Card at Work: 7 — Designing a CCG Template, Part 2

Yay! Here's the conclusion of the 2-part lesson in designing a CCG-style prototype card template. I hope you find this useful as I discuss inserting variable icon images into inline variable text, among other useful little tricks.

The next series of videos will cover a few miscellaneous lessons like how to set up 3x3 card sheets and make variable lines separating sections of body text. Then we'll go into a deeper case study of how I designed the cards for an early version of A La Kart.

Hope you enjoy the videos! Please support the series at Patreon!

Carcassonne Live! Chris Bryan vs. Me, 2/26 3pm EST

I challenge Board with Life's Chris Bryan to a duel on the fields of Carcassonne! Meeple a Meeple. Join us at my twitch channel on Friday 2/26 3pm EST and watch my glorious yet magnanimous victory or my humbling and petulant defeat! Either way, it'll be fun times on a Friday afternoon. See you there!

A Drafting/Turn Order Mechanism

Scottish Championship Car Racing

Back in December 2015, I was noodling a simple turn order drafting mechanism with some random bits I had around the lab. Little did I know that a similar mechanism had been incorporated into Madeira, but I thought it worth posting about for posterity in case I explore it for future designs.

A 5 player game starts here:

From first to last, each player moves their pawn beside any card and takes it, along with any of its chips:

Once the cards and chips are gone, the pawns remain, thus establishing a new turn order for the subsequent draft. I could see this drafting mechanism imposed onto a track, so on any turn you can move up to 5 spaces forward, collecting whatever is available on that spot. There would need to be competing but comparable motives for collecting a card, moving up in turn order, or moving along the track. I'm very curious to see a racing theme for this mechanism. What do you think?

Kodama backers, check your email!

The mailing address surveys just went out to Kodama: the Tree Spirits backers! Check your filters and respond ASAP. Eeee!

Party of 1: Willie's Guidelines for Solitaire Variants


Drew Hicks and I are working on a top-secret project that calls for a solitaire variant. Neither of us has done much solitaire development yet, so I thought it would be good to talk to Willie Hung since he's an avid solo gamer. We asked about the basics of what makes solo gaming so appealing to him and how to capture that fun.

Below are his responses to our questions, which I thought were very useful for anyone who ventures into the realm of solo play.

Do you find "grades" a satisfying victory condition for a solitaire game? In other words, certain spans of victory points are categorized as being C, B, A, A+, etc?

I find them quite satisfactory. It beats just trying to get a "high score" as many other games have done before. Good examples are Imperial Settlers, Skyline, Hostage Negotiator, and The Gallerist. Even games like Dungeon Roll have small "achievement" awards to strive for that I found amusing. In addition, the victory point categories in The Gallerist also contain sub-victory conditions; in addition to achieving the proper score to enter that rank, they also check if you met other sub-goals, if you discovered a minimum number of artists, etc. It adds more depth and indirect incentive during gameplay instead of just gunning for a high score.

Do you prefer perfect information throughout the game, as if it's a pure puzzle, or randomized input, so you have to adapt to somewhat unpredictable circumstances?

Most of my solo experiences deal with randomized input (dice, random card draws). When I think of perfect info, I think of Neuroshima Hex and their set solo puzzles. While I've never played them, I can surmise that they'd feel their replayability is lost once solved. But at the same time, I can see how people may dismiss a game BECAUSE of randomized input.

But, I do enjoy a rather finite set of randomized input. Like, if you're selecting 5 objectives from a pool of 10, not 50. Or if certain components can be slotted in and out in modular fashion. That way, I can better prepare my strategy mentally for how I'll play my game. In that way, it's not randomized if you know abstractly what's going in, but it's still random in that you won't know the specific details of it. Hope I didn't just complicate my explanation there...

Maybe a better example is Sylvion. In the advanced game, you draft cards to use in your actual game. You would select what column of cards you want, and the AI randomly elminates another, until you finalize your deck. This ensures each game is "randomized," but you still have pefect information of what your deck contains (since you determined what went into it).

How do you feel about time limits in solitaire games, whether they be real time or just limited numbers of turns? Do they enhance the challenge or just seem arbitrary?

Probably the only real-time solo game I've played with a time limit has been Escape, and that is probably not the best example. Mainly because that one involves a HIGH amount of random dice-rolling luck. Something more appropriate is The Gallerist's method, where the AI player would, in each turn, take one ticket token per turn. The moment ticket tokens were exhausted, the game would end. What's particularly interesting about that is that you yourself often need those ticket tokens, too. In taking them, you yourself are actively shortening your game time. In addition, if you knock the AI gallerist from a position to use that action your turn, that will trigger YET ANOTHER ticket lost, so it impacts you whether you REALLY need to perform that particular action this turn or later.

Then there's games that apply pressure than time, like Hostage Negotiator. In there, it's the number of hostages and the threat level marker that determine how you use your time, not to mention that terror levels are finitely set to 10 cards, and that you draw one every turn. So, you can run out of "time" when you exhaust  your terror deck, if you lose more hostages, or if the abductor escapes. But in there, just about everything is linked up. This multitude of losing factors emphasizes the theme to a boiling point.

Speaking of linked, one of my favorites in terms of turn-based time limit is Pandemic. The 3 different ways the game can win is a great example of a time limit instilled into a game that doesn't use any time-limit tracker, per se (per say?). Well, maybe exhausting the player's deck is the official way to say time's up (and that HAS happened to me often enough). The other methods (exhausting all virus cubes of one color, more than 8 outbreaks) are more pressure-sensitive, but are based on how you handle your moves each turn in a timely manner. It greatly enhances the game's urgency theme of rushing to cure people of deadly diseases.

How do you feel about AI opponents? What are some good examples and poor examples? I gave this a shot in Curse You Robin Hood, but I'm not sure if that's a good example. :D

AI opponents...I personally would rather just play a game with as little involvement handling AI opponents as possible. It's hard enough figuring out your own moves, but if you have to determine your opponents, it puts me off sometimes. It's why I can't seem to complete a solo game of Suburbia to succession. I would need to smartly determine where the opponent's tile goes on THEIR board, which only grows more complicated further along the game I go. And that's all sheer math calculations in the end. I still enjoy the game, but it's certainly taxing.

Imperial Settlers is a good one. It has an AI deck that simply razes lands depending on what icons appear. Keeps their turns short an sweet, but it also allows the AI to attack twice per turn. But Portal kept it simple: It attacks twice, and any cards it razes, it collects into THEIR total count. The victory condition is that you own more faction cards than cards in their collection. So, if you're not actively razing THEIR cards and they attack yours well, you have a higher score to compete against in the end.

Bottom of the Ninth, while interesting, is an example of a fiddly AI. Sure, the pitch deck helps determine the pitcher's selection, but the lookup table for how the pitcher reacts to their dice roll (not to mention each pitcher's individual stats and traits to consider) makes the learning curve for their turn to be quite high before you get the hang of it. And, for the record, their solo variant is the best score out of 6 different games. I've barely finished one so far. Love the game still, but man...

Hostage Negotiator has their different abductors as AI opponents. The base game comes with 3, and 4 additional ones have been released as 4 separate booster packs. I love the modular aspect of these. Each abductor comes with 1-4 demands, and you only select 1 randomly. Also, the added booster scenarios often slot in more negotiator cards, special small decks, and other scenario-related components. What's great is that these are limited to the 12-cards-only booster packs.

I actually did like the simple AI rulesets from Curse You Robin Hood. It was easy for me to assign roles to players without any specific additional setup other than "you are this, you are that," and then just remembering their one rule. At the same time, though, playing with 3 other artificial players really drove the aspect home that I was truly solo, and felt like I was playing a simple computer program that had simple commands. It was an overall mind puzzle, but it's one that takes time to develop in each game. That's actually the selling point for me to keep trying new combos of AI each play.

Our conversation continued from there, but this on its own is an awesome overview of solitaire gameplay in modern games. Thanks, Willie!

Poker Hands with Numbered Cards without Suits

I love games like No Thanks, Little Devils, For Sale, 6 Nimmt, and The Game, which use a deck of sequentially numbered cards, no suits, and barely any other components. It’s a wonderful design challenge that I return to from time to time. In that exploration, I came up with a list of “poker” hands that you could put together with a deck of 50 numbered cards numbered 01-50. These should work with any size deck, with some slight tweaks. I’m not sure how or when I’ll use this mechanism, but I share it with you here for your own games if you want to use it.

These hands are ordered from best to worst.

Fool’s Hand
01, 23, 45...
At least three cards with an ascending sequence of digits. If tied, the highest rank in either hand wins. (This is a Star Wars joke for the fans out there.)

Straight Flush
Good:   03, 11, 28, 34, 42
Bad:    03, 24, 05, 36, 17
Ugly:   18, 20, 13, 04, 50
Ascending sequence of five cards. If tied, good beats bad, bad beats ugly. If still tied, the highest digit wins.

Four of a Kind
Good:   10, 13, 14, 18
Bad:    09, 29, 39, 49
Ugly:   02, 25, 28, 42
Four cards that share a digit. If tied, good beats bad, bad beats ugly. If still tied, the highest digit wins.

Full House
Good:    10, 13, 14, 35, 38
Bad:     08, 28, 38, 12, 02
Ugly:    12, 23, 28, 48, 24
Three cards that share a digit and two cards that share a digit.  If tied, good beats bad, bad beats ugly. If still tied, the highest digit wins.

Short Straight
Same as a Straight Flush, but fewer cards (two-to-four). If tied, more cards wins. If still tied, highest rank wins.

Three of a Kind
Same as four-of-a-kind, but three cards.

Two Pair*
Good:    10, 13, 45, 48
Bad:     08, 58, 32, 72
Ugly:    08, 28, 64, 43
Two cards that share a digit and two cards that share another digit.  If tied, good beats bad, bad beats ugly. If still tied, the highest digit wins.
*These examples assume a deck larger than 50 cards.

Same as Two Pair, but only one pair sharing a digit.

High Card
Highest ranking card wins.

I like that using the "tens" and "ones" digit or a mix makes an intuitive sub-hierarchy within a traditional poker hand hierarchy. I'm not 100% sold on calling them Good, Bad, and Ugly, they just seemed to make sense to communicate their relative difficulty.

I also figured out the "rarity" of digits in a 01-50 card deck which makes some interesting game design fodder.
Digit  Frequency
0      14
1-4    15
5      6
6-9    5 
Interesting that the frequency of 0-5 is almost triple that of 5-9. Should that be reflected in the ranking of these poker hands? Almost any five-card hand worth anything will be built out of 0-4 since they're so much more common. I could be wrong about that assessment though. This is all just conjecture. I'm still trying to find the right game or theme where these rankings would make more sense than just using a more traditional card deck and poker rankings. Maybe you can find a home for this thing. :)

Preview Molly Ostertag's Art for "Curse You, Robin Hood!"

Molly Ostertag illustrated "Curse You, Robin Hood!" omg! OMG! I'm so happy with how these five characters turned out. She provided the line art and I did my best to add a few pops of color that wouldn't get in the way of her awesome work. Below is a time-lapse video of the coloring process.

And check out how it turned out below:

Twitter drafted my Hearthstone Arena deck!

Here's something silly and fun I did for my birthday. I asked my Twitter followers to draft my arena deck. I posted each screen on twitter and followed the commands of whoever responded first. Turns out the deck wasn't too bad! Check out the playlist below.

200+ Area Control and Worker Placement Mechanics!

IMG_3027 It's my birthday, so I thought it would be nice to do something special and crowdsource a big list of mechanisms! These apply to either area control games or worker placement games as triggers for special actions. Peruse this list next time you need some inspiration for your game design. The bulk of this list came from my twitter followers, which you can find on this thread. Thanks, tweeps!

If you ___ [this space/area/territory], do [action].

  1. enter
  2. enter from the north into
  3. enter from the south into
  4. enter from the east into
  5. enter from the west into
  6. leave
  7. leave empty
  8. go north from
  9. go south from
  10. go east from
  11. go west from
  12. complete
  13. start the turn in
  14. end the turn in
  15. start the round in
  16. end the turn in
  17. start the phase in
  18. start the phase in
  19. start the game in
  20. end the game in
  21. destroy
  22. destroy an area adjacent to
  23. have simple friendly majority present in
  24. have simple unfriendly majority present in
  25. have more present than all other players combined in
  26. have least presence
  27. have no presence
  28. have an even presence
  29. have an odd presence
  30. enclose
  31. complete an enclosure around
  32. become adjacent to
  33. buy from
  34. buy from an area adjacent to
  35. sell
  36. sell to
  37. sell from an area adjacent to
  38. build on
  39. built on an area adjacent to
  40. create
  41. are pushed out of
  42. farm on
  43. harvest from
  44. are part of a group on
  45. are the only one on (meaning your one pawn is the only one present)
  46. are the only ones on (meaning there are multiple pawns, but only yours)
  47. fence
  48. completely fence off
  49. connect
  50. join the longest connection to

You can quadruple this list by adding the following conditional modifiers
  • are first to...
  • are last to...
  • most recently...
And with that, you have 200+ different area control or worker placement mechanisms! By no means comprehensive, but maybe they can shake loose your designer's block some day.

Got any more mechanics to add to the list? Share them in the comments!

The People vs. Robin Hood

It's been about two months since I posted the rules for "Curse You, Robin Hood!" for public feedback. To summarize it, you're a merchant in the time of Robin Hood. You're trying to get rich, but not rich enough that Robin Hood notices your stockpile and robs from you. Each player simultaneously reveals a card from their hand, then some players engage in mandatory trades based on whether they play matching ranks or highest/lowest ranks. Here's the gist so far:

+ Many funny surprises as a result of the simultaneous reveals and mandatory trades
+ Great quick playstyle for tavern play
~ It's feather-light, which is a plus or minus depending on your group's preferences
- Though it is easy to play, it is hard to know how to play well
- Nuances of negotiation aren't immediately apparent

My options going forward are, very broadly speaking:

A. keep it light
B. develop a heavier game with this core mechanism
1. put it on a POD site
2. put it on the pitch track for traditional publishing

A1: Keep it light and POD it
This was my usual modus operandi throughout 2014, which served me pretty well for that whole period. However, it also made for a frustrating dilemma for future publishers who took interest in the games much later. At the moment, I've had more games rejected for being too light than for being too heavy, which says to me that these light games are just better products for POD channels.

B1: Develop a heavier game and POD it
This will take a little longer as I figure out what to add to the game, meaning new mechanisms and components. I can foresee what is currently a trading mechanism instead being some other mandatory interaction, similar to the destiny deck in Cosmic Encounter. With new components, that likely raises the price beyond the usual $9.99 psychological limit. A tougher sell for the POD market.

A2: Keep it light and pitch it
I've had more games rejected for being too light than any other reason, partly because the economic pressures of POD games compel light gameplay with low price tags. As a result, it's harder to "stretch" these games for kickstarter campaigns. Meanwhile, even if it does get accepted, you have to compete with hundreds of other light games that come on the market every quarter. It's a very crowded market. Gotta admit, this option isn't enticing.

B2: Develop a heavier game and pitch it
More recently, I've tried to beef up my old light games to be a little more meaty, but then now I'm having the opposite problem. The games are feeling a little too cumbersome in their procedures or upkeep. That's probably just me still grappling with this sphere of game design, but more than one bit of advice has told me that I need to go in this direction if my career is going to develop any further.

So yeah, I'm trying to figure out where to go next. No verdict just yet. All of these options have pros and cons. What do you think?

Watch: How to Automatically Highlight Keywords in Game Text [InDesign DataMerge]

A couple days ago Matthew G. asked me how to use InDesign to automatically highlight certain text without having to manually do it. He was generous enough to let me record my demonstration of two methods I've practiced over the years.

Check out the video above for details! Hope it helps!

He ain't heavy, He's a Euro

I had the great pleasure of attending Whose Turn Is It Anyway? this weekend. It was a lovely experience and a great opportunity to stretch my muscles on some heavier games.

Ever since publishers asked me to design more "middleweight" games, I've struggled to find a definition for that category. Certainly my existing catalog favors helium-light gameplay. My experience is very limited in this sphere so I'm actively trying to sample more heavier games this year. If I want me to design "middleweight" games, I better try out some heavy games so I can properly calibrate my perspective.

From Japan to France

Back to Whose Turn! I tried out Iki: the Edo Artisans, designed by Koota Yamada, and OrlĂ©ans, designed by Reiner Stockhausen. I had very good teachers for both games so I picked up the nuances pretty quickly.  Neither had the hefty ponderous atmosphere that I had expected "heavy" games to have. They were both certainly long games, clocking in at about two hours each with a tutorial.

Simple Actions on Loop
Still, the actual actions of play were very easy to learn and simply iterated themselves.

In Iki, you move you choose your turn order for the round, then on your turn move your pawn a fixed number of spaces around a board, then take whatever actions are available to that space. Those actions may result in earning various types of income at the end of each month or change the turn order in the subsequent turn.

In Orleans, you draw workers from a bag, assign certain combinations of workers to specific actions, then go around the table resolving one of each player's actions at a time, discarding the requisite workers back into your bag as you do so. The result is similar to a deckbuilding game, except it's a bag of chips instead of cards.

A Timer of Random Events
Over and over again, those simple actions would repeat themselves until the endgame was triggered at a pre-determined moment:

In Iki, that was determined by a pre-set calendar of 12 months, with periodic fires breaking out every few months. The monthly intervals were at a different rate than the fires, so you couldn't get complacent about having everything happening at once. Also the fires break out at random quadrants of the board, so you're never sure whether your artisans are safe for the next round.

In Orleans, it was determined by a stack of random event tiles that gradually empties out. Some of these events cause you to pay extra for resources you've acquired, but others allow you to earn income based on your progress on several different tracks.

So in essence, both games were fun challenges of efficiency to earn as many points as possible before the deadline. That seems very easy to understand. Why do I have this impression that "heavy games" are more difficult than this?

What is Heavy?

I asked folks nearby whether these games would be considered "heavy" and it was hard to get a solid answer. One attendee said he usually likes "lighter" games, by which he meant something like 45 minutes to an hour. I asked my followers in this tweet for their take, which revealed a few leading indicators:
  • Number of options per turn
  • Downtime between turns
  • How much skill or chance can affect final results
  • Overall play length
  • Actual physical weight of the box(!)
Now I at least have a better sense of direction for where I should take my own games.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.