Graphic Design and Tabletop Prototypes - Q&A at UnPub 5

Many thanks to theOneTar for recording my short talk at UnPub 5, which you can watch in the video above. I must admit I was a bit nervous about this talk since I was prepping A La Kart at the same time as I was prepping this presentation.

I decided to err on the side of brevity, focusing on establishing a quick baseline of best practices for typography and graphic design. With that, I could then proceed to a direct Q&A so the time could be more useful for the mixed audience.

Hopefully you find this useful!

A La Kart - Open Call for March Beta Testers

A La Kart is ready for open playtests! A La Kart captures the fast-paced tactical fun of kart racing video games in a short strategy card game. Here's a quick description of the game and what I need from playtesters.

The Game

Players collect tasty power-ups, modify their engine, and win trophies across three courses of food-themed racing action. This playtest pack will have enough cards for 2-4 players.

Each player has their own preconstructed deck of 12 cards, tailored to a unique play style. Sugar, Spice, Fish, and Chips will be in the first playtest pack.
  • Sugar stays in the middle of the pack, letting other reckless racers hit hazards first so she can pick up what they drop.
  • Spice doesn't mind those hazards, she's driving full throttle all the way to claim top trophies. 
  • Fish is the planner, diving deep into a decision-tree to find exactly the right maneuver at the right time.
  • Chips is the wrecker, sacrificing speed for maximum impact. Who needs to be fastest when you're the last one driving?

Each pair of racers also comes with its own set of track cards, which can be standalone for two players or shuffled together for three or more players. The first playtest pack will include Sundae Speedway and The Autobun.
  • Sundae Speedway: Collect chocolate, vanilla, strawberry to earn points. If you get a neapolitan set, you get extra points! Delicious!
  • The Autobun: Collect sandwich toppings to make a big sandwich! But watch out, you might spend all your time getting toppings but forget to get any bread!

Want to playtest?

If you and a few friends can commit to playtesting A La Kart before March 31, 2015,
I'll send you a PDF in about a week. If you like, I can add you to a mailing list for A La Kart playtesters to share their thoughts with each other. The mailing list is entirely optional, but it'll be nice for playtesters to share their experiences.

Hope to hear from you soon!

(Original Art and animated GIF by Kaitlynn Peavler)

Fandom of Games

Doctor the Fourth
Just some idle thoughts about the overlaps between fandom and tabletop games.

House Rules = Headcanon
Both are individual interpretations for how the source material is meant to operate, without much support from the source material itself.

Make-Your-Own Cards = Fan Fiction
The blank cards and tiles that come with some games are an open invitation for you to play around in the same universe.

Games with "Mandatory" Expansions = One True Pairing
There are a few games I'll most enjoy if they include a particular expansion, like Traders & Builders in Carcassonne. (Or should that be "TradersxBuilders"?)

Bending and Reinforcing Game Design around Player Intuition

I ran into two situations in A La Kart playtests where player intuition conflicted with how the game actually worked. In one case, I'm flexing to that intuition and redesigning a mechanic to correspond to that instinct. In another case, I'm standing my ground and keeping the mechanic the same

Case 1: All that junk in my trunk
When you play a card in A La Kart, any of its immediate effects are resolved in ascending order of speed, then you claim rewards in descending order of speed. Once all this is done, you "install" this card into your "engine," which is a small tableau in front of you. Consider this something like the battlefield in Magic or Hearthstone.

Cards in your engine may have ongoing effects or boost the power of future effects. For example, a card's immediate baseline effect might be that you will get a speed boost while claiming rewards this turn. As a bonus, if have other cards with a particular maneuver already in your engine, you get an even bigger speed boost.

When you install a new card into your engine, you may "junk" an old card to the discard pile and replace it with your new one. Your engine only has room for four cards, so once it's full you must start junking at that point. This engine is the heart of the game and how I've given a 12-card deck a deep decision-tree. There was one question that kept coming up, though. 

FAQ: Can I junk the card I played this turn or do I have to install it and junk an old card from my engine?
Answer: Throughout the playtests, my response was that you do have to install the card you played this turn. This made some interesting dilemmas as some players had to sacrifice helpful cards and carefully time which cards they played and when. However, it was often just a stumbling block in learning the game since in most card games you can just discard immediately.
I'm going to test a version of the game where you can junk a card on the same turn, just to see if it really changes the game that much. I doubt it will, and more than likely I'll bend to player-intuition here.

If frequently I answer "no" to a procedural question, it's usually best to say "yes" and design around that instead.

Case 2: Need for speed
As mentioned earlier, players claim rewards in descending order of speed, from highest to lowest. When it is your turn to claim a reward, you simply take the first available card from the track. You do not get a choice. That means sometimes your "reward" will in fact be a hazard. (Presently, the only effect hazards have is that whoever has the fewest in their collection at the end of the game gets bonus victory points.)

The various rewards on the track are randomly laid out and visible ahead of time, so you at least know what's coming ahead before you decide to play your card. Sometimes you want a low speed in order to dodge a hazard that's immediately in front of you. Sometimes you want a high speed if the first reward would help you complete a scoring set. It varies each turn.

One last note, for context: The fourth and final turn of each lap is a pure straightaway without hazards. It is simply a trophy worth a flat set of points and is awarded to whoever plays the top speed. No other rewards for anyone else. In this case, having high speed is pretty much the easiest choice, but the preceding turns may have depleted your fastest cards from your hand.

FAQ: Why can't speed be a drafting order, so I get my pick of the available rewards? It doesn't make sense that I'd want to go slow in a racing game.
Answer: I think this is another one of the hang-ups of using a quasi-racing theme when in fact the game really models something like a Gymkhana motorcross. It isn't just about speed, but about nimbly dodging hazardous curves and dangerous opponents. Sometimes that does mean slowing down a little so another driver can be the first to hit the hazard while you slide on by. (Luigi death stare optional.)

More than that, this "first come, first served" style of claiming rewards gives very high and very low speed cards utility based on the conditions for that turn. If players could draft their picks, then low speed cards inevitably get the most hazards. That compounds the benefits for high-speed drivers since they'll get rewards during the main sections of the course and the final straightaway.

Sometimes complaints about game mechanics come from the theme not being presented well enough as a learning device.

So that's where I'm at right now on both these issues. I'm bending to the first, resisting the second. Hope that's the right move!

Choice and Time: When do negative points work in games?


One of the best lessons from UnPub 5 is how difficult it is to make negative point scoring feel right. Negative Point Scoring is pretty much what it sounds like: A mechanism in which players can lose points and possibly end up in negative range at the end of the game. Let me back up a bit to give you some background on A La Kart:

Hazards in A La Kart
Each turn, players make a blind bid of one card. The player who bids the highest "speed" number on their card (after various modifiers based on player-powers) wins the first available prize from the track. Bear in mind that the prize cards are set in the track randomly, so the first available prizes might actually be detrimental hazards.

Originally, my system for scoring hazards was that the first didn't cost anything, but the second cost one point, and the third cost two. The fourth hazard began a new set, so it didn't cost you anything, but the fifth would cost another point and the sixth would cost another two. Because each player only scores one prize each turn, and there were a total of twelve turns, that meant hazards felt especially punishing.

Players were disengaging as they saw their score fall ever deeper into a seemingly insurmountable debt. It just wasn't fun.

Not Scoring Feels Bad Enough

Thanks to some input from Jeremy Commandeur, I realized that simply missing an opportunity to score was bad enough. There was no need to compound that missed opportunity with further punishment. All it did was trigger a player's loss-aversion instinct and overall give players a sour taste for the game.

Because players had to take the next available card, they sometimes would accidentally stumble into hazards. I didn't give them enough control or time to avoid piling up a big stack of negative points. It just wasn't the right fit for the gameplay. So I removed negative points.

The next day, I decided hazards wouldn't cost any negative points at all. Instead, having the fewest hazards at the end of the game would give you a bonus of 5 points. Playtests with this system came out far better. Players were not as dismayed at taking hazards as much since it didn't technically cost them anything as long as they still had the fewest in the group.

This was my lesson from those playtests...

Give players the CHOICE whether to risk going negative.
Then give players enough TIME to mitigate that risk.

In Scoundrels of Skullport, you can avoid corruption as much as possible and come out ahead. What's more, you can take just a little bit of corruption while planning to buy it off with helpful quests and intrigue cards. You could still come away with less steep a penalty than opponents who wallowed in the underworlds.

In Ticket to Ride, you might score negative points if you don't complete a ticket, but you decide whether to keep that ticket in the first place and can spend the entire game making sure it's worthwhile. You don't have to take any more tickets than you initially got in the setup, but you are quite free to take that risk if you're feeling confident.

In Coloretto, you score positive points for your three largest sets of cards while scoring negative points for any other sets. Because the scoring is based on triangular numbers, you'll always end the game with positive points and have several opportunities to avoid collecting sets of cards you don't want.

Negative points are fine, as long as players know they're making that risky deal and they have enough time to offset those costs. Those two in combination make a fun decision and an opportunity for players to feel clever. That's a win/win to me.

A La Kart: An UnPub 5 Recap

Well, I'm back on Earth after attending UnPub 5. With record attendance and a huge new location, it's clearly a new era for the convention as a whole. I found it a rewarding, invigorating, and exhausting experience as always.

There is no better place to be if you're a board game designer looking to put your game through the crucible of rapid-fire playtesting. Every single table was occupied throughout the weekend from what I could see. Many with lines of people waiting to playtest. If you've ever lamented the task of finding willing playtesters, UnPub is pretty much heaven.

Of course, playtests are very much work for the designer. I've described the UnPub weekend as a rock tumbler, where rough games eventually get smoothed out, but not without some hard hits along the way. I had done some intensive development work with the local Game Designers of Carolina before UnPub so I felt more prepared, but there was still plenty of work to do.

There is a lot to recap so I'll mostly focus on A La Kart here.

After a long travel day on Thursday, it was great to finally meet up with people mid-day on Friday. I spent a lot of it rehearsing for my talk on graphic design in tabletop prototypes. I hope that talk was useful to the attending designers. I felt like I pretty much stumbled through it, but throughout the weekend people were complimenting it. We're our own worst critics, I suppose.

With that done, there was a follow-up panel with a number of game manufacturers, publishers, designers, and retailers. It was a great mix and offered some very good lessons for new designers.

I really wanted to stick around for the panel with Mike Fitzgerald and Richard Launius, but a group came up asking me to teach them A La Kart. This is where I introduced the gimmick of making car noises once you've selected a card and put it down. This is an entirely fluffy element of the game, but really puts pressure on any AP-prone players to just make a decision and be done with it.

After that first session, another group came up to my table right after that first group was done. It went well, too. By the time I looked up, it was already time for the big designer dinner!

You can see how that dinner turned out in theONEtar's Day One vlog here! It's a very intriguing little logic puzzle she's developed there.

A few early playtests on Friday and Saturday morning revealed some early stumbling blocks. In my effort to make the first set of cards (Sugar and Spice) an introduction to overall mechanics of the entire game line, it meant there was quite a learning curve for what at first glance looks like a light game.

I settled into a routine of explaining the premise of the game and getting past the first two turns as quickly as possible. I tried to re-assure testers that I would explain key mechanics along the way. For the most part, we covered all critical information by the end of the second turn, about ten minutes into the test. Overall, each session was only about 30 minutes and players were handling things on their own with a minimum of fuss by the end of the game.

Still, this method of instruction doesn't satisfy everyone. I could tell some players prefer to know the entirety of a game before making their first decision. I suspected that comes from a worry about making a poor choice based on incomplete information. I'm no mind-reader though, so who knows? I did always try to emphasize that everyone is learning the game together and that it'll make sense after two turns.

By Saturday night, I spotted all the stumbling blocks that were making the learning experience a bit of a hassle. I closed out the a little despondent after a very rough final playtest that I had to call early when half the group had clearly become disengaged. My score's across the board were 3/5, which felt really bad compared to Belle of the Ball's great scores from UnPub 3.

The next morning, I made a bunch of small revisions which I describe in the following tweets:

I also capped all playtests to four players with Sugar, Spice, Fish, and Chips. I made several pasted-on edits to the cards for each character as you cans see above. After some revision, these four characters were simple enough to explain and play, so much so that I had a few repeat playtesters! Each session's testers had at least one person enthusiastically suggesting new powers and mechanics for custom racers. Over all, those 2-4 player sessions just sang.

As for the other two characters, Mac and Cheese were slowing down the games too much and I was spending a lot of time guiding players through their peculiar powers rather than shepherding the game as a whole. I realized need to frame that pair as sort of an "advanced" set of cards once players are more familiar with the basic mechanics. I made it a habit of closing out playtest sessions by enticing players with a brief description of how Mac and Cheese play. With a tutorial done, playtesters seemed much more excited about those possibilities.

Sunday closed out with my first opportunity to play other designers' games, including Elizabeth Hargraves's Bird World, Steve Caires' SmashWords, and Jeremy Commandeur's Pass the Paint.

It was also my birthday, which I totally forgot about until about mid-day. I had a lovely dinner with some folks I follow on Twitter and hung out at the after-hours conference room for some late night gaming.


So that's the meat of it! Plenty of stuff I haven't even touched on yet, but I'm sure this weekend will feed me with enough experience to write blog posts all month. In the mean time, watch the #unpub and #unpub5 hashtags on twitter! :D

Heir to Europa at UnPub5

Check out these cards and promo art for Nick Ferris' HEIR TO EUROPA, which will be up for playtesting at UnPub 5 this weekend in Baltimore. This is the first licensed game for Smart Play Games and a really exciting start to the year. I hope to see you at UnPub! Here's more about the game.

In a distant future, psychic powers make warfare obsolete across Europa... Until the ruler of disappears, plunging the entire moon into a succession crisis.

Psychic scheming meets courtly intrigue in this exciting new card game of prediction and influence. Players vie to become the power behind the throne, predicting who is next in line to become ruler of Europa and manipulating the court to make those predictions come true.

At the start of the game, players predict how many coteries they'll win to their side. Each turn, you play one card from your hand, representing your soliciting help from a political ally. If that ally has a special ability and their faction is still loyal, you may activate that special ability as well. Each time a faction comes into play, its loyalty lowers by one. You must decide when it's best to play a lower value card to use an ability while you still can.

It's a really fun spin on standard trick-taking. The game itself is 48 cards, plays in around 20 minutes, for 2-4 players aged 10 and up. Expect more from EUROPA in the coming year.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.