British Museum's Online Catalog of Game Boards

The British Museum's online catalog has a great collection of 16th century game boards. On top of that, they'll send you high-resolution scans for free! Search for 'game board' 1500 to 1600 and admire the pretty.

» Thanks to Joanna for the tip!
» The British Museum Collection Database Search

Etched Utara Dice + The Costs of Custom Dice

(Click to embiggen!)

I ordered etched Utara dice from GameStation and they just arrived! (You can see the bidding process in this post.) So, for those of you who want to venture in the wild and wooly world of dice games, I'll share some key info.

Here was the timeline:
March 4: Sent request for estimate to GameStation.
March 6: Receive quote from GameStation. (Next business day, basically.)
March 17: Call GameStation toll-free to order 30d. Get a digital proof same day!
March 28: 30 custom dice arrive in the mail.

Here are the specs and final numbers:
16mm square-edged opaque blank dice
Custom face on each side
Etch only
Cost+Shipping: $81

I'm happy with my purchase. The rep at GameStation (Jason W) was prompt and very helpful at every step of the process. Plus, the dice look fantastic. I don't know why the etching option is lower-priced. We've roughed up these dice quite a bit over the past few days and show no signs of wear.

The price of the order may seem high for thirty dice, but this was a very small run and many vendors won't even bother producing a set this small in quantity. Now, I have a great set of dice to bring to conventions and run demos. With this strong prototype, I can create promotional videos and pitch to partners or, later, create a Kickstarter campaign. I'm excited about the possibilities!

» Many thanks to Jason at GameStation for making Utara dice a reality.
» Super special thanks to Tim Rodriguez of Dice+Food+Lodging for recommending GameStation.
» How to play Utara

Janus plays Utara in Italy + A New Variant?

Giullina shared this photo of Renato Ramonda teaching Utara at PLAY! Modena. So much of this piques my interest. One, are those paper prototypes? Two, is that a printed rules sheet? Three, they're playing Utara overseas?? Awesome, awesome. Renato shares more on his tumblr:

"People gathered around and demanded to play too: we quickly played a good number of games and tried all the variant Sun/Moon options. I can definitely say that the game is fun, extremely simple to teach and learn, has a nice tactile element and when playing with the “advanced” rules I think a nice element of lightweight strategy: will I take this two dice or will I take only one but negate a Day or Tide to my opponent?"

Renato and friends also tinkered with a new variant that allows you to change the compass. You can see more on that in his post.

» Renato's Tumblr Post
» More photos
» Janus Design
» Official Rules for Utara

Lyndsay's Favorite Game Console is a Table and Chairs

Lyndsay Peters models her "My Favorite Game Console" shirt. It took a while to get through customs – and she says it smelled of celery when she got it – but now she proudly wears it at her D&D game.

Speaking of making a sartorial splash at the table, check out her Dragon Chow dice bags. Durable, double-layered, flat-bottomed drawstring pouches perfect for carrying your arsenal of polyhedrons. Your friends will be envious of the awesome.

» Here's more about the Dragon Chow dice bags.
» Here's a complete list of sizes and styles of the shirt.

Visual Coding in Belle of the Ball

In Belle of the Ball, there are six different families, each noted by a unique symbol+color. The illustrations are also color-coded, using only the palette associated with their family. Each family also has a unique upper border, pattern and ornate family crest behind the illustrated portrait. And if that wasn't enough, I made each guests name alliterative, based on the first letter of their family's surname. All those things make the families distinguishable from each other even without being able to distinguish the colors.

Each guest has up to two actions they may be doing at the party: Either flirting, snubbing or neither, and either eating, drinking, dancing, or neither. For example, a guest may be flirting+eating, snubbing+drinking, just dancing, just flirting or none of the above. Imagine these category 1 as A, B, C and category 2 as a, b, c, d.

The symbols for either action will always go directly beneath the suit, but they are not color coded. They are dark, bold silhouettes representative of that particular action. The symbols from category 1 always go in the upper half of the text block. The symbols from category 2 always go in the lower half. So, at a glance, you can see whether a guest is doing two, one or none of the actions available.

And lastly, you may have noticed a small number above the suit. Each member of the family is numbered 1-16 to help you check that you're not missing any cards. Males are odd-numbered. Females are even-numbered. The numbers themselves aren't used in play, but if they were, I'd be sure to make them the same size as the symbols.

So that's what I've learned so far about the visual codes in my game design. Hope you found this information useful, too!

Undercoding and Overcoding Your Game's Visual Language

Yesterday I wrote a long post on the value and methods of double- or triple-coding your game's visual language. Now here are some pitfalls to watch out for, using some real world examples.

Above is an example of undercoding. Apples to Apples uses only two types of cards in play, each one is a different color: Green and red. Like apples, get it? Makes sense for the theme, but it's also the most common type of color blindness. Take a look at the same image on the right and see if you could distinguish the types of cards at a glance.

Solutions: These cards could have been doublecoded by using a unique illustration for each deck or rotating the layout on one of the decks so it's horizontal.

And here's an example of overcoding. Megan and I really tried to learn Race for the Galaxy from the rules document. We eventually figured out how to make it through a few sessions, but each time we spent a lot of energy just deciphering the numerous symbols and icons. In the end, we spent more time learning the game than actually playing it, which is a shame because I know a lot of folks who swear by RftG.

Solutions: Hard to say, really. There is a LOT of information to get across on a tiny card, so simply writing it all out in plain language may not be efficient. Still, constantly referencing the visual glossary is a huge stumbling block to fluent play. If I were designing Race for the Galaxy from scratch, using all the same rules, I'd probably make it a big box board game. Freed from the constraints of a deck of cards, we could use a board, tokens, pawns, trackers and other implements to help make the learning curve a bit more shallow.

That brings up a final point. Doublecoding can't solve everything. If your game is so complex that it requires a vast visual language, look at the game's design first and see if it needs to be playtested more. If you're satisfied by the game's rules and still need that large language, then look at other format for your game. You may be surprised to find that you're actually making a video game!

Next, I'll talk about how I used coding in Belle of the Ball, taking lessons from all examples.

Beyond Color-Coding: Visual Accessibility in Game Design

In the video above, Pandemic creator Matt Leacock discusses the value of double-coding your game's visual language. By "double-coding," he means using multiple unique methods of visually communicating a game's concepts. Usually this is done in the service of color-blind or otherwise visually impaired players, but when done well, it helps all players navigate your game more easily. Let's take some lessons from good examples out on the market.

Pandemic is a great example of double-coding. In this case, four types of disease are each color-coded, but also given unique, simple and big symbols. This helps the visually impaired, but also let's players collaborate across a game table. Because infection cards and player cards share these symbols, but do not get mixed together, each deck is distinguished with white or black borders and a vertical or horizontal layout.

The cards in Magic: The Gathering are also noteworthy for their use of doublecoding. Each type of spell requires a color of mana, noted along the top border of the card. Each color of mana also has its own unique symbol, easily distinguished from the rest. These symbols aren't big like in Pandemic, but generally you spend most of the game staring closely at your own hand anyway, so it's not such a detriment. Also, each type of spell has its own unique border pattern, making this an unusual example of triplecoding.

And lastly, the purest example of doublecoding I could find on my game shelf: Reiner Knizia's InGenious. Here, the entire game is built around grouping each symbol together. Again, each symbol is uniquely tied to one color, so players with varying levels of visual ability can play together.

So, that's a quick overview on coding your game's visual language beyond color. You can use symbols, patterns, borders, illustrations, and orientations to help reinforce and distinguish different parts of your game. This week, I'll discuss other aspects of visual coding in games and how I followed those lessons in Belle of the Ball.

Next, I'll give a couple examples of undercoding and overcoding.

Revised Guest Cards for Belle of the Ball

I couldn't resist continuing work on Belle of the Ball last week. I made several changes based on people's suggestions from the last round of design. The primary suggestion? Move all the relevant game data up to the top, so players can fan their cards and see what they have at a glance.

Opinions differed on whether to place data on the left or right. If you go by Hoyle playing cards as a standard, it's obvious to put the data on the top left. If you go by Magic: the Gathering or Pokémon, then it ought to be on the top right. I decided to go with the classics.

So now the nameplate is way up at the top. That left the flavor text block at the bottom of the card, kinda lonely. I would've left it there if I didn't run into another problem.

See, I was never really satisfied with the action symbols being in those white circles in the previous round of design. It just felt too tacked on. All my solutions felt tacked on, really. A bookmark hanging from the family suit? Floating on the flood of color as white symbols? I slept on that problem for a few days.

Finally I saw the obvious solution. Just move the freakin' text block up to the top! Ah, and then the portraits could be a bit larger and overlap the text block, creating a nice dimensionality to each card. Sure, that obscures the fancy version of the family suit in the background, but that was always intended as redundant coding anyway.

Megan said this solution looked like an old-school 8-bit RPG. The ones where the speaking character has a little avatar in the corner and a huge text window where their words crawl onto screen. This is a good thing! This way, the cards use natural, existing visual cues to better serve the flavor text.

With all those elements in place, I got to work coloring the actual illustrations. I've been intimidated by this task for a long time. Mori and Liz gave me great material, and I'm honestly not very experienced at pure coloring in photoshop, so I was just hoping I wouldn't mess up their hard work.

It took some experimentation, but I eventually settled on a cel shading style that seemed to complement the portraits very well. I kept each portrait monochromatic to its respective suit. So, any Crawhole portrait is going to have lots of oranges. The neutral tans and whites are used sparingly to create highlights and bring out the facial features.

Aaaand lastly, I wrote up some flavor text for each card that had an illustration. I plan for each card to have a bit of flavor text. A kind of solo fun for the players to enjoy during and away from the game. Each family has its own quirks and each guest is doing different actions. These in combination help guide how that character talks. I've been writing a lot more scripts for my day job lately, so that practice came in handy here. If I have to self-produce, I hope to connect with a proper writer for these blurbs.

So those are the guest card designs. Next, I'll talk about double-coding in game graphics and how I've used it in Belle of the Ball.

Alien Among Us

An alien lurks in a tiny arctic town surrounding an archeological dig. The alien is jumping from host to host, turning the archeologists and locals into insidious spawn. Even the soldiers called in to contain the situation may already be infected. Will the town collapse into paranoia? Will the humans defeat the hostile alien threat? Earn each other's trust. Find the Alien. Don't act suspicious.

» Development Status: Dormant, but welcome to comments.
» Inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing and Werewolf/Mafia games
» Originally created as a part of the Luchacabra project.
» Resurrected by Luca Ricci's request.

Stuff You Need
A room with 15-25 players.
One person to be the moderator.
One role card per player.
Half the cards say "You are a LOCAL. You have one vote and one trust token."
One quarter say "You are a SOLDIER. You have two votes."
One quarter say "You are an ARCHEOLOGIST. You have two trust tokens."

Before play, the Moderator randomly and secretly selects one of the cards. That card is amended to also say, "...and you are the ALIEN AMONG US."
The Moderator reads the introduction above.
Each player draws a card at random to find out their role.
The Moderator guides the group through each round.

Step 1: The Alien chooses a new host.
The Moderator tells everyone to cover their eyes. The Moderator tells the Alien and any Spawns to wake up. As quietly as possible, the Alien walks around the room and chooses a host by tapping him on the shoulder. Spawns can help choose the host, but the final decision lies with the Alien. After being tapped, the Host keeps his eyes covered. In the next round, the Host will take on the role of the Alien. The Alien of the current round will revert to a Spawn in the next round.

Step 2: The Humans grow paranoid.
The Moderator tells the Aliens and Spawn to cover their eyes. The Moderator tells everyone to open their eyes. Accusations begin. After discussing each other's suspicious behavior, the LOCALS and SOLDIERS secretly cast their vote(s) for who they think is the Alien. The Moderator reads out the votes. If at this point half or more of the players are accused, the Alien wins the game.

Step 3: The Humans vouch for each other.
The LOCALS and ARCHEOLOGISTS may spend their trust token(s) on an accused players’ behalf to cancel out votes against them. One token cancels one vote. You are allowed to spend trust tokens on yourself, but that is very suspicious. The Moderator collects any spent tokens.

Step 4: The accused are tested.
Any accused player who has votes against him will reveal whether he is a Human, Spawn or the Alien. If tokens have canceled out all votes, the player(s) who got the most votes is tested. (Regardless of how many trust tokens were spent on his behalf.)

If the accused player is Human, anyone who spent trust tokens on his behalf gets those Trust tokens back plus an extra Trust token as a reward. The accused player chooses their own reward: A Trust token or a vote.

If the accused player is a Spawn, anyone who spent trust tokens on his behalf does not get them back and automatically gets an extra accusation against them in the next round.

After a Spawn is discovered, the humans take this opportunity to decide whether to eliminate him. If they decline, the Spawn can participate in discussions and help the humans find the Alien, but he gets no tokens or votes. He may, in fact, simply be trying to cover up for the Alien.

If the humans decide to eliminate him, he steps away and stands by the Moderator. He may still help the Alien choose its next host during Step 1.

Note: This is the only chance for the humans to eliminate a discovered Spawn. The Spawn cannot be eliminated after the round in which he was discovered.

If the accused player is the Alien, the humans win!

Otherwise, the next round continues from Step 1.

The Humans win if they discover the Alien in Step 4.
The Alien wins if half or more of the players get accused in Step 2.

Hoo boy! This is an old, old game from many years ago. Luca Ricci asked about it, so I decided to dust off the text, clean up the game terms and re-write some of the rules for clarity. This game is not in active development, but I'm happy to take comments.

Utara - "Play Here Now."

While Tim and the Ludo Dojo guys played Utara, they were deciding which moon variant to use. One of the players proposed using the moon's actual phase. In this case, the moon was almost full, so they used the Full Moon variant. That's when I realized just how much "Play Here Now" is embedded in Utara's design.

To "Play Here Now" means you're playing something that elegantly reminds you of where you are in that place and in that time. The phrase itself is inspired by spiritual teach Ram Dass' 1971 book Be Here Now. Though the Buddha reputedly discouraged games as a distraction from true awareness, I'll humbly submit that a game can be the spoonful of sugar to help the existential medicine go down.

Obviously, the "here-ness" is inherent in using compass directions as a part of gameplay. You could, as I've often done, arbitrarily choose any direction as "North" and begin the game. But there is a very nice element of spatial awareness inherent in actually moving true north, east, south and west. It gives the player a very brief sense of spatial awareness taken for granted in many cultures across the world.

But it's the "Now-ness," that I didn't realize was also inherent in the game. By literally using current phases of the moon, position of the sun and other natural phenomenon, you create a different game based on your place on earth. Indeed, based on your place in the universe.

Elements of "Play Here Now" can be found in other games, too. MMOs with special unlockable content during holidays remind you of the time of year. Golf is well known for its courses of varying difficulty, reminding you of your place in the world. (Nevermind the vagaries of wind, rain and sunshine.)

So, there is a "supermoon" tomorrow night, in which the moon's orbit brings it very close to Earth and there is a full moon at the same time. I don't know what that means for how you play Utara, but I bet it makes the game interesting.

» Photo Credit: CC BY Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel

Tim Rodriguez plays Utara with Scott Price of Ludo Dojo

So yesterday Tim Rodriguez of Dice+Food+Lodging drops this on me:

"Tonight I'll be part of a short playtest/discussion taping of Utara that's going to be used as a lesson in something my friend Scott is working on called Ludo Dojo. Utara I think hits his hotspots for games that are interesting and very good to analyze for their instructional qualities. It's a really elegant game where you can make small tweaks and instantly see how that affects play. Plus, handfuls of dice."

Ludo Dojo is heavily involved in teaching game design and connecting new creators with more experienced vets. The founder, Scott Price, has a lot of experience in marketing and development of games with broad appeal.

Tim was kind enough to record the audio of that session. That very large file can be found here. Scott Price will be editing together a video as well, which I'll link to as soon as it's available.

I haven't had a chance to listen to the entire recording yet, but I'll offer my observations and notes as soon as I can. Tim's hinted already that there are lots of ideas for variants and tweaks for existing variants.

Plans for Selling the Utara Dice Game

Each unit would have about 20 dice. From talking to players at Dreamation and checking out the price point for Steve Jackson Games' Zombie Dice, I sense $10-$15 is the sweet spot for unit pricing. That means each die must cost me less than 50¢. A more reasonable cost would be something like 10¢, to create margin for the costs of packaging, storing and shipping.

Plan A: Print a single prototype with the ultimate goal of licensing the rights to a larger producer. Higher cost per die, but lower total cost. Use the prototype to run demos and make promotional videos.

Plan B: Produce a short run for direct sales to consumers. Hope to break even within a year, either by selling out of the product or licensing the rights to a larger producer. Lower cost per die, but higher total cost, plus work of marketing and fulfillment.

I sent out a request for estimate with the following specs:

16mm six-sided dice
Opaque Blue or White
Unique design on each face
Quantity: 20, 500, 1000

Vendor 1:
10-25 dice @ $6.00 per
26-99 dice @ $4.50 per
100-199 dice @ $3.60 per
200+ dice @ $3.00 per

Vendor 2:
20 dice @ $5 per
500 dice @ $2.75 per
1000 dice @ $2.50 per
Vendor 2 also has a lower end option: White print on blue for half-price.

So, my decision is to go with Plan A. In a worst case scenario, I'm out a hundred bucks. Really, that's a marketing expense. With this prototype, I can run convention demos, make videos, and give a better example of the product vision.

Note: There is another option for a solo operation like mine. I can get 1000 blank dice for about $70, print sheets of stickers for around $20-$30, then put in the time to adhere the stickers to the dice by hand. I'd sell through Etsy, in the hopes that the handmade aesthetic wouldn't look so out of place there. I'll keep this in my back pocket if a publisher doesn't come through in a year.

Next steps:
» Buy a domain. is taken.
» Formal prototype for the packaging and rules sheet.
» Make demo video using footage from Dreamation.
» Send links to video (along with formal proposals) to potential publishers.

Joanna's Utara Dice and Rob's Wagering Rules Variant

You last saw Joanna while she was playing and teaching Utara in this video. Here, she's showing off her own Utara dice she made at home to test out new rules and play with her home group. In the third photo, you'll see a wagering rules variant created by Rob McDiarmid:

"Here's a thought for a gambling version. Maybe you throw half the pot on the table first, before rolling the dice. Those coins represent ports. If you cross a port, you get to collect the coin. Any ports not collected during play go to the winner. But maybe ports also end your turn."

Brilliant idea, I thought. Joanna's testing out that variant right now. I think you could add even more wagering options by placing bets along the north, south, east, and west edges of the board. Any time a die leads off the board in that direction, you can collect one coin from that side.

These wagering variants and other suggested rules will be included in the official rules. I can't wait to show off the customized dice I'm ordering. Until then, keep rolling!

» Rules for Utara

Playing Utara Dice Game at Dreamation 2011

Utara was a big success at Dreamation 2011. In the video above, you can see a montage of several rounds of play. People gathered around tables to play on their own. Sizeable groups of non-convention attendees huddled to check it out. Audiences were 50/50 male/female. I consider this enough of a success that I'm looking at the math for going commercial. I'll post about that soon.

Some new rules that came out of all the demos I did at Dreamation include:

» Play one round for each player.
» First player of first round is chosen at random.
» First player of subsequent rounds is whoever has fewest points.
» This game draws a crowd. Ask bystanders for Moon and Sun style.
» Otherwise, first player chooses Moon or Sun. Second player chooses the other.

Belle of The Ball Prototype Card Designs

Just a quick progress report on Belle of the Ball. Spent the better part of last week revising the rules according to the Belle playtesters' comments. These edits included some changes to the card designs.

Actually, I don't think I ever mentioned this on the blog, but I found some really good prices on printing custom playing cards as small print runs. The prices were good enough that they convinced me to go with cards instead of tiles.

That mean resizing and reformatting the tiles to suit the new dimensions. Fortunately, the printer offers a very handy template for card sheets as you can see in the second picture above.

The extra room also gives me an opportunity to include flavor text for each guest. I don't know yet how I'll use that opportunity. Perhaps continuing the alliterative theme from the Belle cards?

I also need to finally color the great illustrations from Mori McLamb and Liz Radtke. They gave me some great material, I hope I can do them justice.

For now, I'm taking a break on Belle to focus on preparing Utara's prototype and continuing the layout for Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. More on Utara and dice production in general in days to come.

The Alchemist by Bryan Hansel

Bryan Hansel created a funny little story game he says was inspired by Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple and The Leftovers. High praise, 'cause this game sounds like it's a fun time:

"The Alchemist is a story game set in a world where lead can become gold. You and your friends make a story about how the alchemist and his minions attempt to make gold against all odds. While the minions gather the secret ingredients and toil away, the alchemist kicks back in his lab and hands out sage advice. Find out what gets in the way as you play."

He's already tested his two player rules, which created this story.

» The Alchemist by Bryan Hansel

[In the Lab] Dung & Dragons - Loose Notes and Pitch

It started as a joke. I asked a simple question: "Tell me anything about the game 'Dung & Dragons'" What followed is a bubbling stream of brilliance from my friends online.

» A game about managing a dragon ranch, focusing on the stable hands' daily duties
» Naturally there are fundamental differences between the poop of the metallic vs. chromatic vs. mineral dragons, and each color of dragon crap differs from those of its brothers. At least some varieties need to be smeared on like face paint to work. Other types must be eaten.
» Purists long for the days of 1st edition where, as they put it, they had "less crap to move around"
» It totally needs rather large dragon cards (possibly the front of the egg-deck) so you can place them face up in your stable and then place foodstuffs (cubes or disks of course, wooden and in nice colors) at their heads, and then turn by turn move the foodstuffs down (I imagine, head, stomach, and ass, but there could be more) exchanging the type of thingy on the way depending on the dragon. Some dragons even have two stomachs, some have bigger stomachs so you can feed them more at a time, some might even have slower digestion (more steps in the process). Then the game can be about planning. Decisions about how you think the future market looks.
» Prunes are good! More prunes! And farting! We need a whole chapter on the nature of dragons farts! I want to play my first smell-o-rama rpg! Love is in the air!

Others had ideas for roles to play in the game:

» Ratcatcher, uhh, catches rats (and other vermin).
» Village Idiot: gains a level of immunity through gross stupidity.
» Constable cuts down banditry. Friar keeps people happy. Reeve makes everything run more efficiently.
» Farmer: grows special dragon-food
Builder: expands the ranch
Haggler: buying eggs and food
Vet:speed up dragon growth, heals damaged dragons
Guardian: against thieves and spies
Rider: taming and training the dragon
Virgin: boosts the dragon, but the boost may ruin it
Wizard: refines and intensifies the dragon-breath
Thief: steals eggs and/or equipment from one other character
Spy: makes you partake in the developments of two other players
Saboteur: inflict some damage to a dragon

Liz Radtke had a whole bunch of great ideas for alternative titles:

» Dragon Ranch, Dragon Tamer, Dragon Dung Derby, Dung Tycoon, Dung Quest, Flames and Fumes, Stable Scooper, Dragon Slave, DooDooragons, Dung Master, Stables and Bite Wounds, Darn that Dragon, Dung Wars, Steaming Stables, Flaming Fewmets, Dangerous Dung, Drak Dreck (yiddish for poop), Sh*t & Serpents

I absorbed all these ideas and settled on a pitch.

Dung & Dragons
(Working Title)

A co-operative economic game with a time limit. You and the other players are raising dragons to compete in the upcoming county fair. You're budgeting your money and time to raise the best dragons. There are multiple levels of success, like ribbons ranging from white to blue. There might also be more exotic fantasy-themed prizes like the Vorpal Trophy.

The dragons produce different types of dung, depending on the kind of food you give them. Food ranges from basic dragon pellets to raw ore and gemstones. There is an alchemical reaction in their bowels and out comes money! Well, chips.

With that money, you have choices to make. For example, buying dragon eggs. When you buy a dragon egg, you spend a chip to pull a card from the egg deck without looking at it. You can pull one card per chip you spend. You then look at the cards to see what kind of dragon will hatch from each egg. Choose one egg to keep. You shuffle the rest back into the egg deck. This emulates spending a bunch of money to have a pick of the litter or just tossing in a coin and taking your chances.

I want to study more economic and "tycoon" games to see how they handle markets. I'm also looking closely at Pandemic for pacing and simulation.

» Previously: Dung & Dragons Concept Art: From Sketch to Color

Finishing, Teaching, and Marketing Your Game on Dice+Food+Lodging

The third part of my conversation with Tim Rodriguez on Dice+Food+Lodging is now available for download. We cover a lot of topics, including finishing your game, marketing it, the problems with DIY, and my own game design role models. It's taken a while for this whole conversation to go online, so you can hear mentions of things that have already come to fruition, like the Thousand-Year Game Design Challenge and Pebble Rebel.

» Dice+Food+Lodging: Episode 024 – Conversation with Daniel Solis, part 3

Belle of the Ball Card Back

Here's the first pass at the backs of the Belle of the Ball cards. This branding is based on vintage labels, 19th century hand lettering, old Hollywood musicals, and a touch of wedding invitations.

I'm trying to create a general vibe that is inspired by Victoriana, but isn't tied down to one time period in particular. That gives artists license to mix anachronistic fashions and fits the inspiration for the game. (The "Shindig" episode of Firefly.)

I didn't record my process for this design, but you can see the elements I used here, here, here, and here. You can also see the black and white vector on the right.

» Thanks to Kathleen for typographic help.

John Harper's "It Won't End When You Bury Me"

After reading my recent post On Hitting, John Harper posted an interesting Western zombie game he designed years ago. It's all centered on the assumption that you'll be shooting zombies and never missing. Possible outcomes are headshots, delayed satisfaction, and an impending sense of dreadful panic.

Based on the writeup, I sense flavors of the ZOMBIES!!! board game, but with a deeper set of consequences for each shot. Every bullet counts and reloading is a tense test of nerves.

My only recommendation would be that the title have a thick Western drawl. Something like "It Don't End When Ya Bury Me." A title that would be slurred around Rooster Cogburn's chewing tobacco.

» Photo: "Shallow Grave" CC-BY-NC-SA Jo Christian Oterhals

SageFight Classes

Conversation has turned towards how to handle different types of classes in SageFight. By "classes," we mean specialized SageFighters with unique abilities that can affect the battle. Most of these classes assume you're using Clan vs. Clan rules, in which you're working with a team against another team.

Timekeeper maintains the beat. Timekeeper is not in the battle.

Ref keeps track of SageFighters during the battle. Ref is impartial observer and may move freely during the battle. Ref can tap out a SageFighter if they foul.

Master is the leader. If the master falls, the whole clan falls. A master may parley once per battle. Parley: All fighting ceases. The timekeepers pause. The masters may move freely and speak to each other, but must do so loud enough for both clans to hear. When Parley is over, masters return to their original positions and the battle continues.

Healer can tag an ally to bring them back into the battle. Tagging a tank will recover one of the tank's arms. Healers may not bring themselves back into the battle.

Tank is durable. When one of Tank's hands is tagged, that arm is disabled and kept down, but Tank stays in the battle. Tank is only out if both hands are tagged.

Flipper briefly converts opponents to allies. When flipper tags an opponent, the opponent must target their nearest ally for five beats or sit down.

Speedster may, once per battle, walk at a normal pace with arms outstretched, Superman style. This only last three beats, during which the Speedster must count down out loud from three.

Duelist may challenge an opponent to a duel. During a duel, no one can tag out either fighter.

Assassin may tag out an opponent by tapping the middle of that opponent's back.

Trapper may tag any part of an opponent's body. While he does so, both the trapper and the opponent may not move.

Time Mage must charge "Time" spell by standing still with hands prone for five beats, counting down out loud from five. Time: For five beats, Time Mage is a timekeeper and single-handedly controls the pace of the battle.

Ice Mage must charge "Freeze" spell by standing still with hands prone for five beats, counting down out loud from five. Freeze: Opposing team may not move their feet for five beats.

Puppet Mage must charge "Simon Says" spell by standing still with hands prone for five beats, counting down out loud from five. Simon Says: Target opponent must mimic Puppet Mage's movement.

Necromancer can tag an opponent to turn them into a zombie.

Zombie must stick arms straight out in front of them. Zombie can tag any part of an opponent's body to turn them into a zombie.

Any other ideas for classes?

Happy Birthday, Robot! at PAX East

"We decided to play some Happy Birthday, Robot tonight after the show because my highest aspirations in life all revolve around corrupting the architecture of what are essentially children's storytelling games to the purposes of perverts and aberrants."

So begins Alexander Williams' weird tales of playing HBR with his friends. Check out the increasingly bizarre stories on the Operation BSU blog. Thanks for sharing, Alexander!

If you liked those stories and want to make your own, one of the Operation BSU folks will be running three MANY sessions of HBR at PAX East. Here's the thread with all the info on Happy Birthday, Robot! at Pax East.

Playing the Market

This is a simple way to make going to the market in your RPGs a little more interesting. It creates an inverse relationship between inventory and price of a resource, all in one roll. Quentin Hudspeth developed it into a full RPG supplement for fantasy, modern and science-fiction games. You can buy the fifteen-page PDF here: Playing the Market

Stuff You Need
A bunch of six-sided dice. The larger the amount of dice, the larger the market.

When to Roll
Use this system when the main characters walk into a shady alley to find some black market contraband, ride into an exotic bazaar for magic items, or dock at a space station to refuel. At the moment the characters search for a specific item, use this system to determine how much of that item is available and how much each costs.

How to Play
Roll a pool of d6s. Each die resulting in 1-3 is one unit of a resource available for purchase. Each die resulting in 4-6 is how much one unit costs.

Example: You're looking to buy a sack of beans. You rolled 5 dice and got 1, 4, 3, 6, 2. That means there are three sacks available, because three of the dice rolled within 1-3. Each sack costs 2 bucks, because two dice rolled within 4-6.

In other words, when there is a lot of resource available, it costs less. When there isn't much available, it costs more. There are a lot of little tweaks you can make to this system, like shifting the 1-3/4-6 margin higher or lower depending on the rarity of a resource.

You can see how Quentin Hudspeth developed this mechanic into a full supplement for a variety of genres in his full fifteen-page PDF. Buy it from the link below.

» Playing the Market by Quentin Hudspeth
» Update: Quentin is now offering a deep 25% discount on the PDF until September. Click here for the discount.

Evolution of Utara Symbols

I'm looking hiring the services of a custom dice manufacturer to make a single prototype set of Utara dice. Above, you see the prototype I worked with during the playtesting process and which I used to demo at Dreamation 2011. Simple blank dice with stickers and hand-drawn letters.

With an eye towards non-English speaking audiences, I thought it would be good to make Utara's faces non-linguistic. I based these on compass arrows. However, I realized that any time you introduce an arrow into an interface, the human will want to follow it in that direction. In the end, I figured out that there was such a thing as being too abstract.

So I went back to the NESW system from the prototype, but I wasn't content with simply putting letters on each face all on their own. I needed to add a thematic element to the presentation, something harkening to navigation by the stars. I needed constellations. Thankfully, boardgamegeek member BT Carpenter offered this diagram for turning a regular pip die into a Utara die. That's the perfect structure for making constellations that form the cardinal letters. Plus! The stars can be read as pips!

And here's a quick mockup of what the dice would look like in a perfect world. I have no idea if I can find a supplier for dice with this kind of marbling, but let's hope. At the very least, it'll be handy to show to a potential vendor or publisher.

Thousand-Year Game Design Challenge - February Update

The second month of the challenge has some interesting new entrants, including a high-end commercial prototype from a European game company and an abstract party game with elements from a pre-existing thousand-year game.

Coerceo by the Coerceo Company
The Coerceo Company sent us a lush luxury prototype of their abstract 2-player game. You can see close-ups of the individual bits by clicking the image on the right. We're concerned about the sustainability of wooden boxes, cardboard tiles and plastic pyramids, but the Coerceo Company pledges to donate any winnings to charity. That's a plus in our book.

Pandora's Box: A Timeless Game of Psychology and Curiosity by Benjamin D. Stanley
Now this is an interesting hybrid. Take the physical elements of an existing thousand-year-old game and use them in a highly social party game and social experiment. Throw in an ancient mythic theme and you have Pandora's Box.

Great new submissions! Combined with last month's entrants, that makes five games competing for the $1,000 prize. Submit your game at

SageFight - Clan vs. Clan - Dreamation 2011

This is the epic three-round Clan vs. Clan SageFight event at Dreamation 2011. The East Clan and West Clan compete to find out whose style is the best. Who will win? Which master will fall?

Here are the rules of Clan vs. Clan SageFight: You are working with your clan as a team to protect your clan's master. Your clan wins if you take out all the other SageFighters in the other clan. Your clan can also win by simply taking out the other clan's master.

Later, in the third round, we added a new rule that greatly lengthened the battle. Any fallen SageFighter can re-enter the battle after ten beats as long as their master still stands.

Some unplanned emergent behavior came out of this event. For one thing, the masters of each clan took the opportunity to parley before each round. This was an opportunity to trashtalk the other clan in the style of a bad kung fu movie, but also to trade fighters between clans. Also, clans started taking special formations in the initial lineup, like an American football team.

» Official SageFight Website
» SageFight Rules

SageFight - Melee 1 and 2 from Dreamation 2011

This is the first melee at the SageFight event at Dreamation. A few brave souls entered the arena at first, but that's usually how it is at a meet. You can tell we had a little trouble staying on beat. In Bill's case, he wouldn't stop moving. :P Ultimately, it came down to me and deWitt. I can't actually remember who won, and it's unclear from the video.

More joined the second melee of the SageFight event. (Bill still won't stop moving, of course.) This one has a more definitive ending than the first, with Joshua raising his hand into mine in the last beat. In all, you see how much Mendez is the real stand-out fighter in the whole evening. Check him out vamping towards the end.

» Official SageFight Website
» SageFight Rules
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.