Belle of the Ball Playtest Feedback from UnPub3!

Courtesy of Dice Hate Me

Yay! I just got the feedback form results from the Belle of the Ball playtests at UnPub3. The data below is split between quantitative responses about the game's length, ease of learning, and so on. The qualitative responses get a sense of context for the player's preferences in gaming and what they liked about this game in particular. At the end are some findings and possible courses of action I could take in response to this data.

Many thanks to Car Trunk Entertainment for scanning 35 handwritten feedback forms from the show!

Overall the data was positive. Most said the game was easy or very easy to learn, which for some was possibly a negative aspect. Also many found the game length to be appropriate, though several comments in the qualitative section wished it was a little longer in a four-player game. A surprisingly small minority didn't care for the theme. I say "surprising" because I expected a core gamer audience to be a little put off by the frou-frou premise. Perhaps my presence at the table made players feel more generous? I've already talked about the effect of designer presence can have at a playtest.
Learning the game was
Very Easy   ***************
Easy        ***************
Appropriate ******

Length was
Short       ****
Appropriate ********************************

Luck was
A lot       ***
Appropriate ************************
a little    *********

Interactivity was
Complete    **
Frequent    *********
Consistent  **************
Occasional  ***********

Game was
Hilarious   ****
Humorous    ***********
Fun         ***************************
OK/Boring   **

Was the game predictable?
Yes         ***
Maybe       *****
No          *****************************

Was the game balanced?
Don't know  ****
Maybe       *
Yes         ********************************
("Yes, very")

Did you enjoy the theme?
Maybe       *
No          ****
Yes         *******************************
("Hell yes!")

Would you play again?
No          *
Maybe       **
Yes         *******************************

Did the game feel original?
Yes         ******************************
Maybe       ********

Would you buy this game?
Yes         ********************* ("Def!")
Maybe       *******
Don't know  *
No          ******


Ah! Now this is the good stuff. I've compiled all the responses into a single dataset, so you're going to see a mix of negative and positive responses all mixed up together. Most of the positive responses liked how easy the game was to learn and the short play time (usually hovering around 20 minutes for 4-players). The hardest responses to pin down were the favorite and least favorite types of games. I expected players who liked Belle to prefer set collection games with light themes and easy gameplay, but there was a really wide variance in these two responses.

Did you like this game? Why/Why Not?
  • Easy to learn, quick game
  • Fun, moves quickly
  • Great theme. Light and quick.
  • I enjoyed this game. I always am up for some quick moving, lighter games to play between my deeper game experiences.
  • I felt like it was alright. I didn't feel like there were enough strategic decisions. Also, I'm not sure of the balance of Belle cards.
  • I liked it. Simple and strategic with a lot of choices. It's also very short.
  • I liked the fast pace. I think once I got more practice, you could have a lot of fun with character names.
  • I really liked the theme as well as grouping for the scoring component.
  • It was okay.
  • It would appeal to people who like lighter, more random games.
  • Proper luck/skill balance for length of game with not-so-serious theme
  • Sure maybe still good with more than four players?
  • The presentation (cards) were great, the mechanics are few and it is well-paced.
  • The theming and art are consistent and add to the enjoyment of the game. Cards are fun to read. Game has a good mix of luck and strategy.
  • Very easy to understand and play.
  • Yes, creative, easy to play, appeals to a wide amount of people
  • Yes, easy, fun and casual
  • Yes, interesting mechanics
  • Yes, it felt unique even though it used familiar mechanics
  • Yes, it made you think, but not to the point that it was tedious.
  • Yes, it was fun and kind of like a puzzle, and personally I like puzzle games
  • Yes, it was quick enough to keep interest and always kept you guessing.
  • Yes, it was something that made me think
  • Yes, moved quickly, good theme
  • Yes, quick and easy to learn.
  • Yes, silly names, fast-paced.
  • Yes, there is good interplay and chances to interact with others
  • Yes, to a degree. Set collection is my least favorite type of game, but I enjoyed it.
  • Yes. Easy rules. Interesting concept. Fun theme. Short duration.
  • Yes. Original theme. Fun play.
  • Yes. Should announce the guest as they arrive.
  • Yes. Simple mechanic plus creative flavor (names and art) is a very fun combination.
  • Yes/No. Loss of bribes sets game into crash course. Need mechanism to pull bribes.
  • Yes, theme fit the game well, solid art, balanced play

Favorite part?
  • Interesting Belle cards
  • Theme
  • Scoring/theme
  • Belle cards.
  • The cards, both appearance and their mechanics are fun. Some of the card actions were brilliant!
  • Drafting.
  • Light. Good player interaction.
  • Matching interests
  • The Belle powers were very well thought out and varied
  • Names and symbols
  • Makes you think with an element of luck
  • Being able to affect other player's scores
  • Light amount of strategy required
  • Card based, so no board or crazy setups
  • Interaction with other players
  • The theme drew me in but the gameplay is solid and highly repayable. I enjoyed trying to find a good winning strategy when I played a second time.
  • The theme
  • The bribe and belle cards.
  • Collection line of the cards in the middle
  • It played quickly and was easy to learn.
  • The ease of gameplay. The ability to see it and pick up and go.
  • Design and creative cards
  • Winning!
  • Every part was fun
  • The ability to score fast.
  • Matching cards
  • The Belle cards are fun to play with
  • Cards were elegantly designed. Play was easy. Great for kids.
  • It moves quickly. Decisions are meaningful, but not complex enough to bog down.
  • It was all good, really.
  • Winning, silliness
  • Speed

Least favorite part?
  • If you ran out of bribes, your choices were limited.
  • Could over analyze, but we played quickly.
  • Having to slide the row of available cards after each draw.
  • Bribes/Not enough defense cards
  • Sometimes choices felt pretty automatic.
  • I felt like the decision of what to select was a bit proscribed.
  • Theme. It's fine, but it doesn't seem organic.
  • Really need to learn the Belle ability to master
  • Not much interactivity, but we had a very bad shuffle. Five out of the last six cards were Belles
  • Cards with words (Belles)
  • Would have liked the guest deck to be bigger
  • Wish it was longer
  • Needs a better way to keep track of score.
  • Potential for conflicts with Belle cards (could be fixed with a first or last played Belle card rule)
  • Some wording tweaks need to be made to clarify how the Belle cards are used.
  • I had no least favorite part.
  • Bribes
  • Set collection
  • N/A, I very much enjoyed the whole game.
  • Losing…
  • Nothing, I liked it.
  • I felt bad for the other guy
  • The end-scoring system requires strategy to change when within a certain number of turns from the end. This is something the newbie must realize or be at a disadvantage.
  • Can't think of anything. My main suggestion would be to have the game last 10minutes longer. Perhaps have a specific quantity of cards per people playing. This might have had enough cards for 2 players.
  • Can't think of anything, but placing line of cards on a spinner so they face players may be handy.

Favorite type of game?
  • Worker placement
  • Tichu, card games.
  • Euro
  • Fun ones (not particular)
  • Aw man, I don't know.
  • Family
  • Medium weight euros
  • Adventurous endeavors
  • Strategy
  • Party games
  • Casual strategy / Resource mgmt
  • Abstract strategy
  • Abstract
  • Thematic games
  • Video games
  • All
  • Board games/puzzle games
  • Cards, visual perception games.
  • Co-op
  • Strategy
  • Board games
  • Games that involve trading/auctioning
  • Games that have a lot of social interaction, humor.
  • Word, card, strategy
  • RPG-themed
  • Strategy, RPG

Least favorite type of game?
  • Fluxx
  • Agricola
  • CCG
  • Politics
  • Bluffing, diplomacy
  • RPG
  • Auction
  • Abstract war games like chess. Games that overstay their welcome.
  • Chance games
  • Crazy strategy where your brain hurts!
  • CCG
  • PVP
  • Set collection
  • Puzzles
  • Video games
  • Boring games
  • War, strategy, make-believe components (power, magic, etc)
  • Luck fests
  • MMO
  • Games where enemies are auto controlled
  • Word games
  • Worker placement
  • Fluffy, non-strategic party games
  • War

Additional notes:
  • Let me know when it comes out!
  • Please email me when I can buy this!

You know I'm excited about those last two notes! But still, there are some good actionable data to take into consideration from the negative responses. Here are a few takeaways:
  • A more convenient way of moving the line. One suggestion from the show was to deal six cards in a line, then six more parallel to that. Only one line is "active" at a time. When the active line runs out, the neighboring line becomes active and you deal six more cards to replace the former active line. In this manner, you're not moving cards down every turn, but it may get confusing which line is active at any particular turn. Maybe a "front door" card to indicate this?
  • Players hoarding bribes can really flatten everyone's choices. There ought to be some risk to hoarding bribes, like Belle cards that explicitly target the player with the most bribes. Belle cards in particular seem to be a popular element, but they do take a little bit of learning to understand how they can be used to their fullest effect. This may be something I include in the rulebook under a "tips" section.
  • Some outside feedback has said the game is too simple, but dang near all the positive responses have shown that this simplicity a good thing. If I add any more elements to the game, I'm going to keep them through a few channels: New Belle cards, maybe some unique Guest cards, but that's it for now. Adding "event cards" whose effects are immediate and continuous as long as they are in the line could also easily be added, but it creates just one extra level of complexity that I hesitate to add to a light filler game. This is where expansions would probably be best.
Once again, many thanks to Car Trunk Entertainment for hosting the UnPub program and doing us game designers such an excellent service. 

Listen to me yap on Dice Section, Jennisodes, and State of Games


Heyo! It's been a while since I've done many podcast interviews. I was doing a TON in 2010-2011 promoting my games or the 1000 Year Game Design Challenge. This time around things are much more casual. Here are some recent appearances that you can put in your ear holes.

The Dice Section 12: Survive
I stop by to visit my good friends at the Dice Section to chat about the current events of gaming and to play a rowsing game of Survive: Escape from Atlantis. We also talk about the current iteration of Belle of the Ball and how it was refined from a particularly rough playtest last Fall.

Jennisodes 143: Sidekick Quests
James Stowe, Lyndsay Peters, and I team up to talk about Sidekick Quests, James' adorable webcomic about youthful adventuring sidekicks. Lyndsay and I are still tinkering with the card game. We talk about our design goals, how the game works, why it's great for kids, and list several of the cute D&D-inspired quests in the game. Look for more on SKQ:CG.

State of Games 40: The One about UnPub3
The morning after UnPub3, I joined in on the annual post-con breakfast at the House Louder. But first, Chris Kirkman brings you some interviews from the show floor. There were so many great games at the event and I wish I had more of a chance to play them all. If you want to hear more about Belle of the Ball specifically, check out the 45min mark.


Writer's Dice on Dicecards [Kickstarter]

Dicecards are a lovely little concept that takes the notion of dice-on-cards to the next logical extreme. Well, "logical" may not be the adjective that comes to mind when you see the sheer plethora of dice and randomizers that appear on each DiceCard.

playing cards
polyhedral dice
pirate die
fudge die
werewolf roles
other games
distribution dice

elements die
weather die
treasure map
poker chips
craps dice
crown and anchor
slots die
letter tiles
short straw
zener card

and Writer's Dice!

There are so many interesting data sources in each card. The mind reels. REELS. So back the project!

Initial Thoughts on a Mansa Musa board game

Mansa Musa (cover)

In 1324, Musa I, the king of Mali, set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Unfortunately, the Mali empire left behind few written records, but we do have the eyewitness accounts of Musa's extravagant procession of 60,000 people and animals. All carried large quantities of gold bars and gold dust that were given to the poor along the way. In fact, Mansa Musa singlehandedly depressed the value of gold across the Mediterranean for decades after his pilgrimage (and supposedly inadvertently helped fund the Italian Renaissance).

I've been fascinated with this story mainly from a science-fiction perspective. I'm reading Iain M. Banks' Culture novels which mostly concern an interplanetary post-scarcity utopia. It's kind of like if Star Trek's Federation, the Borg and Kahn all teamed up to make the universe a happier, more peaceful place. I'm mostly interested in seeing how citizens of the Culture value their time and possessions when neither are in scarce supply.

I've also been playing Jaipur a lot lately. I really like the elegance of taking the top chip from the resource stacks to reward early trades and reflect the relationship of scarcity to value. At UnPub3, I was also talking about roll-and-move games and how they get a bad rap despite several very nice roll-and-move games being out on the market for years.

All these subjects are mashing up in my head into an idea for a roll-and-move economic trading board game. See, Mansa Musa was essentially a medieval singularity moving across North Africa, totally up-ending the stable rule of gold at the top of the economic hierarchy.

It would be fun if you played traders trying to maximize the value of your goods in the time of Musa. You move back-and-forth ahead and behind Mansa Musa along his pilgrimage. Ahead of him, gold and precious metals were still valuable. Behind him, they're pretty worthless and instead education and culture are the most valuable goods.

Here's a mockup of what such a game might look like, mashing up elements of Jaipur with some new stuff.


Components and Setup
  • Two standard six-sided dice.
  • A board showing Mansa Musa's route from Mali to Mecca as a series of 30 spaces. There are also designated spaces are available for resource cards, resource chips and bonus chips.
  • A camel token for each player, placed in Mali.
  • A big Mansa Musa token, placed in Mali.
  • Resource cards Food, Gold, Gems, Silver, Poetry, Maths and Architecture. These are shuffled face down and placed on the board. The top five cards are dealt in a row into the designated spaces of the board along the bottom. As play progresses, cards will move down the line from left to right.
  • Each player gets dealt a hand of five random resource cards.
  • Corresponding resource chips come in a range of values and are stacked in descending order of value, so the most valuable tokens are on top. Food is the only resource token without an inherent value and can be stacked in any order.
  • Bonus chips are separated into three denominations, representing sales executed with three cards, four cards, or five cards. Their values are hidden, so you don't know the value of a claimed bonus token until the end of the game, but generally it's more valuable to claim a 5-card bonus token. 

Outline of Play
This is all still loosey-goosey, so please forgive any vagueness. The player facing east takes the first turn. Turns proceed clockwise around the board. On your turn, do the following:

Step 1: Trade (Optional)
You may trade one card from your hand for a two cards from the board. First, take the two cards you want from the board. Then place the one card you don't want from your hand onto the board in one of the designated spaces on the line. This leaves one gap in the line indicating a benefit you will gain this turn:
  • You don't have to move Musa on your turn OR you can double Musa's movement.
  • You may add 1 to your movement roll.
  • If you sell this turn, treat the sale as if you sold one extra card. So a sale of two cards counts as 3, for example.
  • Gain 1 pt.
  • Gain 2 pts.

Step 2: Sell (Optional)
(You may not do this step if your camel is in the same space as Musa.) Sell two or more cards of the same type from your hand to take one chip from the corresponding resource stack. You will take either the top or bottom chip depending on if your camel is to the east or west of Musa.
  • West of Musa: Top Chip: Poetry, Maths, Architecture. Bottom Chip: Gold, Gems, Silver.
  • East of Musa: Top Chip: Gold, Gems, Silver. Bottom Chip: Poetry, Maths, Architecture.
  • If you sell food cards, take any chip from the stack. They're not valued individually.
  • If you sell three, four or five cards, also take the top chip from the corresponding bonus chip stack.
This swapping of values reflects the depressed prices of scarce resources once Musa passes a city. According to history, on his return trip he tried to repair his damage by borrowing back much of his gold at exorbitant interest rates.

Step 3: Move (Mandatory)
Move your token and the Musa token by rolling two dice. Choose one result to move your token and the other result to move Musa's token.
  • Both tokens may move up to the full distance indicated on the die result but no farther.
  • Musa must move in the direction indicated by the gold arrow until he reaches Mecca, at which point he turns around and begins moving back to Mali.
  • Your token may move east or west at any time.

End of Turn
Move the remaining cards down to fill in the gap. Add more cards from the deck from left to right. If you have more than seven cards, you must discard down to your hand limit at the end of your turn. The next player may take their turn.

End of Game
The game ends immediately when Musa returns to Mali. Each player scores total points from their collected resource tokens, any points earned from trades, and points for food tokens.

Food tokens are scored as a square. For example, one token is worth one point. Two is worth four points (2x2). Three is worth nine points (3x3) and so on.

The player with the most points at the end of the game wins!

Recent Feedback to Belle of the Ball Prototype O


» Download PnP PDFs: Rules and Cards

UnPub3 was a great experience and I'm really looking forward to the next show. Belle of the Ball felt very well-received and I spent most of my time running demos at my table. I kind of pride myself on being a demo-machine, but this was an even more prolific event than usual. By my best estimate, I demoed Belle of the Ball somewhere around 25-30 times to around 40 people. Several were repeat players who wanted to show the game to their friends.

Feedback from the attendees was excellent. One attendee said that she would have bought a copy from me if I had one with me. Another attendee insisted on paypalling me $10 for a PnP. Meanwhile, I've had couple publisher responses that I incorporated into the second day of UnPub. I call this Prototype O-2.

The main issue regarded the lack of tension in Prototype O. In Prototype O, players had room in each party for four groups and five cards in each group. This created a leisurely pace with scoring only happening once or twice a game for each player. 

In Prototype O-2, each party only has room for three groups and each group only has room for four cards. This makes choices tighter, there isn't as much luxury of a "throwaway" group. Each one matters. Scoring is frequent and in smaller quantities, usually ranging from 5 to 10 points. A natural 12pt group is extremely rare and a very satisfying accomplishment. The lead position often changes throughout the game, usually coming down to a spread of just one or two good groups. I also removed the Belle card that grants you five groups. It just presented no benefit at all.

Other bits of feedback which I have not implemented, but which may influence future tweaks should they occur.
  • Exponential Scoring: For new gamers, it seemed like a 1:1 score for each matching icon was just the right amount of strategic challenge. However, some feedback suggested more advanced scoring: Two matching icons: 3 pts. Three matches: 6 pts. Four matches: 9 pts. This would be good as an advanced option, or perhaps a specialized player role that gets exponential scoring from only one type of icon.
  • Even Icon Distribution: Of course, that inflates the scores quite a bit since the 12 icons are distributed unevenly into three distinct Common/Uncommon/Rare columns. With the current setup, it's relatively easy to get at least one 9-pointer out of each set. Any extra points would be mostly incidental to the singular drive of maxing out each set. If I went for multiplier scoring, I'd prefer to evenly distribute the icons as 4x4x4 columns.
  • Three Distinct Sets of Belle Cards: Some of the comments from euro gamers were that Belle cards felt a little too unpredictable in their behavior. Some are played as "instants" while others go to your groups for your benefit. Still others go to your opponent's groups to their detriment. Euro gamers wanted more predictability, but casual gamers loved the variety. Assume that there are thirty Belle cards. Ten instants, ten that go to your group, ten that go to your opponent's group. You can choose which set to use each time you play or mix-and-match.
  • Three Rounds of Play: Some players wished the game was longer, which is way better than lasting too long. Still, for a longer game, I can see it played in three rounds. Between rounds, you reshuffle the guest deck and play through it again. Each time you do so, you can add a new set of Belle cards to the deck, either predetermined like 7 Wonders' age cards or randomly dealt.
Thanks to everyone who playtested Prototype O last weekend! I think you'll dig the optimizations in O-2.

The Magic Trick of In-Person Playtesting [Suspense: The Card Game]

Image licensed from Scott King

One of the things that came to stark relief after UnPub3 is how much the designer being present at a playtest can influence reactions to that game. It's a mixed blessing. The immediacy of your feedback is great for rapid prototyping, but it's hard to decouple the feedback to your game from your presentation of the game. Take for example the Alien-themed deduction game I posted about last week. I brought it in my back pocket as an unofficial side project to Belle of the Ball.

If I saw people milling around and I had a couple minutes between tests, I would ask "Hey, want to play a 5min game?" They'd say "sure" and quickly draw a crowd. In a hushed voice, I start the magic trick.

"You're trapped on a derelict space ship with a hostile alien entity. Only one of these items will let you escape. You're trying to figure out which it will be."

I shuffle the deck and continue. "There are only 13 cards in this deck. There is a white 1 through 6, a black 1 through 6, and a gray 0. The bottom of each card lists a unique condition for escape, like 'Highest card in hand,' or 'Lowest white card in play,' and so on. They're all some combination of either highest or lowest; card in play or card in hand; and sometimes specifically a black card or white card. The only exception is the 0, which says 'Lowest sum of numbers in play' is the condition of escape. That's it, just 13 unique cards."

I fan out the whole deck face-down in my hands and turn to a bystander. "Will you please pull a card out of the deck and put it face down on the table? Thank you."

I turn to the rest of the players, pointing at the face-down card, and say, "This. This is the card that will decide who will escape. You don't know which card it is, but you know which card it isn't."

I deal the remaining 12 cards evenly to the players face down. "These are your hand of cards. Because each card is unique, you now know that the conditions listed in your hands are NOT going to lead to escape."

I give the players a moment to assess their hand. "Now, you'll take turns. On your turn, you can pass or play. If you PASS, you do nothing and the next player takes their turn. If you PLAY, you take one card out of your hand and put it on the table face-up in front of you so everyone can see it. On the first round, everyone must play. Ready? Begin."

The players are a little confused at this point, so when the first player chooses a card, I'd pause for a moment to drive home the general process of elimination that is key to playing the game.
For example, if Ted played a black 1, I'd point to it and say "Alright, Ted has revealed that the highest card in hand is NOT going to win. It's now the Sarah's turn."

Sarah plays a white 6. "Now you know the lowest card in play is probably going to win. Aw, too bad Ted, but chin up. You could still make it. There are still 9 cards to go after all!"

And so on. The game is designed so that by the end of the round, players have at least one card in hand, sometimes two. I reach for the hidden card card and say "Alright, now we find out who will escape. Iiiiiit's the lowest black card in play! Ted wins!"

This all had the appearance of a street magic act, with the final reveal being the "prestige" climax. If "the show" went well, a raucous outcry would draw in another crowd for a new round of play. Folks seemed to like the brain-burning deduction and novelty of a 13-card game. The game even placed runner-up in Bryan Fischer's microgame contest.

Despite the reception, I could already sense some mechanical bugs. I think my dramatic hustle was just hiding the game's warts. Thankfully, these were made very evident after outside playtest feedback where I wasn't present to put on a big show.

That's a lesson to me that I shouldn't get too caught up in my own hype. With that cold splash of water, I admitted to myself that the game has some big problems, but also potentially interesting solutions that keep the core novelty intact.

  • The game is too random with 4 players. When you only have three cards in the first turn and you have to play one, it's really a luck of the draw that decides victory.
  • Kobayashi-Maru (no-win) hands are also very possible, though they can sometimes be defeated with a clever bluff. For example, one player deduced that the hidden card rewards the highest white card in hand but he only had a white 4. As play progressed, he revealed other cards to make it seem as if a high white card in play would win. This player bluffed well enough get me else to play my white 6, so when the round ended, he won.
  • It's rare that a player good at deduction is also a good bluffer. For those players, I introduced the so-called "Gandalf" option. Before the card is revealed, each player can basically say "FLY, YOU FOOLS!" and admit that they're not going to win. If their deduction is correct, they get a small consolation reward. In this manner, good detectives can still have a small second-place victory in the round if they were dealt a bad hand.
  • I also introduced a kind of "traitor" role. The dealer actually knows the secret card. Players already know the dealer is the traitor. What they don't know is whether he's bluffing about the secret card. This really emulates the Alien theme from the first two movies where saboteurs are easily discovered, but reluctant to reveal what they know. Play becomes a kind of competitive interrogation.
  • Having low cards refer to high victory conditions and vice versa was very brain-burning, without entirely being fun. I am trying to flip it so low cards refer to low victory conditions and high cards refer to high victory conditions. With one less cross-reference to consider, perhaps the game will be easier to grasp for newcomers.
  • Regardless of these changes, it would be good for players to place their cards face-up in a numerical row in the middle of the table so everyone can see the gaps at a glance. This unfortunately hides who played which card, so the game would need to include player tokens to place on each card so ownership is clear. This elegantly removes the need for a reference chart, too.

My only apprehension at this point is the theme and how it relates to the victory conditions noted on each card. The connection between the two is pretty much non-existent, but it served as a useful hook to lure players their first game. I couldn't tell if this was just part of the magic trick.

For now, I'm posting the current build on DriveThruCards under the title Suspense: The Card Game. Look for more on that soon. I can't afford to hire artists yet, but if this game gets popular on DTC, it might build up enough for an art budget.

Maybe you'll see SPACE SUSPENSE with aliens and some slight tweaks to make it more Alien-ish. With that done, you might then see SUSPENSE JR. with those friendly animals making their return alongside simpler victory conditions. The basic elements have rich potential for re-themes. I just gotta make sure I have a healthy balance of in-person and external playtests in the future.

Notes from the Panels at UnPub3

The Designer Panel at UnPub3

I'm back from UnPub3 with plenty to talk about, so this will spread out over a few posts. Trust me, there's plenty to discuss regarding Belle of the Ball, but I wanted to cover some of the more general interest stuff first. Case in point: The Panels!

First up were the designers who have had their games at past UnPub events and have since been published. From left to right we have John Moller hosting the event, Ben Rosset with Mars Needs Mechanics, Darrell Louder with Compounded, T.C. Petty with VivaJava, Jason Tagmire with Pixel Lincoln, and Jesse Catron with Salmon Run.

The Publisher Panel at UnPub3

There was also a publisher panel which focused on how to approach publishers and the value of Kickstarter to fund your company's ongoing bottom line. From left to right we have A.J. Porforino of Van Ryder Games, Bryan Fischer of Nevermore Games, Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games and Dan Yarrington of GameSalute.

I live-tweeted the panel discussion with quotes, but I couldn't type fast enough to attribute the quotes so I left them anonymous. There goes my chance at a Pulitzer. Hope this is still useful to you!

From the Designers:

"I sent a rule book to the publisher, pic of the game, explained what set it apart and why it fit their catalog."

"Go to cons. Schedule meetings ahead of time. Publishers are very approachable. Be persistent, but not pushy, no more than 30min."

"You first have to tell yourself it's going to be published. Going to cons lets you have best chance to go viral and get lucky."

"You don't have to be a graphic designer or buy art for your prototype. Publishers can see the potential."

"A unique theme helps stand out as an indie. Up here we have Martian steam punk, chemistry, coffee, 8-bit Lincoln, and salmon."

"If I could go back in time, I'd reassure myself that my first game will suck but it's a long process."

"Don't overreact. I had one game go bad because of one mechanic and completely revamped it, which ended up failing worse."

"Find the interesting decision players are making and strip away everything else. Simplify, simplify. And remind yourself of that."

"1hr of play testing with other people is worth 10 alone in front of your computer. Got an idea? Get it to the table fast."

"I am forcing myself away from the computer and not let myself obsess about the negative comments."

"My wife said she'd never play with me again if I kept sulking about a bad Play test. You have to brush it off. "

"Look at negative comments as an opportunity if you get the same feedback over and over."

"Ignore the BGG comments, especially if they haven't played. You *should* care about the face-to-face comments and from this event."

"Look at the data. What was the spread? Compare that to the feedback you get."

"Don't ask 'do you like it?' Instead ask specifics, 'when x happens, what about that?' 'Hows the length?'"

From the Publishers:

"Polish your game as much as possible before submission. Don't change it while being evaluated."

"When you ask a publisher, you're asking for time and energy - both are limited supply. Don't waste either with unfinished pitch."

"You can trademark a name, art, but not your game. Also It's costly and unnecessary... And patents are only worth the money you have."

"Ticket to Ride wasn't just a success for its design, but marketing, etc. The publisher does that. Value and respect that contribution."

"Of all industries where you can steal an idea, the game industry is probably the least valuable. No one wants to steal your idea."

"Even if so someone does want to steal your idea, you're already months and years ahead of them."

"Detractors ask why you keep going to Kickstarter, but the benefits to sustainable business and community are too great."

"If you *can* succeed as a company without Kickstarter, it feels like more validation. Also Kickstarter could be outlawed tomorrow."

"Even non-KS publishers miss their deadlines."

"If you want to publish, do it, but know you probably won't have time to design any games. Know that before you go to KS."

"A large part of publishing business is actually just customer service. A KS campaign is like a political campaign in terms of face time."

"If you're lucky enough to succeed and get the product, you're not done. Now you have 1500 more boxes to move."

"Someone raised several times over their small KS goal. A year later, they were 30k in debt. Manage expectations better."

"Most successful KSers lose money due to shipping and packaging. They hurt feelings also not thinking about long timelines."
Both panels were excellent and these cursory notes don't cover half the stuff they all said. I look forward to seeing these panels on video.

A retheme for Animal Rescuers: Alien?

[UPDATE: I've revised this prototype since UnPub3. It's tentatively called Xenophobe. PDF is here.]

I've been playtesting Animal Rescuers with several different groups and come across two divergent but parallel prototypes. The first removes all suits and is much more appropriate for younger audiences with the cute animal theme. Cards either highest/lowest card in hand/play and there are three of each permutation. This feels way less cutthroat than the second prototype, which keeps the suits.

I played a few 2-, 3-, and 4-player games last night with Levi Middleton, Matt Fowler and Ryan Macklin over Google+ Hangout. Levi was generous enough to set up a Roll20 app with the cards so we could play long distance. You can watch our Hangout here, but unfortunately it didn't pick up the board we were playing on, so you just see our handsome mugs.

It was clear that despite the small card count, it was a tense and brain-throbbing game of brinksmanship, bluffing and a little bit of luck. This was compounded with more players because you had even fewer cards in hand with which to assess your position. Matt described it thusly: "It's like chess if every game started with the pieces in different places." This made my heart sing because I've always wanted to make a light card game that had the emergent complexity of a chess-like game.

The only point of contention was the theme. We had four players tensely examining a deck, guessing and second-guessing the other players' choices. All the while, we're looking at these goofy animal illustrations. As you can see towards the end of the Hangout, we're all building up the pressure and feeling a sense of "WHY YOU!!" as each card gets revealed. Now, there is some comedy in that juxtaposition, but Ryan had a good suggestion that would better marry the theme to the mood of play: Alien.

Specifically, the feeling of panic and mystery of the first movie when the alien was really this unknowable, unfamiliar force. We imagined each card representing a tool scattered around the Nostromo that might help you escape. I'm explicitly avoiding weapons because of my self-imposed #nocombat guideline. The alien cannot be defeated, only escape.

Here's a revised prototype with the rethemed cards.

0: Self-Destruct Code
Escape: Lowest sum of numbers in play.

1A/1B: Key Card
Escape: Highest card in play / Highest card in hand.

2A/2B: Multi-Tool
Escape: Highest A card in play / Highest A card in hand.

3A/3B: Flare (maybe welding torch?)
Escape: Highest B card in play / Highest B card in hand.

4A/4B: Motion Detector
Escape: Lowest B card in play / Lowest B card in hand.

5A/5B: Space Suit
Escape: Lowest A card in play / Lowest A card in hand.

6A/6B: Escape Pod
Escape: Lowest card in play / Lowest card in hand.

The dealer takes on the role of a kind of saboteur or traitor, which is so common in the Alien franchise. Someone who knows more than he lets on, putting everyone else at risk.

At the start of each round, the dealer the peeks at the hidden card. In the first round, no one may pass. Thus, the dealer is forced to reveal some information in exchange for the privilege. This also lets the other players get a slight advantage as they can guess at the dealer's motivation.

This is the prototype I'll bring to UnPub3 this weekend, unofficially. We'll see how it turns out!

Zheng He and the Monsoon Market Board Game

I just recently watched the entirety of Crash Course World History, which is an excellent overview of the cool aspects of world history that your high school teacher forgot to tell you about. Most interesting to me were the episodes on Zheng He (the Chinese Muslim eunuch admiral of the largest fleet of treasure ships the world had ever seen) and the preceding episode on the Indian Ocean trade networks that Zheng He navigated.

These networks were a long-standing series of sailing routes extending from the east coast of Africa all the way to China, and it was all so well-timed according to the monsoon cycle that you could plan departures and arrivals with an accuracy of a day or two. Zheng He sailed these routes over the course of seven voyages to establish trade agreements with the major trading centers of the era.

This of course makes me wonder why there are dozens of Mediterranean seafaring themed games but relatively few (if any) concerning the "Monsoon Market." You've got a clear mechanistic phenomenon in the monsoon market, a cool central historical figure, awesome international culture mashups, trading and economic systems for gamers to tinker with, and a relatively family-friendly non-combat theme.

Right, get on that! I imagine a kind of Seasons rondel mechanic. A cyclical pattern in which certain goods are more valuable than others. However, the monsoon makes things interesting in that it cleanly breaks up each unit of game time. Perhaps it's a kind of pick-up-and-deliver game, with variable market values and a time limit? Hm!


Okay, I couldn't shake this idea out without thinking of a simple mechanic. Here's a really abstract way you could represent a cycle of trading ships, just off the top of my head.

Each player is dealt a random supply of resource cards. Half goes into their Storage (their public tableau), the other set into their Ship. A ship is a special card noting that this hand "belongs" to a specific player. The other cards in the hand are that ship's cargo.

Each turn, the players pass their ship to the player on their left, and each player must exchange one resource card in their tableau for a resource card on the ship.

When ships return to their players, players score based on set collection or some other method. The goal being to have your ship come back with a better cargo than when it left.

That's pretty abstract, so we could add some historical inspiration to make things a little more spicy.

For example, whole city-states were founded along the trading routes that otherwise didn't have any business being a major metropolis. (Srivijaya is pointed out in the video as one example.) So, make each player represent one city in the Monsoon Market, each starting with a predetermined unique mix of goods in Storage and a unique point value for other goods. The Swahili coast has lots of raw materials, but they want more precious Chinese crafts, for example.

Taking more inspiration from the nautical theme, I'd probably do research on how ships were constructed. Thus, you could also buy upgrades to your city or your ship with a certain mixture of resources. Cloth and wood for ships. Gold and precious gems for fine jewelry, and so on.

And despite the overall peace and safety of those shipping lanes, pirates were still a nuisance. So, between turns, maybe a pirate attacks a random ship, costing it one or more resource cards. There could also be land-based empires who want to be paid resource cards from your Storage.

Bringing Belle of the Ball, Animal Rescuers and more to UnPub3

If you're near Dover, Delaware this weekend, I'll be demoing Belle of the Ball - Prototype O at UnPub3. Check out the preview and interview on the UnPub site. You may recall that I playtested Prototype L at an UnPub ProtoZone last September, which led to a rapid revision cycle that eventually led Belle to its streamlined current state. This time, I'm mainly practicing my pitch and demo technique, the development on hold while publishers review the game.

I'll also have a copy of Animal Rescuers on hand if you want to test a very alpha prototype that has already been getting really nice feedback. Clay Gardner had some excellent comments on embedding more of the victory information into the art itself. Perhaps if the animals were looking up or down to note that they thank the higher or lower cards. Perhaps if they held cards in-hand to note that they're looking at cards in hand. Definitely worth considering!

It's still tentative, but I'm going to try to put together a prototype of the Sidekick Quests Card Game featuring some early sketches from James Stowe. This is going to be an adorable looking game and very kid-friendly, but I figured it would be easier to get playtesters if the prototypes had James' distinctive style of art first. For now, take a look at the live rules doc which has links to the barebones print-and-play cards.

If I have any spare brain-cycles left, I'll also be tinkering with Dung & Dragons and Swap Clops, if you'd like to talk about either of those games.

And of course I'll be cruising the hall looking for any fun-looking new unpublished games out there. Really eager to see what's coming soon!

Animal Rescuers - Prototype A


Here's an update on that ultra-minimal, deduction game idea I've been discussing lately. I decided to go with a more family-friendly theme:


2-4 Players, Ages 8+

An animal has fallen in a hole and is calling for help! The other animals answer the call and together they pull up their friend. After being rescued, one special animal will get thanked. Your goal is to deduce which animal is in the well so you can figure out how you can get thanked.

The game is comprised of 13 numbered cards; 1-6 appear twice in the deck and 0 appears once. Each card depicts animals of increasing size, from an ant (0) to an elephant (6).  Each animal will thank one or more animals depending on that animal’s personality. The reference chart lists all the animals in the game and who they thank.

There is a new dealer each round. The dealer shuffles the cards and places one face-down on the table. That is the animal to be rescued. No one may peek at this card during play. The dealer then deals the rest of the deck to the other players’s hands evenly. Players must keep their hands secret.

Starting from the dealer’s left, each player takes turns. On your turn, you may do one of two things:
  • Play: Choose one card from your hand and play it face-up in front of you, visible to everyone.
  • Pass: Decline to play a card.
The player to your left takes the next turn, and so on. Keep all the cards you have in play visible. As cards come out you can start deducing which animal is the one who fell in the hole and adjust your choice accordingly.

The round ends when all players have passed once OR when the sum of all card numbers in play is a certain amount or higher. This number varies based on the number of players.
  • 2 Players: 15
  • 3 Players: 20
  • 4 Players: 25
The dealer reveals the hidden animal. Check the text at the bottom of the card to know who gets thanked this round.

After that, all cards are reshuffled. The next player to the left gets to be the dealer and a new rounds begins.

The game is over when each player has had a chance to be the dealer. The player with the most thanks at the end of the game wins.

Each animal thanks the highest or lowest card in play or in hand, sometimes a specifically a circle or triangle. When two players have a tie for highest or lowest, compare their next highest or lowest card.

For your deduction reference: Six animals thank the highest card, six animals thank the lowest card, six animals thank cards in play, six animals thank cards in hand, four animals thank circle cards, and four animals thank triangle cards.

Wake Up, Monster!


Since AEG released the ultra-minimal game Love Letter, folks have been discussing the potential of other tiny games. Love Letter packs a lot of replay value in just 16 cards. Here's an idea for a sort of trick-taking game that I've discussed before, but now using a much small deck of cards. It's called...


Monsters are trying to lure another monster out of a cave. The only problem is that you don't know which monster is in the cave! Whoever is in the cave will reward or punish whoever woke it up.

13 cards. Each number 1-6 appears twice in the deck. There is only one 0. Each card depicts creatures of increasing loudness, ranging from Ghosts (0) to Banshees (6).  Each card also has a reward.

One player will be the dealer each round. The dealer chooses one card to put face down on the table. That is the sleeping monster. Only the dealer knows its identity. The dealer then shuffles the remaining cards and deals them evenly to all players' hands.

Starting from the dealer's left, each player takes turns. On your turn, choose one card from your hand and play it face-up in front of you. (Not in the middle of the play area.) The player to your left takes the next turn, and so on. Keep all the cards you have in play visible. As cards come out you can start deducing which monster is asleep.

When the sum of all card numbers in play is over a certain amount or higher, the monster wakes up. This number varies based on the number of players.

2 Players: 15
3 Players: 20
4 Players: 25

When the sum of all cards in play meets or exceeds that number. All players say "Wake Up!" as the dealer reveals the monster. The monster awards based on unique conditions. For example:

Player with the highest card in hand wins 1 point.

In other words, the Ghost appreciates anyone who showed restraint.

Any player with the highest sum of cards in play gains 1 point.

In other words, the Werewolf likes being woken to loud howls.

End of Round
After scoring, all cards are reshuffled. The next player to the left gets to be the dealer and a new rounds begins.

End of Game
The game is over when each player has had a chance to be the dealer. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

With only one card of each number, you'll hit 10 pretty fast. At most it will take four turns (1, 2, 3, 4) and often take less. Not much time for deduction. I think I'll make 1s more common, 2s less common and so on up to 3. Loudness would be another suit or trait on the card for purposes of reward/punishment perhaps. Alternately or additionally, I could just make 13 the number at which the monster wakes up.

Dung & Dragons Progress Report

Mockup-C Heyo! So here is where my head's at since the last time I talked about Dung & Dragons. I'm continuing the central idea introduced in that last post. Each player chooses one numbered action card from his hand each turn. Then all players reveal their cards at the same time. Actions may incur bonuses if the total of all numbers is above, equal to or below the average.

There are six actions, you may only do one on a turn:

  • Shovel earns you 1, 2, or 3 victory points for shoveling your dragons' stables. There are two Shovel cards in your hand.
  • Build lets you add 1, 2, or 3 buildings to your ranch.
  • Raise lets you advance your dragons 1, 2 or 3 levels. This growth can be spread across multiple dragons or focused on just one.
  • Feed lets you give 1 or 2 food to your dragons.
  • Hatch lets you add 1, 2, or 3 dragons to your ranch.
  • Upgrade lets you advance your buildings 1, 2, or 3 levels. This growth can be spread across multiple buildings or focused on just one.

The game lasts four rounds ("weeks.") A week is five turns ("days.") You cannot use the same card twice in one round, so there will always be two cards that you don't use by the end of the round. Between rounds, you draw back up to your full hand.

The board shows the Hatchery and the Workshop. When a card is taken from the board (because of Hatch or Build) they are replaced with cards from the deck. (I may actually merge Hatchery and Workshop into a single pool to keep things simpler.) The deck also acts as the food supply for dragons. Food cards are always kept face-down. On the top right you'll see the progress meter. To the side is a little tile that shows the average number for this size group.

Your "ranch" is your collection of dragons and buildings. As the game progresses, you'll use Raise or Upgrade actions to rotate cards and increase their value or gain new abilities. The uppermost wedge shows the active effect.

  • In this case, the dragon on the far left says "If your neighbor feeds, place one face-down card from the deck onto this dragon."
  • The middle dragon says "When you shovel this dragon, gain +2VPs, which explains why there is so much poop stacked on top of this card.
  • The building to the right gives you one extra rotation when you choose to upgrade.

As you can see, I've removed any explicit currency from the game. No gold or gems or ore and whatnot. It's all about the food cycle, limited time, and being as efficient with it as possible. The card-rotation gimmick may not work if cards are placed on the dragons.

Perhaps there is just one big pile of poop you keep in your ranch? Or the cards can be big enough to stay upright, but with a token to show progress a la Kingsburg? Either way, I need to hash out some basic outlines of what each dragon and building can do. Then, playtesting!

Belle of the Ball - Prototype O


» Current Beta Rules PDF [Prototype O]
» Download the Print-and-Play Cards PDF

It's been a while since the last public release of a Belle of the Ball prototype. This is by far the most streamlined and elegant its ever been thanks to the excellent feedback of a diverse playtester cadre. In particular, it solves some of the production challenges introduced in Prototype N. That's less relevant for actual play, but very relevant for getting this game published. Here's an overview of the cards and changes.

You don't see the back of the Belle cards except when they are in someone else's hands. So, the back shows the Belle herself, holding a hand of cards and about to play one.

Belle cards show different things the Belle is doing to the party, such as moving guests around or changing how groups are scored. Because the Belle is now just one character, that left a big space for a diagram to help explain how each card works. I really tried to keep iconography simple and bold so it was readable from a distance or up close. The first line of text shows how to play this card. The second, larger block of text explains the card's effect.

Throughout the game, all guest cards are face-up. In the beginning of the game, some guest cards are removed from the deck and kept face-down. These cards are bribes, not guests, so they always stay face-down. The back design is meant to resemble a kind of currency.

Each guest has a unique combination of three interests, noted by the large icons. Each guest also has a Title and a Country, but those will be used in expansions or variants. Those icons are a little garish at the moment and I'd like them to be more subtle in a final production.

Some guests are lords or ladies and have a white border around their interests. Again, this information will be used in expansions or variants.

Now here are some rule changes.
  • The Belle of the Ball is now just one character, which leaves a lot more room on the front of the Belle card to depict a diagram of play.
  • The guest deck is now just 60 cards. I removed one of the rare interests and redistributed the remaining 12 interests.
  • You use face-down guest cards instead of chips. Chips are now replaced with these face-down cards called "BRIBES."
  • The game begins with three bribes per player and that remains for the whole game. Bribes are never added or removed from the economy and they do not count as points until the end of the game.
  • Bribes always stay bribe-side-up and never ever get flipped. This solves two problems in one: We remove guest cards from the deck to add unpredictability AND we render moot the need for separate cardboard chits.
  • Belles and Guests are shuffled together in the same deck. Players do NOT start with Belles in their hand. When you take a Guest card from the line, it goes into your party. When you take a Belle card from the line, it goes in your hand.
  • Players begin with a starting party of one guest in each group, dealt at random. This is a nice way to speed up play and remind everyone that a party has room for four groups.
  • At the end of the game, you score one bonus point per bribe in your possession, one bonus point per Belle in hand, and one bonus point for every two cards in your party. This was a way to at least make your unfinished groups worth something.
Now, there are surely some balance tweaks that need to be done to the Belle cards, but I'm keeping Prototype O in stasis while I send out prototypes to publishers. Don't expect another prototype any time soon. Hopefully the next time you see this game, it'll actually be for sale!

» Current Beta Rules PDF [Prototype O]
» Download the Print-and-Play Cards PDF

Do: Fate of the Flying Temple

There is big news from Evil Hat's Fate Kickstarter! The latest stretch goals include a new Do game built from the newly streamlined Fate Accelerated system. This is great news gamers out there who loved Do's Avatar-meets-Little-Prince setting, but wanted a more character-focused style of play. This is also great news for the legions of Fate fans who haven't yet had a chance to explore the worlds of Do.

In Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, the Flying Temple has mysteriously drifted away from its home in the center of the sky. It's up to the Pilgrims to explore the worlds of Do to uncover the mystery. Along the way, they must raise a young dragon left behind after the temple's disappearance.

Pairing that approachable rule set with a family-friendly setting like Do feels like a perfect fit! If you want fresh new Do, go back the Kickstarter now and tell your friends!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.