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.

[UPDATE October 2014: These rules are for an older prototype and are not indicative of the final game available on DriveThruCards. These old rules are just saved here on this blog post for posterity.]

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.

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?

Typopolis, or "Capitol City," a word-building city-building game

I've been noodling that Sudoku-based city-builder in which players create a grid of buildings, but there may be no duplicates in a row or column. Each building corresponds to a special action whose strength is commensurate with the length of that row or column. There is a tension between taking a weakened action now or risking the opportunity for that action entirely.

I whipped up these mockup cards this weekend, which I often do when I only have the scarcest ideas for a game and I need to see how the information might look on a real card. I decided to use letters instead of numbers since they're less intimidating, but could still be used in an understood sequential ranking system if necessary.

However, I quickly realized that the real value of using letters was that I could use the actual names as the cost of that building. Instead of acquiring bricks and mortar, you need to assemble the letters. Thus, multipurpose cards. Along the left side of the card are a randomized mix of letters. You must spend the right letters to erect a building.

Vowels might be a problem, so I think I'll make them all wild cards. You can spend any letter to count as a vowel, but you must have the necessary consonants. To build a Cafe, you must spend C, F, and enough letters to fill in the remaining two vowels. (If you're lucky, this could be as little as one card.) To build a Factory, you must spend F, C, T, R, Y, and three more letters. So a very expensive building indeed.

Generally speaking, erecting a building in the city lets you do a special action, with boosts for having synergistic adjacency. A Factory is more potent when it is built on a row with other industrial buildings. A Cafe is stronger when it's near a residential area. These are just generalities for now, but I did take some time to brainstorm a set of buildings to narrow down for a final assortment.

ApartmentsThis counts as 3 residential buildings.
BankDraw 1 card from the deck into your hand.
CafeYou may immediately build 1 building.
DockDraw 2 cards from the deck, take 1 into your hand, and discard the rest.
FactoryTake 1 building from the city into your hand.
HotelCounts as 1 residential and 1 business building.
LakeOnly residential buildings may be built adjacent to Lake.
MallThis counts as 3 business buildings.
OfficesOnly business buildings may be built adjacent to Offices.
ParkSurrounding residential buildings get +1 bonus.
QuarryYou may place is building on top of any building in the city.
RestaurantCounts as 1 business and 1 culture building.
SchoolYour next building costs 1 fewer letters.
TheaterSurrounding culture buildings get +1 bonus.
UniversityThis counts as 3 culture buildings.
VillageCounts as 1 residential and 1 culture building.
WarehouseSurrounding business buildings get +1 bonus.
ZooOnly culture buildings may be built adjacent to Zoo.

That's the loose idea anyway. This will likely be a late 2014 or early 2015 release at the earliest. I've got enough on my plate as it is. :)

Gen Con Exclusive Discount on all Smart Play Games

If you're going to Gen Con this week, visit the good folks from DriveThruRPG / DriveThruCards in booth 1103. There you can grab one of these cards with an exclusive discount code.

That code is applicable to all Smart Play Games and many more products on DriveThruCards.com. It expires September 1st, so use it while you can! Don't forget, LIGHT RAIL still has an early bird discount so you can get an even steeper deal on my latest game!

P.S. I won't be at the show, so please share pics and tweet @danielsolis if you spot any of my games being played in the big room. Thanks!

Update on Chinese edition of Koi Pond!

The Chinese edition of Koi Pond is going quite well. It will be published by Creative Tree and available in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It will include the Moon Temple expansion and the two promo cards and somehow a big giant playmat is involved. They sent me a sample this week and wow this thing is huge. Are all playmats this big normally?

It's pretty dang sweet and I look forward to seeing how this develops. If Koi Pond does well, it might break into a new model for me: Release affordable POD games in English for a domestic audience, then license translation rights to bigger publishers in south Asia and Europe. A bit premature for that kind of thinking, but still worth keeping in mind for the future.

According to Creative Tree, the Chinese name of the game is is "JinLi." There is an old Chinese legend about the beautiful and courageous fish "JinLi" (or "koi"). If they jump over the Chinese Dragon Gate, they become real dragons and fly into the sky. Sounds cool to me. :)

Modular Complexity in Solar Senate

Wow, super busy during the tail end of convention season, but I'm still squeezing in playtest time for Solar Senate though! Here's an update:

I haven't made any changes to the game since a few weeks ago. I've played this latest iteration several more times with different players over the last couple weeks to good response. But I still haven't tested any "advanced" variants. I just can't shake the feeling that my impulse to add endgame bonuses or special actions would make a rather elegant game needlessly complex.

Discussion drifted to the topic of "modular complexity," in which a game is perfectly functional even if you ignore one particular way of scoring points or remove one particular component. For example learning to play Carcassonne without the farm scoring or adding any of the expansions.

Exploring that idea a bit, I tested the game with a simpler orthogonal variation. You couldn't place or capture diagonally. That was actually easier to understand, but harder to play. It felt very much like playing classic Carcassonne. Way fewer long-term strategic options and fewer opportunities for turnarounds. Still worthwhile as an introductory "level 0" for new players who have trouble playing spatial games.

As for special powers and whatnot, I'm going to keep that in check until it's time for an expansion. What I will add as an optional add-on in the base game are "Bills" which you're trying to pass by arranging the board in a certain pattern. I'm going to lift a trick from Monsoon Market by giving each Bill varying levels of rewards based on accuracy to the given pattern.

Some senators will have symbols on them indicating a committee to which they belong. Each committee is named after an astrological sign, such as Aquarius Committee, Capricorn Committee, and so on. Each committee presides over a particular segment of governance, like space travel or resource distribution. Bills require you to get senators of a particular committee together in one row. The closer you can do that, the better. For example

Drill for Ice in Oort Cloud
3 Aquarius, 2 Ares
  • Straight Line, Facing You: +3 pts
  • Straight Line: +2 pts
  • Contiguous Group: +1 pt

So that's what I've been testing lately. It's coming along nicely!

July 2014 Sales Report

In the spirit of transparency, I release my print-on-demand card game sales numbers every month. When I started out releasing games this way, I didn't have any metric against which I could compare my performance. So here's how July went...

It was bananas.

First, some background: When I was just starting out, the advice from DriveThruCards told me to price my games at whatever price I wanted, but to imply that it was marked down a couple bucks from some arbitrarily higher price. I thought "that's silly, surely customers are wise to that old trick by now." For a long time I resisted that tactic, just setting all of my games at a flat price.

However, the success of my tiny Origins-timed promotion and my new early bird discount contributed to quite a recovery from a weak second quarter. Given that performance, I thought it would be worth a shot to participate in the Christmas in July event. I was skeptical that it would help, but I thought I'd at least make up some banners and promote the event for my own products. If this event didn't work, I didn't want it to be for my lack of effort.

Twitter ad for Christmas in July sale

Wow, am I eating humble pie today. I don't know why I was so reluctant to heed the pricing advice all those months ago. I'm pleased to say July was the best month's performance of the year. Huge spikes in overall sales, gross income, and net earnings all around.

  • Monsoon Market is the first product to outsell Koi Pond in its first full month.
  • Despite only being available two days, Light Rail out-performed almost every other product's opening month.
  • Overall sales volume was double June's, and June was already the peak of the year.
Let's take a look at the charts.
Volume of Sales (Ignore that May spike. It was a bulk order of promo cards.)

Gross Sales Income
And here are the raw numbers, sales growth or decline noted in green or red beside each listing.

5x Bird Bucks +0
38x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game +18
27x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) +18
28x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) +9
24x Koi Pond: Moon Temple +23
23x Light Rail (new!)
58x Monsoon Market +40
13x Nine Lives Card Game +0
9x Penny Farthing Catapult -4
14x Regime +1
27x Suspense: the Card Game +18 
8x Ten Pen +0

284 Total Sold (Over double last month!)
$2,073.50 Gross Sales
$485.79 Earnings

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
1223 Products Sold
$5,895.98 Gross Sales
$1,803.13 Earnings

Now, I've been through enough recessions to keep my excitement in check. Basically these last two months compensate for second quarter's sluggish numbers. So while I'm optimistic about the future, I know better than to expect this kind of meteoric growth forever. There will be ups and downs to come, but I'm glad my long-term plan seems to be working. See you next month!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.