Venture - A Card Game by James Ernest and Daniel Solis

If you follow the gaming kickstarter scene, you'll remember the massive smash hit James Ernest's Pairs. As a part of fulfilling that campaign, James Ernest is releasing several versions of the Pairs deck, each with new art and a unique variant standalone game that can be played with that deck.

I was lucky enough to playtest the variant rules for the Professor Elemental deck seen above. Over the course of a few weekly rigorous playtests, with a rotating band of eager and generous testers, the rules changed quite a bit based on collaborative, iterative, speedy revision.  Eventually the result was the current version of Venture, which was posted on the Cheapass site in late April.

It's a fast-paced, raucous game with a bit of bluffing and a lot of player-driven chaos.

  • Deal out the entire deck to all players so they have equal hands, then place any remainders in the center of the table as a "buffet."
  • Choose a card from your hand then everyone reveals their chosen cards at the same time. This begins the "firing" phase, but because my group played with the traditional fruit-themed Pairs deck, we called it the "eating" phase. We also referred to playing a card as "serving" a card.
  • The player who served the lowest number, eats the highest numbered card(s) on the table, gathering them into her personal score pile off the table. Continuing in ascending order, each player then eats any card(s) lower than the card they played, again gathering them into a score pile.
  • Continue playing turns until everyone's hand is empty. Each card in your score pile is negative one point. However, if you have all the cards of that number, then they're worth positive points. The player with the most points wins.
  • We also played with a variant where you draft your initial hand at the beginning of the game to control your starting position a bit.
  • We also did a lot of negotiating and alliances to make sure we wouldn't have to eat on a turn where we didn't want to eat. These phases were brief, but spiced up gameplay quite a bit.

That's just an overview. The more complete and up-to-date rules are on the Cheapass Games page. I'm proud to say James was kind enough to list me as a co-designer, but it was really a group effort from all the playtesters. Go grab your Pairs deck, 3-8 players, and give Venture a spin. I really think you'll dig it.


"If Dungeons & Dragons alignment were designed today, I bet only Chaotic PCs would resolve with dice, while Lawful PCs resolve with resource management."

That's the little tweet yesterday that received a lot of enthusiastic response. Though I don't work in RPGs anymore, I still occasionally have a random ideas for RPG mechanics and that one really just sprang up unfiltered.

Several responses suggested a deck of cards as the Neutral resolution, since they're somewhat random but somewhat predictable. I dig it. All you really need is three systems for generating a span of numbers, each with their own range of predictability.

I was surprised that no one popped up to say it had been done already. Surely someone's tried this? I mean, why do lawful characters still rely on dice? It should fundamentally feel different to be lawful than to be chaotic, no?

3 Simple Steps of Component-First Design

Watching video reviews for Maharani, Expedition: Northwest Passage, This Town Ain't Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us, I got a bug this morning for some tile-laying. This is a good opportunity for quick unstructured play to knock loose cobwebs in my design process.\

Step 1: Make a few Components

For now, I'm still limiting my components to the standard 2.5"x3.5" card format since that is what I can most easily self-publish. This allows a 2.5"x2.5" square with a .5"x2.5" tab on one end. So I made these three cards really quick loosely based on Maharani's use of half-circles to make "columns."

Step 2: Play with Components and Ask Questions
I started playing around with some simple rules. You can only place squares adjacent to each other if the facing sides are blank or have a circle. If the circle is two colors, what does that mean? If a circle has one color, does that mean something else?

If you make a contiguous area with the tabs, does that mean something? Is it important how the "wall" is oriented relative to a particular player?

And would this be a legal play, since it blocks off one edge that could have had a complete circle? Could I rotate that lower tile...

... in order for it to make a complete pink circle or to have its tab facing me? Is there an advantage to either? At this point, a theme would be useful to make sense of any of these rules.

Step 3: Propose a Theme, but don't get stuck on it
My first thought is that these circles are islands surrounded by vast oceans. But if that's the case, what do the tabs represent? Perhaps these are islands on a flat Earth and the tabs represent the edge of the world.

In which case, what happens if you join two tabs? Does this imply multiple flat worlds? The image of floating continents is certainly evocative and popular. Then perhaps instead of islands, these circles represent settlements on floating landmasses.

It's a start! So try this out at home. Grab some dice or cards and just play with them, the old-fashioned way. Explore their physical properties, see what they can do on the table. How heavy are they? How do they fit together? What combinations are possible?

Big Micro: The "Living Microgame" Model

Hayato Kisaragi and Seiji Kanai released an interesting experiment in card game publishing last year called Lost Legacy. The game itself is what you might expect from Kanai, the designer of the hit microgame Love Letter. Lost Legacy is a 2-4 player deduction game designed around a deck of sixteen cards, with some slight twists in the endgame that set it apart from Love Letter.

Where Love Letter is a standalone game, Lost Legacy is designed with expansions in mind. Each expansion has its own set of sixteen cards which means they can be played as their own game. You can also combine the base game with expansions under certain rules, ultimately making your own custom sixteen card deck to play.

In essence, Kisaragi and Kanai have combined the wildly successful "microgame" format with the commercial appeal of Fantasy Flight's "Living Card Game" format. Each set remains a fun and affordable standalone game for casual players, while die hard fans and completists can chase each new expansion.

I was mulling with this idea in Suspense last February. The idea was to release a set of "thirteenth cards," each could replace the thirteenth card in the deck. It's a model that really lends itself to the print-on-demand distribution model. (Similarly, Coup has an Interrogator who replaces the Ambassador.)

So what do you think? Do microgames, LCGs, and POD form the ultimate Voltron for card games?

Revising the Constants and Variables in Monsoon Market

Over the weekend, I revised my Unpub prototype of Monsoon Market the old-fashioned way, by hand. I cut, taped, glued, markered, and sleeved up this mess until it was a tight little package. What I realized from earlier tests is that I was testing too many variables at once.

  • Rarity: I had a weird multi-triangular distribution for resource cards, which pre-supposed rarity for certain resources. Four available at random in a starting market.
  • Demand: A randomized deck of Order cards which could be purchased with specific combinations of resources. Three of which are visible at any time.
  • Supply: Four random resource cards in each player's tableau at the start of the game.
I needed to streamline this a bit just so that the random shuffling and revealing of two separate decks provided the grease for the engine. That's a lesson from my recent play of Splendor, which was just nominated for an SdJ. Compounding that randomness with a weird distribution made things just a little too complicated without good justification for it. So here's the new setup.

Revised the Goods in Monsoon Market:
  • 4x1 of four main goods with 1s as hybrids
  • 3x2 of four main goods
  • 2x3 of four main goods
  • 1x4 of four main goods
  • 2x3 leather
  • 2x4 wood

Revised the Orders in Monsoon Market:
  • 4xA. Bulk: Permanent Good and 1 pt; Silver 2 pts; Gold 3 pts
  • 2xA/1xB. Bulk: Permanent Good; Silver: 1pt; Gold: 2 pts.
  • 2xA/2xB/1xC. Bulk: Permanent Good; Silver: 1pt; Gold: 2 pts.
  • Most give a permanent good at bulk rate, 1pt at silver, 2pt at gold.
In addition, you get 1 pt for each pair of matching rates in your orders. My first test, I'm going to see if an endgame/victory condition of 7 points is reasonable. Theoretically, you could get it in two turns if you managed to buy two gold-rate 4xA Orders in a row.

The Time-to-Point Ratio in Splendor

Yesterday I introduced the Time-to-Point Ratio using Lords of Waterdeep as an example, but the game that really made the concept clear to me was the new game Splendor from designer Marc Andre and publisher Space Cowboys. First, I must just say I love this game. It's an elegant engine-building race to 15 points. Here's a good tutorial of how to play.

Usually whoever reaches 15 points wins, though there is a chance of any close stragglers catching up on their last turn. Because there is no hard limit on the number of rounds like in Waterdeep, Splendor is a little trickier to reverse-engineer. Fortunately all the cards have been structured in a very regular cost-to-reward structure, which can be converted to this basic rule of thumb:

 Each card requires a number of turns equal to its cost.

The whole game is built around breaking that rule, compelling you to build an engine that lets you to buy cards faster, more cheaply, for greater reward, or simply removing them from the market so an opponent can't take them. So let's look at the cards you can buy and their relative costs.

Usually, costs are structured so that every card costs a resource matching another card's color. For example, in the cheapest cards: Red costs White, White costs Blue, Blue costs Black, Black costs Green, Green costs Red. These patterns vary, but within each reward-category, a five-pointed cycle is always embedded in the cost structure.

First Level Ratios
  • 3 for 0 Points: Two to Three Turns
  • 1 / 2 for 0 Points: Two to Three Turns
  • 2 / 2 for 0 Points:  Two to Three Turns
  • 1 / 2 / 2 for 0 Points: Two to Four Turns
  • 1 / 1 / 3 for 0 Points: Two to Five Turns
  • 1 / 1 / 1 / 1 for 0 Points: Two to Three Turns
  • 1 / 1 / 1 / 2 for 0 Points: Two to Three Turns
  • 4 for 1 Point: Two to Four Turns
These cards are the most varied in cost and can fundamentally shape the engine you'll end up with at the beginning of the game. All of them take at least two turns to save up for and buy. They run the gamut from super-cheap to absurdly over-priced, but because every card will usually not come into play, sometimes you've no choice but to take the sub-optimal option.

Second Level Ratios
  • 2 / 2 / 3 for 1 Point: Three to Six Turns
  • 2 / 3 / 3 for 1 Point: Three to Six Turns
  • 5 for 2 Points: Three to Five Turns
  • 3 / 5 for 2 Points: Four to Seven Turns
  • 1 / 2 / 4 for 2 Points: Three to Five Turns
  • 6 for 3 Points: Three to Six Turns
Beyond first-level, it's a little trickier to figure out the time-to-point ratio of each card since technically these might take only one turn to buy, if you've built up your engine well and the cards have come out in your favor. The ratios above are based on the default game state at the start of play, before building your engine and assuming you are able to take two chips at a time on your turn every turn.

Third Level Ratios
  • 3 / 3 / 3 / 5 for 3 Points: Four to Six Turns
  • 7 for 4 Points: Four to Seven Turns
  • 3 / 3 / 6 for 4 Points: Five to Seven Turns
  • 3 / 7 for 5 Points: Five to Six Turns
These cards are priced under the assumption that you've already built a sizable engine to spend as little as possible for the most points. In some cases, like a two-player game, it would be impossible to afford a 7-cost card without and engine already built. There just isn't enough basic currency.

It's also clear now that costs with as few types of colors are best, especially if they're even numbers.

Noble Ratios
  • 4 / 4 for 3 Points
  • 3 / 3 / 3 for 3 Points
Nobles are odd in that they are based on how many cards you've purchased, putting them one further degree of separation from the baseline economy. I do find it interesting that they all give the same reward, though. This might be a mercy to the players since calculating variable cost and variable reward at this level would be too much of a brain-burner.

Design Takeaways
Splendor uses very regimented costs and rewards throughout the card deck, to the extent that there is a five-pointed web dictating that X-color card will always cost Y-color of resource. It's a great example of how to begin with a crystalline distribution, then use the vagaries of random draws and engine-building to add lots of texture. It's a fantastic game and a wonderful design. Bravo, Marc André!

The Time-to-Point Ratio in Lords of Waterdeep

Lately I've been focusing my game design on rarity. How many apples are available in the game, and how should they be valued? How many points should you get for 1 apple compared to 3? Yada yada yada. So I tinker with my game a bit, planning out how much of resource X is usually required to score Y points. Snore.

I've come to realize that's a somewhat shallow level of game design. I like it when the value is conditional based on the game state. Some stuff is in demand more than at other times. Cool. But there is still a deeper mechanical issue to design around.

The real question is how long does it take to achieve the necessary condition to score points?

The Time-to-Point Ratio
This is a handy metric to reverse-engineer existing games and figure out the balance of your game. For example in Lords of Waterdeep, in a single turn you could collect 4 coins, or 2 orange cubes, or 1 white cube, or 1 purple cube. These resources can be redeemed later to complete a quest which earns you points and other benefits.

So at the very basic level, Domesticate Owlbears could be described as costing 3 turns for 8 points. In addition, you get 1 orange cube and 2 coins, which are individually the equivalent of half a turn, but might be just what you need to complete a second quest, thereby saving you one whole turn. (EDIT: I know technically there is another valuation at play, since cubes themselves are worth 1 point each, but let's focus on one thing at a time.)

In a 2-player game, players get 4-to-8 turns per round for eight rounds. It's tricky to estimate because of Waterdeep Harbor and extra Agents that are acquired later in the game. In general that gives you a baseline of 32-to-56 turns in an average game. Let's cut it down the middle and say you have 44 turns in an average two-player game.

From there, you can reverse-engineer the game to figure out the most optimized path to achieve your goals. Anything that takes extra turns is bad. Anything that saves you turns is good. For example, there is a Building that allows you to spend two coins to gain 2 purple, 2 white, or 1 white and 1 purple. In other words, spend 1-to-1.5 turns to get the rewards of 2 turns. (Depending on if you spend money you had at the start of the game.)

This is further complicated by opportunity-costs, especially in worker placement games, but that's still the essence of engine-building games. This ratio is a skeleton around which to design your own games. How many turns are you spending? How many points are you getting for those turns?

In my next post, I'll dive deeper into the Time-to-Point ratio of the new game Splendor.

UnPub Feedback for Monsoon Market

Monsoon Market at UnPub Mini at Atomic Empire was great! Matt and Marcy Wolfe organized it way better than I did last year. (They had a raffle!) There were at least double the designers and double the playtesters.

I had about a dozen individual playtesters across ten playtests. It really helps to have a short game at UnPub. Players get a tantalizing taste of gameplay and sometimes want to play a second or third time. That was really good data. Some changes I made based on feedback, which I still need to finalize and clean up with further testing tonight.

  • Make points lower and rounder: In the first few tests, winning scores were in the high 70s. No one wants to do an arithmetic test after a light strategy game, so I'm cutting those down to the high 20s.
  • No Bonuses...: Bonuses work best in slightly longer engine-building games. Because this game can end in as few as five rounds, there wasn't much time to actually score anything for bonuses.
  • ...Only Actions: Half of my Order cards had bonuses, the other half had actions. It quickly became apparent that chaining actions was the fun, tactical part of the game.
  • Tighten point spreads: At one test, there was a 20 point spread between high score and low score. The straggler kept getting picked on by the other players and couldn't get a foothold on the scoreboard.
  • Clarify how the Order and Market tableaus refresh: The most common confusion was players thinking the tableaus refreshed either like Ticket to Ride or like Alhambra. I had to nail that down.
  • Reduce or Replace Wood and Leather: I cut down the number of wood and leather cards in the deck by half, as they were eventually clogging up the central market. I'm inclined to lower their quantity but raise their value.
  • Discard spent cards: Originally, I had players add their spent cards to the central market from which they were shopping, thus making a high value card available in the market for the next player. This unfortunately caused a lot of order-of-operations questions, too many to be worth the trouble. Besides, the goods deck is pretty small anyway so the economy will cycle fast.

But over all I think the tests went well. This was a big confidence booster after testing River Ancient  at UnPub4. Monsoon Market finally feels like it's coming to the home stretch.

(Photo: Graham and I contemplate our moves. Photo by Eric Martin, who ended up winning handily.)

Monsoon Market at UnPub May 10 at Atomic Empire in Durham

(Photo: Playtesting Monsoon Market with Alec Nelson, Jon Bolding, and Joanna Bolding)

Monsoon Market will be at the upcoming UnPub Mini at Atomic Empire in Durham, NC! I've got the core mechanics pretty much ready to go for the event, I just really need some play-hours to refine the point values and distributions.

The basic gameplay is pretty familiar to most trading game fans. You've got several types of goods in your display (your tableau) and in your storage (your hand). There is a central lane of three Order cards, representing boats who have come to port to fulfill orders. There is a central market tableau of goods cards, too. On your turn, you can:
  • Trade any goods cards from your display for an equal number of cards from an opponent's display.
  • Steal one goods card from an opponent's display.*
  • Buy goods cards from the central market. Discard a goods card. Its rank is the number of cards you can take from the market.*
  • Fulfill orders and take Order cards. There are three ways to fulfill an order, all require spending goods from your display and/or storage, plus any coin costs noted.
*Note: Your display must always be filled as much as possible. It has room for four cards. Your hand has room for five cards. If you ever lose cards from your display but have cards in hand, you must immediately fill that empty spot. If you buy multiple cards in your turn, you can decide which of the new cards will go to your display before ending your turn.

Fullfilling an Order:
  • Best: Spend the required goods noted on the Order card, in at least the quantities noted. So in this case, you'd need to spend at least 1 cloth, 1 pottery, and 3 coins. If you do this, you can take that order card into your score pile and turn it so the highest score is facing you.
  • Mediocre: Spend at least the required amount of any separate sets of goods. So in this case, you'd spend 1 of any good, 1 of any other good, and 3 coins. If you do this, you take the order card, but turn it so the medium score is facing you.
  • El Cheapo: Spend any amount of goods, regardless of the mix. In this case, you'd spend 2 of any good and 3 coins. If you do this, you take the order card, but turn it so the lowest score is facing you.
If you fulfill an order with Best or Mediocre options, you get some extra bonuses like extra actions. These include:
  • Keep a Card: Keep one of the cards you used to fulfill this order.
  • Draw a Card: Draw a goods card at random from the deck.
  • Steal a Card: Steal a card from an opponent's display.
  • Fulfill Another Order: Using whatever goods you have left, you can fulfill another order.
Some bonuses give you extra points at the end of the game.
  • 2 VP for each (City): The cities are famous ports visited by Zheng He. These are Srivijaya, Ayuthaya, Mombasa, Calicut, and Nanjing.
  • 1 VP for each (Good): For each particular type of good you have in your display or storage, you score 1 VP.
 And that's it! Presently I've set the game to end on the round in which the first player fulfills five orders, with everyone getting one last turn to score some extra points.

Geeking Out About Card Deck Distributions Again

A few weeks ago, I was geeking out about multi-triangular deck distributions and noted that I was a little bugged that I didn't go through every possible combinatorial permutation of triangular decks ranked 1-4. Well, here it is, and there are some curious findings.

Let me back up a bit. This spreadsheet outlines several "triangle" decks, which are typically a deck of cards in which each card is ranked with a number. That number is also how frequent that card is in the deck. So there are one 1, two 2s, three 3s, four 4s in the deck. The top row of numbers is the frequency, the colored rows below that are the ranks. A typical 1-4 triangle deck is noted on the first colored row.

The white section to the right is the sum of all ranks. First, multiplying their frequency by their rank, then totalling up all those products into one grand total.

Now, why would this be useful? In my case, I wanted to figure out a resource deck for Monsoon Market. I wanted each resource to only occupy ten cards in the deck, but their ranks to be distributed in a somewhat triangular fashion, to vary their overall rarity.

So for example, if I wanted a very common resource, I'd assign it the distribution noted on the top row (1x1, 2x2, 3x3, 4x4), which is a total of 30 of that resource. On the flipside, if I wanted a very rare resource, I'd assign it the very last row's distribution (1x4, 2x3, 3x2, 4x1). And there is a nice spectrum in between. In my case, I like the even totals: 30, 28, 26, 24, 22, 20.

Now it's very easy to get lost in the weeds with this kind of obsession. I guarantee you that no one but the most die hard card-counter will bother calculating these totals. In fact, I could just as easily make every resource follow a standard triangle distribution just to make it easier for everybody to figure out. And I might! But this kind of fiddling is still good to have done at least once.

Koi Pond will be translated and published in China!

omg! My card game KOI POND will be translated and published in China by Joy Pie Game Club! Many thanks to Scott Underwood of the Jank Cast for bringing it to Shanghai. Extra special thanks to David Du for taking an interest in my little fishes.

Look for more news to come. China is a huge potential market for tabletop games, so hopefully this will become kind of a big deal! :D

April 2014 Sales Report

Wow, what a whirlwind of a month April was! I released my first dexterity game Ten Pen, a second batch of icons to my Patreon backers, scheduled a handful of Google Helpouts, and hustled hustled hustled. This is the business model I had set forth for myself this year, so it's all going according to plan. I just didn't know how sleepy I'd be by now!

So let's look at the sales numbers for my card games on DriveThruCards this month.

17x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game +5 from March
7x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) +0 from March
508x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) +504 from March
5x Koi Pond: Moon Temple -6 from March
7x Suspense: the Card Game +4 from March
5x Nine Lives Card Game -4 from March
4x Penny Farthing Catapult -11 from March
6x Regime -9 from March
4x Ten Pen (new!)
$606.90 Retail
$208.14 Royalties

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
744 Products Sold
$2255.74 Retail
$827.18 Royalties

April seems to be holding steady to March's numbers, with some slight dips in overall sales despite a broader selection of products. I believe huge spike in sales for Four Winds came from within DriveThruCards, to use as promotional handouts at upcoming conventions.

I think I've been a bit too distracted lately with all my other ongoing projects to do the kind of marketing work that needs to be done with a new product. That shows in Ten Pen's numbers, for sure. I was hoping giving a new product a full month of shelf time would raise its numbers just by sheer virtue of time, but it really needs a strong marketing push too.

Well, this is all meant to be a long-tail strategy. As long as all of my products are selling at all each and every month, that's good solid progress.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.