Wil Wheaton's Review of Belle of the Ball

Wow, so that just happened. Wil Wheaton's been live-tweeting his playtest and selection process for the next season of Tabletop. With so much stiff competition from many great, camera-friendly games I knew it was a long shot for Belle of the Ball to make the cut. I'm just glad Wil enjoyed it and recommended it to his followers.

Go Cards?

Sometimes I come across sketches on my hard drive and I have no idea what I was thinking about designing.

In this case I was clearly in that phase where I was exploring the fact that you could make a 2.5x2.5 tile out of a standard card, with a hanging 1" tab to block off one area. I must have wanted to make some kind of Go or Pente game out of it, but I don't know how that would work.

Is your goal to make a line of five? Perhaps to surround opposing pieces? Maybe it's an area control competition for each column and row?

I remembered what the heck I was thinking about!

The idea is that you're terraforming an alien planet to order. In the process, you're raising big islands, little islands, or leaving certain sectors as empty ocean. Each card has four sectors which may have either of those three features.

Meanwhile, the 1" tab at the bottom of each card determines how many points the line is worth. To be specific, this is the perpendicular line to the card. So in the examples above, on the far right cards, that horizontal row favors few islands, but earns big points for for each.

I recall now how much I loved the criss-crossing area control element of this idea, but was stymied by the volume of iconography required to make each scoring condition readable from across the table. Ah well, worth exploring nonetheless!

Eloquence vs. Elegance: Beyond theme, mechanisms, and components.

Lately I've wondered if I have advocated too strongly for elegance in game design when I really want to see more eloquence. The difference? "Elegance" has, ironically, built up a lot of minimalist dogma around it. It strays from one general design philosophy to design aesthetics. These days, I wonder if "elegance" is the beginning of a strong design, but not necessarily the end.

"Eloquence" in game design allows for abstractions, complexities, and general grit on an otherwise perfectly faceted gem. Think of it as the organic flaws in an perfectly symmetrical rug. A master could have made this rug or game perfectly but where they chose to place those flaws says more about their intent than if it had been absolutely perfect. The trick is knowing where and when to implement "flaws" to best suit your play experience.

That brings us to the classic dilemma of theme, mechanisms, and components and how all three affect the game. I find these discussions rather tiresome because they so often focus on magic-bullet seekers asking "where do you start first?" But some very smart people have been discussing these topics from interesting perspectives, so I thought I'd share a few links here.

  • Post-Colonialism: Bruno Faidutti discusses colonialist and orientalist subtexts in tabletop games, but stops short of a call to action. He observes how often civ- or city-building games imply an uninhabited terrain into which you are expanding. He also points out how games "colonize" the past because it is a convenient pop cultural short-hand, and also because those figures can't defend themselves against misrepresentation.
  • Perspective: Michael Barnes defends Knizia as a master of theme, despite his rep as being more of an abstract designer. To Barnes, that rep mostly comes from Knizia's habit of placing the player's perspective at a distance from the on-the-ground action. Even when you are placed in an individual's POV, Knizia would rather model the decision-making than a punch-by-punch simulation. In this manner, Knizia is just as thematic a designer as anybody, when he chooses to be.
  • History: This recent Extra Credits episode sort of bridges the two articles above, by discussing historical video games. (This is still relevant for tabletop games, as are many of the EC eps.) Here, the EC crew focuses on games which have fetishized the details on swords, standards, and terrain, but abandoned the experience of making decisions as if you were a world leader in the era.

So, if Elegance is about saying as much as possible with as few elements as possible, perhaps Eloquence is about saying what you intend with whatever elements best fit that intent.

Solar Senate is now on DriveThruCards

Solar Senate is now on DriveThruCards!

Humanity is about to join galactic society. You are an alien trying to convince the Solar Senate to ally with your civilization. Influencing humans from interstellar distances, you must rely on sympathetic Senators to convert their comrades. Through cunning manipulation and the occasional political sacrifice, you can win the Solar Senate!



SOLAR SENATE is a 2-player abstract game of spatial strategy and conversion. It's inspired by classic Reversi conversion mechanisms with some extra depth and strategy for modern players.

Find it on DriveThruCards!

SPX: A Great Source of Art Talent for Tabletop Games

(Photo Source)

This weekend we attended the Small Press Expo (SPX), a convention devoted to independent comics creators at every level of the industry. This year was the 20th anniversary of the show and my second year volunteering alongside my wife. She's the real fan of the two of us, with a long-standing love for indie comics and creators.

I came into the fandom a bit late, but it's such a welcoming and vibrant community that I never felt out of place. After weeks of awful news coming from gamer culture, it was such a positive experience at SPX seeing diverse creators and fans in a niche community all supporting each other. It can happen, people! I've seen it!

But I really recommend SPX to tabletop game designers because it is an excellent place to network with lots of undiscovered and rising talent. You can check out the artists I talked to at SPX on my pinterest board here. Specifically for "SPX 2014" tag in the description. Also check out the SPX Tumblr and Twitter feeds for more cool arts.

Now we must sleep off our con crud. See you at SPX next year!

Pupdate Card Game?

Most Saturday mornings, I volunteer at the local animal shelter, socializing puppies so they are more adoptable and family-ready. When I come home, I post pics of the puppies I work with under the hashtag #pupdate on Twitter.

Naturally, I've been asked many times if I'll ever turn the #Pupdate into a card game, but the theme has always been a challenge to me. You may recall I was working on a dog-themed game over a year ago and never fully settled on the theme. Should it be about individual dog training? Should it be about operating the shelter as a whole? In the end, I decided to make it more about "matchmaking," in the sense of finding the right home for a dog.

Here are some ruff outlines of where the game is presently.

It's a trick-taking deck building game. Cards in your hand represent waiting homes eager to adopt a pup. While in your hand, you only look at the suit and rank. You can ignore everything else on the card.

Lay out one card per player on the table, representing puppies who are waiting to be adopted into the best  home. Simultaneously, players reveal a card from their hand and adopt puppies, if able.

From top to bottom: The first puppy goes to the player who reveals the highest red card. The second puppy goes to the player who reveals the highest blue card without going over 5. The third puppy goes to the player who reveals the lowest card, preferring red over blue over orange.

Once you adopt puppies, you can either put them in your hand (representing a happy family referring another family to your services) or into your score pile (representing the overall success of your services). If you take cards into your hand, you must discard extras.

Thus, there is a little bit of a "deck-building" element: A card in hand is useful as a currency while the score pile is actually how you win. Let's take a look at how puppies can score points. You can also try to win puppies because they synergize well with dogs you've already adopted out (or dogs you will put up for adoption later).

From top to bottom: The first puppy scores 1 point for each blue card in your score pile. The second puppy scores points equal to the lowest ranking orange card in your score pile. The third puppy scores 3 points if you have the majority of red cards.

Forgive the crudeness of my sketches. I've been sick with con crud.

Pitch Script: Tabletop Games at Video Game Conventions

This weekend I ran a table at the inaugural tiltEXPO in downtown Durham, primarily a video game show. It's my first experience running my own table for my own card games. I have a bit of experience volunteering at other booths at tabletop conventions or sharing a table at video game conventions, but this was my first solo show. Here was my mental flowchart/script:

"Howdy! Feel free to take a look at any of my card games. I'm running demos all weekend."

Pause for response. If they stick around or ask about anything in particular, proceed to a fast, clear pitch. Direct attention with body language and eye contact. Remember, you're competing with the Smash Bros tournament right next to you:

"Monsoon Market is a fast-paced economic-themed game where you're trying to get rich fast. Magic players like it because there is a lot of opportunistic combo play." (Add a line about the historical context if they seem interested.)

"Koi Pond is a competitive game where your interaction is more "passive" aggressive. (This usually gets a laugh.) You have simple choices but tough decisions as you manage your resources and gauge your opponent's strategy."

"Light Rail is a colorful path-building game where you're making the transit lines in a futuristic city. It's very popular with mixed groups of casual players just getting into tabletop."

"Ah, SUSPENSE is a special one. It's only 13 cards but it's actually my most challenging game. Hardcore gamers love it for the fast, fierce bluffing and deduction." (This was the easiest sell of the con and I should have brought more copies.)

Pause for response between each pitch or proceed to the next. If they look uninterested, offer an easy and friendly exit:

"And I have plenty more games always available on my site at SmartPlayGames.com. Here's a card! Come back any time!"

If they express interest, offer a seat and run a quick demo. Emphasis on quick, under 2 minutes. Have the table already set up for a mid-game example to cover the important ideas of play. Close with the following:

"And that's it! Like all my games, ____ is designed to be very easy to teach and learn, but there is always a deeper strategy underneath so you get lots of replay value."

If a game was out of stock, I'd offer a discount code for online orders. Otherwise...

"Yes, accept credit cards! Come back any time if you want a more thorough tutorial. I also have video tutorials on youtube."

I repeated this script many times over the weekend until my voice was pretty much shot by Sunday, but I did manage to sell out of Suspense and Monsoon Market, and almost sell out of Koi Pond and Light Rail. Overall I'd call it a successful debut!

The Stack: A Game Design Exercise

I've never been one to set myself a goal of making some huge, groundbreaking new mechanism. Instead, I like to tease out bits of mechanical data from a small set of interactions and components. So, I posted this little thought-experiment on Twitter:

How much game information can you derive from a stack of colored chips?

Check out the Twitter responses here. Some really clever stuff that I didn't think of originally, like diversity of colors in the stack, size of an individual run, and certain Poker-style combos. What comes to mind for you?

Solar Senate Rules Preview

It's done! Almost! SOLAR SENATE is just about ready to go to print, it just needs one last quick pass from the hivemind to hunt down any typos that strayed past me. I appreciate any time you can spare to read through these few rules cards and tell me if anything is unclear or flagrantly misspelled. You can download the SOLAR SENATE rules PDF here. Thanks!

August 2014 Sales Report

Every month, I share my print-on-demand sales numbers so you can keep track of my year long experiment releasing one new game each month of 2014.

The Bad News, Good News
This was an odd month because it's the first this year in which my freelance obligations forced me to miss a release deadline. I also incurred some steep expenses hiring an artist for a future release and ordering inventory for the upcoming local convention tiltEXPO.

However, these unfortunate setbacks were greatly mitigated by the joint promotional push by DriveThruCards at Gen Con and me from home on social media. On top of that, the Chinese edition of Koi Pond is far into production and the Brazilian edition of Light Rail is quickly gaining steam.

Let's look at the numbers!

Two MVPs Carry the Team
You recall last month how my skepticism about promotions was totally thwomped, right? Well, consider it double-thwomped because August performed very well. All credit to DriveThruCards' aggressive 25% discount code. In the numbers below, you'll have to disregard my own purchases, which do figure into the sales numbers but not into the earnings numbers.

The top sellers this month were easily Light Rail and Monsoon Market, both showed significant growth while the rest of the catalog dropped a bit. I suspect Light Rail's small price point and low card count helped it become an impulse buy. It may have been an add-on purchase for anyone who bought Monsoon Market or Koi Pond to save on shipping.

6x Bird Bucks +1
34x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game -4
15x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) -12
16x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) -16
24x Koi Pond: Moon Temple -8
65x Light Rail +42
39x Monsoon Market +19
4x Nine Lives Card Game -9
3x Penny Farthing Catapult -6
13x Regime -1
18x Suspense: the Card Game -9 
3x Ten Pen -5

228 Total Sold
$1,869.86 Gross Sales
$478.98 Earnings

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
1454 Products Sold
$7,781.81 Gross Sales
$2,283.29 Earnings

Next month will see the release of Solar Senate, closely followed by Kigi so I can get back on schedule. Hopefully the good times continue!

(Photo: Ashley Humphries)
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.