Firefly RPG Core Book almost here!


Can you believe it's been almost a year since I was first signed on to the Firefly project? Egad. I've never been on a line with this much visibility, let alone as art director. But finally, we're 99.999% done with the core book. The PDF should be available for download very soon and the physical book should be going into production soon, too.

That means you should pre-order the book ASAP!

UPDATE: the PDF is now live! Further news about the book's street date to come!

"My favorite game console is a table and chairs."


It's been a looong time since I've promoted my small line of t-shirts, but this one in particular seems to be making the rounds on Twitter quite a bit. Just a reminder that you can get shirts, stickers, etc. at my cafepress store!

Example of Alien Senate Gameplay... and Where I'm Stuck


I've got a basic mode of interaction for Alien Senate, which is pretty interesting in theory. I just don't know what the endstate means. Here's a quick overview of how it plays, in a very basic sense. The idea is that you're deploying senators who are loyal to you. This is indicated by the orientation of the card. If the little point on the card is aimed at you, that means that senator is on your side. These cards eventually form a 4x3 grid of 12 senators.

So you take the first turn and deploy a senator, a relatively average influence of 3


Your opponent deploys a very influential 5.

You suspect an attack is coming and you don't have many defenses, so you decide to place elsewhere and prepare for a counter-attack.

And there's the opening salvo. Your opponent has bracketed one of your cards with two of his own. Now you must compare their total influence to the influence of the senator being bracketed.
Alas, 10 beats 3, so as a result, that card rotates to become aligned with your opponent. But you have a sneak attack planned!

A ha! You've diagonally bracketed one of his 5s. Now, unfortunately their influence doesn't beat his, but that's not the only way to convert a senator.

A pair beats any number! Because his 5 is bracketed by a pair of 2s, it rotates to become aligned with you.


Where I'm Stuck

Okay, that's the basics. Where I'm stuck is how all this ends up in the final game state.


I'd love it if there were some subjective perspective mechanisms in the final game state. By that I mean, the cards closest to you mean one thing, while cards farthest from you mean something else.  You can do this across the other axis as well, drawing information by whether the cards are to your left or right. Furthermore, what does it mean when senators are aligned with you? Is having most of them aligned to you important? Just a select few? Hm.

How to Write and Lay Out Rules on Cards [Template]

One of the strengths of DriveThruCards is that it focuses on cards alone. They've got the nicest, firmest, sharpest cards I've seen on the POD market. Unfortunately, they don't offer any rules booklets yet. There are ways around this, like video tutorials and PDF rulebook downloads, but buyers usually want to get as complete a product as possible when it comes to their door. That means including the rules in some kind of analog format.

So, I've made rules cards and included them in all my products. It's taken some experiences over the past year to learn how to best format these rules cards, and honestly I'm still learning. For now, I thought I'd share with you some of the best practices I've learned after releasing six POD card games over the past 10 months.

You can share the JPEG below with your friends, forums, and frenemies. Or you can download it as a PDF at this link.

A Clops Theme for the Pub Game?


Carrying on some thoughts from yesterday's pub game, I had earlier revised some art I commissioned from Kari Fry ages ago for the tile game Swap Clops.

I was never really satisfied with how that game turned out, but couldn't find a solution. So instead, I've been looking for ways to repurpose the art itself for a new game. I loved the clean and elegant permutations of all the different faces paired with simply shaped bodies, and double-coding the faces to color.

Custom Deck
So here's a thought: Imagine yesterday's pub game with this art and some adjusted rarities. Each face/color is one rank, from 1-7. Each Circle rank appears in the deck only once, squares twice, and triangles three times, for a total of 42 cards. This way, you get some variety in strategic choices. Do you chase the circle to pursue a majority, even though it's a high card?

Actions
One thing I loved about Dead Man's Draw was the blend of a simple pub game with real gamery and thematic mechanisms. When you take a card, perhaps it triggers a special action that befits the expression of that face?
  • Sleepy: Turn over another card in your collection.
  • Troll: Make the next player keep the next card.
  • Serious: ______?
  • Gross: _______?
  • Happy: You can skip your next turn.
  • Me Gusta: Steal a card from another player's collection.
  • Angry: _______?

A Little Pub Card Game



Here's a simple pub game you can play with a standard deck of cards. Like all good pub games, it has a bit of risk-taking and bluffing, plays fast for big groups, and doesn't take much space. I don't have a name for this, so feel free to make suggestions. You can play with 3-8 players.

Goal
Get the lowest score by collecting low-number cards and collecting majority of a suit.


Ranks
This game uses card ranks and suits. The ranks, lowest to highest, A 2-10  J Q K.


Set Up
  • Shuffle a standard deck of cards (without jokers).
  • Remove 10 cards from the deck face-down, they will not be used in play.
  • Deal 3 cards to each player's hand, keeping them secret.
    • Deal 2 cards for groups of 5-6 players.
    • Deal 1 card for groups of 7-8 players.
  • Place the deck in the middle of the table.
  • Reveal the top card.

Turns
Start with the player to the left of the dealer take the first turn. Turns continue clockwise around the table.


Your Turn
On your turn, you can do one of two things:
  • Take the face-up card and add it to your collection in front of you, visible to everyone.
  • Draw another card from the top of the deck.
If you drew a card, two things might occur:
  • If the card is of a lower rank and a different suit than the face-up card, you may take the newly drawn card instead and add it to your collection.
  • If the card is of an equal or higher rank, or the same suit of any rank, you must take both cards and add them to your collection.
In future turns, if there is not a face-up card on the table, draw a new card first and repeat the steps of a turn noted above.

This player was faced with an 8 of hearts. He decides to risk a draw.
He draws a Jack! So he must now take both cards into his collection.

This player is faced with a Jack of Spades.
She figures odds are good that she won't draw a Queen or King, so she risks it.
She draws an ace of spades! Because the suits are the same, she must take both cards.

Now it's your turn. Faced with a 4 of Hearts, you decide to just take it.


Endgame, Scoring, and Victory
The game ends when the deck runs out. Discard the last card in the deck or the face-up card remaining on the table, whichever is the case after the last turn.

All players reveal the cards in their hand and add them to their collection.

If you have the most cards of a suit, turn those cards face down. If tied, all tied players turn over their cards.

Then add up all the numerical ranks in your collection. Whoever has the lowest total is the winner!

Exploring a Card Mechanism: Gapped Straight Scores



I play No Thanks a lot. (Probably two or three times a week.) It never gets old for me. There are slightly more meaty variations on the mechanism in Lascaux. I also enjoy other just-numbers card games like Pairs and 6 Nimmt! Still, it's hard to match the elegant brinksmanship and risk-taking that Thorsten Gimmler packed into such a tiny package.

But because I like those games so much, I still toy with the occasional abstract card game mechanism. Here's one such notion.


Straight Scoring

First, assume a game in which playing straights are the primary method of scoring points.

Second, your straight must contain at least X cards, where X is some number determined by other game mechanisms. For now, let's assume it's 3. You need at least 3 cards of the same suit to play a straight.

Third, your score is the total of all ranks in your straight. Just add up the numbers, that's your score. So 1-2-3 scores you 6 points. 1-2-3-4 scores you 10 points.


Gapped Straight Scoring
Finally, the twist: You may play straights with gaps. That is, straights where one or more cards are missing from the numerical sequence. However, there is a penalty: If you play a gapped straight, your score is reduced by the amount of cards missing.

For example, the straight shown at the top of this post is 1-3-4-5. The base score for this is 13 points, but because one card is missing, you score 12 points. If you played 1-3-5, the base score would be 9 points, with a 2 point penalty for the missing "2" and "4" card, for a total score of 7.


Cutthroat Gapped Straight Scoring
For a more cutthroat variant, you might make the penalty equal to the actual missing rank in the straight.

For example, 1-3-4-5 would have a 2 point penalty, for a total score of 10 points. 1-3-5 would have a 2 point and 4 point penalty, for a total score of 3 points.

Personally, I like this variant, but it would require strong incentives to play sub-optimal straights. Achievements are a pretty standard tool for this task.

For example, the first player to play a straight of three cards might get a "three-card" achievement marker. Such an achievement marker may be available for each suit, for straights of up to 5 cards in length.

Once earned, these achievements could not be stolen from another player. Thus, the rewards of the achievements might be off-set by the penalties incurred for sub-optimal straights used to earn those achievements.

Or perhaps you can steal an achievement from another player, but you must play a higher straight than the achievement. So, to steal a "3 heart achievement" marker from another player, you'd need to play a heart straight with 4 or more cards. This might be a viable option if the "4 heart achievement" marker has already been earned by another player.


Mixed Straight Scoring
One last note, there might be some option to play straights with mixed suits. This might have further penalties, but I think there are enough penalties in this current setup. Too much subtraction is daunting. Instead, I think they should be played as-is, especially since they can be used offensively against opponents to remove critical connectors in their own straights. Of course, a mixed straight won't earn an achievement, but that's the tradeoff for making an easier straight.


Where Next...
So this is a lot of discussion about scoring, but very little about how cards are acquired. I find acquisition to be the more critical aspect of any card game.
  • Draw? On your turn, draw a random card from the deck or play whatever straight you can.
  • Deal? Deal a river to the center of the table and a hand to each player, then make it a poker-like bluffing game.
  • Draft? Deal a hand of cards to each player, each picks one and passes the rest of the hand to the player on their left until each player has a full hand of drafted cards.
  • Trade? Deal a whole hand to each player, then pass one card to the player on your left and right, tichu-style.
  • Auction? Deal a river to the center of the table. Deal a large hand to each player. Then players can bid cards from their hand to buy a card from the river.
Yep, lots of ways to do this. For what it's worth, I want to explore this mechanism further as an homage to No Thanks called Yes Please. Any homage would have to be just as simple to understand, with a clear binary choice, fast play time, and some potential for big swings in scoring.

And don't even get me started on the potential for this with a triangular deck from 12 Days and Pairs.

3 Steps to Intepreting Playtest Feedback



REGIME's fast development taught me something about playtesting in general. First off, if you have a bunch of playtesters offering a bunch of ideas, this is good! You have something your testers find worthy enough to grant their time and energy into helping create. But should you take all suggestions at face value? What if they're contradictory? Which do you listen to? Here was my three step process for dealing with this feedback paralysis.




Step 1: Identify a problem before testing, but don't get married to it.
Early on, I tested a simpler version of the game. Perhaps too simple, I feared. I wanted to run some playtests and see if players felt that the game didn't have enough meat to it. All the while knowing in the back of my head that what I believed to be a problem wasn't necessarily the actual problem.




Step 2: Let playtesting reveal the real problem.
In the early version of REGIME, players simply ousted one faction card at a time until one color, one letter, and one number were face-up. Any cards you had matching those suits scored points. This meant a lot of the early game didn't feel like it mattered. It was only the last few choices (and thus the last few turns) where any tension developed.

There were many ideas bandied about that would add some complexity to the game. None of them really hit a "eureka" moment, but that's not the job of playtesters. I documented their feedback:
  • Keep the "discard 1, flip 1" rule, but also add "discard 2, un-flip 1."
  • Use the discarded cards to "bury" a suit card instead of flipping it over.
  • The card that corresponds to the three remaining face-up suits decrees a unique rule.
  • Use other states like rotating, banishing, capturing, and promoting cards.




Step 3: Observe the suggest-ing, not the suggest-ions, to outline a solution.
I noticed that all of the ideas were additive in some way. Few worked with the interactions and systems already emergent from the existing rules. This is a very, very common response to a design problem, and one I catch myself doing from time to time. So as a general guideline, I try to avoid design solutions that result in complexity for complexity's sake. 

I didn't end up using any of these new suggestions directly, but instead tried to suss out what those suggestions were trying to fix. They were trying to make early choices matter. So, what if it wasn't only the last three face-up cards that mattered? Maybe the order in which factions were ousted mattered and had different long-term effects. This eventually became the Unrest, Calm, and Power sub-systems in the REGIME today.

From the outside, it might seem like I just disregarded playtester feedback, but far from it: I needed that critical mass of feedback to show me what the real problem was and what the solution would have to be.

Regime is now on DriveThruCards!


Attention, Citizens! REGIME is now available on DriveThruCards! I'm really happy with how these cards turned out. The color is bright, the details are sharp, oh, and the game itself is alright, too. :) Check out these product shots!


You are the first diplomats allowed into the turbulent nation of REGIME. Your goal is to secure an alliance with the nation's leadership and win the support of the people. The problem is that revolutions are constantly deposing one faction and replacing it with another. Choose your allegiances wisely, avoid unrest, and win the power of the people! Get REGIME today!

Tabletop Game Icons on Patreon!


Ever wish you had an icon for an oft-repeated line of game text like "Rotate a card" or "Place a card face-down onto another card in a tableau." Me too! That's why I'm running a Patreon for tabletop game icons! Now I want to make game icons available for you – the people! This project is simple: I design icons for you – the people – and I get to keep eating ramen. Deal? Awesome.




Specs
Here are the deets for the icons:
  • All black and white, so you can add textures, colors, themes, whatever you like. Or just keep them plain as-is.
  • All vector EPS, so you can scale them to any size and they'll retain their gorgeous, mysterious allure.
  • All released on a Creative Commons Attribution license. Be free, icons!

Free? Why pledge?
"But hey," you might ask, "if these icons are going to be available on Creative Commons Attribution license, why should I pledge now instead of six months from now when the archive is six times as big?"

Good question, hypothetical! You don't have to pledge now if you can't or don't want to. I get it. But the internet is the internet, so if I release icons to anybody, it's pretty safe to assume they're effectively released to everybody anyway. So pledge now, or pledge later, it's cool.

Pledging now encourages me to make more icons faster, which makes it more likely I'll make an icon you can actually use in your game. (Also, more likely that I'll keep releasing icons at all.) There is one major benefit to being a patron...


Patron Priority
I'm happy to take suggestions for icons, but Patrons will get top priority on the to-do list. So become a Patron today!

5 Genre-Definitive Games (and 4 Ways to Subvert Them)



There are some games that so completely define their genre that any other games with similar mechanisms (or themes) will inevitably be compared to them. As I've pursued a more ambitious game design schedule, I've noticed some games casting long shadows over their genre. This is just my own perspective, based on my own game-playing experience. These are not necessarily the "first" games in the genre, they're just the most prominent.

In an effort to subvert these definitive games, I don't try to "fix" them. That way lies frustration and bitterness. Instead, I try to find another flavor of fun that can emerge from that genre if I apply different constraints, or remove existing constraints, or draw new mechanisms from a different theme.

But most importantly, if you're going to design a game in any of these genres, you pretty much have to play these games. To avoid doing so is to have a glaring blind spot in your own gaming career.

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Tile-Placement: Carcassonne
Every time I start a game with tiled (or even cards) to form roads, cities, or any kind of loosely themed map configuration, I can't help but ask "How is this different than Carcassonne?" Especially with all its expansion packs and reimplementations, it's hard not to draw comparisons to this classic.

Deck-Building: Dominion
One of the rare games in recent memory that can be considered most literally genre-definitive. Any later deckbuilding game seems to be a response to, or a variation on, or a retheme of Dominion.

Trick-Taking: Chronicle
This is a little more obscure, but Seiji Kanai specifically aimed for a trick-taking game that incorporates every single trick-taking mechanism or victory condition, then added variable player powers and game conditions. And somehow, it all still works. Consequently, any future trick-taking game seems like it's just a sliver or an off-shoot of the broader scope of Chronicle.

Collectible Card Game: Magic: the Gathering
The genre has evolved quite a bit over the past few decades. For a time the genre was synonymous with a certain business model, but the rise of Living Card Games and all-in-one games like Seasons has made that connection a little more blurry. Still, if you're making a game with lots of inter-related cards and customizable decks, Magic: the Gathering is the game you have to acknowledge at some point in development.

Dice Games: Yahtzee
Whether it's mulligans or scoring sets of results, it's hard to make a dice game that doesn't draw some mechanisms from Yahtzee. Sure it has its problems, but it's still the great grandparent of any modern dice game.

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The trick with working around these big gorillas is to accept that you're probably not going to topple them. Find your own twist on the genre and if you catch lightning in a bottle, great, but you gotta moderate your expectations. That said, here are four simple ways to start down that path.

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1: Add Constraint
Limit hand sizes, limit public information, limit tactical options, limit the types of components, or limit the variety within those components. Usually this will make a faster game, but you must also allow avenues for player-creativity within those constraints, otherwise it's a recipe for frustration.

2: Reverse Goals
What happens when you're trying to avoid building complete features in Carcassonne, or deconstruct your deck in a deck-building game? Plenty of new player behaviors manifest themselves in that situation, which in turn can offer you some interesting new design space.

3: Merge Archetypes
Sometimes the merger of two prominent definitive games can produce some interesting results. For example, 7 Wonders is more or less the definitive drafting game of today, while Carcassonne is the definitive tile-placement game. Merge the two together and you get Among the Stars. What might a trick-taking tile-placement game look like? Blend two of these games together and see what pops up!

4: Change Components
Take an existing archetypal game like Magic: the Gathering, but replace the cards with dice, or tiles, or pawns, or sticks, or some other physical component. How do the new physical properties affect gameplay? Are there different ways to hide or reveal information? Do the physical dimensions of the component affect strategy?

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A note of caution: If you try too many of these twists at once, you might get a weird chimera that is at once too familiar to be interesting and too different to be accessible. The happy medium is being able to say "Yep, it's kind of like Dominion, except _____." Or "this is like Carcassonne, but ______." Try this out and see where it takes you.


(Image Credit: My wife is now making sets of glitter meeples in a variety of metallic colors. Check out her store Hard Boiled Megg for more!)

Thousands of Free Public Domain Scans of Retro Comics



If you're in need of some high-quality artwork for a prototype or even a full-scale production, check out the Digital Comic Museum. There are over 15,000 golden age comics released to the public domain, free of charge, complete with high-res scans of covers, interiors, even the ads! If you dig deep enough, you'll find work by Ditko, Schuster, and others. So many genres, too: Westerns, Romances, Space Adventures. Literally, a comic called Space Adventures. I'm definitely going to tap it for some scifi game in the future.

Slippery Cards: Turning a Bug into a Feature


I had a long discussion on Twitter this weekend about the pros and cons of including Sushi Go-style score cards with REGIME. The cons mainly focused on how POD cards can sometimes be slippery, so you lose track of your score. I eventually decided to use the card system anyway, since it didn't hurt to offer a complete package for the game.

But that got me thinking, what if there were a game where slippery cards were a feature? I got to testing with some playing cards I had on hand.




And of course I asked myself, "Really?" Is this enough to make a game? What would the theme even be? Olympic Curling? Archery? Pro Bending? But finally I settled on sliding Penguins and called it Ten Pen, as a pun on ten pin bowling. Each player gets cards four cards with 1, 2, 3, or 4 penguins on them; ten total.

You're trying to slide your penguin card so it touches a fish card randomly dropped in the center of the play area. Whoever has more penguins touching the fish will win those points. However, the more penguins you used to win the fish, the fewer points you get. (The penguins squabble until there are only scraps left.)

The only way to beat an opponent's majority is if your card is underneath their card(s). Any penguin card undercut by an opponent's penguin card is ignored. (Thematically, your penguin squirms in underneath the pile to grab the fish.)

Some fish are frozen in ice cubes, requiring at least two penguin cards to touch that card in order to score points.

Folded tent cards represent icebergs that obstruct your path.

It's all very silly and mainly an excuse to slide cards around on a table. Simple enough for little kids to play, but with enough flavor to keep parents interested, too.


...And that's how you turn a bug into a feature!

February 2014 Sales Report



It's time for February's sales report! February is a short month and I'm still about two weeks slower on my release schedule than I would like, which lead to some slightly weaker sales numbers than January. But Penny Farthing Catapult sold very well in its first month, month doubling the sales for last month's release.

2-2014
8x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game -11 from Jan
3x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) -2 from Jan
3x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) -3 from Jan
9x Koi Pond: Moon Temple +2 from Jan
7x Suspense: the Card Game -4 from Jan
2x Nine Lives Card Game -9 from Jan
16x Penny Farthing Catapult (New!)
$379.96 Retail
$144.56 Royalties

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
107 Products Sold
$908.85 Retail
$348.37 Royalties

Well, that's more red than I'd like to see, but I've got a good feeling that REGIME's release will make a big splash. Folks on Twitter are excited about the art, the gameplay, and the theme. That's a good sign. I just need to work on making each month's release earlier in the month, so I can record an accurate full month span of sales. Look for REGIME sometime before March 14!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.