Gatekeeping: Worker Placement Mechanism

Here's a little game mechanism to chew on. Let's call it gatekeeping. It's a model for one group getting access to a resource first, then establishing the terms by which any newcomer may get access to that resource.

This is a heavy, complicated topic and definitely not my normal design space. Instead of a heavy-handed metaphor, I wanted to explore the mechanisms so that you understood the phenomenon without predispositions and a real-world bias. I find a safe comfort in the abstract.

So here's the idea: Place a worker. That worker establishes terms for the subsequent workers placed there. Those terms are inspired by any number of other worker placement games like Keyflower, Bruxelles, Coal Baron. Terms might be:
  • Placing a worker costs $1.
  • Must place +1 worker here.
  • Must keep workers here an extra turn.
  • Workers must be same color.

I think it would be easiest to translate this to card play, with each card representing a "worker" and its terms printed right there. In fact, it led me back to this old pinwheel planet idea from a while back. I can see a game about a group colonizing a planet, then setting the terms for immigrating to that planet.

Worth exploring!

Monsoon Market now on sale at DriveThruCards!

Good news, everyone! Monsoon Market is now available from DriveThruCards! I've been working on this game in various iterations for a long time and I'm glad to see it finally seeing the light of day.

This is also my first experiment with early bird pricing. Here's the deal: Each new release will be deeply discounted until the next release comes out, however long that takes. So from now until my next game, Monsoon Market costs a clean $9.99. Get it now!

Good with Faces: A Mental Dexterity Game?

Playing a handful of dexterity games in the past few months has really given me some inspiration for how to apply these mechanisms to a game that doesn't require such able-bodied play.

My first thought is the Memory genre, which doesn't get much of a spotlight outside of some kids' games. It seemed to me that the tension of a rising Jenga tower could be translated to remembering a long sequence of randomized data.

Tonight I'm testing a little party game called Good with Faces, which aims to do to the memory mechanism what Wits and Wagers did for trivia. Namely, you don't have to be good at the actual mechanism, but recognize which players are good and bet for or against them. Below is one of the variants I'll be trying out.

  • A random player takes the first turn.
  • On your turn, you shuffle the face cards and set the deck face down.
  • Reveal the top card, look at it briefly, and set it it face down in a central lane.
  • Continue this until you've seen the whole deck in order and placed all the cards in the lane.
  • All other players secretly bet how many faces you can remember in the proper sequence.
  • Whatever number each player picks is the payout if correct, or penalty of incorrect. If you bet exactly the number that the active player got correct, you get double the payout.
  • Now starting from the first card, state out loud what you believe it to be, then reveal it.
  • Continue revealing cards until you get your first face wrong, thus ending the round.
  • Pay out bets.
    • For example, at the end of this round you remembered three faces correctly.
    • Bob bet you could remember five faces, so he lost five points.
    • Jane bet that you could remember one, and you did, so she gets one point.
    • Alex bet that you could remember three faces, which is exactly right, so she gets double the normal payout, which is six points.
  • The next player takes their turn in the hot seat to begin the process again.

For advanced variants or future rounds, there are first names and last names to remember in the sequence as well. In the examples above, those would be Tasha Ellis and Janie Carne. I'll try it with just faces first and see how it goes.

FOMO Factor: Kickstarter Marketing vs. Print-on-Demand Marketing

I've participated or run in several Kickstarter campaigns back in the old days when making five digits was newsworthy. My KS marketing experience may be a bit dated, but it still presents a striking contrast to marketing a catalog of print-on-demand products.

Immediacy: Strength or Weakness?

When I first ventured into POD games, I thought immediacy would be the one strength they had over a kickstarted product. You don't have to wait twelve months or longer to get your game. You know it will fulfill. It will never go out of stock. It can be updated and adjusted bit by bit based on player feedback. All this seemed like an all-around strong offering.

POD says "You can buy this game whenever, get it in 1-2wks!"
KS says "You can probably only buy this game now, and wait 12mos."

And yet it seems that very security and unlimited access is a weakness for POD marketing. Unlike a KS campaign, there isn't a time-sensitive offer or a sense of existential risk to the game. The game's existence is assured, so there is no sense of a closing window. There is no urgency to open your wallet RIGHT NOW as there is in a KS project on the verge of funding.

As Jon Bolding accurately explained,

KS says "You can help me make this thing, which won't get made otherwise."
POD says "Here's a thing I made, buy it if you want."

FOMO Factor

This all comes back to the concept of FOMO, the fear of missing out. This is the same logic that drives the "Disney Vault" or other artificial scarcity. Loss aversion is a powerful motivator, one that KS uses in full force. However, restricting access or cutting off supply is anathema to my goal of creating many overlapping "long tails" that aggregate into a self-sustaining business.

This all brings me to the sale I held last weekend during Origins 2014. For about five days, I significantly lowered the prices of all of my games to the point where I juuuust barely made some reasonable earnings. I kept my promotions to one tweet a day for the most part. Here's how the campaign performed.

This ultimately led to 88 sales over the course of five days, which is higher than the entire month of March which had been my best sales month of the year so far. Unfortunately this didn't actually earn as much as March, but at least that's 88 more of my games going to someone's table. Little by little, I hope POD's tortoise will make gains on KS's hare.

"Holy Ship!" - Shipping Cost Sticker Shock

For the last thirteen months, I've focused almost exclusively on releasing my own card games through the print on-demand service DriveThruCards. In that time, I've released several monthly sales reports outlining my own earnings, which have been pretty good! Enough to support further game development and meaningfully contribute to my household.

I've never addressed the biggest hidden cost of this model: Shipping. For example, buying one copy of Koi Pond cost an extra four dollars in shipping for a 1-2 week delivery. Nevermind the lack of a box or public perception of POD card quality, the shipping 20% price hike is my biggest barrier to closing a sale.

Traditional Shipping vs. Retail Shipping

Shipping costs are hidden in a traditional retail purchase because the up-front production costs are much cheaper thanks to the economy of scale. When each unit only costs a couple dollars to make, and units are shipped in bulk, each unit's retail price can stay as low as $10-$15.

Unfortunately, the print-on-demand model I presently use means that each unit costs the same amount to produce.I'm trying to keep my own markup for each product low enough that the final prices can stay competitive with what you might see on a store shelf, but if I also accounted for the cost of shipping in that markup, I'd barely earn anything.

Alternatives and Solutions

DriveThruCards does offer bulk printing, which in turn would need a large up front sum of money. That means crowdfunding. Still, directly shipping to the consumer is expensive any way you slice it. Most Kickstarter projects underestimate the cost of shipping, which ultimately hurts the overall project's fulfillment.

There is another option I have seen a lot of lately that seems to work: Bundle purchases. Many of my customers wait until I have enough new product for them to buy at the same time, to cut down the per-unit shipping costs.

That's partly why I'm releasing products at such a prolific rate this year, to make those bundle purchases more viable and tempting. This lets me control my own output and income without reducing the perceived value of the product.

Promotional sales help, apparently. I've avoided this strategy until now, mainly because I didn't want to be trapped in an "endless sale" like a department store. However, I've seen a lot of buying activity from this weekend's Origins sale when I reduced prices up to 25%. There were nearly as many purchases in those five days as in the entirety of March. Whether my earnings match that sales performance has yet to be seen.

Anyhoo, thanks for understanding. I appreciate your support.

Big Gigantic Sale on all Smart Play Games until June 15!

Just because I can't make it to Origins doesn't mean you can't get a great deal on my card games! Until June 15, I've slashed prices on all my card games, up to 25% off! If you've been holding out to pick up any of my games, now is the time! Come and get 'em!

Preview the Rules of Monsoon Market

Heyo! Monsoon Market is almost ready to go to DriveThruCards, but I wanted to get some more eyeballs on the rules cards first before I push the big button. Can you take a look at this very short PDF and see if the rules all make sense to you?

Pay-to-Pick Conveyer Belts (Progressive Pricing in Board Games)

"Pay-to-Pick" is a game mechanism that I've noticed coming up in a lot of board games lately. It comes in many different variations, but it is essentially a little conveyer belt delivering in-game items, resources, or even actions. Let's just call them items for now though.

At the closest end of the belt, items are generally free or very cheap to purchase. The further back in line, the more expensive those items get. Pretty simple, as I said there are little tweaks in a lot of games.


Small World: $0+(n-1) First item is free, or place one point on each item you skip. Points are then earned by anyone else who buys that item later.

Eight-Minute Empire: $0, $1, $1, $2, $2, $3. As opposed to Small World, the currency here is fixed and finite. Everyone begins with the same amount and it never returns to the economy.

Suburbia: $(x+y). x is the base price for each item on the track. y is the additional cost applied to each item based on its current position in line. ($0, $0, $2, $4, $6, $8, $10)

Belle of the Ball: $0+(n-1) There are two lanes to choose from, one that builds sets and one that grants special actions. As with Small World, the first item is free, or you must place a resource on every skipped card. All players begin with the same number of resources, like Eight-Minute Empire. However, it's a closed economy. Those resources will never leave the system and no new resources will ever enter the system.

I'm sure there are other examples in other games I haven't played, too. I could easily see this mechanism modeling the spoilage of perishable goods. Each round, the belt moves one increment forward, removing the first item on track completely. Actually, I've got one idea for a  progressive price track that wouldn't need a board, but still has the mix of fixed and dynamic pricing in Suburbia.

Each item costs the total amount indicated by the items ahead of it. So the cost of the far right card would be $0. The card to its left would be $5. The card on the far left would be $8. Just a little idea.

I really like pay-to-pick mechanisms. They have a lot of possible variations, present an interesting decision every turn, allow for long-term strategy, and link risk and reward in a very cool way.

Monsoon Market Art Preview

Here's a quick preview of the art in Monsoon Market, the game of fast fortunes on the Indian Ocean. It's a time of peace and profit! There is abundant trade between East Africa and China, and whoever runs a port city can get rich quick. The game is a race is to get fifteen seals of approval from Zheng He, the Chinese Imperial mariner visiting every port on the Monsoon Market.

You earn seals by using Gems, Books, Peppers, Silks, Leathers, and Wood to fulfill orders as they come into your port. The first four goods come in quantities of 1, 2, 3, or 4. Several of the 1s are actually hybrid cards, which may be used as either of two goods, but still only a quantity of 1. Leather is always in a quantity of 3 and Wood is always a quantity of 4, but no orders ever specifically call for these basic commodities.

There are three levels of accuracy with which you can complete an order.
  • For the gold rate, you must spend the exact types of goods in at least the quantity noted on the order card.
  • For the silver rate, the types of goods don't matter, but they must still be separate sets and in the minimum quantity.
  • For the bulk rate, they can be any goods in any mix as long as their total quantity is at least the total quantity on the order.
As you can see on the cards, there are different rewards for each rate depending on the card. Some bulk rate orders give you permanent bonus goods. This would be a useful way to spend some of that leather or wood building up in your storeroom.

In addition to completing the order, you also get to do one of four special actions noted on the order card. Chaining orders together to maximize your turn is the key to winning Monsoon Market!

May 2014 Sales Report

Transparency time! Here's your monthly update on Smart Play Games' sales performance.

Looks the lack of new strategy game product continued the gradual downward slope from April into May. Dexterity game Ten Pen and game accessory Bird Bucks aren't grabbing attention like I hoped. So, I've been focused on the light strategy game products for which Smart Play Games became known early on.

Those take time to develop properly. Time is in short supply these days. I've been triple-booked on freelance projects the past two months and that shows little sign of changing in the near future. That leaves little time for marketing and buzz-building. But that said, Monsoon Market is still in development.

Development/Sanity Schedule
Mondays are my most productive days for Smart Play Games business, since that is my regular board game night at the local game store. Every Monday night is devoted to playtesting my games, the rest of the day is spent designing and mocking up that night's prototype.

That leaves four days to actually do paying freelance work and the weekend to chillax. Part of the reason I resigned from my former career in the ad business is how little free time I had to just deflate. So I've insisted on keeping weekends devoted to home and family. Freelancer-me is happy with this. Boss-me is annoyed, but understanding.

On the bright side, I've finally learned how to make charts from my spreadsheets so you can see month-to-month performance much more clearly over time.

(That big spike going off the chart was the internal purchase of a bunch of promo cards.)

9x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game -8 from April
6x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) -5 from April
5x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) -503 from April
6x Koi Pond: Moon Temple +1 from April
9x Suspense: the Card Game +2 from April
3x Nine Lives Card Game -2 from April
2x Penny Farthing Catapult -2 from April
5x Regime -1 from April
5x Ten Pen +1 from April
4x Bird Bucks (new!)
$424.09 Gross Sales
$147.33 Earnings

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
801 Products Sold
$2,720.80 Gross Sales
$988.13 Earnings

Yeah, a weak month. Hopefully Monsoon Market's upcoming release will be a boost to sales overall. Cross your fingers. :)

Tips for Editing a Large Rules Paragraph

Back in March, Chris Kirkman shared this photo of a paragraph from the rules of the Capitals:

"In all cases, once Tourists have been awarded and then placed during the Executive Phase, all Tourist Markers remain where they were placed (normally on a Building Tile) until at least the next Tourism Phase. If the Tourists situation, verified at the beginning of this phase, remains unchanged from the previous turn (i.e. the same player that surrendered their Tourist Marker last turn will once again surrender it), the Tourist Markers will remain in the same City, and on the same Building Tile. If a different player's Tourist Marker is to be surrendered, that player removes their Tourist Marker from their City, places it next to the City that has the highest Culture Level. The player who previously surrendered their Tourist Marker may recover it, and place it next to their City. This indicates that they are available to activate any Building Tile during the following Executive Phase. All other players must leave their Tourist Markers lying on their previous Building Tile until the Executive Phase."

Whew! What a mouthful. Clearly this paragraph could've used some more breaks and a section header to make it more digestible. This led to my own brief bit of advice, with further elaboration I'll share now.

  • Avoid embedded clauses. Embedded clauses (or parenthetical examples) mean you're trying to say two or more things at once, when your goal should be to explain one thing at a time, in the most comprehensible order. If you want to describe an example, describe after the rule, not within the rule.
  • "If..." starts a new paragraph or bullet point. "If" is usually part of a whole list of circumstantial game states that may or may not occur, but which are important enough to outline in the main rules. Thus, they should be set apart as a group in their own series of bullets or section of paragraphs. One "if" per chunk. There is some advice out there that recommends replacing "if" with "when," but that's a matter of preference.
  • One sentence ideally equals one line. This is more of a graphic design and typography issue, but I've noticed that any line breaks within a sentence are like a tiny hull breach, waiting to expose your innocent reader to the grim confusing vacuum of space. The more line breaks, the more fractures in your fragile spaceship. So minimize as many breaks as you can by writing shorter, simpler sentences.

There are plenty of other tips out there. In my case, I'd have to really look hard at a paragraph that long and dense to question whether the rule it explains is worth the word count. But assuming it is worth it, then starting with these three tips alone, the paragraph above becomes much more readable.

Moving Tourist Markers
Once Tourists are awarded and placed during the Executive Phase, all Tourist Markers stay in place until at least the next Tourism Phase.
If the Tourists situation remain unchanged from the previous turn, the Tourist Markers remain in the same City, on the same Building Tile. For example, the same player that surrendered his Tourist Marker last turn surrenders it again.
If a different player surrenders her Tourist Marker, she removes her Tourist Marker from her City, places it next to the City that has the highest Culture Level. Then the player who previously surrendered his Tourist Marker may recover it, and place it next to his City. If he does, this indicates he is available to activate any Building Tile during the following Executive Phase.
All other players must leave their Tourist Markers lying on their previous Building Tile until the Executive Phase.

First, I start off with a header that briefly encapsulates the idea that will be presented in this section.

Note the alternating use of gendered pronouns in the third paragraph. When I talk about two or more players in a piece of text, I use alternating pronouns to distinguish them more clearly. In this case, the first player is noted by "she" and the second player by "he."

In all cases, I also switched to a more active voice in the present tense. Instead of "have been," I used "are." This puts the rules in the now, while the pieces and bits are at the table in front of the players.

If you simply must include such a large unbroken paragraph, at least give a short version to start things off. Ken Tidwell gamely provides one here:

If there's no new tourist, leave things as they are. Otherwise, move in the new tourist and send the old one home.

Nice work! For more general rules tips, I really recommend seeing the responses to my original tweet. There is some fine advice there.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.