there was a ton of work and two separate publications before Hanabi became a hit.

Your ideas are stolen... from someone else
I've got a closet full of unfinished ideas that never made the final cut for whatever reason. Ideas everywhere! Seriously, here, have some, I have too many. We've all got them, and chances are that not one of them is at all original. Not mine, probably not yours. We can't escape the design milieu of our times, we can only respond to it, iterate it. Want a good example? Try thinking of a new chess piece. Go ahead, maybe it moves like a bishop, but limited to two spaces? Maybe it moves like a King, but two spaces if it moves forward, and can only capture diagonally? Okay, now take a look at the hundreds of chess pieces out there and see if you can find some white space left to explore. 

Ideas don't reveal emergence.
Even if your idea is 100% original, the idea alone isn't valuable, it's the work of revealing emergent properties that makes the idea valuable. Taking Bauza's Hanabi example again: For a game that elegant, you know there was a lot of time put into every design decision. With so few mechanics, everything becomes that much more important. How many suits should be in the deck? How many cards of each rank should be in the deck? What's an average score across one hundred games? How do people communicate with each other in play? None of these questions get answered unless the "idea" becomes a reality at the table. There are uncountable emergent properties that just don't reveal themselves until you playtest.

Your idea alone is not a game.
Let's get zen for a bit. If a game goes unplayed, is it still a game? Is it only a game while being played? These are the questions I have for you if you're more concerned about jealously guarding your precioussss instead of actually putting it in front of as many people as possible. Your idea is not a game. Only your game is a game. Even then, it's only a game if people are playing it. That means you have to actually make prototypes, write rules, and face the social awkwardness of asking strangers to play this thing with the added caveat that it may not even be fun. That is what will make your idea valuable. And guess what? When the game is fun, the victory will be so much sweeter.


All that to say... No, I'm not worried about someone stealing my ideas. Exactly the opposite, in fact. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't so open and public about my design process. I've been doing this in public for over a decade now. But when I started? Yeah, I was worried about it.

It started in 1999ish when I designed a fan-made World of Darkness RPG about sentient zombies, Zombie: the Coil. There was a gap in the WoD mythos that I thought I could fill. And boy, did I fill it with every contrived faction, inconsistent mechanic, punk-rock posturing and gothic whininess that I thought a proper RPG was supposed to have. I just copied the structures from existing White Wolf properties of the time and wrote within those constraints and posted the results on my crap website.

Then I got worried about White Wolf stealing my idea. I heard they were releasing Hunter: the Reckoning and that it featured zombies. Oh no, zombies in the World of Darkness? Crap! All my writing was for naught! Never mind that I didn't even try properly pitching it to White Wolf in the first place.

Can you imagine the naive audacity? I crib wholesale from White Wolf's books and then I get worried about them looking at my stuff? Get it together, teen Daniel. Zombie: the Coil sucks. But keep at it, you'll find your design mode in about fifteen years. (Also, teen Daniel, stop wearing a trench coat in Florida. You look like an idiot.)

Needless to say, White Wolf did just fine for itself in the 90s without my tiny contribution. But working through that fear, just getting comfortable showing my work to other people and holding it up for critique; that was valuable.

And then I went on to design plenty more rubbish games.


Don't buy into the genius mystique. It is a mirage. Maybe there are geniuses out there, but you can't go assuming that you're one. That's like living as if you're going to win the lottery on a regular basis. No, the value comes from the work and no one's going to do more of it than you. Buy a pizza for your playtesters. Agonize over game terms. Completely scrap three prototypes in a row and start over again. That is the craft, the work, of game design. So get back to it!

The Big, Huge Playtest Feedback for 9 Lives

Hey! Remember those cute cats I was trying to herd in the game 9 Lives? I released Prototype B for public blind playtesting a while back to some mixed results.

The response was mostly mild and quiet, which said to me that it could be put behind some other games in development that were drawing much more interest. That's mostly how I decide what to develop first, whatever strikes my interest at the moment or what seems to excite the public... hopefully both at once!

But then came this excellent, long feedback from Tournevis where he and his group dived deep into some structural problems and emergent bugs. Further feedback came from Kristina Stipetic, Scott Messer's family, Caroline-Isabel Caron.

  • There is limited engagement between players beyond the bidding phase, which itself isn't a problem except...
  • Too many cards are available once you've won the bid, meaning that there's a lot of analysis paralysis and gaps between moments of multiplayer engagement.
  • Mid-game scoring in the Reward phase interrupted the flow of play and wasn't clearly communicated in the rules, so that too created gaps between moments of engagement. 
  • Oddly, another group found the Reward phase not just easy, but vastly preferable since it earns so many more points than Adoption. Either way, that phase of play is becoming a problem.
  • With so many cards available, it became difficult or impossible to block an opponent from getting something they wanted.
  • Also, tracking turn order in the adoption phase became difficult if the bid cards were available for adoption.
  • Presently, the strategy is too thin for 2 players and the choices exponentially too many with 7-9 players. 3-6 may be the sweet spot, pending revisions. 
  • Aside from actual gameplay, cards should be designed with clearer suits instead of using the cat art shrunken down to a thumbnail. Stars should be lined along the edge.

In particular, some good ideas came out of Tournevis' group discussion that I'd like to test further in a new prototype. Below is my current revision to their suggested procedural changes.


Players trying to rescue nine stray cats and bring them home while getting scratched as little as possible. (I'm replacing stars with scratches.)

3-6 Players. Shuffle the whole deck and deal five random cards to each player and set the rest as a deck in the center of the play area. Each player should have space for a card tableau and a method of keeping score.

A GAME of 9 Lives is 5 ROUNDS. Each round is three PHASES: The Search phase, the Rescue phase, and the Escape phase. A player who has most total points at the end of the five games wins.

Exactly the same as the Bidding phase as in Prototype B

Starting with the player with the lowest bid and proceeding in ascending order, each player takes a corresponding turn marker, indicating their turn order. 

On your turn, you may taking one card from the center of the play area, from the cards other players have bid, or from the deck. Regardless of where you take it from, acquired cards are kept FACE UP in your tableau.

Discard any remaining bid cards, but keep any cards in the center of the table in place.
In the same turn order as noted above, each player takes turns doing one four actions. On your turn, you may:
  • Exchange two cards with the same number of scratches between one opponent's tableau and your own tableau,
  • OR exchange cards with the same number of scratches between one opponent's tableau and the center.
  • OR discard a card in an opponent's collection and replace it with the top card from the deck.
  • OR do nothing.

Draw the top card from the deck and add it to the center of the play area. The game continues with four other rounds until all five cards in all players' hands have been played.

Variety Bonus: Each player scores 1 point for each sequence of two or more matching cats. Single cat cards do not count towards this score.

Reward Bonus: Now, players may score points for each cat, but only if they were scratched the least by that cat. For each cat, the player with the fewest scratches from that cat earns 1 point for each card in their tableau featuring that cat. If some players are tied for the fewest, all tied players score their respective points. 

At the end of a game, all cards are shuffled back at the bottom of the deck and a new game is set up.

The final score is tallied over the course of five games. The player with the most total points wins!

Train Town and Monsoon Market - Playtest Findings

Playtested a bit more of Train Town and Monsoon Market this week. Many thanks to folks who helped playtest! If you're in town and interested, swing by to Atomic Empire in Durham, NC most monday nights and you can see whatever weird idea I've cooked up that week.

Train Town was more of a polish to check if the condition cards made sense as written. The rules themselves and the scoring mechanics were solid.

There was some procedural clarification necessary, making sure that condition cards were used at the end of a turn, thus after the scoring phase.

Also it seemed the 2x2 formation was better as a starter board since it was easier to track the paths from point A to point B. A 3x3 formation led to bigger point swings as each player could cover exponentially more territory with one clever placement.

I may also make the endgame condition when either the condition deck or the path deck runs out. Keeping it only the path deck made the game run a bit too long for a light filler.

I've also submitted this game to a family game design contest out of Korea. That might have been premature, but the deadline was the deadline so I figured I'd take a shot at it even though the game is still in its infancy.

Monsoon Market is also feeling a bit more polished. As an experiment, I made the changes noted in my previous post and it really helped the too-balanced problem.

Where previous playtests resulted in tie, or scores within two or three points of each other, the most recent test resulted in scores of 33, 35, 40. Close enough to keep the game tight but also clearly set apart enough that we could reverse-engineer the results and see how each decision made in play resulted in those scores.

I revised the cards so that the rarest Goods, earliest Days, and most Ships aggregated into the same cards. I cut the rounds down to five trading turns instead of seven. I also simply dealt five random cards to each player's port and ship instead of letting players decide how to organize them. All these revisions led to some tense decision-making, fast trades, and begrudging sacrifices. Good stuff.

It was also interesting seeing some emergent gameplay. When players set aside cards for their ships face-down, it was a little hard making sure they were not mixed up with discards. We settled on putting ship cards underneath our port card. Yay! Now the port card does something besides just identify each player.

Now that the basic core gameplay seems pretty solid, I'm eager to polish this up for another round of public prototyping.

Interviews on Happy Mitten, Little Metal Dog Show, and All Us Geeks

I've been on several podcasts over the past few weeks promoting Koi Pond, Belle of the Ball, Princess Bride: Battle of Wits and my upcoming card design class. Of course each show is different and topics drift wherever the conversation may go. Here's a roundup of some of those interviews and a special treat at the end of the post if you want to hear me get absolutely crushed in Twilight Imperium.

Happy Mitten Podcast: Episode 5
First up, the new baby of the podcast scene is the Happy Mitten Podcast. This show focuses mainly on the business side of the hobby, including how I started my career in gaming and how it's been progressing this year. Listen to this one if you'd like to learn a little about how I try to keep my brain in one piece despite having so many responsibilities at once.

Little Metal Dog: Episode 61
It's always great coming back to the Little Metal Dog Show. This is my third appearance on the show, if my count is correct. In this episode, I give a quick preview of my Princess Bride game tentatively titled Battle of Wits. I spend much more time discussing the pros and cons of print-on-demand services and how I'm faring with Koi Pond on DriveThruCards.

All Us Geeks
Here's where I ramble on quite a bit about my habit of designing games in public. It's an important part of my process and really how I've managed to make it as far into the gaming business as I have. Listen in to find out why I never worry about my ideas being stolen. I wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't open about my design process.

And a special treat:

The State of Games, Episode 46 – The One About the Fate of the Galaxy
I recently played State of Games for the first time with a bunch of friends old and new. We recorded reality-show style confessionals between rounds explaining our strategies in private. You can hear all my galactic dreams collapsing as it becomes evident that the game will end without me scoring a single point. Twelve hours. Zero points. It's hilarious.

Preview the Tabletop Card Design Class from SkillShare

Heyo! I'm teaching an online class on designing cards for tabletop games. The class goes live on Sunday, July 28.

Here's a first taste of what's in store for the first lesson, which covers the basic considerations of card designs. Most of the videos won't have this much face-time, but this was a good chance to cover some of the basics we'll touch on as we take more on more practical tutorials.

I'm not the greatest video editor... or public speaker... or audio engineer. So I hope you'll look past those weaknesses and enjoy this preview! You can enroll for the class here at any time!

What to do when your game is too balanced? Try zero-sum mechanics. [Monsoon Market]

I've playtested Monsoon Market Prototype B a few times now. It turned out to be waaaay too balanced. Ties happen all the time. It seems that any random deal across three rounds will result in some score around 20ish. That's great for new players who don't like getting thwomped in the first game, but sucks for any experienced players who find no way to break out of the pack. But first, a recap:

Monsoon Market is a drafting game set in the Indian Ocean trade network during the middle ages, before European contact. Players have a public tableau, called their Port, featuring several goods cards. Each players also have a hand of goods cards, called their Ship.

Each turn, the ships sail to a neighboring port (hands pass to the left). Then each player may trade one goods card from her port for a goods card from the ship currently at her port. When the round is over, each player's ships return to their home port with whatever cargo they've collected in their journey.

The goods cards feature a common good at the top and a rare good at the bottom. From among all the cards in port and from your ship, you can build scoring sets or set aside cards for their gold value to use at auction for special abilities between rounds.

I need zero-sum mechanics to add some texture to this smooth distribution. In other words, bonus points that only one or a few players can claim.

Add a majority-wins, winner-takes-all score bonus.

Problem: I thought I was being clever showing a common good and a rare good on the same card, thus making every card valuable in at least one way. Unfortunately, this made scoring a bit laborious as you had to cross-reference and count icons across several overlapping sets.

Solution: Instead of one of the three common goods, I'm going to depict one of the three major continents of the Indian Ocean network: Asia, India, Africa. Each round focuses on one continent. Anyone who has the most cards of that continent at the end of the round gets a major bonus. If tied, split the bonus, rounding down. This still keeps each card valuable, but in two much more different ways. It also keeps goods-scoring simpler. More importantly, it's a score that only one or a few players can claim.

Add variety to individual card value.

Problem: If I make the noted change to the common good on each goods card, that makes each card represent just one unit of one particular good. This makes building up a set a very slow and predictable process of adding one unit at a time to any set. It's time to add some leaps and jumps. I want players to feel a little more delight when they get a valuable card.

Solution: While each card only represents one type of good, it may also represent more than one unit of that good. One is most common, two is rare, and three is very rare indeed. This would allow you to build up pretty strong sets really fast with a good trade or a lucky draw. I will also make sure these high-value cards are also valuable in the auction described below, giving them divergent, mutually exclusive tactical value.

Add emergent, ascending point values to auctioned items.

Problem: Between rounds, Zheng He, the famous Chinese fleet admiral visits each player's port and offers a gift from the Chinese emperor. This is represented by an auction. Players use any remaining gold value from unscored goods cards to bid for first choice of n randomly drawn special abilities. Presently these do not have point values of their own. Most simply count as one permanent rare good, allowing more opportunity to score. Others allow you to dump cargo from an opponent's ship. Things like that.

Solution: I'm removing gold entirely. Instead, I'm giving each card a unique sequential number formatted as "Day 1, Day 2, Day 3," and so on. These represent the days of Zheng He's voyage. The player with the unscorred card with the lowest number gets first pick, because Zheng He visited her port first. The player with second-lowest number gets second pick, and one point. The player with third-lowest number gets third pick, and two points. This continues for each player, the worse their choice, the more points they get as compensation.

Add triangular awards to first-, second-, third-place finishers.

Problem: You may recall my post on triangular and square number sequences and how they're used in game design. Usually it's something like, this: "If you collect X bananas, earn Y points." In my case, my figurative numbers are the number of bananas you'd have to collect to earn a certain number of points. I'd like to do this again in a very different way that is easier to score.

Solution: I'm assigning each triangular number to a placement ranking for collecting a particular thing. Let's say some cards will feature one, two or three ship icons. These represent the fleet you're building for your trading empire. At the end of the round, before scoring and before the auction, players can set aside as many cards as they like face-down. These will be kept for the whole game. They are not scored for sets or used at the auction. Instead, at the end of the whole game whoever has the biggest fleet wins the top bonus score noted below, followed by second-place and so on.

      5 Players   4 Players   3 Players   2 Players
1st   15 Points   10 Points   6 Points    3 Points
2nd   10 Points   6 Points    3 Points    1 Point
3rd   6 Points    3 Points    1 Point
4th   3 Points    1 Point
5th   1 Point

With all these tweaks, I don't think ties will be much of a problem anymore. They all offer some interesting, divergent new tactics to explore mid-game. But testing is required to confirm if these solutions really art solutions!

Belle of the Ball - Jacqui Davis' Art Preview Part 3

It's time for another art preview for my line-drafting card game Belle of the Ball. Check out the previous art previews here and here. This completes the full lineup of guests from across the counties of Ludobel, but look for more art previews to come, including the actual card design!


Boarsend County's ranches are home to all sorts of livestock. Watch where you step. L to R: Dirigible Dinnerbum, Inch of Boarsend; Lady Jinglebell Jittersend, Fool of Boarsend; Lord Zigzag Zithermend, Gem of Boarsend; Yagustus Yellowhire, Key of Boarsend; Pinchlehead Pimpleleg, Inch of Boarsend.


Egg County hosts Ludobel's major university and its kooky faculty. Guests from Egg are eager to talk about the latest scholarly theory on something-or-other. L to R: Lady Veranda Vendorcaria, Fool of Egg; Korakora Kampenwell, Key of Egg; Abacus Edgaloo, Inch of Egg; Lord Windmill Winkleshire, Gem of Egg; Tickleboo Tenderzoo, Jack of Egg.


Flappingcap County is the technological hub of Ludobel, always rolling out some new invention. Guests from Flappingcap usually come straight from the lab. L to R: Lady Pantspantspants Patchpaw, Lance of Flappingcap; Amelio Shmelio, Zest of Flappingcap; Quentin Quanzaria, Wall of Flappingcap; Lord Lafayette Linenhatch, Quill of Flappingcap; Finrod Fungaldum, Rock of Flappingcap.


Latesun County life is focused on Ludobel's naval fleet and its finely uniformed crew. They've been idle for years, so there's plenty of time to look good. L to R: Dithith Dithercrath, Wall of Latesun; Gigglelack Lololol, Zest of Latesun; Lord Grumblin Gristlepinch, Lance of Latesun; Lady Ribbleraw Razzlaw, Quill of Latesun; Zanzibar Zinfenfire, Rock of Latesun.

Train Town - Prototype B



Well, the response to yesterday's post was really positive, so I've put together a printable prototype for Train Town with a slight retheme. Now, tourists are taking a trip through Train Town to see their favorite attractions. You're trying to build a route that will take as many tourists to as many of their desired attractions as possible.

The attractions are one of three types of terrain, one of four types of foliage, and one of nine buildings. Each card has three attractions, as shown in the example above. This was a much more organic way to show what features are on each card without resorting to abstract icons. The theme lends itself well to making landscapes and map-like areas too.

Here's an example of what the prototype looks like in play.

And here's an example of how you can score on your turn. Let's say you placed the tile highlighted in pink below, thus creating the paths highlighted in blue and yellow.

Tourists on the blue path want to see the giant Santa. There is one Santa on this path, so you score 1 pt for that. The tourists also want to see the business building, and there is one on this path, so you score 1 pt again.

Tourists on the yellow path want to see a tall tree and a red tree. There is one tall tree and three red trees, so you score 4 more points. You score 6 pts this turn!


UPDATE: Hey all! Just wanted to clear up a couple questions that have come up from another playtester:

How many times can a card be swapped or rotated?
I assume you're using a Condition card to do this, so you may swap/rotate any tile if the Condition card is being used. After using those Condition cards, they're discarded, thus limiting the number of times the tile can be manipulated. For example, if you used the Condition card that says "On a player's turn, she may first discard this card to swap two path tiles." You would discard that Condition card, swap two path tiles of your choice, then continue with your turn as normal. You couldn't keep manipulating those two tiles because the Condition card has already been used. Make sense?

Can you clarify adjacency? Also, does a path card have to be placed adjacent to the previously placed card?
Cards must be placed within the play area, *orthogonally* adjacent to any other card. It cannot be placed diagonally, so you couldn't place a Path tile into the center of the board until at least the second turn minimum. It does not have to be adjacent to the most recently placed Path card. It may be placed anywhere.

What happens to the empty spot after discarding a Condition card?
After a Condition card is discarded, it is *not* replaced. It just leaves an empty corner after it is used.

When is a Condition card used discarded during a turn? Before drawing a path card?
Yes, this is before you draw a new Path card. I'll try to make that and other orders of operations clearer in the rules.

What about Condition cards that do not say they're discarded? Does it stay in play?
If a Condition card doesn't say it must be discarded to be used, then it stays in play.

How many times can a single attraction be scored on the same path? Just once, or multiple times if the path loops around and returns to the same attraction?
Each attraction is only worth 1 pt per corresponding dock. For example, if your tourists want to see a Soda shop and they were on a path that goes past a Soda shop, you'd score 1 pt. If the path loops around and returns to the same Soda shop, it would not score another point. Think of it as the tourists already being bored with the soda shop after having seen it once already. The only exception to this would be if *both* ends of the path had soda shops. In that case, each first visit would be worth 2 pts, because there are two separate tour groups interested in seeing that soda shop.

Train Town: Sketching Out a Tile-Based Train Game

Steam Train 52 5448-7

Last night I quickly sketched out a tile-based train-themed path-building game. I've been on a path-building kick the past few weeks so it kind of makes sense that it would eventually lead to a train game of some kind. Hopefully this adds some twists to the genre to make it worthy of further development.


First, you start with the basic path tile, representing a supplier along a train route. Each path tile has eight exits, with for path segments linking them in some way. Each card also features four goods icons, noted here by the plus sign, the dollar sign and the Q. Any path connecting to this card is supplied the goods indicated by this card.

And these are destination cards, with eight endpoints for the train routes. Each of these is a port, each awaiting a specific good to come from the train. Along the top here you see a port that wants + and a dock that wants $. To the right, a port wants E, another wants +.


To set up the game, you randomly shuffle twelve destination cards around the perimeter of the play area like so. The play area is thus an implied 3x3 grid. Because of this arrangement, only two ports on a destination card are in play at any time. Hopefully this adds some replay value, as the demands for goods can change from game to game. (Note: I didn't have time to fill in all the ports with icons, but you get the idea.

To complete setup, you place the Condition cards in the corners of the play area. These are optional play variants that add subtle changes to scoring or grant one-time-use abilities. I'll list some of these at the end of this post.


On your turn, you draw one random path tile...

And place it adjacent to another card.

Continue taking turns in this manner, building up the network within the implied 3x3 grid. (Note, I didn't have time to fill in icons on all the path tiles, but hopefully you get the idea.)

You may place tiles on top of other tiles. If this game were to use real thick tiles, they'd be easier to just pick up and replace, but for now I'm assuming cards which are easier to just stack.

Any time you make a route that supplies a port with its requested good, you score one point for each of that good along that route. In this simple example, you score 1 point because you made a path that supplies the "+" port with "+".


When the last path tile is played, the game is over and whoever has the most points wins!


As with any modular game, you can make alternate layouts like this rectangle. With enough destination cards, you may also have donut-shaped boards or angled boards.

Right, so condition cards are one of the fun things that might bring this otherwise dry spatial puzzle into some family fun take-that territory. Here are some cards I've got in mind for basic bonus scores.
  • When any player builds a complete path, she scores 1pt per short straight segment on that path. (Alternates include long straight segments, corner segments, particular backgrounds)
  • When any player builds the longest path in play, she scores 3pts.
  • When any player builds a one-segment route, she scores 1 pt.
And here are some more action-oriented cards that act as one-time-use powers. The prerequisite for these cards is always "On a player's turn, instead of playing a path tile, she may discard this card to...
  • ...Swap two adjacent destination cards. (Alternates include two destination cards on the same row, or on the same column.)
  • ...Rotate one destination card 180ยบ.
  • ...Draw and place two path tiles.
  • ...Swap two adjacent path tiles. (Alternates include two path tiles on the same row, or on the same column.)
  • ...Remove all path tiles from one location. Until this player's next turn, no path tiles may be placed in this location.
  • ...Remove one destination card from the play area for the rest of the game.
If you take one of these actions and it creates a scoring path, you can score it as usual.

NEXT STEPS on this idea would be to make a proper print-and-play prototype, but first I wanted to see if this idea actually sounded interesting to anyone but me. So, does it? You tell me! :)

Adding Some Spice to Roll-and-Move Games


The "roll-and-move" category of games often gets bad rap. Sure, they're often the first games we learn as kids. And for a long time, there was a glut of games that used the mechanic any further thought to the design.

Perhaps there's also just a strain of bitterness because that's the extent of what the vast majority of people imagine a board game being: Simply rolling, moving, and following instructions wherever you landed.

Whatever the reasons, I think the stigma is unfair. The mechanic is just a neutral tool, either used well or used poorly, but has its strengths and weaknesses inherent in itself. Listening to this episode of Ludology got me thinking about ways to add just a little spice to some mass-market roll-and-move games like Monopoly and Life.

  • First, you'll need one die for each player.
  • Determine initial turn order randomly.
  • Before anyone takes a turn, roll all the dice.
  • The first player takes one result out of the pool and moves that many spaces on the board. Continue with the remaining players.
  • If players can occupy the same space, keep the latest entering player closer to the interior of the board.
  • From then on, between rounds, roll all the dice. The player who is farthest behind takes their choice of result first, followed by the second-to-last player, and so on until the player in first gets last choice.
  • If tied in position, the player furthest to the outside gets first pick.

Now you could easily take this kernel and start making a more interesting roll-and-move game all on its own. For example, imagine the game was about racing vacuum robots trying to suck up valuable goodies from the floor while avoiding tacks, spills, and other hazards.

  • Each time you land on a "penny" space, collect a penny token. You can spend three pennies at any time to double your move.
  • Each time you land on a "tack" space, collect a tack token. You can spend three tacks to get first choice during the dice selection.
  • Each time you land on a "spill" space, collect a spill token. You can spend three spills to move to an unoccupied space behind the leader.

And so on, add as many different little items as you like. The key thing is to give players a reason not to just take the highest result every time. Perhaps you want to add colored dice, to add yet another vector of decision-making? Perhaps you're trying to collect colors in a sequence or sets of colors as well? Here's an even wackier idea: Roll-and-Move Worker Placement

  • The board features a track, oriented much like the Monopoly board. The key difference is that the spaces look like what you might normally see in a worker placement game, like Lords of Waterdeep.
  • Right in front of the starting space, you'll find, say, 5 spaces that are very modest, giving you one ore, one wood, draw one card, etc.
  • The further you go beyond the starting space, the more exotic goods you can acquire or actions you can take.
  • The closer you get to making a full circuit around the board, the more straight victory points you might acquire.

Here is the key rule that I think would make this actually work as a tense, strategic game. On your turn, you may

  • Take a die result and move your pawn that many spaces, OR
  • Move your pawn back to one five earliest spaces.
  • Either way, you execute the action of the space on which you land.

So the tension is whether to go back to the modest, but predictable earliest parts of the track. The cost of doing so is losing any progress you've made on towards those lucrative upper echelons. By contrast, there is also a cost in pursuing those lofty reaches, as your acquisitions may be less predictable and the progress quite slow if you stay in the lead.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.