2012: A Year in the Game Design Lab

Stone Age dice & meeples Over the past year, I've posted numerous game ideas in various stages, but all have been considered "in the lab" because they're really not ready for prime time. I just wanted to share my thoughts a bit. Next year I'm ready to actually see some of these ideas come to fruition. Here's a pretty comprehensive list of ideas posted to this blog in 2012.

Games to Prototype and Test
These are games which are to the point where I could make a prototype and actually test at some point.
  • Dung and Dragons/Dragon Ranch has been a long-simmering theme: Hippie co-op farmers raising dragons for their valuable poop. I finally cracked a cool mechanic for this idea, it just needs to get tested and refined. I'm really excited about how these simultaneous actions could interact with each other in unpredictable ways.
  • Wine Collector: This was an experiment in deduction game design. Not sure how well it's actually going to work in practice, but I definitely like the notion of averages being on one side of a card with a single number on the face.
  • Haunted House continued that notion, replacing numbers with shapes. This was inspired by a particular sequence in the latest Mario Party games in which you must repeatedly decide between three doors, only one of which leads to safety.
  • Exodus: Earth wants to be a "worker removal" game, where effects are triggered by removing a meeple off of a space. The eventual goal is to remove all of your meeples from the board before a meteor hits Earth. I just need to figure out the basic mechanics of the thing first.
  • Sidekick Quests: The Card Game came into being when my wife and I visited Lyndsay Peters in Canada. We hacked together elements of Waterdeep, No Thanks and some other stuff to make this hodgepodge of different mechanics. This was eventually streamlined to a much simpler push-your-luck card game that you should see available for beta soon.
  • Pop n' Locke's Last Heist was released as a playtest PDF to Writer's Dice backers early this year, but never saw much testing or discussion. Thankfully Tom Cadorette had a good playtest of it in August. I need to hit the document again to see where things should be tweaked and finally release things thing to the wider public.
  • Proxima-3/3io was ostensibly a board game adaptation of Triple Town. I need to test this set and see how the game feels to play as a multiplayer experience rather than a single-player puzzle.
  • Picker began with some exploration of Libertalia's blind auction mechanics. I still need to figure out how to solve the inherent negative spiral of choices that players have available to them. As it stands, there is still a "correct" choice in every turn. That's not bad, it's just a problem when there is one optimal choice rather than several.
  • Step Right Up is a game about snake oil salesmen hawking their wares on a crowded boardwalk. They sell goods to hire different kinds of goons to do their dirty business. The mechanics feel sound, they just need testing. The theme is unfortunately getting kind of crowded lately, though.
  • Seven Minutes of Terror was inspired by the Mars Curiosity landing and its absurdly complicated landing sequence. I think with some thematic cards and stronger endgame goals, this could be a nice light 10min game.
  • Dead Weight: Parkour vs. Zombies finally got a board game execution this year. It needs testing, but I'm glad I finally put that baby out in the world.
  • The following Thanksgiving, I posted Black Friday, a racing game that was also an auction game. Your position on the race track gave you best pick of items in your space, but you also had to bring back your items to the finish line in order to have the best score without penalties.

Themes in Search of Mechanics
These are game ideas that have a strong theme, but still need mechanical refinement.
  • Swap Clops the Tile Game and Swap Clops the Card Game: I'm really itching to use this fun art that Kari Fry made for me in January. Who doesn't love floating, surly one-eyed monsters? I still think the Clops have potential as a long-term IP.
  • Rulers: This Hunger-Games-meets-Mage idea was one of the rare story games from me over the past few months. This neverseemed to hook folks much, but then again I was lax in my development efforts, too. I'm going to see what I can do to put these out in a more digestible form soon.
  • Towers of Battle was a weird letter tile and area control game idea I posted on February. In hindsight, I must have read about apps like Letterpress and Puzzlejuice when I came up with this thing.
  • Vulture Capitalist/Bird Brands was inspired by No Thanks, Amun-Re, and Empryean, Inc.  I still occasionally get some mechanical ideas that could fit in this silly theme.
  • Dr. Remedy Grove: I had thoughts about this as a game franchise, each entry focusing on ecological themes and components made from sustainable materials. Kind of a Carmen San Diego for ecology.
  • Monks of St. Honorat honor their vow of charity in an interesting way: They earn lots and lots of money from their world-famous wine, then donate it all to their various charities. "Earn more to give more" is an interesting take on Brewster's Millions.
  • Where is the Poison? is inspired by the poison scene in Princess Bride. These mechanics seem good enough, but they could be much more streamlined. I imagine that this could be even as minimal as Seiji Kenai's Love Letter, but it just needs some more attention.
  • The Everywheres was a dimension-hopping game based on the CC-licensed superhero Jenny Everywhere. I really want to explore this game further with a mashup of Split Decision, Talk Find Make, and Thanks and Complaints (below).
  • Thanks and Complaints as a replacement for the typical success/failure binary in role-playing games. It brought to mind much different reactions to typical adventure game violence.
  • This City-Building Tile game is has a reasonable theme already, but I think some more thematic tiles would do wonders to make the game more strategic, too.
  • Asteroid Mining is a pretty cool idea to me and I think I'm close to a good mechanic here. I need to decide what it is you do with the materials you're mining, though. May also need a smaller asteroid belt/card deck.

Mechanics in Search of a Theme
This is by far the biggest category in the lab. These are mechanics that as yet haven't found a good theme with which to be paired.
  • Dice Pool Action-Selection Mechanic: This was posted right after I played Yspahan and saw its very clever dice mechanic in action. I wanted to capture something similar as an action selection device.
  • Dice-matching resource management: I must have been on a dice kick last spring, because here's another dice pool based resource acquisition mechanic. No idea where this one will go, but at the time I imagined it as a game based on Maslow's Hierarchy.
  • Dice Puzzle was eventually cracked by my mathematically inclined friends, but it was a cute diversion. I may revisit the basic interaction again at some point. 
  • 3-2-1 had you roll three dice, keep two results, then give one result to the next player. It brought to mind a lot of co-op potential. Will tinker with this eventually.
  • Legacying was a popular subject last year. I even wrote three best practices for how to do it well, which got noticed by designer Rob Daviau. I look forward to seeing how others use the Risk: Legacy mechanics to design brand new games.
  • Secret Action Selection + Public Negotiation was one of the many mechanics I explored for Dung & Dragons last year. It turned out to have a critical hurdle: If you're co-operating, why keep action selection secret? I never revisited this idea long enough to answer that question, but I should.
  • Player-Controlled Resource Values struck my fancy as I explored stock market themes. In this case, buying and selling a commodity raised or lowered its value on an abstract tracker. The price you pay now influenced the price you'd pay later.
  • Memory + Action Selection was another one of those mashup ideas that never got explored too deeply. It may still have something worthwhile as a kids' game with some additional strategy for adults. Basically, if you found two matching tiles, you could do the action noted on those tiles. Thus, you're not just memorizing placement, but pursuing specific tactics.
  • Multi-Memory: I also explored multi-dimensional memory mechanics in this abstract card game, but it might be too dry a brain burner for the MENSA Select judges.
  • Vases, Crates and Barrels broke down the rarity and distribution of the Yspahan game board into a single deck of cards. I still need to suss out how best to use this information, but it's powerful mojo.
  • Then there was this Yspahan+Knizia+Cosmic Encounter mashup where you negotiated trades for certain goods with the other players. Ultra minimal, but with emergent behavior. (At least, that's the hope.)
  • Chibi Sweeper was a tabletop mashup of Minesweeper and Chibi Robo. Not sure where this one is really going, but once again, I like the idea of knowing half-information, then deciding whether to commit to the second half.
  • Recycling Decks is basically a typical deckbuilder, except your discarded cards go to your opponent. It really needed a strong theme to make that make sense, though.
  • Make Me an Offer was the first in a series of little ideas where I tried to take the basic interaction of games like Apples 2 Apples and Cards Against Humanity into the realm of a Euro board games. Not sure how successful it is without a better theme though. In hindsight, this might be a strong game with a deck of Sushi Go cards. Which led to...
  • A Co-Op/Competitive trading game that could theoretically work as a system for For The Fleet. It just needs more redshirts.
  • I had a handful of trick-taking mechanics this year, but this was the most polished. It just needs a good theme to justify and explain the mechanics.
  • And finally, this worker-placement spillover mechanic was an interesting idea that sparked a lot of discussion for themes. Scientific progress perhaps?
Phew! 2012 was a prolific year for half-assed ideas. That's being generous, most of these are quarter-assed at best. Goal for next year? Add the rest of the ass. Yes.


Hannah Lee Stockdale (@HannahClover)
Hello, all!

I don't usually share personal news on this channel, but I think this will be relevant to your interests.

Effective December 31, 2012, I am resigning from my position as Associate Creative Director and Digital Director at Third Degree. I started as an intern in 2004 and I've learned so much about being a creative in the fast-paced ad business, especially serving credit unions. It's been an enriching experience with more talented people than I can count.

During those years, I was "art director by day, game designer by night," without either job interfering with the other. On the contrary, working for an agency gave me the security to pursue a game design hobby, while the hobby's community gave me experience in social media that I could bring back to the agency. There was synergy, as ad people on TV like to say.

Unfortunately, that dual-career lifestyle eventually started wearing on my mind and body. Signs of burnout were evident to all... except to me until recently. If I was going to be the person I really wanted to be in the next nine years, I had to make some big changes.

My wife and I discussed whether we could afford me spending a year trying to make this game design thing actually happen. If I cut down expenses, keep up freelance work, and budget well, we actually could afford to spend a year on me trying to go pro. So that's what I'm doing in 2013.

To my freelance clients, I thank you for your putting up with me as I made this transition over the past month. You'll be seeing faster turnaround from me starting next week.

To fans of my design stuff, you'll be able to see a lot more of my handiwork next year as I take on more freelance jobs in the general geek industry. Look for more RPG layout, logo design, card design, and iconography.

To fans of my game stuff, I hope I can get your support as I refine the numerous ideas I've posted on this blog. The actual business of selling games to publishers, gamers and backers is an adventure all its own. Thanks for coming along with me. You won't be disappointed!

Follow my #DS13 hashtag on Twitter to as I discuss this new experiment further. I'll return you to your regularly scheduled programming next week! Thanks for your time!

-- Daniel

P.S. The portrait above is by Hannah Lee Stockdale. You should hire her a lot.

InDesign DataMerge Playing Card Example [Free Download]

Happy holidays! This season, I thought I'd give something to anyone interested in designing their own card games. You may recall I posted a hodgepodge collection of tutorials I found regarding the use of InDesign's DataMerge feature to automate much of the card layout process. I plan to make a video tutorial of my own soon, but for now here's a .zip file with a very basic example of a DataMerged deck of playing cards.

Open DataMergeExample.indd in InDesign CS6 or DataMergeExample.idml in older versions of InDesign. You'll find empty text blocks and image blocks. It looks like there's nothing there, but there is! These are placeholders for the text and images that DataMerge pulls from the the .CSV found in the Assets folder. When you check the Preview checkbox in the DataMerge panel, you'll see each of these placeholders populated. (BTW, I just used a default font for Mac: Times, which can be replaced with Times New Roman if you wish.)

This is also where you will find .EPS files for the suits and face cards. I like to use .EPS for vector files since they can be resized to any scale without losing resolution. So far as I've found, a .CSV is most reliable  for DataMerge if it is in the same folder as all of the card assets. Theoretically you can use the .CSV to populate from a deeper directory, but I haven't been able to do so reliably.

Here are the InDesign files for the suits and faces, saved in .INDD and .IDML formats.

I've already exported a DataMerged InDesign file which you can find in the Renders folder. There you will also find a folder with all of *those* cards exported to flat .EPS files. It is from a folder like this that I pull individual card assets for use in example diagrams or print-and-play files.

Here is are the original source files from the Noun Project along with legalese for their specific licenses.

You can also find the original Google spreadsheet here, if you're curious. I hope you find this useful as you design your own card games. If you dig it, I can post some more packages with more complex card decks inspired by CCGs.

POLL RESULTS: Familiar Themes vs. Familiar Mechanics

Earlier this week I asked which mix of familiar or unusual mechanics and themes you preferred. I asked mainly because Reiner Knizia once advised on Twitter that a design shouldn't be too unusual. To do so would turn off too large a section of your audience. Basically, if you're designing a game for the larger hobby market, he advised either making the theme unusual or the mechanics unusual, but not both.

That seems to hold true for a significant portion of poll respondents. Here's the breakdown of 82 responses.

Unusual Themes + Unusual Mechanics         35      43%
Familiar Themes + Unusual Mechanics         34      41%
Unusual Themes + Familiar Mechanics         11      13%
Familiar Themes + Familiar Mechanics         2        2%

What are we to take from these responses? Bear in mind that it's a very tiny sample from an admittedly skewed pool of respondents. Most respondents want unusual themes AND unusual mechanics, which is surprising.

I expected the #2 response to be much greater given Knizia's advice. After all, unusual mechanics may be easier to learn if you're familiar with the basic premise of the game. But no, it seems the respondents prefer lots of novelty in both categories. If they must sacrifice some novelty it would be in theme, not mechanics.

A smaller subset would rather have an unusual theme and familiar mechanics. I imagine those respondents would be amenable to themed expansions of a game franchise, take for example the numerous Fluxx or Munchkin expansions. I'm curious!

And by far the fewest respondents favored total familiarity. I imagine those respondents have a handful of genres they really like and explore those games very deeply, perhaps pursuing complete mastery?

So, how did you respond? What do you prefer? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Asteroid Mining Theme with Card Drafting, Rondel Mechanics and Area Control

Trenex at asteroid belt
I've been playing Seasons a lot lately on Board Game Arena. Gosh, I am terrible at it. Not sure what it is, but I've been finding it a really difficult game to wrap a strategy around. Oh well, at least it's introduced me to some interesting rondel mechanics I'd like to explore further. Rondel mechanics and card drafting seem to be all the rage in game design this year. Here's a loose idea for a game that adds area control to the mix.

Players are asteroid miners laying claim to 54 big rocks orbiting the central planets of the solar system. The big rocks are code-named according to the cards in a standard deck. 2Club, JackDiamond, Joker-1, etc. Your goal is to lay claim to the asteroids and earn the best profit after three years.

This board represents is an asteroid belt. The center rondel rotates one increment per round, highlighting six distinct regions of the asteroid belt at any one time. (Note the wavy, dotted and solid lines.) I think the Rondel will also show market values for various resources, too.

There is a 54 card deck. Each card corresponds to a space. Each space has a resource that it offers. Each round, all players draft n cards from the deck. After drafting, place claims on that space of the board.

Next, all players extract resources from all spaces they control. A resource cube is then placed on each space. REGIONAL BONUS: If a player owns the most spaces in the current region, she gets a bonus. Dominating a wavy region earns x bonus, dotted region earns y bonus, a solid region earns z bonus.

Next, players may spend resources to build facilities or get credits.

  • To build facilities, simply remove the cubes from any space you control and place the facility card in front of you. (Facilities can increase the value of resources, grant area bonuses, or impose trade tariffs as noted below.)
  • When you get credits, trade for the current market value of those resources. Also note if players control a space between yours and the rondel. If so, those players half points, rounded down.

In other words, the outer rings have the most valuable resources, but controlling the inner ring lets you tax the import of those resources because you control access to the central planets.

The player with the most credits after three full rondel rotations wins.

Folks on G+ had some interesting ideas for additional effects, like labeling overlapping sections of the outer rings according to major arcana of the tarot, like constellations. Also some thought about having to actually move a delivery ship across the board one space at a time, thus making waiting for a delivery window actually important. Interesting indeed. What are your thoughts?

Super Secret Santa Party Game

Around this time of year, offices and families engage in an old tradition of secret gift-giving. These traditional games have widely varying rules, but there are some core similarities.

Usually, you're randomly assigned to give another person a gift. You may not know this person well, so you have to just investigate or guess at what they would like. As the receiver of said gift... Well, let's just say it's easy to get disappointed. This is so common, that a spin-off tradition called "white elephant" or "dirty santa" emerged wherein you're *not* supposed to consider what the receiver would actually like.

In either case, no one really gets something they actually want and you spend that time awkwardly chit-chatting while doing so. Honestly, it sucks as a play experience. Fortunately, a fellow named Brian Winkeler of Robot House Creative taught me the rules of a superior form of Secret Santa. I call it Super Secret Santa.

Stuff You Need
  • 5-30 players who kinda sorta know each other
  • One participant volunteers to be the Head Elf
  • A prize (a gift certificate, a bottle of wine, or some other generally nice thing)

  • Each player sends the Head Elf a wishlist of three gifts under the price limit.
  • The Head Elf anonymizes those lists.
  • The Head Elf randomly assigns a list to each player.
  • Each player then must purchase one of the gifts on his or her assigned list. Do not wrap the gift!
  • The Head Elf prints prepares a list of numbered blank lines, enough for each player to get their own blank list.

The Party
  • The Head Elf arranges a display of all the gifts with numbers beside each one.
  • The Head Elf hands a blank list to each player as they arrive at the party.
  • Amidst drinks and food, the Players spend the party figuring out who wished for which gift. Debate and subterfuge is encouraged!
  • Later on in the party, the Head Elf then gathers all the players to one room.
  • The Head Elf picks up each gift and asks "Who wished for ____?"
  • The Players then shout their answers.
  • The Head Elf reveals the correct answer, to groans and cheers from the crowd.
  • The Player who guesses the most gifts correctly wins the prize.
  • Ties are rare, but if they can be broken by correctly answering trivia questions about the Head Elf.

When you wish for a gift, don't wish for something generic like a bottle of wine or a gift card. It makes guessing really difficult and no fun. Instead, pick a gift that says something about your personality, possibly that the rest of the group didn't know about you. This can also throw off guesses and reveals who knows who best. Plus: Everyone gets something they want!

I'm Designing a Deck of Cards for Fate!

The title pretty much says it all! I'm designing a deck of playing cards for Evil Hat's Fate system! Well, technically it'll only happen if the Fate Core Kickstarter reaches its stretch goal. What's so special about this 100-card deck?
  • The back can be used as a handy-dandy Fate Point chip.
  • The faces show one of 81 possible combinations of a 4dF roll.
  • The faces also have colorful phrases to add even more flavor to your results.
  • PLUS: We're still figuring out ways to layer in even more information on the face of each card for even more cool game potential.
What you see above is all I've designed so far as a quick example. If you want to see the whole deck layed out, go back the Kickstarter now and put me to work!

POLL: Familiar Themes vs. Familiar Mechanics

Time for a quick poll about mechanics and themes in tabletop games. Reiner Knizia once tweeted that it's better to have some element of familiarity mixed in with novelty. Of course he never specified the exact percentages of familiarity or whether it's better to have a familiar theme or familiar mechanics. So, let's turn to the public! Which do you prefer in your tabletop games?

I'll let you draw your own conclusions about the difference between a "familiar theme" and a "unique" theme since everyone has different frames of reference. When it comes to mechanics, the question becomes even more contentious. So, I'll let you make the call.

Riverbanks: An Example of My Game Design Process [In the Lab]

Folks ask me all the time where I get game ideas, whether it's mechanics first or theme first. Sometimes it's a little of both, as we'll see here.

One of my favorite recent mechanics comes from Doug Bass' Garden Dice. In that game you roll four dice to plant crops on a 6x6 gridded plot of land. The dice tell you the coordinates of where you may plant. You can do other actions based on the remaining two dice results. Choosing which dice to use in which capacity is a big part of the long-term strategy.

So I spent yesterday thinking a few ways to use this basic skeleton for other purposes, the first of which is a dice-based resource acquisition game. This begins without a theme, but in exploring the mechanics, we start to see how a theme naturally emerges.


Play centers on a 6x6 grid from which you can acquire resources: A, B, C, D, E, and F. The intersections of each row and column show combinations of two resources and double-resources along the diagonal from top left to bottom right.

On your turn, you roll three dice and choose two of those results to be the coordinates from which you will acquire the noted resources. The third die shows how many of those resources you will acquire.

For example, you rolled 2 5 4. You chose to harvest from 2/5, which means you get 4 of resources E and B. If you rolled 4 4 3, you could choose to harvest from 4/4 where there are two Ds. This means you acquire resource D at twice the rate as normal. So, instead of just 3 Ds, you acquire 6.

But towards what end? I'm not sure. Perhaps you are trying to purchase advancements that require a specific recipe of resources, Waterdeep-style? Whatever the case, there are interesting permutations in this system.


1/1's resources can be a little more common than 6/6's resources. The likelihood of rolling 1 1 1 and 6 6 6 are equal. However, a roll of two matching numbers and a non-matching number is much more common. Thus, on a roll of 1 1, it is much more likely that the third result will be greater than 1. Conversely, on a roll of 6 6, it is much more likely that the third result will be less than 6.

Granted, it's a small statistical difference. (EDIT: And, as Levi Middleton points out, D ends up being the more rare resource.)

This still gives me some sense of structure for a theme. Perhaps the A resource is a common ingredient in the game's recipes whereas the F resource is something more rare but valuable, like straight victory points or perhaps wild resources that can be used as placeholders for other resources.

The other interesting facet of this system is that each combination of resources has a twin on the opposite side of the board. 5/3 gives the same stuff as 3/5. So, perhaps there is room for adding another type of resource to acquire, based on which side of the diagonal you choose.


Indeed, this comes to resemble the banks of a river. The river itself is abundant and fruitful. Its banks are blessed with useful combinations of resources while the far corners are dry prairies and deserts with less useful combinations of resources.

When you acquire resources from a space, so you also lay claim to it. In choosing a space that is occupied by another player, they may ask for a "tax" to give you permission to use that space.

Thus, our old friend the area control mechanic plays a significant part in this game. Those recipes I mentioned earlier? Those may be used to purchase advanced settlements that levee taxes on neighboring spaces; or award points to occupants of neighboring spaces; or renders a space unusable thereafter. Who knows?

Anyhoo, this is how my game design process usually begins. I'll notice a curious wrinkle of probability that makes a decent metaphor for a real-world phenomenon. Of course, it's usually at this point that someone will point out a game that has already covered similar territory, usually designed by Reiner Knizia!

But I hope that documenting my thought process is at least somewhat enlightening. Because geez, I just love designing games.

Co-Op Worker Placement Mechanic

Working Hard
Little mechanical idea in search of a theme:

Consider a worker placement mechanic in which you collect whatever resource you get for placing your worker on that space. You also get a bit from any neighboring spaces, but only if they're occupied by another player's worker. This makes turn order a tricky thing, because by going first and getting the first choice, you may also enable your opponents to gather resources of their own.

It's an interesting idea. Not sure of a good theme for it though. Any ideas? I want to flesh this out a bit more for the blog. I asked folks on Google+ about it and the idea that must stuck out to me was flipping this as a co-op theme. Almost like research?

One researcher does the hard work to be the first discoverer of certain scientific evidence. Then follow-up researchers have an easier time developing their own new ideas, "standing on the shoulders of giants" as Einstein put it. This also brings to mind the Exodus Earth game idea I posted a few months ago. Possible juice there.

The Quentin Tarantino of Game Design? [G*M*S Magazine Interview]

Waaaay back in September, I was interviewed on the G*M*S podcast to talk about graphic design in board games.

The conversation quickly turned to game design itself and some of the creative constraints I put on myself. Mainly, that constraint has been avoiding designing games with a combat or violent theme. I've also been avoiding games with colonial themes and, by extension, avoiding games about farms.

So between those two constraints, I've left myself out of the most populous genres across gaming: The American fantasy combat and the European colony simulation. What's left is odd themes like parties competing for guests, or raising dragons for their dung, and flying kids helping strangers. (Later this week I'll talk about the intersection of new or familiar themes with new or familiar mechanics.)

Anyhoo, you should listen to this episode if you like hearing about the craft of rules presentation, game design. Also to find out why the host calls me the Quentin Tarantino of game design. Ha!

» G*M*S Magazine Podcast: Episode 70

Speaking at Triangle Creative Commons 10-year Celebration

Head's up! I've been invited to participate in a lightning talk at a Creative Commons ten-year celebration on Red Hat's campus. woot! Very exciting. Hope I can see you there!

Triangle Creative Commons 10-year celebration

Red Hat
1801 Varsity Drive
Centennial Campus, NC State
Raleigh, NC 27606
Wednesday, December 12, 2012 from 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM (EST)

I'll be talking about how games can live on for a long, long, long time thanks to the Creative Commons license. I'll touch on a little bit of ancient game history, the state of the current market, the Thousand-Year Game Design Challenge and the difficulties in preserving digital games.

You can preview my slides and speaking notes here!

Co-Op/Competitive For the Fleet?

For the Fleet Heeey, remember For the Fleet? It's a game about brave star captains and their short-lived crew. It never really got much play after that Alpha release, so it's been sitting in the back of my brain ever since. Trying to figure out what to do with that theme next.

Then I got to thinking about how elegantly Phil Walker-Harding designed the set collection mechanics in Sushi Go! Check out the video demo on that link to see what I mean. The game is just so danged clever.

But Sushi Go is a card drafting game. Everyone's trying to get the best pick of their own hand while preventing their opponent from getting something that they want. But what if you could had a stake in your opponent's group somehow? What if you were actually invested in your opponent's prosperity, because it helped, you too, though to a slightly lesser extent?

This got me thinking back to Make Me An Offer, the odd mashup of Euro sensibilities and American Apples 2 Apples mechanics. What if you played Make Me An Offer with Sushi Go cards? For example...

It's your turn. You have a hand of cards. You put out one of your cards as a way of stating "I'm trying to build a set from this card."

Then each player draws and reveals a card from their hands at the same time, thus offering those cards to you. These may be worth something to you, maybe not. Either way, you may take one or more of those cards and add them to your collection.

In doing so, you allow those players to put a meeple on that group of cards. Any cards that were not selected are discarded.

Everyone draws one new card from the deck and the next player takes their turn.

At the end of the game, you score your collection of cards. You also score for the other players' collection of cards, as if each meeple in their card-group was a card in your collection.

For example, if your opponent has five nigiri, and you have two meeples on that group, it counts as a two-nigiri group for you.

Thus, players aren't just trying to build up their own sets, but get a sizable share in your opponent's groups, too. Granted, your opponent will always get the better reward for their group, but you can keep up a little bit.

So that's the loose mechanical idea. If it were to fit the Zap Brannigan theme of For the Fleet, I'd need to add things like "SHIELDS" which protect groups of cards from the hazards of space. That implies some periodic events that would endanger a group. Hm. HMM.

If the cards were types of crew members, that would be interesting. Each player is trying to recruit the best crew for their ships, trading crew with each other in the process? Worth considering.

Kickstarter/Crowdfunding Delivery Survey Results

Last week I asked a whole bunch of questions about what you expect as a backer of a crowdfunded project, including communication levels, delivery timelines and satisfaction with what ended up being delivered.

Originally I planned to aggregate all of this data into a nice infographic, but unfortunately it's been an extremely eventful week so I hope it's cool if I just link you to a spreadsheet with the responses. I'll make something else fancy later, promise!

Click here for the results!
Click here for the charts!

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of respondents backed projects in the Games category. That's to be expected given my audience. What surprised me was how many more respondents backed three or more projects. I guess it's not all that shocking, maybe those prolific backers are more inclined to share their opinions on a crowdfunding survey?

Anyhoo, check out those results. Lots of raw data for you number crunchers out there.

Survey Results: Crowdfunding Project Creator Updates

I want to put together a nice infographic of results from last week's fulfillment survey, but it's been an eventful few days. I'll fill you in on the details of that soon, but for now, here's a taste of some of the anonymous comments regarding creator updates. In that survey, I asked:

Care to say a little bit more about your feelings about creator updates?

Generally the positive responses cited the necessity of updates to track actual progress in the job (or lack thereof)

Regular creator updates are vital, regardless of whether news is good or bad. Getting an update announcing a delay or problem in project completion and fulfillment, with an explanation of the reasons/causes of the delay/problem, is far preferable than not getting an update at all. Some creators have given the excuse that frequent updates detracts from their time available to work on the project; but I (and probably many others) consider this a very poor excuse for inadequate communication.   
I like them. They make me feel that the creator's still invested in her project, and it's neat to see the process in something like real-time.

I like them when they have something to show, or when there's a big breakthrough on the project, less so when it's excuses about timing, etc. In those situations, I'd rather hear less, rather than be reminded they've blown their deadline, so long as I get an assurance that they're working on it.

It's the thought that counts - if a delivery date has been delayed, regular status updates (whether it's "Hurricane Sandy left us without power for a week" or just "We've run into some delays but are working hard to finish the project") are the best way to make peace with backers. At least we'll know you haven't fallen off the face of the earth.

A handful mentioned their annoyance with updates in which there is no discernible progress with the project.

"When product is going to be delayed for what ever reason an updated should be posted to give the funders an idea of what is going on.

Essential, but frustrating when they're just fluff with no real indication of progress.
"Still no progress" updates are annoying. 

And that leads us to the negative responses regarding creator updates. Some of these responses called out grievances against specific project creators, but I don't want to make this a forum for any particular project's complaints. I do recommend you contact that project creator if you wish to find out the project's status. Unfortunately, no one is going to keep creators accountable but the backers.

I usually accumulate a number of updates for a given project before I get around to reading them. That said, I do appreciate communications from the creator. Even unread updates in my inbox let me know that the project hasn't been abandoned or something. 
Most of the projects I funded I kind of funded for the general good.  I read the updates, sometimes, and sometimes I didn't.  Once they got funded, it kind of felt out of my hands how they proceeded.

I find that most updates are pointless. They're either the creator whining about why fulfilling their project is so hard or telling us about awesome things that don't affect us. For example, it irks me that Goblins Drool is late to ship to me but there's tons of people who got to play it at GenCon. As a backer, I should be the first person in on the fun.

I don't need twenty-six updates in two months about a project. If there's a ton of stuff happening that's really cool about the development and fulfillment of your project, consolidate that into a weekly update.

Most of the time, they're kind of worthless fluff pieces. I prefer much more concere progress reports, just often enough for me to not forget about the project and feel like its actually progressing.

And a slight tangent to address video updates. First, a detractor:

I pay less attention (I skim) to ones that aren't about actual product delivery, "go here and download this", etc. They're high volume. Long ones, I just don't have time to read through. Videos, similar issue around time investment.

And a fan:

I usually skim them, to see if there are any updates about ship dates, delays or production previews. For projects with supplemental content (videos on the making of the product, for example) I pay extra attention.

But overall, the comments highlighted the mixed blessings of creator updates.

Without a doubt the most variable part of the crowdfunding experience. As the sites become more standarsized in their part of the equation it is this place where a developer's rigorous (or not) detail orientation as well as transparency position come out.

I always have to brace myself when backing a new project to receive way more emails, because I know that in addition to the updates I care about, many creator updates will just be advertisements for other Kickstarters or similar marketing.

Additionally, different creators use updates before and after funding success differently. I prefer creators who use post-close updates simply as a "here's where we are in our production timeline" rather than, "here's more information about the project itself." Wormwood Saga is a good example of the first, Project Eternity is a good example of the second."

Most Kickstarter creators are diligent about updates during their campaigns and directly afterward, but once we get into the long, dark, tea-time of the actual manufacturing process, the updates usually dry up.  As a prolific backer, I find that I may forget about a given project without regular updates.  At least until I go look at my history and review what I am still waiting to receive.

Updates that are simply new information, updates on progress need to be MORE distinct from updates that require active response from backer. I believe the current system of sending out surveys and NOT getting positive confirmation back from creators is problematic.

This list of best practices seemed to sum up most people's feelings on the subject.

I really appreciate updates, WHEN THEY ARE RELEVANT. To whit:

  1. You are telling us about a new stretch goal.
  2. You are informing us of an exciting new funding level!
  3. You are showing us a how-to-play, an instructions PDF, a Print-n-Play, or the like.
  4. You are updating us on how the game is shaping up, where we're at with regards to production, and shipping, etc.


But this was my favorite comment.

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple was the only project I backed where I actually wanted to get updates.

Aw shucks! Thanks!

Further Ramblings on Dung, Dragons, and Collectivist Simultaneous Action Drafting

Dung and Dragons Vector Background
Dung & Dragons is one of those long, slow marinating ideas that occasionally needs to be stirred before being put back on a low heat. Right. To catch up newcomers: The game tentatively titled Dung & Dragons concerns a hippie collectivist farm that raises and cares for dragons, who in turn poop gold that keeps the farm self-sustaining.

The whole idea came from an episode of Firefly where the crew was bartering various chores as currency. This struck me as a very cool idea for a game, trying to get the jobs you like while also maximizing the effect of those jobs by negotiating with the other players. Love it.

I've gone through a few different models for how to design a game around this idea, but this week's exploration of trick-taking games has me thinking about a new way of doing things. Let's run through the basics.


Above are the nine basic action cards. There should be one of each per player in the action deck. Shuffle and deal a hand of nine to each player. Each player takes turns choosing one card from her hand and playing it face down in front of her. Then all players reveal their choices.

Each player gets to do the action noted on his or her card, in numerical order from lowest to highest. Actions may also get a bonus if the sum of numbers on all chosen cards is greater (+), equal to (=) or less than (-) the Pivot. The pivot is a big number in the center of the table, which varies depending on the number of players.


At the end of the turn, discard chosen cards and pass the remaining cards to the left. The round ends when seven cards have been discarded from each hand. (This represents a week's worth of labor on the farm.) In the new round, shuffle and deal the action cards all over again. The game lasts four game weeks.


Most of the actions are simple resource acquisition, but Build and Upgrade refer to creating and improving structures. Each level of improvement has a cost, noted below that level. The costs vary depending on whether the sum was +, =, or - in that turn. Hatch and Raise are similar, but they refer to dragons.


I imagine there would be plenty of Dragons and Buildings available. They'd add the variety and replayability to the game.

Anyhoo, that's where my head is at right now.

A Trick-Taking Card Game in Search of a Theme

Women Playing Cards on New Year's Eve
Tagging on yesterday's game mechanic, I had another idea for a hand management game, but this time using trick-taking mechanics instead of area control. This one is really nascent, but I think a good strong theme would give it some direction to deal with any problematic bugs.

2-4 players
A deck of playing cards.
4 Players: Deal 13 cards to each player.
3 Players: Deal 17 cards to each player and put the remaining card in the center of the table.
2 Players: Deal 26 cards to each player.

On your turn, play a card from your hand onto the table. The next player does the same, and so on, forming a pile of cards.

When a player plays a card that brings the sum of the pile over 10, she decides which suit will be scored at that time. Cards without a number (A, J, Q, K) do not raise the sum, but they have other value as you'll see below.

Then all players have a choice of discarding as many cards as they wish as long as those cards have a matching suit. Your score is the number of that suit in the pile plus the number of cards you discarded.

For example: You just pushed the pile over 10 and decided to score hearts. There are three hearts in the pile. You discard two from your hand. You score 5 points. Bob discards one heart, so he scores 4 points. Sarah discards six hearts, so she scores 9 points.

After scoring, the pile is discarded and a new round begins. Play continues until the first player loses all her cards. The player with the most points wins.

Here are some themes I'm considering:
  • Poseidon: Each player raises the sea level by playing cards into the pile. The player to raise the tide over 10 decides which city-state will be favored.
  • Potion Making: The idea being that you're trying to decide the "active ingredient." This one comes from Grant Rodiek. Thanks, Grant!
  • Lobbying: Each player is a lobbyist pushing an official to support their cause, but the official has a short memory and only favors the last lobbyist who made a donation.

Happy to take any other suggestions, though!

Odd Idea for Hand Management and Area Control Scoring

Complete District Example
I have this odd idea for a scoring mechanic that combines hand management and area control in which each one is as important as the other for maximizing scores. If you'd like to test this out yourself, download PnP tiles here. Here's the gist:

There is a supply of randomly shuffled map tiles. Each tile has an arrangement of streets and four types of districts: PARK, MONUMENT, RESIDENTIAL, and BUSINESS. These would be replaced with icons in a real game.

Draw a random tile and place it in the center of the board. Each player begins with a hand of two tiles. Hands are kept public, visible to all other players.

On your turn, draw a tile into your hand. Then, play a tile from your hand onto the table, adjacent to another tile.

A district is considered complete when it is completely surrounded by continuous street. If a tile completes a district, all players immediately score points in the following manner.

Check if you have icons in your hand matching icons in the completed district. Score ([Number of an icon in the district) x [Number of matching icons in a player's hand]) points.

For example, the tile in outlined yellow has just been placed, completing the district outlined in magenta. All players may now score for this complete district. Here's an example of how you would score.
  • The complete district has 4 PARK, you have one PARK in your hand, so you score 4 points. (4x1)
  • The complete district has 5 BUSINESS, you have two BUSINESS in your hand, so you score 10 points. (5x2)
  • The complete district has 1 RESIDENTIAL, you have three RESIDENTIAL in your hand, so you score 3 points. (1x3)
  • The complete district has 3 MONUMENT, you have no MONUMENT in your hand, so you score 0 points.
In total, you score 17 points this turn.

We playtested this until we went through about half the deck. Score at the time was 76-74 in my favor. I spent much of the game trying to get a hand in which I had at least one of each type of district in my hand, thus scoring a bit when any district was completed. I wasn't always successful, but our scores always stayed suspiciously close.

I fear two cautious players could turtle if they get a pair of complementary four-icon tiles in hand. Scoring would be even every time, too, thus resulting in rather dull play.

I see two courses:
  • Cut hand-size to one tile would reduce the score inflation and cut down on the need for mid-game multiplication. However, that multiplication is probably the one gimmick that makes this more than a standard abstract tile game.
  • Or keep the current hand size and add more one or two more district types. In addition, adjusting the tiles distribution such that it is impossible to have every icon in hand in equal amounts in one hand. I need to guarantee the absence or overabundance of at least one icon. (Preferably both.)

Clearly I lean towards the latter course. We'll see where it ends up!

POLL: Kickstarter/Crowdfunding Delivery Survey

It's time for another Kickstarter/Crowdfunding poll! This time, we're focusing on the delivery/fulfillment timelines for crowdfunded projects backed between January 1 and August 31 of 2012. Answer in the questions below and I'll put together an infographic next week.

Happy Thanksgiving, Pilgrims!

It's Thanksgiving here in the States, when we gorge ourselves on mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and, of course, a lot of turkey. Here's a new letter for Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple from one special turkey's perspective.

Dear Pilgrims of the Flying Temple,

Gobble gobble. I'm a turkey. I'm to be served to the farmer's family for the upcoming holiday! I have mixed feelings about this, as you can probably understand.

This family has been so good to me through the years. When I was just a featherless chick, they kept me warm and plumped me up. Together, we won all the county fair turkey fashion shows. Oh, what a sight I used to be on the runway!

Unfortunately, my feathers aren't so glossy these days. My confident stride is a little wobbly. I just need a favor from you before I head to the dinner table.

I'm only a turkey, so I can't really talk to Mr. Farmer. Could you express my thanks for all the care he and his family have given me? Thank you! I hope I am delicious.

Gobble gobble.


Goal Words
Mr. Farmer
Mr. Farmer

Enjoy the holiday, friends!

Black Friday: Racing Auction Game

Black Friday: Racing Auction Game It's Thanksgiving week in the states! A time for plenty and gratitude for food, friends and games! Alas, most board games take up a lot of space on the table, leaving little room for the bountiful meals. Here's a racing auction mashup that should only take up a narrow sliver of space in the middle of your table.

The theme is that you're racing along a store aisle on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Taking time to gather the best combinations of gifts can score big points, but reaching the finish line can double or triple that score!

You'll need
2-4 players
A unique meeple for each player.
5 sets of uniquely colored chips, 15 chips in each set.
The boards and cards in this PDF.
Each player gets a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 card, as shown above.

Place the meeples at the start of the track.
Place a stack of randomly drawn chips beside each space of the track.
Each stack should have one more chip than the number of players.

Each turn proceeds simultaneously. Each player reveals and discards one card from their hand. Each player MUST move her meeple forward on the track that many spaces. If you reach the end of the track, stop moving.

PIVOT: When a player reaches the end of the track, all players can now return to a full hand of cards. All players also now have the option of moving her meeples forward or backward along the track. Don't dawdle! The first-place finisher gets a really big score bonus.

BOOSTS: The parenthetical numbers below 1, 2, and 3, show the number of spaces you may move if this is the only 1, 2, or 3 played in this turn. For example, if you played 1 in this turn and no other player played that card, you may move two, three, four, five or six spaces instead of just one.

GATHER: Once everyone has stopped moving, you may take one chip from your landing space. If two people occupy the same space, whoever played the lower card takes a chip first. If tied, the player with the lower score takes a chip first. If still tied, the younger player takes a chip first.

When two players have returned to the starting area, or used all their cards, that is the end of the lap. Score points for the chips you collected as shown on the board.

If you collected the most YELLOW chips, earn 5 points. If you collected the second most, earn 3 points. Tied players score the same number of points.

The MAGENTA chips earn more points the more you collect. Collect one to earn 1 point, two to earn 3 points, four to earn 6 points, ten to earn 10 points, and five to earn 15 points.

Every pair of GREEN chips earns 5 points.

Every trio of BLUE chips earns 5 points.

Collecting a set of all five colors earns 15 points.

If you finished this lap in first place, or closest to the starting area, triple your score. If tied, each player only doubles their score.

If you finished this lap in second place, or second closest to the starting area, double your score. If tied, neither player gets a bonus.

New Laps
After each lap, players return all but their white chips. Randomly redistribute the remaining chips along the track and begin a new lap.

End of Game
After three laps, whoever has the most white chips earns 5 points. Whoever has the fewest white chips loses 5 points.

The player with the most points wins!

Still hungry? The set-collection scoring mechanics in this game are shamelessly lifted from Phil Walker-Harding's excellent SUSHI GO!, now available on IndieGoGo. Go back it now!

Belle of the Ball - Prototype N

Belle of the Ball has gone through some big changes in basic gameplay between Prototype M and now. All for the best, though! This prototype has all the same set-building strategic fun with a much clearer set of short-term tactics and take-that offense. In case you need a refresher on the premise:

You and the other players are holding parties on the same night, right next to each other! Attract guests, group guests with shared interests and mess with your opponent’s party! The player with the most popularity chips at the end of the game wins!


  • Shuffle Guest cards. Discard twelve random cards. Set the rest as a Guest Deck.
  • Shuffle Belle cards. Deal three to each player’s hand. Set the rest as a Belle Deck.
  • Set aside spaces for discarded Belles and Guests.
  • Give a Start Player token to the host of this gathering.
  • Each player has implied spaces for four stacks of cards.
  • Give each player five chips.

Example of a two-player setup.

The host deals three Guest cards per player face-up in a LINE. Read each name in an ostentatious voice. For example, a two-player game has a six-card line.


You may play a Belle at the start of your turn. Follow her instructions. Belle cards allow you to ignore certain rules of the game.

STEP 1: Invite
You may take the first Guest card in line. - OR - You may take a Guest card that is further back in line by placing one chip on each skipped Guest card. If you invite a guest with chips, you collect those chips, too.

An example of inviting the first guest in line.

An example of inviting the second guest in line.

STEP 2: Group
Each new guest goes to one of four stacks, or GROUPS, in your collection, or PARTY. Once placed, Guests may not move to another group. You may only have up to four groups. There may be only be up to five Guests in a group. A group of five is a FULL GROUP.

Example of grouping a newly invited guest.

STEP 3: Score
If you have a full group, look for any suits, or INTERESTs, the guests in that group have in common. Earn 1 chip for each matching interest in that group. For example, if your full group has 2 hearts and 5 globes, you earn 7 chips. You may score multiple full groups in the same turn.

Example of matching interests in a full group.

Example of collecting chips for matching interests.

Discard any of your full groups. The player to your left takes the next turn. Continue until the line is empty.

Example of discarding a full group.

The round ends when the line is empty. Each player draws back up to three Belle cards. (Reshuffle the Belle discard deck if it runs out.) The player with fewest Chips gets the Start Player token. Play new rounds until the Guest deck runs out.

The game ends after the last round is complete. Any remaining groups do not score. The player with the most chips wins!

One proposal for has been to shuffle the Belles and Guests into a single deck. Belles can then be invited just like any guest, but instead of going to your party, they go to your hand. Otherwise, the rules are the same as above. It's an interesting thought, as it gives more incentive to spend chips up the queue in pursuit of a novel strategy. Feel free to test it!

Rapid Prototyping vs. Reckless Prototyping: How the Sausage is Made

Sausages It's been a while since I wrote a long "how the sausage is made" post about the process of game design. Here's one! (tldr; There are big changes coming to Belle of the Ball, but they're for the greater good.)

If I'm known for anything, it's probably that I shoot off game ideas at the drop of a hat. Of course, game ideas are very different than solid games. While working on Belle of the Ball, I resisted my natural urge to make drastic changes as a result of a bad playtests. I tried to stay patient, making small changes, and testing them out with several different groups in rapid succession. Here's what I've learned over the past year.

1: Base Changes on Feedback

Designing a proper game takes a lot of time for playtests, review, refinement, editing, and testing again. (I'm not talking about publishing here, just the design.) In January 2012, I decided I'd design a fully polished and working card game with Belle of the Ball's theme before the end of the year. I began with Prototype A and now it's finally approaching a final form in Prototype N in November.

If you're keeping track, that's 14 distinct prototypes in 11 months. You can track the changes to the project here. As you can see, it's a lot of incremental changes that, in the aggregate, make the game pretty different from beginning to end. When local playtesters sit down to play Belle, they joke about "So, is this completely different, too?" (Ironic, considering that those incremental changes pretty conservative when compared to my usual habits.)

Each playtest did offer very good insights. These led to changes to rules, card presentation, basic strategies, and point balances. All those changes were based on feedback and evidence. Still, after Prototype M, it felt like I was designing in circles. Some groups were coming back with feedback saying the game was great, others that they were lost and had no clear direction for their strategy.

The most discomforting feedback was hearing people had fun, despite problems with the mechanics. That meant I had something good lurking underneath my poor game design, but I somehow hadn't found it yet. Oy.

This led me to making small changes to address complaints while keeping anything that was getting good praise. I was so afraid of throwing out the baby with the bathwater that I only tossed out a teaspoon of bathwater at a time. (Okay, weird analogy. Moving on.)

One Hot Dog Ham
2: Incremental Changes Can Lead to the Wrong Conclusions

Case in point. For several of the most recent prototypes, players had basic actions listed on cards in their collection. These are things, like "draw a card" and "play a card." When you group cards together, you can do all the actions in that group in one turn. However, you only score points if the suits on those cards match each other, so you have to decide whether a group will be mainly a tactical advantage or a long-term strategic advantage. A pretty nice gimmick.

There were other cards whose actions are rare, but powerful, like "steal a card from an opponent" or "steal a group from an opponent." If a player got these cards early in the game, he could steal an opponent's most basic functionality and cripple them for the whole game. Because other parts of the game were getting such good feedback, I only made the smallest possible changes to address these concerns.

That brings us to a playtest a few weeks ago where I debuted a slightly tweaked version of Prototype M. The only major change was that basic action cards were unstealable. This backfired terribly. Without a take-that option, the ability to steal cards felt pretty useless in the early game. It became obvious that the other elements of the game weren't sturdy enough to support early play. This particular test went through about six rounds until the testers finally admitted that they just had no idea what they were supposed to be doing.

I called off the rest of the game and we went on to play games that were actually fun. I went home frustrated and confused. All those months of design, all the changes, and the game still fell totally flat with the gamers I most respected.

The Butcher & Larder - Post shoot meat slicing time-lapse on Vimeo by Craig Shimala
3: Sometimes You Need Drastic Solutions

I've been here before. Back when I was designing Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple I was still a novice at story games. I began the project with certain assumptions about what a story game was supposed to have: Assumptions like "Stats" and "Character Creation."

In pursuing those assumptions, my earliest drafts of Do featured an elaborate procedural part of the game where players tell small stories about how their characters first got into trouble and rescued each other. It was a lovely little experience and it got lots of good feedback, but it took so much creative energy and time that each playtest never got to the actual game. I must have gone through five or six sessions were we never got passed character creation.

Playtest time is precious. You never know when you'll get another opportunity to bring this group of generous people together. And, indeed, they loved character creation. Heck, I wanted the game to have a fun character creation experience, but that was built on the assumption that a story game had to have character creation at all. I eventually realized interesting character creation wasn't as interesting as removing character creation altogether. (Mind you, this is mainly the case for Do, not judgment on other story games.)

I stripped out that whole part of the game. Roughly 40,000 words went to the trash. What little character creation remained was distilled down to two questions: How do you help people? How do you get into trouble? This takes less than five minutes and mainly serves as an elevator pitch for the actual gameplay experience. I was finally able to test and refine the actual game itself.

The earliest playtesters sometimes ask if I'll release the character creation procedure as a separate product. I might, but I'm in no real rush. It was mainly a hack of Spirit of the Century's character creation.

Full English Breakfast, Liverpool UK
Changes to Belle of the Ball

Here's what I realized about that awkward Belle playtest. As I removed a clear short-term goal ("steal the other guy's basic actions"), the rest of the game didn't present any other short-term goals or even a long-term strategy. This was the root cause of the analysis paralysis problem present since the earliest prototypes. I was so distracted by pursuing the group-action gimmick that I couldn't see the core problem until then.

So I woke up the next morning with a very different vision in mind. Though the fancy party theme remains, the gameplay is offers very different options in any given turn. I scribbled down some notes and tested it over breakfast with my wife, then later that week with co-workers and friends. This led to further refinements over the following weeks and I'm happy to say it's actually a fully functional and fun game.

Prototype N is going to have the most fundamental changes to gameplay since the earliest prototypes. I lifted some pay-to-pick mechanics from games like Smallworld, No Thanks, and Manhattan Project. I also added conveyor belt line of cards, much like the line of cards in Guillotine. But just because the changes are big, doesn't mean they're reckless nor does it mean Prototypes A–M were a waste. All that time was spent in the service of creating a better game at the end of the process.

If you have been following the design process this year, you may regret that some of your favorite features have been lost along the way. That's the risk of transparent design. I appreciate your trust and I hope you'll enjoy where Belle ends up.

Boy, I do hope my process will be a little bit more efficient in the future though.

Mashing up Divinare with Liar's Dice

liar's dice
I had the good fortune of playing Divinare last weekend. ("Fortune." Get it?) It's about old-timey psychics competing to prove who's the real deal. It's a clever little deduction game with an element of take-that and push-your-luck in one elegant package. As much as I love Cards-with-Numbers, I'm especially fascinated with cards that only feature art and no other game information. I'll do a post on that soon.

Check out Tom Vasel's review of Divinare for details of how to play. The experience reminds me a lot of playing the classic game Liar's Dice. If you haven't played that, you should too. Here are the basic rules as I play them at home. Note that there are numerous variants, I just happen to like this one.

Each player has five standard dice and dice cups for concealment.

Each round, each player rolls their dice under their cups. Each player looks at their results in secret. The first player guesses out loud a quantity and a face. This is called a "bid." The quantity is how many of the chosen face have been rolled in total on the table.

For example, "Five threes," means "I think there are at least five threes on the table."

Then the next player has three choices:

  • Raise: Increase the quantity. For example, "I think there are at least six threes on the table."
  • Challenge: You think the current bid is wrong. All players then reveal their dice. If the bid is correct, you lose one of your dice. If the bid is wrong, the bidder loses one of her dice.
  • Approve: You think the current bid is exactly correct. If the bid is correct, all other players lose a die. If the bid is wrong, you lose a die.

When you run out of dice, you're out of the game. The last player with dice remaining wins.
So, a fairly simple game of bluffing and deduction, with lots of on-the-spot permutations. One nice thing Divinare provides is four boards that visually show the likelihood of each suit in the deck, thus making it fairly obvious how rare it is. There are probability charts for Liar's Dice, like the spreadsheet here, but you don't get that tight sense of area-control like you do in Divinare. I see two options for hacking.

Area Control Boards
There is a board showing a grid of numbers and ranges. Columns represent faces, the rows represent quantities. Each player has two meeples that begin on the 0,0 corner. Instead of a bid, you have to reveal one of the dice in your hand. Upon doing so, you move your meeples along either axis of the board, landing on either a column or a row. Play continues until all dice are revealed. You can always move a meeple back to the 0,0 corner or to another space, but you cannot occupy a space with another player's meeple. In the end, players are awarded points for accuracy of their placement on the board. Correct column? x points. Correct row? y points. Exact correct? z points.

Colored Dice
This option is the same as the above, with an additional layer of deduction. Each player has nine dice: Two blue, three white, four red. When you reveal your die, you can only move the meeples on the board matching the color of that die. So, you only get two guesses on the blue board, three guesses on the white, four on the red. Blue: Triple points, White: Double points, Red: Normal points.

How about you? Any deduction games you particularly enjoy? Share your thoughts in the comments!

The Long Quest for a Cards-with-Numbers Game

Day 5 ~ Numbers
For many reasons, I've been fascinated with card games that can be played with little more than a deck of sequentially numbered cards. Sometimes there are colors acting as perfunctory suits, like Uno or Reiner Knizia's Poison. The real gems are games like No Thanks or 6 Nimmt which have no suits, just numbers. There's something so seductive about the pure abstraction there.

On that note, dice games are heavy hitters when it comes to abstract purity – Yahtzee and Liars' Dice come to mind. Heck, even dice games with custom faces can be abstracted back down to algebraic notation... but let's talk about cards for now.

I must admit, part of the appeal is from a commercial perspective. Cards-with-numbers are easy to playtest, easy to lay out, require minimal art, and can be reproduced relatively easily. I think this creates a positive pressure on the design of the game itself. The mechanics and rules presentation must be well-executed since the components could be created at home with little trouble.

And that's why I've been orbiting around so many cards-with-numbers ideas lately. I'm looking at games like Stefan Dorra's For Sale, where cards are auctioned then used as bidding. I'm looking at Libertalia, where cards determine which special effect is activated first. I'm looking at Get Bit, where the cards are used for bluffing and deduction. In these games and others, a simple cards-with-numbers deck forms the slim, strong rebar supporting a robust game.

In a fit of frustration, I tweeted this ultra-minimal idea.

This sounds really appealing at first glance. It's essentially self-balancing, with power-grabs mitigated by poor turn order in the later rounds.

But of course that just leads to the last round not really mattering. The "winner" would be determined by the turn order established in the previous round. Continuing this all the way backwards, the first round's turn order would essentially predict the endgame's winner or the final score would essentially be a tie. (Thanks to Mark Sherry for pointing this out.)

Granted, that projection is based on averages and random draws. People can be unpredictable, but with this sort of bug, you only win if your opponent makes a mistake. If everyone plays perfectly, the game simply ends in a tie.

However, if this formed the "rebar" of another game, it might be useful. Say you're trying to straights or all evens or all primes. When you toss in other information on the cards, you get even more opportunities for set-building. (I like how 6 Nimmt puts bulls on key cards in a regular pattern, so that some the pattern occasionally lines up so some have two bulls, some have three, and so on. It feels like a constellation.)

How about this:

  • Spread the numbered cards across the table, 5 per player. (If there are 3 players, there are 15 cards on the table, each numbered 1-15.)
  • Players take turns taking one card, then moving up the score track that many points.
  • The turn order of each round proceeds from the trailing player, up to the leading player.
  • Straights are worth the lowest number in the set. So a 2 3 4 5 6 is only worth 2 points. Thus, if you see an opponent has a 2 3 and a 5 6, you really want to force them to take the 4.
  • There are enough cards to play through 5 rounds. After that, the player with the highest score wins.

Even when there is a bug in a cards-with-numbers game, you can design around it to make something more substantial and satisfying.

Anyway, my quest for designing a cards-with-numbers game continues. Do you have any favorite cards-with-numbers games?

Tuning the gears: Belles

skeleton watch gears
Here's one microscopic example of some of the balancing decisions I make during Belle's development.

In the early phases of Prototype M, I decided that the basic Belle bonus should follow this rule of thumb. "Each Belle wants you to collect exactly one third of a particular suit. For example, there are 12 teas, so the tea Belle wants you to collect 4 teas."

I chose the arbitrary point value of 20 for accomplishing a Belle's condition. It's the nearest round number higher than you could possibly earn from the most well-matched group of guests. That makes it enough to be worth pursuing, but not so much that it would tilt the whole game if your opponent matched guests well enough.

Here's the problem: A guest with a red Charm requires that guest be ejected from a party in order to activate that charm. This makes a red-charm guest's suits a little bit harder to collect than others, because a red-charm guest more likely to leave the game early. Any Belle who wants those suits should offer slightly more points, otherwise they're at a slight disadvantage.

So, I listed all the guests with red charms and broke them down by suit.

Snub 18
Flirt, Book 12 each
Tea 6
Cake 0
Music 6
Sun, Gem, Moon, Shield, Fish, Tree 5 each

Harrison Gristlepav has a red charm, meaning that he might leave play early should his host decide to use this ability. Thus, any player whose Belle wants Flirt, Book or Gem guests will be at a slight disadvantage.
A guest's suits are worth a certain number of points based on their rarity. Snub/Flirt are worth 1 point per match, Tea/Book/Cake/Music are worth 2 points per match, Sun/Gem/Moon/Shield/Fish/Tree are worth 3 points per match. Multiplying those point values by the frequency of the corresponding suits being paired with red charms, we get…

Snub 18 points
Flirt 12 points
Book 24 points
Tea 12 points
Cake 0 points
Music 12 points
Sun, Gem, Moon, Shield, Fish, Tree: 15 points

At first glance, those values seem high. Especially if I add them to my baseline of 20 points per Belle. Upon consideration of the current rules, a guest needs to be paired with at least one other guest with a matching suit in order to score points. Thus, I could halve these values (rounding down) to make them a little bit less drastic. Then, added to the base 20 points, the Belles are as follows:

A disproportionate number of Book guests have red charms, meaning that this Belle should award more points if for a host who manages to keep them in her party.
Snub Belle: Collect 8 snubs to earn 29 points
Flirt Belle: Collect 8 flirts to earn 26 points
Book Belle: Collect 6 books to earn 32 points
Tea Belle: Collect 6 teas to earn 26 points
Cake Belle: Collect 6 cakes to earn 20 points
Music Belle: Collect 6 musics to earn 26 points
Sun, Gem, Moon, Shield, Fish, Tree Belles: Collect 4 to earn 27 points

These may seem like minor changes, but it can be a big deciding factor in play. At first glance, it seems like the Book Belle or the rare-suit Belles are the most valuable, but those suits are also disproportionately rare in play because they can leave the game far sooner than any other suit.

Now, does that mean the Belles are balanced? Or more importantly, do the Belles *feel* balanced? Hard to say, that's what playtesting is for. Even with all these minute calculations, nothing beats playtesting. So, I'm playtesting these changes tonight!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.