5 Ways to Use Triangular and Square Numbers in Game Design


It's a well-known risk of game design that in pursuit of originality, you will bump into well-studied concepts of mathematics. Some game designers come straight out of maths and sciences, so they already have a library of statistical and numerical knowledge at their disposal. The rest of us come out of a creative field where... let's just say math and logic wasn't a primary focus.

All that to say, I stumbled into the term "Triangular numbers" a while back while figuring out the scoring for Koi Pond's ribbons. In layman's terms – that is to say, my terms – triangular numbers are a sequence of numbers that increase at a predictable rate. In the example below, you can see the typical progression of 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, and so on

Ticket to Ride's scoring progression was quite clearly arranged with the balance and logic of some mysterious underlying structure. I knew it was there, but I didn't know it had a name, let alone a whole history of research. They're "figurate numbers," starting with linear numbers, then triangulars, squares, tetrahedrals, and more.

  • Linear:      1, 2, 3,  4,  5,  6,  7,  8,   9...
  • Triangular:  1, 3, 6,  10, 15, 21, 28, 36,  45...
  • Square:      1, 4, 9,  16, 25, 36, 49, 64,  81...
  • Tetrahedral: 1, 4, 10, 20, 35, 56, 84, 120, 165...

Many thanks to W. Eric Martin for actually telling me what this stuff was called. I also listened to a classic GameTek segment from Geoff Engelstein covers triangular numbers in all sorts of games. This GeekList features several games using triangular numbers, including Coloretto, Amun Re, Hare and Tortoise and more. There's also an Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, that catalogs many many of these particular sequences of numbers.

So, I wanted to pitch a few ideas I had for using these number sequences in games.

#1: Triangular Values for Linear Sets
There are some obvious uses in set collection mechanics. It's common in many games that a set of two matching items would be more than double the value of one item and that three of those items would be worth more than triple the value of one item. For sake of examples to follow, let's call these red beans. In this scheme, you'd score 1 point for 1 red bean, 3 points for 2 red beans,  6 points for 3 red beans, and so on. If you went with this scheme in your own game, you'd have to make forming sets part of the tactical and strategic challenge.

#2: Linear Values for Triangular Sets
Alternately, you could make sets very easy to create, but force players to get increasingly larger quantities in order to claim higher rewards. For example, you'd score 1 point for 1 red bean, 2 points for 3 red beans, 3 points for 6 red beans, 4 points for 10 red beans, and so on. Yes, these are actually diminishing returns for each step up the ladder, but there are ways to make this an interesting play experience. See Bohnanza as a key example, which uses set limits, hand limits, and assymetrical trading to make the struggle for one more card very exciting.

#3: Triangular and Square Values for Linear Sets
Now things get really weird. Let's continue with the "red bean" example and expand that to other foods and colors, like "red apple," "yellow apple, "green apple," "red bean, "yellow bean," "green bean. Now we have a 3x2 grid of attributes, with each item in the game being either red, yellow, or green and either a bean or apple. In play, the value of a set of cards could have two cumulative values, one based on color and the other based on food. In this case, let's say you use "food" to determine the triangular value and "color" to determine the squared value: 1 point for 1 red, 4 points for 2 reds, 9 points for 3 reds, and so on, plus 1 point for 1 bean, 3 points for 2 beans, 6 points for 3 beans. Thus, a set of 3 red beans would be worth 15 points. Forming a perfectly matched set is very valuable indeed!

#4: Linear and Square Values for Linear Sets
Say you wanted to reward diversity and hegemony in your set collection game. The simplest way would simply be to use the Triangular-for-Linear scheme first described above for matched sets. Then you add a twist: for each set of one-of-a-each-kind, you gain a flat rate of around 8 points. This makes each diversity set more valuable than a set of three matches, but not quite as valuable as a set of four matches. When players reach that critical decision point, they must decide whether to pursue either of those two paths to victory.

#5: Linear, Triangular, and Square Values for Triangular Sets
Returning to our second example, let's say your game requires increasingly larger sets to gain just one more point of value. However, each component of that set had three attributes. Let's say besides just "color" and "food" there was also some other attribute, like "age," such that ripe foods were more valuable than seeds. Thus you have three divergent methods of scoring a set. Say "color" has linear value for triangular sets (1:1, 2:3, 3:6, 4:10...), "food" has triangular value for triangular sets (1:1, 3:3, 6:6, 10:10), and "age" has square value for triangular sets (1:1, 4:3, 9:6, 16:10). Now that would be a brain-burning set-collection game!

#6: Beyond Victory Points
So far, these examples focus on direct conversion of sets to victory points, but you can just as easily use a linear, triangular or square sequence for other resources. Imagine a civ game in which rare resources were earned at slower rates. For example, assuming triangular sets, the rarest goods would be earned at a linear rate, the moderate goods at a triangular rate, and most common goods at a square rate. That's the beginning of a whole economy right there. Why not set up an auction where each bid must be an increasingly higher triangular number?

I'm going to explore these last two ideas more thoroughly in future set collection games, perhaps with an eye towards keeping it intuitive and easy to comprehend mid-game. I wouldn't want players being stricken with total analysis paralysis while trying to navigate three simultaneous point trackers.

Bean Drafting: A 7 Wonders Card-Drafting Variant for Bohnanza [Monsoon Market]

2013-06-28 07.06.08

Art students in the renaissance would often be instructed to directly copy the work of classical masters. The idea was that by following their brush strokes, the student would examine their techniques beyond the surface detail. With that foundation, the student can go on to produce original work.

I thought I'd give that a shot here while tinkering with Monsoon Market. See my previous post on Monsoon Market from way back in January. To recap, players run sea ports along the independent Indian Ocean trade routes that extend from Africa to China for hundreds of years before European contact. It's an evocative theme with familiar elements in an unfamiliar setting. Just what I like.

It's always more difficult working from a blank slate, so just to get things started it can be useful to make variants for existing games. In this case, I needed a deck of cards that had variable quantities and thus variable set values. The Bohnanza deck was just the thing! So here's my amateurish first sketch based on the Antoine Bauza's 7 Wonders and Uwe Rosenberg's Bohnanza.


Get a deck of Bohnanza cards, fully shuffled.

Each player needs a special card unique to themselves, representing their ship. You can use a magic card, playing card, whatever you like, as long as it's unique.

Deal each player is 14 cards face-up.

Each player decides which seven to place in their own public tableau. This represents their goods they have for trade to visiting ships.

Each player places the remaining cards in his or her hand, along with his or her ship card.

The game is effectively a card-drafting game in the model of 7 Wonders, with a few twists. The game lasts three rounds, with seven simultaneous turns each.

First, each player passes his or her hand to the player on the left, including the ship card. As hands pass around the table, they're still technically "owned" by the originating player, as noted by the ship card.

Second, after receiving a hand, you may trade one card from your tableau for one card from the hand. It must always be a 1:1 trade. Keep your selection face-down until everyone has made his or her choice, then reveal simultaneously.

Then pass the hand to the left again. If you ever receive your own ship, you may trade with it as normal.

Continue this for seven turns. After which, the round is over. All players should reclaim their ships and any cards on them. Thus, each player has seven cards in their tableau and seven cards in hand. Merge these cards together as one group, then points may be scored as noted below.


You may score any matching set or sets of your bean cards for victory points as shown on the card.  After scoring a set, the cards from that set into the deck.

Alternatively, you can convert cards into gold coins. Simply turn over the bean card so the gold coin is visible and set it in a separate supply. In subsequent rounds, you can trade a goods card from a ship for a gold coin, or vice versa, on a 1:1 basis. Simply keep the gold coin side facing you so it's clear that a gold coin is being used, not the goods on the other side of the card. (Note: Gold coins are worth 1pt for every four coins, which is better value than some beans, but less valuable than others, so trade carefully!)


Any goods that you have not scored or cashed in remain in your tableau.


After scoring or cashing in, draw new cards from the deck until you have a total of fourteen cards.

In the second round, you'll pass cards to your right. In the third round, you'll pass to the left again.

After three rounds, the game is over. Each player tallies their point totals so far. Each player gets 1 bonus point for every four gold coins in his or her supply. The player with the most points wins!


So where to from here? Obviously this needs some more tweaks to make it more than just a 7 Wonders/Bohnanza mashup. I'll need to retheme the cards, of course, and revise some basic mechanics to fit the naval trading theme.

I think giving each good a direct cash value would be useful, so you can upgrade your sea port and earn unique player abilities based on your particular tableau.

Making each ship unique would also be interesting, perhaps adjusting the exchange rates during trades? Perhaps even recruiting captains to join the ship! Lots to work with there.

I also think each port starting with some super-rare commodities would reflect the theme quite well. The Swahili coast was the network's major source of raw bulk goods. China provided finely crafted silks and other treasures. India was the centrally located hub for the whole route.

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple on roll20, from Justin Lowmaster

Justin Lowmaster has put together some tips and files for playing Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple on Roll20, the virtual tabletop service. Check it out here! Thanks, Justin!

Layout for Heroine Role-Playing Game

A few months ago, Josh Jordan hired me to do the layout on the Heroine RPG books, featuring female heroes in portal fantasy adventures in the spirit of Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. He also had J.R. Blackwell do the art for the corebook, a series of photos with really cool makeup and a striking on-location setting.

I've done layout on a previous book featuring J.R.'s photography and the challenge is always letting the original photography stand strong on its own without too much ornamentation to distract from it. The layout has to complement the art, not compete with it. Hope I did her work justice!

The second book also used photography, but all pulled from public domain resources in the Library of Congress database.

Check out the slideshow above for the covers and some double-page spreads from the books! If you can't see the slideshow, check out the images below.

Tongue-Tied: An Experiment with Path-Building Games


I've been exploring tile-based path-building games recently to see if there's any fresh meat left on that bone. I started a GeekList last week so the hive mind could share their thoughts on these kinds of games. Turns out there are many, many more than I expected. Still, all the themes seemed to be either abstracts or somehow related to trains or transport. Makes sense, since you're effectively building "roads," but of course I got to thinking about some different themes.

Here you can see my first pass at a game I'm tentatively calling Tongue Tied, inspired by the Pokemon Lickitung. Download the first set of printable cards here.

The theme is that a bunch of creatures with long tongues are trying to grab their favorite foods. The game is played with the cards you see above, which have six exits each. The paths feature either a mushroom, apple or candy. The backgrounds are either squiggly lines, straight lines or checkers. Here's how to play!

First, randomly deal to each player a hand of three cards. Then deal a 2x2 set of cards to start the board.

On your turn, you may do the following.

On your turn, you place a card down adjacent to another card on the table as shown. You can't turn cards sideways, they're always placed flush against each other.

Smileys show what they're hungry for. In the above example, the smiley is looking for mushrooms. Good thing its already got two mushrooms on its tongue!

Some Smileys want types of tongue segments. In the example above, this smiley wants long straight segments of its tongue.

Or in this example, the smiley wants tongue segments that are on a checkerboard background.

Two smileys may not be connected to each other. Only one tongue per smiley!

If you complete a tongue, you score 1 pt for each of that Smiley's preference. If the end of the tongue shows a "x2", you score double points. In the example above, the smiley wants long straight tongue segments. It only has one such segment, so that would normally score only 1 point, but you score 2 points because it ends in a "x2."

At the end of your turn, draw another card.

The game ends when the last card is played. Whoever has the most points at the end of the game wins!

Alternate themes I'm considering:
  • Frogs: Their tongues extended around a pond, snatching up different types of flies.
  • Bumblees: Flying around various fields stopping at particular flowers.
  • Migrations of Dinosaurs: Stopping at particular locations, traversing various terrains.
Or I can stick with this weird Lickitung idea. I dunno. Your thoughts?

New Class: Design Cards for Tabletop Games


I've been designing for the game industry for about ten years, including RPGs, board game rulebooks, and cards. In that time I have learned a fair amount about how to lay out cards efficiently using including InDesign's DataMerge and Google Doc's spreadsheets. Now I'd like to teach you my techniques with a brand new online class on SkillShare starting July 28.


This series of videos begins with the basics of prototyping, then eases you into the deeper tricks of the trade. Whether you're a just starting out or you're a professional looking for some new tips, you'll pick up something new in this class.

  • What's the best size for iconography?
  • What are the good fonts for body text?
  • How do you format your files so they print correctly?
  • How can you make global changes to a deck as easily as possible?

We'll start by laying out deck of standard playing cards, then move on to a more complex eurogame and CCG layout. You'll also learn how to dissect the cards from your favorite game to find out how you can make your own cards like the pros. This class includes:

  • How to break down a card design into blocks. 
  • Free resources for prototype iconography and art.
  • Using InDesign's DataMerge to revise dozens of cards at once.
  • Formatting files for print-on-demand.
  • Readymade photoshop actions to make your card layouts easy.

So join this class and learn how to make your own cards for tabletop games!

Basic understanding of Adobe InDesign and Adobe Photoshop

Pitch Tag 2013: The Epic Conclusion!

Well, it's been an epic session this year, but all good things must come to an end. Yes, this concludes the Pitch Tag between Fred Hicks and I. You can see all of our previous Pitch Tag updates here. This year we came up with about 60 pitches in about two months. We hope you've enjoyed it! Now, on with the show.


You and the other players are stacking shipping containers on a busy dock. Your warehouse space is very small, but very tall for some reason. Oh well! Time to get stacking.

Each player has a set of d6s in their own color. At the start of the game, roll all your dice. On your turn, pick one to place in the central area called the "Warehouse." You may place a die on its own or on top of another die, but only if your die's result equal to or higher than the result you're covering. Thus, towers start forming across the warehouse.

If a tower falls, the player who knocked it over loses and everyone else wins.

Otherwise, the game ends when all players have placed their dice in the warehouse. Your score is based on two factors. First, how many of your dice are visible when the warehouse is viewed from above (ie, any dice at the top of a tower or sitting by themselves around the warehouse.) Second, the height of the tallest tower capped by one of your dice. Multiply these two numbers for your final score.

For example, if you have five dice visible and your tallest tower is nine dice tall, you'd score 45 points.

Your Turn:


The adjective “balsamic” comes from the Italian descriptor “balsam,” which means “to cure.” This is part of the product’s legacy as a disinfectant, medicine and digestive aid."

The production process for artisan-quality vinegar is extremely secretive. Italy’s Modena and Reggio Emilia monitor and regulate the process, but do not publish explicit instructions for creating the product, instead using vague descriptions of moving “some amount” of product from one cask to another in their official guidelines.

Source: http://www.robbinsfamilyfarm.com/10-interesting-facts-about-balsamic-vinegar/

This is a deduction card game of keeping your family recipe for balsamic vinegar a secret from the other players. A game of intrigue. A game of immortality.

Over the centuries the families that have been creating artisanal balsamics have all been working towards a goal: creating the elixir of life, a vinegar that grants those who imbibe it youthful immortality. It was a secret known before, but lost some number of centuries back. The time of its rediscovery is upon us ... The problem is that each family only knows some of the recipe that will do that.

Each player has a secret combination of cards, indicated on a hidden piece of paper, matching a subset of the cards in their hand. This combination is the family recipe. The rest of the cards in the hand act as decoys.

A series of gambits plays out whereby the players get peeks at parts of each others' hands; whose hand gets examined by whom when is a part of the strategy; at the end of reach round players vote on which cards they think were decoys. If two or more players are right about a bluff card, the player who holds that bluff must discard it (thereby revealing that it was in fact a decoy). Over time, subtractively, a player's hand might be rendered devoid of bluffs. It's then on the other players to deduce what cards that player holds and devise a partial or total notion of each others' recipes.

At the end of the game, the player able to name the most "true" cards wins (one point per card). If that player names any decoy card, their tally is reduced (so there's disincentive to simply name all the cards you saw from a given player).

Your Turn:
Gods of Economy


It's the dawn of the 20th century and the birth of modern economy. The greatest minds of the world's universities are debating the course for generations to come. Who will win the minds of a new era? Find out in this fast, fierce dexterity game.

Each player is scholar trying to mail papers to different universities. The first to mail all his papers wins.

To setup, each player gets a hand of five playing cards. All players simultaneously play one card at a time from his hand and places it down in front of himself into one of four stacks, one for each suit in front of each player. Each card played to a suit must be of a higher rank than the previous one played. You may draw one card from the deck at a time. The game ends when one player has run out of cards in his hand.

The player with the most cards played in front of himself wins. Every card left in hand cancels one card played. Thus, a tension between maximizing score and not getting stuck with a bunch of cards in hand.

Your Turn:


A competitive doodling game in the vein of Pictionary. Players get a topic to draw and a style they must draw it in. The style is named "_____core" (e.g., hardcore, etc), and the more ridiculous the better. "Draw an Elephant" ... "in the NOODLECORE style". Players try to guess what the player is drawing as the clock ticks down. If they guess correctly, that player's team gets a point. The host of the game (not a player on either team) then hears a case made from each team for and against whether the illustration did in fact embody the essentials of the ____core art style. If the "for" team sways the host, they score an extra point.

Your Turn:


This is a chit-pull game where the players are dwarven miners who DUG TOO DEEP and find STRANGE THINGS. This game comes with three numbered bags and an assortment of Gem tokens placed in bag III, more in bag III, and most in bag I. Gem tokens feature various bits of information, like point value, magical effects, and so on, most conditional based the bag from which the gem was found.

Bag I represents the surface mines. Bag II represents the cavernous undercontinent of monsters and creatures. Bag III represents the ethereal netherrealms from which few ever return to tell the tale.

On your turn, you pull Bag I. You can pull again from Bag I, or pull from Bag II. You can pull again from Bag II or pull from Bag III.

When each tokens' effects are resolved, they're placed in one higher bag than the one in which they came. A Token from Bag I goes to Bag II and so on. A token from Bag III becomes an overall victory point condition. When a certain number of tokens emerge from Bag III, the game ends.

Generally, tokens in Bag III grant higher rewards, but may also result in explosions, curses, monsters, and so on. Players are trying to achieve their own objectives while also accommodating the objectives emerging from Bag III.

Your Turn:


You're all pirate ship captains without crews. Nobody with any experience wants to work with you! So you've got to train up a new crew yourself. Problem is, you've got a limited amount of time before you have to set sail, because the royal navy has learned of your port's location and are on the way to arrest the lot of you. How good will your crew be by the time you set sail?

This is sort of a worker placement game, where you're moving your recruits around to various limited-slot places around the bay (board) so they can level up (increasing their value) as pirates. Some slots aren't even available to you unless you've gotten your guy leveled up to a given minimum, so the options expand the further game play goes.

An on-board turn "timer" represents the approach of the royal navy. Certain unlockable-with-a-trained-recruit slots on the board can cause the Navy to accelerate its approach, but that's really only desirable if you think you've got the edge with the best-trained crew. So the length of the game can vary by a few turns, giving added pressure.

Optionally, you can also give a bonus for "setting sail" early; this removes you from training your crew further, but the point bonus might be worth it.

Your Turn:


This is a fancifully themed game inspired by the Pixar short La Luna.

Long ago, the moon was much closer to earth. On the brightest night of the month, the villagers would send rowboats out to the middle of the sea equiped with ladders, brooms and satchels. Crews row out to the middle of the sea and hoist a ladder to the moon and sweep up as much starlight as possible on a single night. For two weeks each night, the moon would get dimmer and dimmer until the night was pitch black. Then the moon would start collecting starlight again, starting the process all over again in another two weeks.

Players crew row boats with their meeples, sending them out to sea so they can collect starlight from the moon's surface. Players bid colored starlight to get their meeples in the best position on the best rowboats with the best equipment. The game components include a large circular "moon" board that will have a random amount of plastic gems in various colors. The board is divided into crescents so it looks like the moon is gradually going through its phases while players harvest the gems.

Once auctions have been settled, harvesting proceeds as follows:

Each player takes x turns, each time collecting y starlights, to a maximum capacity of z.
X is determined by how many meeples you've sent out to sea.
Y is determined by the quality of their equipment.
Z is determined by the size of the boat.

After returning with a haul of starlight, players may buy items that either improve the village or improve their harvesting ability. Each item you buy costs a certain combination of starlights. These items can include street lights, lamps, artwork, etc, which grant the most victory points. Other items improve your X, Y, or Z values but grant fewer victory points.

The game lasts a set number of months/rounds. At the end, victory is determined by the quality of life that each player has created for the village. (Most Victory Points, basically)

Your Turn:


A tile placement game like Tsuro, each player controls a bumblebee that's trying to make a tour of as many flowers in the field as possible. Flight routes between the flowers are fickle, though, and change as players put down tiles. Once you've managed to create a path from where you are to a flower you need to collect a token from, you can fly your bumblebee there and collect it. Tiles can be replaced, though, and you might find yourself stuck on that flower for a while after the other players make their moves. (Basic sequence of play is place a tile, move your bee, collect pollen token if you haven't visited that flower before.) Play ends when the board is full of tiles. Player with the most/highest value pollen tokens wins.

Your Turn:


This is a string-laying game in the same family as String Railway. Each player has a supply of shoe laces in their own color, each set containing strings of different lengths. The game also comes with a large looped string to designate the legal playing area and a very long black string to show how far away you must be from the playing area when you take your turn. Once that distance is determined, toss this string into the play area.

On your turn, take one of your strings, position yourself the legal distance from the play area, and toss your string into the play area. That's it!

At the end of the game, you will score one point for each player's string that is on top of yours. You will lose one point for each string that touches the edge of the play area or the black string. Thus, you want to cover as much surface area as you can to maximize your potential score from other players, but you also want to avoid the penalty zones.

Dice + Blackjack + Pazaak = Dizaak?

While I was looking at Triple Triad in the Final Fantasy games, I stumbled across another card-based mini-game. This one is called Pazaak, found in the Star Wars video game Knights of the Old Republic.

The goal of the game is similar to Blackjack, in that you want to play cards such that their sum is as close to 20 as possible without going over. The twist is that you have your own supply of cards, as does your opponent, and there is a randomized deck of "neutral" cards. Player cards have various ranks in negative and positive values. Neutrals are always positive. There are also special cards which double your previous card, flip between positive pr negative, and so on. See the tutorial above for more info.

I got to thinking about how this would work with dice. Your goal is still trying to reach a sum of 20 without going over, using a combination of your own dice and randomly rolled neutral dice. Here's how to play.

First, give each player a supply of dice and set aside an equal amount of neutral dice. The example above is inaccurate, but you get the idea. I think nine dice per player and 18 neutral dice is more than sufficient.

Each player rolls their entire supply of dice to find out their "hand" for the round. You can keep this secret if you like, but it's hard to not cheat with hidden dice so I think having it all be public is fine.

Set aside your personal dice and start taking turns. On your turn, roll a neutral die and keep it in front of you. You now have three choices.
  • Add one of your dice from your supply.
  • Combine two or three dice from your supply for a special action.
  • End your turn, meaning you take no further action for this turn.
  • Stand, meaning you won't take any further turns this game.

For example, if you add one of your dice from your supply, the results are added together. The sum above is now 6.

Or you may combine two identical results from your supply and set them down as a stack. This will double the previous result while also adding its own face value. The sum above is now five, because the 2 is doubled and the stack's face value is 1.

Or you may combine three identical results from your supply and set them down as a stack. This would flip the previous result to a negative. The stack's face value is still added. The sum above is -1, because the triple stack turns the 2 into -2, plus the stack's face value of 1.

Of course if you're feeling dangerous, you can simply end your turn without taking any further action whatsoever. Just keep stacking up those neutral results until you get closer to 20, then you can strike!

The winner is the player with a sum closest to 20 without going over. If tied, the player with the fewest dice in play (including in stacks) wins. If still tied, arm wrestle until someone's honor is restored.

So anyhow, that's a little idea that I'm sure is quite broken. For example, I bet rolling three sixes isn't that great because they're worth more individually than they would be doubling any other result. UNLESS, your neutral result was six, then you play a stack of double-six reach a sum of 18. Not bad for a first turn.

So there you go, a little push-your-luck strategic fun for your day.

Burrito: Line Drafting and Action Selection


Here's a super quick idea, combining the "line drafting" structure (from SmallWorld, Guillotine, Morels and Belle of the Ball) with action selection. This came out as a possible solution to a big hurdle of line drafting games. Replacing the cards as soon as one is taken from the line can be a bit fiddly. If they're not replaced, then the initial length of the line is so long it takes up the whole table.

I thought, why not just move the card at the front of the line to back of the line? Each card simply represents one action you may take during your turn. You can take the action at the front of the line for free, or you may pay one resource to skip that action and take the next one in line. Anyone who takes an action with resources on it also gets that resource. Once an action is done, that corresponding card is simply moved to the back of the line.

This greatly reduces the size of a deck for a line drafting game and makes it a bit less fiddly. Granted, you still occasionally need to re-center the whole line to the middle of the table as it gradually creeps backward, but it's still less handling than usual. There's also still the problem of gaps in the line if players skip to the second or third action. Eh, can't solve it all.

Above is a potential theme for this mechanic, you're eagerly awaiting a supply line of burros to come into town carrying ingredients for burritos. I love puns. Unfortunately I didn't have silhouettes of mules handy, so let's make do with camels.

The line begins with some basic actions like Get Lettuce, Get Tomato, or Get Flour. You know, the typical worker placement kind of thing.

You can also Expand Business, which adds new special actions to the line, like Get 2 Flour or 2 Lettuce. I imagine this would also involve some ownership mechanics like a player chip, so when this action is taken, the owner gets whatever the active player didn't choose. If you took 2 Flour, the owner of that action would get 2 Lettuce.

You can also Get Order, which lets you take your pick of a set of orders from local customers. When you have an order, you may fulfill it as soon as you have the prerequisite ingredients, thus earning money.

I imagine there's strong potential for Waterdeep-style Intrigue cards, too. Not sure what those would be called in this context? Shady buritto business deals? Sneaking sub-par ingredients? You tell me. :)

Belle of the Ball - Jacqui Davis' Art Preview Part 2


Last week you saw the first art preview for Belle of the Ball. Jacqui Davis is still working away at the rest of the guests. There are a lot of 'em! Once again, here's more art from Jacqui. Don't forget, Belle of the Ball will be kickstarted by Dice Hate Me Games in late Summer 2013 for an early 2014 release. You can find more about the game on the DHM site here.

In this update, you'll see one guest who may have a subtle resemblance to yours truly. That's probably because I wanted a character making an exaggerated "FFFFFF" sound and I sent a silly selfie as photo reference. See if you can spot it!


Jamshire County's pristine vineyards produces the best jams and wines in Ludobel. L to R: Lady Radioactive Rendermum, Barge of Jamshire; Apple Ash, Cape of Jamshire; Bumblebee Bindlemeg, Eye of Jamshire; Lord Marmalade Megablade, Ace of Jamshire; Gapplepap Gravelsap, Drake of Jamshire.


Glitterfall County is a sunny resort island with a landmark waterfall, just off the coast of Ludobel's mainland. L to R: Lord Waffle Wumple, Ace of Glitterfall; Lady Hard Cider, Barge of Glitterfall; Ffffaaaaa Flippinbird, Drake of Glitterfall; Ragathan Roffle, Eye of Glitterfall; Mumblecore Masherfax, Cape of Glitterfall.


Krinkle County is a cold, mountainous region, best known for its surprisingly warm baked treats. L to R: Stitch Sandybag, Inch of Krinkle; Blisterpack Bitack, Key of Krinkle; Lord Decimate Dunditel, Fool of Krinkle; Lady Velocipede Vintertav, Gem of Krinkle; Satisfied Stainclop, Jack of Krinkle.


Dent County's jewel magnates are the wealthiest citizens of Ludobel. The county is named for the giant canyon left behind from mining, now grown over with vines and bamboo. L to R: Lady Ubwub Ungerdub, Ace of Dent; Thathery Thumbvee, Eye of Dent; Xenon Xylosub, Drake of Dent; Lord Humblebrag Hamperrag, Barge of Dent; Gravity Gingersass, Cape of Dent.

There are still four more counties, so look for more previews in coming weeks. To see more of Jacqui Davis' work, go see her blog!

Drafting Deduction: Making New Games Out of Emergent Behavior


I'm a big fan of the drafting genre, like 7 Wonders, Seasons, Sushi Go!, and Among the Stars. Like the deckbuilding genre, I find it fascinating how an emergent activity from the CCG community could turn into a a full-fledged game genre of its own. I thought I'd try my hand at it today.

One of the fun things about drafting games is the tension of having too many good options, knowing that you'll have to pass some very powerful options to your neighbor. Based on their past choices, you know they're pursuing a particular strategy that will be greatly aided by this one last piece of the puzzle you have in your hand. Alas, nothing to do. You draft your own card and hope to get something better in the next hand.

But what if the game was as much about accurately guessing what your opponent would draft? And if you guess correctly, it would hinder his strategy a bit? Let's try this with a simple poker deck for sake of explanation.

To begin, each player is dealt five playing cards to their hand. The dealer then reveals two cards in the center of the table. The goal of the game is to draft cards in order to make the highest value poker hand, by combining cards drafted with the two community cards. However, there is a twist, described below.

  1. Look at your first hand carefully, but don't draft anything from it.
  2. Pass your hand to the player on your left.
  3. You will get a new hand from the player on your right.
  4. Each player drafts one card from their new hand and places it face-down.
  5. Taking turns, each player guesses which card the neighbor to his left drafted.
  6. Then the player to his left reveals his card.
  7. If the guess was half-right (either suit or rank), the guesser gets two chips.
  8. If the guess was completely right, the guesser gets three chips.
  9. If the guess was wrong, the player to the left gets one chip.
  10. Once all guesses and revelations are complete, hands pass to the left again.

Continue drafting, guessing, and revealing until there is only one card left in-hand. This last card is discarded and notes the end of the game. Each player scores points based on their poker hand.

  • High Card: 1 pts.
  • One Pair: 2 pts.
  • Two Pair: 3 pts.
  • Three of a Kind: 5 pts.
  • Straight: 8 pts.
  • Flush: 13 pts.
  • Full House: 21 pts.
  • Four-of-a-Kind: 34 pts.
  • Straight Flush: 55 pts.

Play two more rounds and then add bonus points from chips. Chips earn points equal to their quantity multiplied by itself. For example:

  • One Chip: 1 pt.
  • Two Chips: 2 pts.
  • Three Chips: 9 pts.
  • Four Chips: 16 pts.
  • Five Chips: 25 pts.

And so on. The player with the most points at the end wins!

I don't know if this is actually a fun game, but it certainly takes an emergent property of card drafting and makes it a mechanic of its own. Now when you know your opponent is going to take a particular card, you can get some benefit from that knowledge, too. What's more, the tension of drafting is even higher since you may end up double-thinking your neighbor. Do you take the card that gives you a straight flush, even though it's the obvious choice? Tense!

Koi Pond & Early Thoughts on Publishing Card Games through Print-On-Demand

Koi Fish 06

It’s been about six months since I started this whole full-time game designer thing, with Koi Pond being in many ways the flagship project for this experiment. Koi Pond was designed, developed, and published all in the past half-year, thanks to the coincidental occurrence of several factors. Here’s how it all came to pass and my thoughts on where it might go in the future. This is a long post, so here are the takeaways right up front:

  •     I worked fast, playtesting and revising rapidly.
  •     I could make my own art, which greatly reduced initial expenses.
  •     I still hired an editor and got lots of outside readers to review text.
  •     Because I worked so minimally, even modest sales put me in the black.
  •     I’m re-investing those earnings to future products.
  •     POD (unpackaged) cards are still a new model, with a small audience.
  •     The market may grow if POD games get reviewed alongside bigger products.

For another POV, Dave Chalker posted his own thoughts on publishing his game Criminals through DriveThruCards here.


Late last year I decided to resign from the ad agency. I’d worked my way through the creative department and was on the cusp of becoming creative director. It was a sweet gig for a long time, but having that full-time job and doing freelance and doing game design and, oh yeah, maintaining a healthy mental well-being was untenable. I made some drastic changes in my lifestyle, culminating in that resignation.

So, 2013 began with a bit of confusion about what to do next. It just so happened that the Boardroomers were holding a microgame design contest in February. The entries had to contain at least 1 of each of the following components, but no more than is allowed:

  •     Poker Cards  (20 cards at the most, you must use the poker faces)
  •     Cubes  (10 cubes at the most)
  •     Rules  (These must be written out with examples when necessary)

I was having a bit of success with Suspense, so I thought I’d try my hand at another micro.

Searching for a Theme

I designed Love Me Not, as a very, VERY abstract thought-experiment in endgame scoring. I wanted to figure out a scoring method that required you to sort resources between two places, only the lower of the two totals allowing you to score. The game itself was too limited for its form factor and rightfully didn’t win the contest. It did let me explore this notion further.

When I reach points like this in a design cycle, I look for a good meaty theme that will perhaps suggest further secondary mechanics or make the central mechanics feel more meaningful. So, I searched for a theme in which it made sense for players to sort things into different places, but only attain value for those things if instances of those things were present in all relevant locations.

In other words, it felt like being a museum curator. Players would collect precious items and decide to put them out on public display (face-up cards) or keep them in the private archives (face-down cards). Examples of those items needed to be in both the display and archives to be valuable. I explored this idea a bit further, but I was really concerned that Reiner Knizia’s Modern Art was such a prominent game with this theme that I couldn’t escape comparison.

Coy Koi

I looked further afield, examining what it felt like to play with this mechanic. Sometimes this can result in a simple title that in itself provides enough of a theme for the game to make sense. See “Can’t Stop!” as a classic example. When you play Can’t Stop, you really do feel like you can’t stop rolling those blasted dice.

When you play with this scoring mechanic, you feel like you’re keeping a secret. You feel like you’re being coy. Thus, I was tempted to leave the game at that, simply calling it Coy. But I couldn’t resist a pun, so I thought it would be clever to have koi fish on these cards. No real theme aside from that, just fish as a placeholder for a more traditional set of poker suits.

But of course, the idea of a “Coy Pond” or “Coy Koi” or just plain old “Koi Pond” was irresistible. That theme introduced lots of secondary mechanics to explore. What about pests in the pond? What about visitors? What if it’s a competition between koi pond hobbyists?

I developed the idea over the next couple of months at my local game store, UnPub, and PAX East. I got a LOT of help from outside playtesters, which was really invaluable. This is a shorter timeline than my usual development cycle, but I was actually able to fit in more playtests than usual. Actual chronological time didn’t matter so much as actually getting the game to as many table as often as possible.


Backing up a bit, throughout 2012 there was talk of DriveThruRPG branching out to print-on-demand card games in 2013. I thought this would be a great opportunity for me during this year-long experiment to try some low-risk projects. Most of the time, as you’ve seen with Belle of the Ball, even a small card game spends years in development and takes just as long to finally be published.

With DriveThruCards, I saw a sales option that could keep pace with my creative output, as long as I devoted strong enough attention to the quality of the product on sale. Originally I was going to publish Suspense with DTC. The art direction was simple and could be done in-house. The rules were easy enough to explain in a short PDF. Plus, the only actual game components were cards themselves.

A happy snag got in the way though. I was fortunate enough that Dice Hate Me decided to pick up the license as a part of the Belle of the Ball family of games, but that left me hunting for another potential product for DTC. The newly christened Koi Pond fit the bill.

Just like with Suspense, I can product the art myself. The rules were relatively simple (though a bit longer than Suspense). The cards were really the only play component (though there were quite a few more than Suspense). Plus, it was a pretty game that I hoped DTC would find valuable as a sales tool for their new POD services, thus driving more in-house sales.

Calling in the Editor

However, I used to have a bad habit of making an otherwise unfinished game look like it’s finished with some pretty graphics. I’ve avoided that pitfall over the past few years and become a better game designer for it. Still I knew I needed help to make sure this was a solid first outing and I was willing to pay for it.

Specifically, I hunted around for an editor for my rules sheet. I’m happy to say that Liz Bauman came to my rescue here. In short order, she found a lot of vagaries that needed clarification and game terms that needed more consistent application. Hire Liz a lot!

I’ve often said that no rules are too short for someone to get them wrong. Hiring an editor (and also getting lots of outside playtesters to read the rules) made the text a lot more clear. Examples of play helped, too. As a matter of fact, I’m still updating the rules sheet after further feedback from early buyers.

Prepping and Publication

With that done, I was ready to actually go live with this thing. Sending files to print is rarely a completely smooth operation. Each printer is basically its own country, with its own customs to learn as you go.

For example, one important thing to note is that the POD printers DriveThruCards hires has a 240% ink threshold limit. My cards were so colorful that their inks were in the 300 range. I needed to tone them down a bit so they’d actually produce properly. It was mainly little things like that.

Otherwise, the file setup was actually easier than with other POD printers I’ve used in the past. SuperiorPOD requires you to set up your own 18-up card sheets. Game Crafter requires you to upload each card face and back individually. DriveThruCards simply requires a multi-page PDF with alternating faces and backs for each card. The latter option is much more amenable to InDesign’s DataMerge tool.

  1. I’d lay out the cards with placeholders for variable data like rank, suit, and art, all pulled from a corresponding spreadsheet.
  2. Once done, I’d export an InDesign file through DataMerge, producing a multi-page document, with one card per page.
  3. From that, I’d export flattened images (with bleed) into a special “Renders” folder. Typically these were JPEGs since they retained the best color.
  4. Then I did a Photoshop batch action that reduced all the ink thresholds in each image file to those designated by DriveThruCards’ specs.
  5. Then I made a brand new spreadsheet. The first cell had the file name for the first card’s face. The second cell had the file name for the first card’s back. Thus, I continued alternating the file names of a card face with the file name of the card back
  6. In a brand new InDesign file, I’d link this spreadsheet with DataMerge.
  7. Again, I’d use DataMerge to export a multi-page document
  8. Finally, that multi-page document could be exported to a PDF suitable for printing.


It’s important here to thank Brian Petkash who very patiently talked me through that file setup process and is still diligently answering my pesky questions about how to actually get the file up for sale.


Unfortunately, I missed DriveThruCards’ “soft launch” period of February through March. I understand sales were slow during this period in general, so perhaps it’s for the best. I had Koi Pond ready that April just in time for their big public debut. Here’s how the numbers break down:

31 Sold
$288.72 Retail
$69.80 Royalties Earned*

28 Sold
$399.19 Retail
$100.83 Royalties Earned

Grand Totals To Date
59 Sold
$687.91 Retail
$170.63 Royalties Earned

* The first month’s royalties were a bit low because I ordered review copies and expensed the cost to that month’s payout.

Koi Pond launched at the top of the hot list and stayed their for the first week. I kept up the marketing efforts through my blog, my Twitter feed and my G+ accounts. I also got a lot of help from people RTing my links.


Maybe I’m just too indie at heart, but I’m very happy with these numbers. I went into this experiment with a brand new game, an inordinately fast dev cycle, modest potential audience, and zero-to-minimal expenses. My investment of time and capital into this project has been quite met, I think. Anything more will contribute to further self-published card games.

Having the experience of Kickstarting three projects already, DriveThruCards offers me an appealing alternative. Yes, I have fewer sales over a longer period of time, but I also don’t have the stress of stretch goals, income taxes, and fulfillment hassles occupying my time for the next year. Instead, I can keep blowing on this little ember until it lights another fire.

Towards that end, I hope to keep up interest in Koi Pond with reviews and podcast interviews as I develop an expansion for the game, Moon Village. I’ve also already invested some of my earnings into the art for 9 Lives Card Game, currently in public beta. My game still a small fish in a very, very large ocean, but they’re growing!

9 Lives Card Game - Prototype B

Here's a new family card game I've been tinkering with over the past few months. You may recall some previous posts on the subject here and here. Well, with a bit of streamlining for the rules and a few tweaks here and there, I've managed design what I hope is a fun, fast, light strategy game that plays well with two to nine players. Yep, nine.

The premise of the game is that nine house cats have escaped. It's your job to bring them back home. The challenge is bringing them home while also making sure they're happy as possible with they return. Sometimes it's hard to do both! You know how cats are.

Players bid for cards, each featuring one of the nine cats. You're trying to claim the majority of the cards featuring a specific cat, thus allowing you to score points from that cat. However, not all cards are worth points, so simply winning a majority of those cards won't guarantee the best score.

This plus a little Baccarat-style mid-game scoring amounts to a light, tactical mini auction. Hope you enjoy! Please feel free to share your feedback.

» Download Prototype B

Belle of the Ball - Jacqui Davis' Art Preview Part 1


Jacqui Davis has been working diligently on the art for Belle of the Ball, to be kickstarted by Dice Hate Me Games in late Summer 2013 for an early 2014 release. You can find more about the game on the DHM site here. It's been a thrill to see these guests with silly names and sillier titles finally come to life.

Developing the island setting Ludobel has been exciting as an opportunity for world-building I rarely get to do. It's probably been since Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple that I got a chance to fully direct character designs. Jacqui Davis' work has been magnificent so far. In particular, she's really taken to heart my desire for a diverse cast of characters featuring a variety of ethnicity, silhouette, and gender presentation.

Each guest has a first and last name, naturally. I randomly generated these names from a list of suffixes and prefixes I thought sounded funny. On occasion, I'd tweak the names to maximize their tongue-twisting silliness, thus you get guest names like "Dirigible Dinnerbum." All guests come from one of the twelve counties of Ludobel, and each county has a Lord and Lady noted by a sash. Each guest also has an honorary title, reflecting a noteworthy skill, achievement or occupation. Thus you have titles like "Wall of Flappingcap" or "Fool of Dent." Enough chatter, on with the art!


Highmount County is home to high mountain steppes and equestrian aristocrats. L to R: Obelisk Orlantop, Inch of Highmount; Lady Livery Lingridtub, Gem of Highmount; Lord Anteater Appletend, Fool of Highmount; Vorpal Vanbee, Key of Highmount; Embrose Excrew, Jack of Highmount.


Anglebottom County is known for its fine silk exports. L to R: Lady Maybe Mumblecaw, Ace of Anglebottom; Lord Calla Quizcave, Barge of Anglebottom; Penny Puzzlemass, Cape of Anglebottom; Orblah Openbend, Eye of Anglebottom; Lady Critique Crappique, Drake of Anglebottom.


Indigum County is an artists' commune, source of baffling fashion trends. L to R: Kickingsell Kittenbell, Zest of Indigum; Meowsmith Mutterhut, Rock of Indigum; Ragequit Rumplefatch, Wall of Indigum; Lady Lovelylady Lamp, Quill of Indigum; Lord Wibblywobbly Wantonmutt, Lance of Indigum.


Craw County is a misty, rocky moor home to ancient ruins and dour historians. L to R: Jugular Jugkeg, Wall of Craw; Lady Custer Cutterlub, Lance of Craw; Lord Capable Canklerack, Quill of Craw; Underpants Unterdaria, Zest of Craw; Original Orblack, Rock of Craw.

There are still eight more counties, so look for more previews in coming weeks, including guests from grape-growing Jamshire County, mountainous Krinkle County, and super-scientific Flappingcap County. To see more of Jacqui Davis' work, go see her blog!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.