Zeppelin Attack! on Kickstarter

Howdy folks! Just a head's up that a ZEPPELIN ATTACK! from Evil Hat Productions is now available on Kickstarter! I'm glad to finally see it live in the wild.

This is by far the most layered and details card design project I've had so far. There are several categories and sub-categories of information, all overlapping at times, further sub-divided into starter decks, and expansion decks. Whew! You can see a fuller overview of the cards on my portfolio site.

I basically used every trick I knew to make sure all the information on each card was as easily accessible as possible. Color-coding, icons, textures, borders, typography, the whole bag of tricks to do the game justice.

Christian St. Pierre did a kickass job with the original art, too. He set them up on transparent backgrounds, so I could have the freedom to do the cool overlapping effect that's popular in card games these days.

Find out more about the game on the Kickstarter page!

A Drafting Drafting Mechanic for A La Kart

Sometimes a game idea just lingers in your head for a while until one little spark finally brings it to life. In this case, I was mulling over A La Kart, the food-themed racing game inspired by the Sugar Rush arcade game from Wreck-It Ralph. Originally, I planned on it being a simple numerical option. If you bid the highest amount, you go to the front of the pack. Like any good racing game, it really needed a catchup mechanic. So here's the idea:

In actual real-life racing, there is a concept called "drafting," in which racers will trail closely behind another racer to take advantage of aerodynamics. At a critical point, after the lead racer has borne the brunt of working against the air resistance, the rejuvenated trailing racer can leap ahead at the very last minute.

And, of course, card games have their own concept of "drafting," in which players take one item of their choosing from a set presented to them.

Why not combine these two types of drafting into one game? Here's the idea:

Setup Each Round

  • Each round, players are dealt a hand of five random cards.
  • They bid any number of cards they prefer, face down, then reveal them simultaneously.
  • The highest bidder goes to the front of the pack, everyone else re-arranging according to decreasing bid.
  • Each round has different bonuses for being in certain positions, so those points are awarded accordingly.

End of Round

  • To end the round, the player in the back of the pack draws one card from each player's bid into her hand.
  • The next player ahead of her draws one card from each player's bid into his hand, but only from players ahead of him.
  • And so on, each player drawing one card of their choice from each bid belonging to a player ahead of them.
  • If cards in a bid run out, then that bid is simply skipped.

Setup Following Rounds

Then to start the next round, any players with fewer than five cards in hand draw from the deck until they have a full hand of five cards again. If a player has more than five cards in hand at this time, they do not draw.

Thus, being in last place gives you most control of your position in the subsequent round. Being in first place means you're probably giving everyone else the best choices for their next round, too. It's a drafting mechanic that simulates real world drafting!

KOI POND: MOON TEMPLE is now live!

Wahoo! The first expansion for KOI POND is now available on DriveThruCards. Click here for KOI POND: MOON TEMPLE and expand your Koi Pond game to five players, plus some enhanced strategy with rainbow koi, shrines, and new characters. Check it out.

Revised Format for River Ancient

Given the changes to the River Ancient noted in my last post, it seemed much more feasible for me to release this game as a POD card product instead of expensive custom-shaped tiles. The board is a randomized lane of 4 cards/player each round, with no branches or other direct player-involvement in the setup.

Players each get five dice, which they will roll at the start of the round. Each player also gets three Wisdom tokens. Players each start with one random Trait and one random philosophy.

Further rules are as follows:
  • To start a round, roll five dice in your color.
  • Your lowest dice have your first Trait. The second-lowest dice have your second trait, and so on.
  • On your turn, place one die...
    • on the corner of any card, thereby founding that many villages on the river;
    • or beside the philosophy deck. Draw that many philosophy cards, and keep one.
    • Any dice placed on a Hill get +1. Any dice placed on a Mountain get +2. These bonuses are cumulative.
    • You may grant one wisdom to another player to swap a die face before placing your die.
  • Then you may sacrifice a trait, if you wish to do so. Each sacrificed trait awards greater points than the last, 3 for the first, then 6, 10, 15, 21. Sacrificed traits are turned face down and set aside.
  • Lastly, you may achieve a Philosophy by paying Virtues noted for the desired level. Once a philosophy has been achieved at any level, points are awarded, and it is turned face-down. (Thus, you may try to save up for the high value levels, but it may take the whole game.)
 Continue taking turns until all dice have been placed. This is the end of the round.
  • Whoever has the most villages around a light-bordered card collects it.
  • Whoever has the fewest villages around a dark-bordered card collects it.
  • If tied, the card remains on the board.
  • For each card you collect with 10 or more villages around it total, collect one Pollution token.
The game ends when a complete river cannot be created at the start of a round. At the end of the game, certain bonus points are awarded.
  • The player who achieved the most philosophies gets 10 points. 2nd place gets 5.
  • The player who has sacrificed the most traits gets 10 points. 2nd place gets 5.
  • The player who has the most Virtues remaining gets 10 points. 2nd place gets 5.
  • The player with the fewest Pollution tokens gets 10 points. 2nd place gets 5.
  • All tied players share points.
 And that's the River Ancient for now. I'll test it tonight to see how it works out.

Cut, Cut, Keep: UnPub Feedback from The River Ancient

It's been a week and I've finally had a chance to digest some of the UnPub feedback from the River Ancient playtests. The notes below are from 20 feedback forms submitted. Overall takeaways?

Match Gameplay to Objectives
Every action in the game should link clearly and concretely to an objective in the game. Without this connection, you waste players' time. For example, I had players place tiles and place dice, but the dice were far more important and obvious tactically. Instead of adding more objectives to an already bloated game, I am just randomizing the tiles without player involvement.

Find Universal Comments
Every playtester is different, and will offer different types of advice, but look for any comments or suggestions they hold in common. These are the heart of any problems or features for your game. For example, my playtesters all loved the dice-placement mechanics and how traits made these placements even more tactically interesting.

Cut, Cut, Keep.
As noted below, I noticed that some decisions in the game weren't tactically interesting, so I tried to add achievements to make them more worthwhile or just adjusted my method of teaching them. However, these were simply awkward justifications for a true design problem. The best solution would've been to simply cut off the problematic mechanisms rather than keep them duct taped on. My rule of thumb: Cut two problematic areas and, if you must, keep one to refine or revise later.

So, how was the feedback to the River Ancient?

Overall Scores
Game Length: 4/5
Learning Ease: 3/5
Decisions: 4/5
Down Time: 4/5
Interactivity: 4/5
Originality: 5/5
Fun: 4/5

Was the game predictable? If yes, why?
While some feedback said "no," I still say "Yes." In the spirit of ease of learning, I kept all "Philosophy" objectives public for all players, since they were a little tricky to communicate to each player individually. Unfortunately, this made it quite clear who would have (and maintain) an early lead. Aside from this, there were also some endgame Achievements that simply could not be overtaken in the last round, essentially a "checkmate" for that Achievement.

Will you play this game again?
Yes (19), No (1). This is a good sign! Despite the many flaws, folks still seemed interested in the core gameplay.

Would you buy this game?
Yes (14), No (6). This makes more sense to me. The game is just not polished enough even for a proper pitch yet.

What would you change?
Here's where I have the most useful and actionable feedback. I tried to find some common complaints or comments amongst all the feedback forms and they all agreed that Spirits (actions) needed an overhaul. In playtests, players spent acquired tokens to summon spirits, do their indicated action, and collect the top-most spirit totem from their respective stack, earning points and Achievements along the way. This is fine on paper, but valuating the individual spirit totems, the achievements, and costs for summoning were all a tangled mess. And all that ultimately distracted from what all players universally loved about the game...

What was your favorite part of the game?
Almost universally, players loved the combination of a modular tile board with dice placement-as-auction to acquire those tiles. This isn't unexpected, as similar mechanisms have proven popular in Guilds of Cadwallon and Spyrium. Still, it is now clear to me that this should be the glowing heart of the game and anything else is a distraction. What makes the cut? I'm considering the following changes.

  • Spirits entirely.
    This cleans up the tiles' graphic design to just be resources, without any extraneous iconography that is hard to keep track of when you have a stack of tiles in your collection. This also cuts out a step from the player's turn, makes teaching the game that much easier, and removes the hardest part of valuation.
  • Philosophy graphic design.
    Presently the philosophies are a unique arrangement of four Virtues in the game. At one end, you have the virtue that the philosophy values the least while at the other end you have the virtue that the philosophy values the most. You can spend one of the least valued Virtue to achieve that philosophy for 1 pt. Or, you can spend one of the least valued Virtue and two of the second-least valued Virtue to achieve that philosophy for 5 pts. Once a philosophy is achieved, it is turned over, so it may not be achieved again regardless of the level. Right. So all of this is fine, I just need to make these tiered expenditures more clear graphically, following Waterdeep as a model.
  • Player-controlled Terrain.
    An early playtest had three distinct phases, within which players took turns: Place tiles, then place dice, then summon spirits and achieve philosophies. This took too long and players said they didn't feel a clear tactical incentive to place tiles in a particular way. I tried to fix this by making each phase a step in an individual player's turn, so place tiles, then dice, then summon spirits. But this solved the wrong problem, the true solution was this: If I don't have any geographical objectives in the game, then geography should not be part of gameplay. Instead, I will make the map randomized each round, just a line of cards, Belle of the Ball style.
  • Dice Placement.
    Everyone loved this element of gameplay, especially how terrain like hills or mountains could adjust bids. Having an upper threshold before winning bids cost Corruption was especially interesting, since it raised the value of low dice. Furthermore, making some tiles "Highest Bid Wins" and others "Lowest Bid Wins" made some interesting tactical nodes. Good, good, good.
  • Traits.
    Traits add special abilities to each die face. There was one problem: If you didn't roll that specific face, it made their utility pretty nil, which was a shame. I wanted to make dice placement more interesting, but I also wanted to make traits just a little unreliable. So I'm going to try a little trick from Yspahan. As you acquire traits, keep them in a line. Your lowest die faces in any roll have your leftmost ability. Second-lowest faces, have your second-leftmost ability, and so on. 
Well, that's enough to work from now. I've got quite a bit of work ahead of me!

Timing, Queues, Sets, and Upgrades in Monsoon Market

See my previous posts on this game about the pre-European trade ties between Swahili coastal nations and dynastic China through Indian Ocean trade routes. I swear it's less dry than it sounds. The basic idea remains a card drafting game with a twist:

At the beginning of the game, you have a hand of cards much like in 7 Wonders or Sushi Go, but you also have a personalized Ship card in your hand that is in your player-color. You also have a personalized tableau representing your port. To play, players pass their hand to the left and trade one card from the new ship for one card from their port, then pass again. Thus, each hand remains the same size throughout play and eventually ships will return to their home port, carrying an eclectic mix of cargo.

One problem with this idea is that the tableau is public information, so savvy players may see what an opponent is giving up from their tableau, then change their mind about their own trade. This little dance could continue indefinitely, which isn't very fun. So instead, I am making ports something like a personalized Guillotine or Bohnanza-style queue:

  • Your port is a line of cards that are ready to trade with incoming ships.
  • You must give up the card in your port furthest to the right, which is considered the front of the line.
  • You may take a card of your choice from the ship at your port, but it must be placed at the back of the line.
  • Each card has a movement icon, indicating whether you can move a card of your choice 0, 1, or 2 cards forward in line.

Imagine this sort of like the action cards and noble cards in Guillotine combined into a single card. You have to be careful about which cards you keep because they may put valuable cards at risk of trade. The scoring and tactics would be more based on set collection though:

  • Perishable Goods: If you have fewer than __ perishable goods cards, total ranks on those cards are penalty points.
    • Over __, positive points.
  • Rare Goods: If you have more than __ rare goods cards, total ranks on those cards are penalty points.
    • Below __, penalty points.
  • Bulk Goods: Whoever has the most bulk cards, gets points equal to their total rank.
    • Second place: Half of their total rank in points.
  • Fashionable Goods: Whoever has the fewest fashionable cards gets points equal to their total rank.
    • Second place: Half their total rank in points.
  • In addition, these categories have individual values on a market board. Players score a flat rate of points for each card in a category.

Some sets also offer tactical advantages for subsequent rounds.

  • Gold: The player with most gold raises or lowers a two category values by 2.
    • Second place: two by one.
    • Everyone else: one by one.
    • Players may adjust a value that has already been adjusted this round.
  • Crew: Whoever has the most, may trade 1:2 or 2:1 twice in the next round.
    • Second place: Once.
  • Port: Whoever has the most gets two more cards in their port in the next round.
    • Second place: One.
  • Fleet: Whoever has the smallest fleet gets two pirate tokens.
    • Whoever has the second-smallest, gets one.

When you trade, you have the option to set aside your taken card face-down beside your port. After scoring, players may take upgrades.

  • Whoever has the fewest points takes the first turn.
  • On your turn, you can take the first of a set of Advantage cards which will upgrade your port with special abilities.
  • If you don't want this card, you may skip it by placing a face-down card beside it.
  • Whoever takes an upgrade card can also take any face-down cards beside them, adding them to their tableau in the next round. 

Any cards in a port are discard. Cards in returning ships become the new port and a new hand of cards is drawn to begin a future round.

And that's my current outline.

My main concern is keeping the game distinct enough from 7 Wonders and Sushi Go. 7 Wonders is the definitive drafting game, in my mind, while Sushi Go is the best introductory drafting game. Among the Stars distinguishes itself by being a tile-placement game with drafting. I wonder if the market board and queue mechanic would be sufficient. If the market board is too much, I can remove it, but then that's one less thing to distinguish the game. What do you think?

4 reasons why UnPub4 was great (and how to make yours great, too)

In a word, UnPub4 was a crucible. The game I brought Saturday morning was quite different than what came out Sunday night. It emerged sleeker, simpler, and more fun. Here are four reasons why UnPub4 was such a success, and some takeaways to make your next UnPub a success, too.

Small sample of on-the-fly edits to my components.

#1 MacGyver Factor
Because I was limited to whatever I had available to me at the event, I couldn't fall into the trap of just adding new mechanics or components to fix problems. Instead, I had to trim, edit, revise, and tweak. If point values were a problem, I used white-out or adhesive stickers to make edits. If components were a problem, I just removed them instead of wasting time between playtests.

Takeaway: Bring tape, white labels, white out, glue sticks, and markers in multiple colors. Make your prototype easily editable to respond to playtester feedback.

Teaching The River Ancient (Photo: Brad Smoley)

#2 Variety of Playtests
My first two tests had very enthusiastic and happy players. They gave very positive feedback, which was a great way to start the event. My third playtest had more game designers, publishers, and veteran euro players who gave much more grounded feedback with constructive advice.

We all spotted some unexpected emergent gameplay that led to some un-fun runaway leaders, but we didn't make edits mid-stream. We just followed the game as it was presented until it reached its conclusion, then discussed possible solutions. Further playtests refined those bigger changes after that early play session.

Takeaway: Be observant of player behavior, emergent patterns, mood shifts, and most especially any rules that got missed in your initial spoken rules description. It never hurts to repeat a rule or a point of procedure, even if you eventually feel like you sound like a parrot. UnPub is busy and distracting, so you must be persistent and patient.

Playtesting my party game Troll's Dilemma with 20+ players

#3 Generous Advisers
Even outside of the playtests, I was surrounded by some of the friendliest and most generous creative people in the hobby tabletop industry. Between playtests, while I was hurriedly scribbling numbers or applying stickers, folks came by to talk out some of my problems from the prior playtest.

From these discussions, my game went from phased play to turn-based play, with greatly adjusted point values that created multiple paths to victory. In return, I tried to make myself available to talk about other people's games and help them overcome their own hurdles.

(I'm pretty sure I ended up taking more than I gave, though.)

Takeaway: Even time not spent playtesting can be productive for your game. Talk out your problems with friendly audiences. Pay it forward by asking about their own games in exchange. You'd be surprised how universal some problems are, even between vastly different games.

Demoing Koi Pond

#4 Industry Presence
UnPub has quickly become a farm team for tabletop publishers. Dozens of games have graduated from UnPub's main event or satellite UnPub Mini events around the world, becoming published games on your store shelves.

This year alone, seven games were signed by the end of Sunday. Who knows how many more will be picked up in weeks and months to come? I do hope UnPub as a program keeps playtesting and development as its core mission, having an industry presence at the main event is a nice bit if inspiration for all the designers present. Just being able to talk out a pitch with a real publisher is educational for any new designer.

In my case, I didn't intend to get signed because I knew my game wasn't ready yet. I just wanted to get it played and revised. Having industry at the table was still very useful.

Takeaway: Know your goal for UnPub. Do you want to get signed or just get feedback for a game still in development? Designers around you might be getting signed by publishers, so prepare your emotional state for that. Do not fear rejection, use it as a stepping stone.

Demoing Suspense: The Card Game

Bonus Takeaways
  • Actively seek players, especially if you don't get much foot traffic. Be friendly, welcoming, and (though it pains me to have to say this) well-groomed.
  • Tell playtesters the player-count, time span, and age range. This year, players got raffle tickets for each feedback form they turned in. So, committing to a one-hour game had literal opportunity costs compared to playing three 20min games.
  • Adjust your pitch and description according to the audience. Don't reference other media or games if you can help it. Not all geekdoms overlap.
  • State the kind of feedback you're looking for before each playtest. Is a particular mechanic troubling you, for example?
  • Describe your game's Theme in a single sentence, then the Goal of play as it pertains to that theme, then very basic steps of gameplay taking special care to introduce unique game terms for any components.
  • Bring hand sanitizer and offer it to others. It's a good ice breaker.
  • Learn how to project your voice from your belly, not from your head. It will save you many days of recovery from a sore throat.
  • If you have first-turn order based on age, it's a nice surreptitious way of seeing the age range of your playtesters.

Overall it was a fantastic four-day visit. I got to playtest The River Ancient a total of 7 times, for players ranging in age from 10 to mid-50s. I also demoed Suspense: the Card Game, Nine Lives Card Game, Koi Pond, and promoted Belle of the Ball.

The River Ancient at UnPub

Look for my Miyazaki-inspired euro game The River Ancient this weekend at UnPub4! Photos below and above are of the prototype I'm taking with me to the event. After some very rigorous playtesting, it's in a state where I think I can get the most useful feedback.

It's a little different for me than last year since Belle of the Ball was a) mostly finished, b) a very short game, and c) I was seated near the front door. This time, the game isn't quite as polished, it takes roughly 45 minutes to play, and I'm in the far back of the room. I really hope I get as many playtests in as I did last year, regardless.

Now, pictures!

I used just about every scrap of cardboard in the house. It's pretty rough and handmade, but hopefully playtesters won't mind. See you at UnPub!

More Cards for Koi Pond Expansion (and a Title Change)

When I was developing the first Koi Pond expansion, I knew I would need some help with the new artwork. Fish are one thing, but this expansion introduced human characters, so I had to call in some help.

So, Jared Axelrod just sent me his excellent Abbot, Monk, and Novice art for the Koi Pond expansion. Here we have a Novice, who may be placed in your house, pond, or river. Wherever the novice is placed, you score 1 point for each 1-koi card in that place, regardless of their suit.

For example, if you have two 1-red cards, one 1-blue card, and a novice in your river, you will score 3 points.

The Monk and Abbot are the same as the Novice, except they score points for 2-koi and 3-koi cards respectively.

The other cards in the expansion are the Shrine, which may be placed in your river, house, or pond. It doubles the quantity of koi of that suit in that place. You've already seen me talk about the new 4- and 5-koi cards in a previous post. The rainbow koi are special hybrids that can count as any suit.

Because the Novice, Abbot, and Monk are the only human characters in the expansion, I've decided it makes more sense to call this expansion Moon Temple rather than Moon Village. I'll save the latter title for a future expansion.

If you'd like to take a peek at the rules cards, I'd appreciate any feedback.

Art Preview for Koi Pond: Moon Village

Just a quick update today to show off some of the new koi art for Koi Pond: Moon Village. These are the new koi cards featuring 4 and 5 koi on a card, to really boost those koi scores or ramp up competition for ribbons. They're a little rarer than standard 1s, 2s and 3s, so use them wisely.

Chibi Games: Minimal, Cute, Fun

A while back, someone asked me to predict what the big thing would be this year. I said if I knew that, I'd be doing it by now. Snark aside, there is one trend that I do hope gains some momentum, which I'm calling Chibi Games.

"Chibi" comes from anime and manga, and is often conflated with the "super deformed" style of art where characters have giant heads and eyes, with little bodies (and often no fingers, oddly). But in this case, I'm focusing on the "cute" aspect. Technically, I could call these Kawaii games, but "Chibi" is just more fun to say.

  • Chibi Games wear their inspiration on their adorable little sleeves. They're based on popular games which are great in themselves, but can be a little hard to approach as a newcomer.
  • Chibi Games take the fun elements of those games, distill them into a few simple modes of interaction, and retheme it with cute approachable art.
  • Chibi Games use very few components, take up very little footprint on the table and last at most 20 minutes.

For example...

  • 7 Wonders: Drafting game with lots of moving parts, but fast play and an elegant system of tech trees. Calculating final scores (and all scores mid-game) can be opaque though.

    Chibi Response: Sushi Go focuses exclusively on drafting cards to build unique and easily grasped sets. Scoring is relatively simple. Play lasts half the time. Instead of ancient empires, the art features cute anthropomorphized sushi dishes.

I've heard people describe the new game Machi Koro as a simpler, cuter version of Settlers of Catan, but I can't verify that myself yet. If so, that's awesome. If not, there's open space there for a designer to work. I can see a whole set of Chibi games, each focused on a different popular genre or theme in the hobby.

It can be helpful to look at the existing market and see what is already out there. So let's do that.

  • Chibi Kingdom: With a different theme and art, Eight Minute Empire or Coin Age might fit the bill.
  • Chibi Rails: It would be hard to beat Ticket to Ride or Cable Car as relatively simple introductions to the rail genre, but I'd give String Railway a fighting chance.
  • Chibi Tycoon: Assuming this is a stocks game, how would you condense the world of commodities trading into as succinct a game as possible? My vote goes to classic game Pit.
  • Chibi Auction: Take a heavy auction game like Der Speicherstadt and add a cutesy theme? I think For $ale is a strong contender, possibly Felix the Cat in the Sack or No Thanks.
  • Chibi Farm: Responding to heavy farming games like Agricola, you might find Farmageddon a fun and light alternative, though the gameplay is totally different.

Anyhoo, just thought it would be fun to see a whole line of these chibi games from one publisher.

God Jobs: Ascend the Corporate Ladder

Following up on yesterday's post about balancing single-resource card games, here's an example of a game using the mechanic I described. The theme is silly, but I think it has enough of a unique spin to get attention of even the most jaded gamer.

God Jobs
Did you think Thor has always been god of thunder? Did Neptune rule the seas when he was just starting out? Nope, they had to ascend the corporate ladder, starting as mere gods of haircuts and sandwiches, before they could get to the big gigs. Now you can, too! This game uses poker cards to represent the menial domains of the lesser gods just starting their careers. Domains like Humidity, Farts, and Paperwork. Players invest followers to get new and better domains, eventually earning new followers in the long-term.

Stuff You Need
1-4 Players
A standard poker deck, including jokers. (Rank cards represent domains, face cards modify how many followers you earn from domains you already have.)
A six-sided die
A big supply of "followers," or point tokens (poker chips are good)
A first-player token

Set Up
Shuffle the deck and set out one card per player in a public tableau.
Give each player 5 followers.

Turns start with the player with the longest beard. (Or randomly.)

Starting your turn, your jobs earn you more followers. If you have any rank cards in your collection, collect one follower from each. If any of your rank cards are empty, roll a single d6. Each card with a rank is lower than the die result earns you one follower.

Next, you may buy one card in the tableau for its indicated cost. When you buy from the tableau, replace the purchased card with a new card from the deck.

  • Buying Rank Cards: The cost of any ranked card is half its rank, rounded down. When you buy a card, place it in front of you. Put your paid followers on that card. Also add more followers to the card, up to its rank. So if you bought a rank 10 card, you would put 5 followers on it, then put 5 more followers on it from the general supply, so it starts with 10 followers.
  • Buying Face Cards: Face cards have no base price. On your turn, you simply pay however many followers you wish to get that card. Unlike rank cards, followers won't be earned from face cards. Beware: Any face card anywhere on the table is always available for purchase, the buyer just has to pay a higher amount to its present owner. Any followers on that face card return to their owner. The new owner puts his own followers on that card, to indicate its current price.
After your turn is over, play passes to the left. 

Face Cards
Face cards modify how many followers you earn at the start of your turn.
  • Jack: Each turn, earn +1 follower for each face card in your collection.
  • Queen: Each turn, earn +1 follower for each rank card of the Queen's suit in your collection.
  • King: Assign this to a rank card. This rank card earns you +1 follower.
  • Joker: Assign this to a rank card. This rank card pays out all its followers immediately, minus 1.

Endgame and Victory
The first player to buy seven jobs triggers endgame and earns two free followers. Each other player takes one last turn. After everyone has taken their last turn, whoever has the most followers not currently on a rank card wins!

Now all I need to do is think of funny domains for each card.

One Coin to Rule Them All: Balancing Single-Currency Game Mechanics

Here's what I love about Lords of Waterdeep: After a few plays, I saw through the "Matrix" of the quests. You're spending cubes and coins, which have their own flat universal point value, in order to buy quests which typically have a far greater point value. The challenge was acquiring the right combination of cubes and coins. What I love is that the conversion rates are idiosyncratic enough to be interesting without being unpredictable.

That said, I'm curious if such a game would work as well if there was only one resource: Points. Place an agent on a space: Gain x points. Completing quests then becomes a cold exchange of one small quantity of points for another larger quantity of points.

Domesticate Owlbears
Spend 3p.
Reward: Gain 10p.

Even if the game did work that way, it would be so dry. The different cubes and coins in Waterdeep are great because they're liquid and thematic. They can be spent and invested, while straight VPs cannot. They reflect the nature of the quests, and what they give you in return. Though cubes and coins inherently have some VP value, they're more useful being spent.

VP-as-resources would simply allow the rich to get richer. Runaway leaders would be rampant. In that case, perhaps it's best to think of VPs as money, and one game in particular has some useful lessons for managing money-as-VPs.

Single Currency in Small World

Small World might be considered a worker placement game with a single resource: VP. After all, you place a token on a space, according to certain restrictions, and those tokens earn you VPs, based on certain conditions. Strip away the conceit of warfare, and that sounds like a worker placement game to me.

Small World deals with runaway leaders by making investments finite. Your supply of tokens/workers is limited, as is their lifespan, so you must periodically dip into your purse to buy a new supply of workers as needed. Furthermore, you can only own one active supply of worker/tokens at a time.

It should be noted that even with these limiting factors, some edge-case factions do tend to result in runaway leaders. The game is still fun, though!

Throttling Currency
It seems TIME and ACCESS are the central mechanisms for throttling a runaway leader.

  • TIME lets you pace how long an investment takes to mature,how long it will be fruitful, and even how long it will be available to buy in the first place.
  • ACCESS keeps some of your resources liquid and available to invest in further acquisitions, while keeping the bulk of your assets locked up in ongoing projects.

So let's say you still had the Domesticate Owlbears quest described above. How can we use Time and Access to control its pace?

In terms of Access, Waterdeep already has a central mechanism for accessing a quest. You must place a worker on a space in order to acquire the quest in the first place. Once you've done that, you can then spend your requisite resources to get the reward.

However, Time is crucial in controlling that reward. Let's say you have the Domesticate Owlbears "quest" and you spend your $3 to "complete" it. I use those terms in quotes, because now we're really talking about investments and rates of return from those investments.

The next step is to add $10 (in cubes, or chips, whatever) to that quest. Thereafter, at the start of your turn, you earn $1 from that quest and add it to your purse. So you have to wait three whole turns before this quest even makes a return on its investment. In that time, other players could be making their own, faster investments.

That's the baseline system. You could design special abilities that allow you to speed up the rate of return on "quests" of a particular category; gaining $2 per turn from Piety quests, for example. You could even sell ongoing quests (and any remaining points) to other players for quick cash. Now this becomes a real game about stock trading and brokerage.

Is that fun? I don't know, but it's an interesting space to explore.

Regime Art Preview

Let's take a look at this preview art for Regime, the card game that expands on Suspense's deduction mechanics and takes them in a slightly different direction.

You are diplomats sent to a mysterious nation that has just opened its borders after a long seclusion. Being experienced diplomats, you know the public faces are just puppets and the true power brokers are somewhere behind the scenes. You and the other players try to deduce who is the true power behind the throne.

I'm carrying on the high-contrast, brushy look that I proposed in this earlier post. These are 36 different characters, each of whom might be the true power behind the throne. Their names are just for flavor, which is why they're so small. The important bits are their suit, their title, and their rank.

Each round, the dealer knows the secret victory condition: The card with (highest, lowest, most, or fewest) (suit or title) (in play or in hand) is the true power behind the throne. Whoever possesses that card wins the round and scores points equal to the stars on their winning card. Players have means of revealing or keeping secret certain pieces of information from the rest of the players.

Here's the complete deck for now. Some small changes still need to be made, like certain titles and adding a few cards. I can talk more about how the game actually plays in a future post. For now, enjoy the pretty pictures.

And here are some of the victory condition cards. They're a little plain, but that's out of necessity. These need to be easily read and referenced from all around the table.

De Stijl, a trick-taking tile-laying game.

This is another one of those just-literally-dreamed-it game ideas, so excuse any fuzziness in the specifics. The aesthetics of it is just intriguing to me as an abstract gamer and art major.

De Stijl
This is the art genre created by, and pretty much synonymous with, Dutch abstract expressionist Piet Mondrian. You've seen his art on all sorts of merchandise, I'm sure. Here's a game loosely inspired by that art style.

Each card in the De Stijl deck is a 2x2 grid of five possible colors: Yellow, Red, Blue, Black, White. Each card is unique, so this creates a deck of 78 cards.

Each player has a hand of three cards at all times.

Each round, each player takes one turn. On your turn, play one card from your hand onto the table, trying to make the largest contiguous color. Whoever last added a cell to the largest contiguous group will win all those cards, while the other players score 1 point per cell in that group.

  • In the example at the top of this post, the player on the far right was the last to add a cell to the yellow group, thus winning the cards. (She could have added to the red group, she just likes yellow.) The other players win 4 points.

When you win cards, add them to your scoring tableau, which persists across rounds. Your tableau is up to three rows of cards, each with its own contiguous row of a color. Cards may not overlap.

After each round, you may score-then-discard a row from your tableau. This might occur if you close off both ends of a row or if you simply need to make room for new cards.

You score points from rows based on their length, at a triangular rate: 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45.

  • For example, after winning these four cards, the player could make two rows, one of red and one of yellow. This leaves an open end for both rows to grow. Alternately...
  • She could immediately close off this row of four yellow to score 10 points. She'd then discard those four cards, leaving behind the red card to grow from either end.

After each round, deal one card to each player's hand. The winner of the previous round starts the next round. Play three rounds per player. Whoever has the most points wins!

December 2013 Sales Report

It's time for another monthly sales report! (You can see past sales reports here.) December 2013 was an odd month since no new product was released. I had planned on getting Koi Pond: Moon Village out, but it had to be delayed because of my freelance work load. My goal remains late January so I can kick off 2014 on a monthly schedule. But enough about the future, let's look at the past month!

42x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game +27 from Nov
10x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) +2 from Nov
11x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) +4 from Nov
4x Suspense: the Card Game -10 from Nov
12x Nine Lives Card Game -7 from Nov
$822.98 Retail
$305.98 Royalties

Grand Totals for 2013
502 Products Sold
$3,302.11  Retail
$933.86 Royalties Earned

Clearly Koi Pond was the big hit of the holiday season. Good thing the expansion will be coming soon to treat those new fans! Alas, Nine Lives dropped a bit and Suspense had a precipitous drop in sales. Not sure what the life cycle has in store for those two products, but they're both young so I'm not discouraged. Besides, the beauty of POD is that they're not costing me anything to list. They'll never go out of print!

2014 will be the first full year where I'll self-publish my own card games. It's going to be a demanding schedule full of playtesting, refinement, development, and caffeine. I might have to cut down on my rampant ideation and instead focus on wrapping up my existing projects.

Troll's Dilemma - Alpha Playtest Results

I played Troll's Dilemma with a small group of six players, using red and blue chips for the binary choice instead of heads/tails.

We played two games, five rounds each, with the highest individual scorer being the winner. Some players employed the "honestly, always choose the same color" strategy while others randomized blindly, while still others went blindly random, and others kept a strategy of switching periodically.

With this small of a group, it's hard to say whether any of our results will scale up. It seemed to some that random choice is only slightly worse than an actual conscious strategy. Scores were within five points of each other at the end of each game, but there was always a clear winner, even if they only won by 1 point.

Some tweaks to consider:

  • Formalize the discussion phase so it's a simple statement: "I choose red/blue." I think I'd go so far as to give each player a badge or card that they can visibly flip to indicate their public choice.
  • Use star stickers so everyone knows how many points you have. Possibly color-code the stickers so you can tell which points were earned by deceit.
  • Randomize game length so you're not quite sure when the last round will be. Somewhere between 5 and 10 rounds might be the sweet spot.

All in all, it was a fun experience and a game I think I'll explore further with a bigger group. I appreciate any public playtesting you can offer!

The River Ancient: Beta Test

I'm developing a Mononoke/Nausicaa-inspired game for a debut at UnPub4. (You've seen previous posts about this here, here, and here.) For now, I'm calling the game The River Ancient. Here's where it stands at the moment.

Overview of Play
Players are guardian spirits guiding their adopted culture towards a balanced and virtuous existence on an ever-changing river. At the start of the game, each player rolls four dice, each pip representing a village. On your turn, you can place your die on...

  • A NODE, where the corners of the river-squares meet. This is a long-term bid to claim the virtues or powers offered by that card: Health, Peace, Love, or Work.
    • Placing on a HILL gives you a +1 bonus.
    • Placing on a Mountain gives you a +2 bonus.
  • A RIVER SPIRIT, in the center of a river-square. There are four river spirits who will each bestow a special action upon your culture: Give a Virtue to another player, Steal a Virtue from another player, Change one of your own Virtues to another, Reduce one of your own Virtues. 
    • Placing a 1-3 lets you do the spirit's action once.
    • A 4 or 5 lets you do it twice.
    • A 6 lets you do it three times.
  • THE HEAD OF THE RIVER, gives you the first-player token for the next round.
  • THE END OF THE RIVER, gives you an extra die in the next round.
  • AN ANCIENT, where the river branches off into nothingness. Here, your culture can get a new Philosophy.

Once everyone has placed their dice, whoever has the greater sum of pips surrounding a square will get its Virtues. However, the larger the sum, the fewer virtues the winner will receive.

  • For a winning bid of 1 or higher, the winner gets all the Virtues of the card.
  • For a winning bid of 7 or higher, the winner only gets the last two Virtues of the card.
  • For a winning bid of 10 or higher, the winner only gets the last Virtue of the card.
  • If winning bids are tied, the card is ignored.

For a Power Cards at either end of the river are special in that they offer no Virtues of their own, they add a descriptor to your culture and grant a special power.

  • If you have the winning bid for a power card, take it and add it to your tableau. Your first Power card is assigned to your "1" die face. Thereafter, any "1" has that power when placed on the board.

After totaling all the Virtues earned this round, check to see if any have been raised to 6 or higher. If so, you score points equal to your current lowest Virtue. Any virtues that ticked over 6 are then moved back to the zero space of the score tracker.

In addition to all of this, there are also Philosophies. These are ribbons given which list the four Virtues in a unique hierarchy. For example, "Work > Health > Love > Peace" means this philosophy prioritizes those Virtues in that order.
  • At the end of the round, if your Virtues' are arranged in accordance with your Philosophy, you score extra points.
This is where things got fuzzy during playtesting. There was already so much going on that figuring out how to arrange out your Virtues according to your Philosophy was just one layer of cognitive overload too many.

Normally, I'd strip away mechanics until what was left was a very thin, but easily accessed game. This time, I'm actually trying to make a heavier game, which allows me the option of using components besides my tried-and-true standard poker cards.

For example, I'm using wooden discs to represent the cumulative bonuses from mountains and hills. In the photo above, the large tower of discs you see came from a combination of hills, mountains, and a special power for that die face.

Still, I think I can clean up some elements of the game a bit. I might end up abandoning the poker cards and rely on standard square tiles. Each tile would begin with a base value of 10 for only one virtue per tile. When you win a tile's virtues, reduce the base value by your winning bid to determine your total earned virtue, to a minimum of 1.

  • So if a tile offers Peace, and you won it with a bid of 7, you'd only earn 3 Peace. 

If I do that I might expand the Virtue tracker to 10 instead of 5, allowing for more flexibility to accomplish Philosophies before scoring standard points. Or heck, I might just make Philosophy the only way to score points. If you meet the first priority, you get 1 point. The first and second, you get 3 points. First, second, and third, get 6 points. All four, get 10 points.

In this manner, getting more philosophies is a really valuable commodity, since you might be able to synergize like-minded philosophies or hedge your bets with two opposed philosophies. I think I like this! Less math, more strategy, and skirts the issue of completely lifting Reiner Knizia's scoring method.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.