A "Vulture Capitalist" Private Equity Card Auction Game Thing [In the Lab]

[Image: Stock Market by rednuht, on Flickr]
I've been playing No Thanks a lot lately. Also played Amun Re earlier last week. Empyrean, Inc. has been stuck in my brain for a while, too. Then I woke up at 2am and somehow synthesized them into a bizarro "vulture capitalist" auction card game loosely themed around private equity firms like Bain Capital. Also, birds in business suits.

Just like No Thanks, the gameplay on a single deck of cards in the middle of the table. Each player begins with a certain number of chips, let's say 10. The goal of the game is to create a diverse portfolio of companies representing a variety of industries.

On your turn, reveal the top card. This newly revealed card represents a company that you own. The card card lists which industries the company represents, sort of like the resources from planets Empyrean, Inc. The card also shows a track of incrementally increasing costs that you must pay to buy this company, just like Amun Re's region auction cards. Most start with a minimum price of 1, but get increasingly higher.

If you want to keep this company, simply take the card. If you're interested in selling the company, say so and put your meeple in the space indicating your minimum price. The other players then take turns placing a meeple on the price they're willing to pay for that company. The highest bidder takes the card and pays you their chips. If no one offered to meet your minimum price, then you simply take the card.

There is a separate sideboard listing all the industries in the game and their current market value. After a sale, raise the value of each industry by one increment if the sale price was higher than that industry's current market value. If the sale price was lower, then lower that industry's market value by one increment.

Final scoring is based on how many complete sets of each industry you have in your portfolio. A complete set is one of each industry. You also get bonus points if you have the most of a particular industry, but those bonus points are based on that industry's current market value. There may also be role cards that give you additional bonus points.

A note on art direction and theme. My wife is waaaay turned off by the idea of playing a predatory speculator. We discussed some rethemes, but none quite fit the mechanics presented here.

So, we thought it best to pursue the "vulture" or bird theme all the way. Each player is a different bird in a business suit: Legal Eagle, Cockadeal, Canary Cash, Plunder Parrot, and similar names for pigeon, kukoo, raven, vulture, penguin, ostrich, albatross, and owl. Each with its own thematic bonus. All the companies would be bird brand puns like "Re-bock" and "Micro-squack." All the industries would instead be commodities useful for birds: Sticks, Seeds, Bugs, Trinkets, Territory, and Eggs. We might think of better commodities later.

That new theme might be soft enough to make the game more approachable.

UPDATE: More bird companies!

Merrill Finch
Chirps Ahoy
Heron Davidson
Red Gull
JP Morgan Cheep
Trader Blue Jay's
Baskin Robin
Boston Martlet
Thrush Delivery
Polly-Want-A-Cracker Barrel
J.C. Penguins
Peck-si Cola
Magpie Fae
General Motmot
Victoria's Egret
Buzzards of the Coast
Preen Ronin
Steve Quackson
Fantasy Fowl
Loon Labs
Pinfeathers & Beyond

How Daniel Got his Robot Back: The Story of the Sandstorm License

For many months, I've promised the story of Happy Birthday, Robot! and its license to Sandstorm, but each time I think it's over, it takes another strange turn. So, here's an overview of the story so far: I licensed HBR to Sandstorm. I got an advance on royalties. Sandstorm fell silent for many months. I heard third-hand that they ceased business operations. Now, we're going through formal steps to get my license back. If you want more detail, read on!

Robots for "Happy Birthday, Robot!"

Origin of Happy Birthday, Robot!
I made a fun, family-friendly little storytelling game that seemed to have broad appeal. Folks on the internet liked it and I ran a couple successful playtests at Dreamation 2010. I ran a Kickstarter in 2010 to publish it as my first commercial product. It was one of the very early Kickstarter successes out of the indie RPG community.

88 Copies of Happy Birthday, Robot!

Evil Hat's Partnership
Before launching the Kickstarter, I consulted with more experienced people about self-publishing and the costs therein. One of those people was Fred Hicks from Evil Hat Productions. He was so encouraging of Happy Birthday, Robot! that he wanted to take on the publishing responsibilities off my hands. We came to an agreement and now Evil Hat sells HBR books through its website.

Sandstorm's Prototype for a Happy Birthday Robot Boxed Set

Sandstorm's License
At some point, HBR caught the attention of Sandstorm. At the time, in late 2010, they were buying licenses to publish games in a variety of genres through several different studio imprints. I got legal counsel from Tim Koppang. After several months of email negotiations, we came to an agreement. Evil Hat would keep selling HBR books, but Sandstorm would use their license to create a boxed set. I got an advance on royalties and didn't hear much from them after that. I sent one email in late 2011 to the president of the company, but I got an auto-response stating that he had resigned and now the marketing director is the primary contact. Emails were still sporadic after that. Mainly, I was just curious about how successful they had been with pitching a boxed set at ToyFair and other shows. You can see the prototype above.

First Returned Cancellation Letter to Sandstorm

Sandstorm's Disappearance
I caught a mention of Sandstorm's collapse in an article about Catalyst Labs' experience with them. I emailed Sandstorm for more information, but all emails to their domain got bounced back. Their website was no longer active. Tim Koppang found that they still had a business registration in Washington state. We sent a certified letter to their listed address notifying them that I would be taking back my license, per the terms of the contract. That letter was returned with a note from the post office stating "No Such Street."

HBR Today
Today, you can still get Happy Birthday, Robot! from Evil Hat Productions. Thankfully, that has never changed. As for getting in touch with Sandstorm, I have another address in my records, listed on an old sales sheet. The strange thing is that the sale sheet's address is exactly the same as their registered address, except in a different town and zip code. Same street and number, different town and zip code. Very strange. We're going to try to contact them at this alternate address, but we're assuming that this letter is just a formality. As far as I can tell, I have the license to Happy Birthday, Robot!

What happened to Sandstorm?
Questions still remain. I still don't know the circumstances of Sandstorm's collapse. No one willing to talk has the whole story. Did they buy too many licenses? Did they spend too much too fast? If you can find some information, I'd love to see it. I'm just curious at this point and it might be a cautionary tale for others.

All in all, I am very lucky if this is the worst burn story I get. Sandstorm offered a good advance with reasonable terms for me and for Evil Hat. I had wise counsel from Tim Koppang. Now, I get to keep my license and now I'm free to use the IP however I wish. That's a happy ending in my book.

Dice-Matching Resource Management Game [In the Lab]

[Image: Soft Tones Dice]
Here's a loose idea for a dice-driven resource management and bartering game. It's very, very early but I want to record it for future reference. Basically, it's a civilization game that uses Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as an upgrade structure.

Players roll 4d6 at the same time. You're trying to make pairs, three-of-a-kind or four-of-a-kind. The chart below what resources each set produces.

11=AA   111=AAA   1111=AAAA
22=AA   222=AAA   2222=BBBB
33=AA   333=BBB   3333=BBBB
44=BB   444=BBB   4444=CCCC
55=BB   555=CCC   5555=CCCC
66=CC   666=CCC   6666=CCCC

You may sum two results to "fake" a set. If you fake a set, it earns one fewer resource than it would normally produce. So, if you rolled 3 3 1 2, you could sum the 1 and 2 to fake a triple 3. (3 3 [2+1]) This produces two Resource B.

Straights can also be very useful, but difficult to achieve. There are three possible straights from 4d6. 1,2,3,4 produces one of each resource A–D. 2,3,4,5 produces two of each resource B–E. 3,4,5,6 produces one of each resource C–F. In other words, straights can be a shortcut to producing resources that you'd otherwise not be produce with a standard set.


Each single result produces gold coins of that amount. Gold coins may be used to buy resources or temporary dice.

You may also barter with the other players to get their results, trading resources or gold coins as you wish.

Resources can be used to buy permanent upgrades, such as re-rolls, permanent dice, resource production bonuses, trading powers, etc.

The goal: I'm imagining a model something like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as applied to a whole civilization. You're first meeting the barebones necessities of an early culture (Resource A) and then gradually climbing that pyramid to reach a fully self-actualized civilization (Resource F).

Maybe A and F should be reversed, since it's far easier to sum two or more dice to create a 6 than to create a 2 or 1. Food for thought, indeed. UPDATE: @RyanAech had an interesting idea: How about fake straights? Like 1+2 4 5 being a straight, giving CDE. Something like that.

Minoqaur - Java app download by Ernest Pazera

Ernest Pazera just made this great little Java implementation of Minoqaur. You can see an example of it up at the top of this post and download it from his blog here.

Here is how to run a .jar file on most OSes. Are you on a mac? You can run .jar files with the Jar Launcher under /System/Library/CoreServices and select it as the default app for .jar files. Ernest also shared two interesting findings:

"The sword is so immensely powerful that not picking a nearby starting point seems foolish."

The sword is very powerful, but also farthest from the treasure. It takes twice as many steps to get to the treasure from the sword's entry than from the cloak's or key's entries.

"I learned looking into QR codes, not all QR codes have the "treasure chamber" until they are a minimum size. Additionally, larger QR codes exist with multiple such chambers."

Now that is surprising! If a QR code does not have a treasure chamber, then place it as far in the far right corner as possible. If it has many, place it far from the sword as possible.

Have fun playing and hacking the app!

Utara Playmat Prototype from Dragon Chow Dice Bags/Lyndsay Peters

Utara Prototype Play Mat from Dragon Chow Dice Bags
Utara Prototype Play Mat from Dragon Chow Dice Bags
Utara Prototype Play Mat from Dragon Chow Dice Bags
Utara Prototype Play Mat from Dragon Chow Dice Bags
While planning the Utara Kickstarter, I commissioned a prototype cloth playmat from Lyndsay Peters/Dragon Chow Dice Bags. This thing is huge, double-sided with heavy cotton fabric and sewn together with brown braided cord. We wanted this thing to be really premium for that authentic treasure map feel. Though Utara's Kickstarter is indefinitely postponed, it's nice having this really nice one-of-a-kind artifact. As always, you can find great handmade dice bags at Dragon Chow.

Minoqaur - An Adventure Puzzle Game for QR Codes

Next time you're on a plane and the magazine's crossword puzzle is all filled in, just look for a QR code. With it, you can play this solo puzzle game! It's not like you were going to actually scan the code, right? Your quest is to enter the maze, escape with the treasure, all while avoiding the minoqaur!

Stuff You Need
One player (That's you!)
A QR code
A pen

Every QR code has three squares along the corners of the code and a fourth, smaller square embedded in the lower-right. In this game, they represent chambers for special items that you can equip as you explore the maze. Draw a sword, cloak, key and treasure as shown above. Finally, draw a little dot in the center of the code, or as close to the center as you can. This is the minoqaur.

You can enter the maze at any of the blue dot noted above.

You and the minoqaur will take turns. In each turn, you will move or tunnel, then the minoqaur will move or tunnel. Keep track of all movement by drawing straight horizontal or vertical lines through the white spaces of the QR code, representing the maze's corridors. The black spaces represent walls in the maze.

Your Turn
Walking: You may move as far as you like in a straight line across white spaces. You must stop at any walls. You may not pass through the minoqaur's path. You may not pass through your own path.

Tunneling: If your turn begins adjacent to a wall, you may tunnel through it and emerge on the other side. You can only tunnel through a one-pixel thick wall. You may not change directions while tunneling, you can only go in a straight line.

Items: If you pass through the space with the cloak, sword, or key, you will equip that item. The cloak allows you to cross through the minoqaur's path, but you may not walk along it. The sword allows you to tunnel through any thickness of wall. The key allows you to escape the maze immediately, once you've captured the treasure.

Treasure: If you pass through the treasure space of the maze, you will equip the treasure.

Minoqaur's Turn
Starting from the center of the maze, the minoqaur moves towards your current position, following the same walking and tunneling rules as noted above.

If the minoqaur is in a diagonal position from you, just count the number of pixels vertically too reach your row or count the number of pixels horizontally to reach your column. Whichever number is smaller will be the direction the minoqaur takes.

The minoqaur cannot equip items, but it behaves as if it is equipped with a sword. The minoqaur cannot cross its own path. The minoqaur may cross your path, but may not walk along it.

Depending how much intelligence you want to give the minoqaur, you can be more strategic with its movement. See the two-player and multiplayer variants below for more information.

Minoqaur - 2
The example above shows eight turns between you and the minoqaur. Your path is noted in blue, the minoqaur's in red. As you can see, you equipped the sword in turn 3 then headed straight for the key. You're almost there by turn 5, but decide to slightly detour through a thick wall, which you can tunnel through now that you have the sword. Unfortunately for the minoqaur. At turn 8, you tunnel right through a thick wall and the minoqaur continues to the right in pursuit!

Capture the treasure and exit the maze. You may also win if you lure the minoquar into a position where it is trapped by its own path. If the minoqaur crosses the head of your path, you lose.

Two-Player Variant
If you're playing against another person, one of you can play the minoqaur. In that case, the minoqaur may make moves more strategically than normal, such as stopping short of a wall, turning at critical points, and planning ahead.

Multi-Player Variant
If you play with three or more players, one player is the minoqaur and the others are explorers trying to capture the treasure and escape first. Explorers may cross each other's paths, but may not walk along them. An explorer can steal items or treasure from another explorer by crossing the head of their path.

Sample Mazes
qrcode qrcode

Triple Town Board Game?

My first Triple Town floating castle!
Like many, I've been a enjoying Triple Town for iOS. And, like many, it's got me thinking about a multiplayer board game adaptation for the mobile game. If you recall, my obsession with Jorinapeka led to Utara, so you could say I have a history. :p

Stuff You Need
2-4 players.
3 Meeple pawns for each player.
A 6x6 grid board.
An Utara die (or a d6. 1,2,3,4:N,E,S,W; 5:Sun; 6:Moon)
Put 36 grass tiles, three bush tiles, two tree tiles and one house tile in a bag.
A separate tile supply of bush, tree, house, mansion, castle, and bear tiles.

One house, tree, rock, bush and two grass tiles randomly placed on a 6x6 grid.

On your turn
Step 1:
Draw a tile from the bag and place it on the board. You may put a meeple on that tile. If that tile makes a match of three or more, they consolidate to create an upgraded unit, per standard Triple Town rules. Any player with a meeple on a tile that gets consolidated keeps their meeple on the new upgraded unit. Thus, after several consolidations, it is possible for multiple meeples to occupy the same tile.

Step 2:
You can remove one of your meeples from the board. Claim points based on the value of the tile it occupied.

Step 3:
Roll Utara die. Moon: Put a bear on the board. N, E, S, W: Move all bears one space that direction. Sun: Remove tile of your choice.

When the board fills up, player with most points wins.

Possible Retheme?
This mechanic reminds me of the old game Sim Earth. In that game you're terraforming a new planet across many geological epochs. One of the basic units was a comet, to create water. Match water to create an ocean. Match oceans to create a microbe. Match microbes to create fish. Match fish to create... And so on. Title? maybe 3io? A play on "three" and "bio."

Race to Adventure - Passport Background

Race to Adventure - Passport Back
All week I've been posting charts n' stuff. Figured I'd treat you all to a little something more lush to carry you into the weekend. This is what will be on the back of the passport boards in Race to Adventure. It was just released on the Evil Hat facebook page. They're unveiling more stuff from upcoming projects as they gain more likes. Hint hint.

Belle of the Ball - Deconstructing a Card Deck

You saw my previous posts on organic distribution of information across card decks, right? Well, I took a slightly lazier route for Belle of the Ball, using a variety of online text and list tools.

I knew there would be 96 basic guest cards, so I generated a list of numbers 1 through 96. I copied-pasted that list into separate text blocks for each variable of information: Family, Gender, Social Activity, Physical Activity, Popularity Points, and optional power.

In each block, I divided the list into a number of columns equal to the sub-categories within each variable. For example, because Family has six sub-categories, that text block is divided into six columns.

Then I randomized the list within each text block. For ease of reference, I sequentially re-ordered the numbers within each column, too.

The next step is actually formatting the cards according to the information listed in the chart. Start with card 1, and check off 1 from each chart as I add that relevant information to that card. Continue for the other guest cards. This way, I know for sure that I'm not missing any particular sub-category.

In the case of invitation powers, you can see how flexible this system is for generating rare, strong game effects or common, weak game effects. Most of those powers simply allow players to follow-suit, a relatively neutral game effect. Slightly rarer are the powers that allow players to steal cards from each other's hand. And still rarer are powers that let players draw cards from the decks.

So anyway, that's the deck as it stands now. I'm looking for a social activity that is mutually exclusive to Flirt and Snub. I'm leaning towards Gossip. I'm also looking for a physical activity that is mutually exclusive to Eat, Drink and Dance. I'm leaning towards Duels. Any ideas?

[UPDATE: In the original randomization, it turned out ALL the flirters were men. While I want to keep the distribution somewhat organic, this where I'm making a conscious choice to keep things gender-balanced. So, I re-randomized the male and female numbers separately, making sure that flirt, snub, gossip, eat, drink, dance and quarrel were each split evenly between male and female. This is reflected in the chart you see above.

Oh! I settled on "Quarrel" and "Chat."]

[UPDATE 2: Also noticed an error in the point-value distribution. I noticed 55 appeared twice. I re-randomized just to be on the safe side. So, with all that settled, I've got all the cards in a spreadsheet now!]

[UPDATE 3: And now after playtesting, there are way too many game effects. I'll halve that, at least.]

Meta-Kickstarter: The Freelance Market Around Kickstarter Campaigns

Hey look! The funding for Velociraptor! Cannibalism! went dino-crazy last week. School Daze continues its strong funding growth, too. As you may know, I'm attached to do some layout and graphics for both these projects. This brings up a subject that I've been meaning to talk about for sometime: Meta-kickstarter. That is, the freelance job market and economy around Kickstarter campaigns.

The most direct example is when you need to hire someone to make customized rewards for high-level pledges. For example, Evil Hat and I hired Dan Cetorelli to make hand-bound editions of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple for a $1000-level backer. We also hired Lyndsay Peters to create custom dice bags for some of the other high-level backers. That market is fairly straightforward, usually drawing from pre-existing budgets before a Kickstarter is completed. The end result are value-adds and other peripherals.

There's a new economy growing, at least in my tiny sphere. It's an economy of freelancers and development teams that sign on to a project in a halfway official capacity, but before any contracts have been signed. As far as I can tell, this economy is still very much in its early stages of development. Here's how it usually goes in my case:

1) A creator wants to make a product, like a book or a game. He or she wants to hire a really good development team, like artists, editors, art directors, etc. In my case, I ask for half up front when the contract is signed. However, the creator doesn't have the budget in place to pay that much. (Hence the Kickstarter).

2) After some negotiations about estimates, deadlines and scope, there's a handshake agreement. The creator will hire me if the Kickstarter succeeds. In turn, the creator can use my name as a part of Kickstarter promotions. Thus, simply associating the clout of a would-be development team helps add credibility to the campaign, thus making it more likely to succeed, all for no cost to the creator. In my case, these have been very informal agreements, but standard procedure probably should involve getting it in writing in a Letter of Agreement. I'm just not that formal. :P

3a) If the Kickstarter fails, nothing is lost on either end. I haven't spent any time on a project for which I don't get paid. The creator hasn't lost any money hiring me for a project that won't get produced.

3b) If the Kickstarter succeeds, then we proceed to actual signing of contracts as normal. In a way, this point becomes a very traditional working relationship. The terms of the contract would have been previously discussed during the handshake/letter of agreement. The creator knows how much budget he or she has to work with, as do I.

Now, there's an inherent risk in this meta-economy, for the creator, for the freelancer and for the backer.

Risk for the Creator
The creator is betting that the freelancers' names will help make the game more appealing to a potential backer. At best, the creator puts together a Dream Team of professionals. At worst, a drawn-out Kickstarter campaign compels the freelancers to take on other commitments, meaning the creator must start a search all over again. Meanwhile, backers don't get the dream team they originally thought they were supporting.

Risk for the Freelancer and Backer
If the Kickstarter fails, then the freelancer has promised a block of time in his or her schedule that now must be filled by something else on short notice. This does harm to the freelancers' reputation among other creators. The freelancer wants to assure future creators that his or her name will help raise funds. As with any Kickstarter campaign, the backer is risking that the project will take far longer than originally estimated.

There are ways to mitigate these risks, for all parties involved.

Creators, Be Almost Finished
This one comes from Joe McDaldno. If you're making a game, make sure it's fully playtested, revised, playtested, revised, and ready for actual production as soon as the Kickstarter campaign is complete. You have time for development or you have time to run a Kickstarter campaign. When you try to do both at once, you give neither the time they deserve. Note I said "almost." It's okay if there are some small tweaks you're making during the campaign, especially if it's a way to drive engagement among your backers. Send those late-stage playtest drafts to backers, get some feedback, report on that feedback promptly and express your utmost appreciation throughout. Get your estimates in order, learn from past mistakes, and make sure you can afford success.

Freelancers, Agree Wisely
Be choosy about which projects you take on. You want to sign on to projects that you know will appeal to a broad enough market to reach full funding. More than that, you want to sign on to projects that you feel strongly about. Do you love the subject? Do you see this as a path to more work? Do you want to support the creator personally? Find some personal investment in the project, because even though you're not officially working on it yet, your name is still attached to it. Towards this end, it's a good idea to write up a letter of agreement with some simple terms you and the creator have negotiated beforehand. This is not a contract yet, just a plain-language agreement to take the next step on the condition that the project is fully funded. Though you're not technically hired until that time, it's still in your interest to drive momentum after 100%, offer ideas for stretch goal rewards, and maybe even help create the Kickstarter video.

Backers, Keep Creators Accountable
Kickstarter has been around for a few years now. Some projects have done spectacularly well, raising the profile of other Kickstarter campaigns by proxy. That virtuous cycle can't last forever, and it seems like a lot of people are waiting for a bubble to burst. So, would-be backers, tread lightly in the coming year. Remember, this isn't shopping, this is backing. It's a much more active relationship than a normal consumer experience. Only commit to pledge levels you can afford, keep track of when those campaigns would be completed, note the estimated delivery dates for your level and whether that sounds feasible to you. Keep track of the creator's transparency and remember that you can change your pledge level during most of the campaign.

So, what are your thoughts? Is this a good trend? Is it just unfairly off-loading risk to the backers and freelancers? Is there room for growth in the meta-kickstarter?

[Graph comes from J.R. Blackwell btw!]

Belle of the Ball Playtest Notes

After a couple weeks of playtests, this is the most recent draft of Belle of the Ball card game. Above, you see some images that show how the game works in play. See the rules below. It's not quite ready for public beta, but this gives you a sense of how much the game has evolved since the last post.

Each card represents either a guest at a party or the Belles hosting the party.

Guests are members of one of six noble families. Each guest may be flirting, snubbing, or neither; and eating, drinking, dancing, or neither. Each guest may also attract or repel other guests who are doing one of those activities. Each guest is worth a certain number of popularity points. Lastly, a few guests have special powers that trigger when they're invited, others have powers that trigger at the end of a round.

The Belles host lavish parties for their own amusement. Each Belle changes the popularity of cliques they join, so an unpopular group of guests may suddenly be much more posh when the right Belle joins them. See each Belle for the effects she has when invited and at the end of the round.

To gather the most popular clique at the party.

1. Shuffle all the cards into a face-down draw deck.
2. Deal 5 cards to each player (from 2-5 players).
3. Draw five cards and line them up in a row beside the draw deck. These are the mingling guests at the party.
4. Choose a player to go first.

1. Invite a guest or Belle to the party.

To invite a guest, take the card from your hand and lay the card face-up in front of you. Over time, you'll have a row of guests called your clique.

To invite a Belle, lay the card beside your clique. You may only have one Belle in play at a time. If you play a new BELLE, place the old one in the discard pile.

1a. Optional: Resolve any invitation powers: Some guests have a special effect on the game as soon as they're invited. See the guest for details.

1b. Optional: Coupling:When you invite a guest, you may place it face-up on top of another guest to make both guests a couple. Couples behave as a single unit, with the attributes of the top card. Any guests not part of a couple are called single.

1c. Optional: Bringing a Gift: In addition to inviting a guest, you can place another card from your hand face-down on a couple in your clique. This represents a gift that the couple is bringing to the party. You may only place one gift in a turn. A couple may carry up to two gifts.

2. Attract or Repel: When you invite a guest or belle, they will attract or repel other guests based on specific attributes.

When your guest attracts, choose a single guest card that is outside of your clique and has one of the noted symbols. This may be in another player's clique or among the mingling guests. Bring that card into your clique. Guests cannot attract couples. If no matching guests are available to attract, then ignore this power and continue with your turn as normal.

When your guest repels, choose a single guest that is in your clique and has one of the noted symbols. Place that card in another player's clique or place it in the discard pile. Guests cannot repel couples. If no matching guests are available to repel, then ignore this power and continue with your turn as normal.

Belles will attract couples from another player's clique, based on criteria listed on the Belle's card.

Note: Only a newly invited guest or Belle will attract other guests in this way. The attraction or repulsion does not persist after this turn.

2a. Replacement Guest: If you take a guest from another player's clique, they may immediately replace that guest with a card from their hand. If you happen to take a couple, then they may replace that couple with two cards from their hand, placed as a couple. They may draw back up to their full hand of five cards.

3. Refill your hand. Draw back up to your full hand of five cards. If the draw deck runs out of cards during this step, the round and game are over.

4. Minglers drift out of the party. If there are five guests, discard the guest farthest from the draw deck. Move the minglers one space farther, to make room for a newly drawn guest from the deck. If there are fewer than five guests, draw enough guests from the deck to bring it back up to five. If the draw deck runs out of cards during this step, the round and game are over.

1. The round ends when there are too many couples or when the deck runs out. If there are two players, the round ends when there are five or more couples in play. For three players, the round ends when there are six or more couples in play. For four players, seven or more couples. For five players, eight or more couples.

Scoring Cheat Sheet
2. Add up the scores for your clique. First, add up the face value of each single guest in your clique. For couples, add the face value of the top card. Add one point for any gifts. Lastly, take note of any bonuses from guest or Belle powers and add those points, too. Add this total to the score from any previous rounds.

3. Discard all hands, cliques and minglers in play. Do NOT shuffle the discard deck back into the draw deck.

4. Refresh the party. Deal five new cards to each player. Draw and place five new mingling guests beside the draw deck. If the draw deck runs out of cards at any point during this step, the game is over.

The game ends when the draw deck runs out of cards. The player with the highest score total across all rounds wins.

If you're curious, here are the cards used in the current draft.

The Century Club's Official Seal [Logo Design]

Century Club Logos
As a part of the upcoming Race to Adventure board game, Evil Hat wanted an official seal for the protagonists in the game. The Century Club is an international organization of daring and uniquely talented heroes in the mid-1920s.

We took inspiration from lots of the art deco forms of the era, especially the "wings" motif commonly seen in everything from hood ornaments to angel sculptures. It's fortunate that I work in the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, NC. We're surrounded by renovated tobacco factory architecture, including plenty of exposed steel infrastructure. Plenty of inspirational material there.

So we went thought a few iterations, some focused on Metropolis-style faces, surrounded by gear halos. Some focused on the idea of a Roman shield, tying back to a legacy of ancient heroism.

After a few rounds, we settled on the seal you see above. It combines the optimism of the pulp era and a faith in technology. We thought this could be something easily found on a broach, lapel pin, hanging on a wall or just worn on a t-shirt. This logo is Trademark Evil Hat Productions, LLC.

Balancing Power and Rarity in Strategy Game Design

Power Rarity Chart
I just wanted to give some real practical tips on how to use the wabi-sabi technique when designing game effects. Say you're making a deck of event cards or special powers that apply to different points in the game. There are two things happening here.

Power: This is how much of an impact the instance has on a subject. In your case, the "instance" might be an Event Card, or a Faction Power, or a Magic Item. If your instance nudges the game, that's Weak. If your instance smashes the game, that's Strong.

Rarity: This is the subject affected by the instance. The "subject" might be the players, a resource pool, or some other in-game construct. We already covered this in the last post, specifically in regards to card games. If the subject is present in the game very often, you can say it is Common. If it come sup rarely, you can say it is Rare.

Card games are an easy format to control rarity, since you can divide up the deck into suits, ranks, or whatever level of specificity you like. For example, if you have some minor point bonuses, modest bonuses and strong bonuses, you can design those bonuses knowing how likely they are to come up. So, your minor bonus could apply to 2/3 of the deck. The modest bonus may apply only to 1/4 of the deck. The strong bonus may only apply to 1/6 of the deck.

Controlling rarity in other formats is a bit more difficult and can sometimes take some math. For example, with Mark Sherry's help, we calculated that the average game of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple would last around 14 turns, based on a few variables like the size of the group. With that knowledge, I could impose goal structures that we knew would be easier or more difficult to accomplish within that amount of time. If I introduced a power that made accomplishing those goals easier, I knew exactly how powerful it could be and whether it would break the game.

How can you use this knowledge? Well, in a card game, you can easily design powers using simple game terms. "All owners of a Courage or Power card gets 1 victory point." This is balanced because the subject is common, but the instance is weak. Or "If you have three Fire cards, you get 5 victory points." This is balanced because the subject is a little rare, but not hard to achieve, and the instance is strong enough to make it worth the trouble. Or "All owners of a Fire card and Eagle card get 10 victory points." This is balanced because the subject is very rare, but the instance is strong enough to be a tempting tactic.

The key in all this is knowing the structure of your game, whether it's a deck, or turn order, or the number of players. You'll feel confident designing big bonuses because you know how likely they are to apply. Playtesting is still important, but at least you have a bit more control in the early design phase.

Interviews on Runtime Expectations, Little Metal Dog Show and the Podge Cast

Image: Interview
And then there was that time I stumbled into a radio show. Let's back up... I ran into my buddy Michael Harrison near my office. We got a pint at the bar (cappuccino stout!) and chatted about all sorts of stuff. Smart guy, that Michael. And it turns out he was about to go into a radio interview with a live audience. Sounded interesting, so I came to watch. Then they gave us both mics. I reacted with my usual poise.

On Runtime Expectations, the normal topic is programming and stuff. Michael came on to talk about web analytics and its variety of uses in the real world. He goes from the basics of data aggregation to how to interpret that data for actual action. If you need any kind of in-depth analysis, you want to talk to Michael.

On the Little Metal Dog Show, I recap the Thousand-Year Game Design Challenge and how we selected a winner. But really, you should listen to the episode to hear Rob Daviau talk about RISK: Legacy. A local group has been playing it for a while here and gradually uncovering its secrets. No spoilers here, just awesome behind-the-scenes details on how the game was made.

On the Podge Cast we also talked about the Thousand-Year Game Design Challenge, but then we quickly pivot to the whole Kickstarter thing, recapping 2011 and what's in the future. Clearly, this was recorded way before we knew that there would be three multi-million dollar Kickstarters the following month.

Happy listening!

Wabi-Sabi in Card Game Design

Cameron asked a good question here, and the answer led into a subject I wanted to talk about anyway. Let's call it "wabi-sabi for card game design." Wabi-sabi is the aesthetic ideal of natural imperfection and asymmetry. It stands in contrast to the perfect symmetry of industry or classic Western aesthetics. Here's where that's relevant in designing a deck of cards for the Belle of the Ball card game.

Now, my natural impulse is to make as perfect a distribution of all variables as possible. I want to create these obsessive mandalas across 96 data points. That's what you see above, but that's not going to be any fun to actually play. (This was one of the problems of the first iteration of Belle, actually.)

Say you wanted to make a deck of 96 cards with four levels of information, based on four independent variables. The first variable splits the deck in half (Male/Female). The second variable splits them it into thirds (Courage/Power/Wisdom). The third variable them into quarters (Fire/Water/Earth/Air). The fourth variable splits them into sixths (Dragon, Horse, Bear, Rat, Monkey, Eagle). Here's how you could get that symmetrical division with an organic distribution.

Grab a deck of 96 index cards.
Divide them in half.
Mark one half female.
Mark the other half male.
Shuffle the cards again.
Draw 32 cards, mark them as the Courage.
Draw another 32, mark them as Power.
Draw another 32, mark them as Wisdom.
Shuffle the cards again.
Draw 24, mark them as Fire.
Draw another 24, mark them as Water.
Draw another 24, mark them as Earth.
Draw another 24, mark them as Air.
Shuffle the cards again.
Draw 16, mark them as Dragon.
Draw another 16, mark them as Horse.
Draw another 16, mark them as Bear.
Draw another 16, mark them as Rat.
Draw another 16, mark them as Monkey.
Draw another 16, mark them as Eagle.

We'll stop there, but you can keep on going. Divide them into twelfths! Months of the year, maybe. Do you need some common/uncommon/rare/ultra-rare distinctions? Divide the deck into 1/12, 2/12, 3/12, 6/12.

In any case, you're going to get organic distributions. Does that mean one animal may have more courageous cards? If so, that's okay. Does that mean some some fire cards are rarely wise? That's okay, too. The division is perfect, the distribution is organic, by intent.

Oh! And because it's most economical to print card games in 108 card decks, you have 12 cards left over. How lucky! You have a variable that divides the deck into sixths. Thus, you can create a a sub-set of 12 special cards. If you did divide the deck into twelfths, perhaps these extra cards are a kind of Ace? ("Ace of January" sounds cool, actually.)

This is how I apply some degree of wabi-sabi to designing a card game. Divide up the deck in a balanced divisions, but distribute those differences organically.

Belle of the Ball in Development

Image: Belle of the Ball - Game Prototype
It's a busy time for my work schedule, but I still scrounged up some spare hours to playtest a totally new iteration of Belle of the Ball this weekend. After numerous playtests this weekend (it's a fast game), I think it's getting close to public beta. Initially, the game played as described here. Since that first draft, I went through a bunch of different changes.

Trimmed down the number of Belles to 12. Enough to come out pretty often, but they don't dominate the game as much. I took some of the extra Belle's effects and pasted them onto the normal guests. Now those end-round effects only occur if you possess that guest in your clique.

Each player has their own Belle. Instead of one Belle in the center of the table, each player may invite a Belle to their own clique. The Belle's powers only apply to that player. Furthermore, inviting a Belle allows that player to attract a couple, which is quite useful since couples are otherwise safe.

Revised Couples rules a few times. Now, only the top card's attributes are in play, including its point value. Couples are a pretty safe investment, but can be lured away by the Belles.

Revised win condition a bit. The round ends when a certain number of couples are in play -or- when the deck runs out. The deck running out is also the trigger for endgame. Keep track of scores each round and discard all the cliques and hands in play. This starts each round with a clean slate. The player with the highest score tallied across all rounds wins.

Added negative-point guests. This gave players a lot more reason to invite repellant guests as an offensive strategy. I also made sure that only the double-attractive guests were worth negative points. So, you must weigh the cost of that guest against the value of the guests he or she would attract.

Added Events. One-time changes to the game like "Spoiled Food" causing all the eating guests to leave the party. There were tons of new events in one playtest, which actually caused the deck to be a little bloated. Also, playing an event card was often too costly a use of your turn when you could instead invite a guest. So, I trimmed out any redundant events, cut out their effects and pasted them onto guests. Now, when you invite that guest, it causes that effect.

Players may invite guests to any player's clique. So, you could invite a repellant guest to another player's clique, as another way to get new guests. This, again, is an effort to make repellant guests a bit more useful.

Overall, the challenge has been fighting my urge for symmetry across the whole deck. When there is perfect balance between all possible permutations, it creates a generally blasé game experience. You want enough eccentricity to force players to choose their own individual strategies, but enough predictability so an early decision still has some bearing on the late-game outcome. There's more to say on that subject, but for now I've got work to do!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.