Trends in Boardgames #2 – Exclusivity/Promos

After a lively discussion via the twitterverse with the respectable Jonathan Liu of GeekDad infamy, it got me thinking about boardgames and projects with exclusive content and components. This in turn led to thinking of their cousin, promos, which happens to coincidentally be part of the topic of discussion on #BoardGameHour this week. Disclaimer: This was written prior to those questions being posted (so you don’t think this is just a rehash of answers to them).


Against my inner nature, I found myself nodding along with Tom Vassal this week. Promos for boardgames are great. I love promos. I have hate-envy for promos that I can never get my hands on. I don’t think that his discussion of this topic was completely spur-of-the-moment, however. This topic stems from the recent Tabletop Day promo event/fiasco, depending on what side of the line you fall.

In case you weren’t aware, exclusive Dead of Winter promos and game-sets are being scalped like Myth Captain KS sets before the fall. This is not to mention other personal accounts of FLGS stores absconding with said product like Gollum with the One Ring, or not even getting the reported number of said promos supposed to be guaranteed in the kits. But as our reassuring overlords will say, don’t worry, because they’ve made up with it by giving extra Fluxx packets!!!


The former of these appropriations is a lesser offense (in my mind) because at least the argument can be made that these costly kits are a large line item in stores with an already cutthroat profit margin. FLGS and their owners could use them to offset the kit price point. I think most gamers could at least partially sympathize with this mindset.

The later of the two, however, is what I believe to be a failure of a different proportion.


Let’s play pretend. You’re promoting yourself as a national, nay, international brand & event and tell paying supporters that something they’re buying contains a certain number of items, so naturally you would expect that to be true and have them deliver on said agreement. False promises or god forbid, pulling a bait and switch on your consumer, doesn’t ingratiate yourself with them. In fact, it’s a prime way to alienate that base that has supported you most recently to the point of…cough…seven figures worth of crowdsourcing to keep you afloat. You can’t expect us to be Hodors when it comes to these things. It’s also not to say we’d stop supporting because we all know mistakes happen.

Not that this is the only time for concern with this type of content, but probably the most recent and most vocal due to growth of the online social media presence in the boardgame industry. Regardless your poison, be it a quick scamming scanning of either Ebay or BoardGameGeek auctions in search of these white whales (i.e King of Tokyo’s or Sentinels of the Multiverse promos), it makes you feel like you’re chasing boardgame unicorns unless you’re Scrooge McDuck.


Again, I clearly am not against the use of this type of content, but especially now with the boardgame Kickstarter (e)revolution, they have (at times) served to potentiate, instead of alleviate, the exasperation of gamers for these situations. I love the idea of additional elements, celebrity based or otherwise, to add small content to games I’m in love with. I’d love to debate the idea of the extent and ability to which said promos can and should affect balance/gameplay, but I’ll save that for another time.

I’m NOT in love with the idea of having to pay a scalper 10x retail price to obtain these separately from the base product. Similarly, I have difficulty pre-ordering, regardless of venue (Kickstarter or retail), on a boardgame un-played to obtain the additional product; which in turn ultimately leads to missing out on them in this situation.


However, I don’t resent companies or designers who do this. It’s a business strategy that works. It drives sales, whether you like it or not. If it didn’t pay for a company to model things this way, they wouldn’t. The fact remains that it has become more of the norm than not on Kickstarter speaks to this concept. Even the guys at larger companies like Plaid Hate Games are doing it with their pre-orders. But taking a step back from the “hotness” hysteria, Tom’s approach for the idea is right: designated semi-exclusivity to make the point of having them available in the future to those of us who are willing to pay REASONABLY for the additional content.

What do you guys think? How much is too much? What are you willing to put up with or even fork out to get these types of items?

By |April 20th, 2015|Article|3 Comments

A Recipe for a Wizards Academy – A Guest Post by Gregory Carslaw

BoxArt Imagine for a moment that you are a multiclass thief-chef. You can create a dish to make a statue drool and steal its shoes in one smooth motion. The world is such that only the most legendary chefs can generate their own ingredients (and even then only rarely) so each night you slip into the shadows hoping to obtain the perfect spice for your next dish.

One day, while raiding a pantry the lights flick on and you are caught. A bleary eyed chef spies you raiding her cupboard and her jaw sets. She shakes her head in disappointment and disapproval. “How dare you steal those herbs.” she spits, advancing on you “They won’t combine properly with the spices that you took from next door.” Of course! She’s a chef too and whatever ingredients she has she acquired elsewhere.

And so you talk late into the night about theft and cooking and capers and ideas and meals, in the morning you leave with a bundle of herbs and spices under your arm and her best wishes that your larcenous meal succeed.

This is broadly how it feels to be a game designer.

New designers are always excited to try to come up with new mechanics, but the truth is that it’s exceptionally rare to do so. I think that I may have seen it done exactly twice in my life time. The skill in design is more about combining existing ideas in new ways. Whether we’re aware of them or not, the games we’ve played influence our designs and despite each game being an original creation they each owe something to the games that have come before, right back to the first person who decided that knucklebones roll kinda funny and maybe we should carve some numbers into them. In the run up to getting ready to launch my new game, Wizard’s Academy, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on some of the cooperative games that I’ve played and the things that they’ve inspired me to do in my own design.

Lord of the Rings – Losing is fun

The first cooperative game I ever played was Lord of the Rings and it was brutal. I’d meet with Ben (who owned it) every few weeks or so. We must have played dozens of games and I’m not sure if we ever won. I’m not sure if the game was hard or if we were just inexperienced back then, but that’s beside the point. We lost over and over again and kept coming back. “Maybe this time. Maybe this will be the time we finally win.” It’s a feeling that added something to the game that can’t be captured by all players in a competitive game.

3D Total NyvettaIt was obvious from early playtests that Wizard’s Academy was at its best when everything was going wrong. Players became animated as more of the building caught fire and revelled in just how bad the situation had gotten (and whispered that perhaps they could pull it back). Doing a bit of digging and light survey work I came to the conclusion that people seem to enjoy coops that they lose approximately 70% of the time and that the feeling of pulling things back from the brink of disaster is important – so the game is balanced towards this. Of course different groups have different levels of skill (and tolerances for failure) so each scenario has an easy, normal and hard setting and some are harder than others to begin with – as of this moment there is one scenario that has never successfully been completed on hard.

Shadows over Camelot – Talkers gonna talk

Shadows isn’t strictly a cooperative game, there’s a chance for there to be a traitor, but when I first came across this I played with small groups so as often as not we didn’t have one to contend with. In Shadows you can’t tell anyone what’s in your hand, but that allows you to talk about it in vague terms. The problem is that the cards are numbered 1 to 5 and most people appear to believe that “I’ve got a high card, but it’s not as high as it could be.” isn’t the same as “I’ve got a four.” Regardless of the game, it seems that if players want to communicate something, they’ll find a way, even if they’re forced to resort to elaborate charades.

There’s a reason that cooperative game designers want to limit information to certain players: Coops quickly fall apart when one player decides they’re the brains of the operation and starts giving all of the other players orders about how to play successfully. For Wizard’s Academy I started with the assumption that players will communicate what they know and tried to find ways to stop a single player dominating from that standpoint. I was a psychologist before I was a game designer and there are limits to what the human brain is capable of, so I designed elements of the game to make it more efficient to split planning and reasoning tasks between players rather than trying to give all of the information to the player who thinks they’re the smartest to solve. I could write a whole article on just this, but I’d summarise by saying that overloading working memory is not a perfect solution but overall the playtest results have been very positive and the game generates an above average amount of collaborative decision making.

Sentinel’s of the Multiverse – Sometimes people die.

When I was first introduced to Sentinel’s one of the things that I liked was how it attempted to deal with dead players. If you want a game to have an element of risk, then the consequence for defeat must be meaningful, but you don’t want to have to eliminate a player or push them into a position where their decisions have no impact on the game. Sentinel’s deals with this by having players that die being knocked down and still getting to choose to supply some small but important bonus to their allies each turn. It doesn’t always work but it seems like a good direction to push failure in cooperative games.

Self-immolation is a core concept for Wizard’s Academy, a game in which you can’t set fire to yourself isn’t about magical experimentation. The answer to “what to do with players who make fatal mistakes” turned out to double as the answer for “what to do if the game becomes unplayable but hasn’t hit an end condition”. The mana crystal starts with a pool of mana tokens and whenever a player is killed it burns one to save them. They can also be discarded to solve other problems, by killing threats or rotating rooms, but once they run out the power holding up the building is gone and it collapses to a pile of rubble around you. Every player is in until the end and every problem is solvable – but each mistake brings the group closer to a collective defeat.

Space Alert – Theme changes everything.

I fell in love with Space Alert the first time I’ve played it, I know real time games aren’t for everyone, but it was delightful to me. Generally I’m a mechanics first kind of a guy, but there are so many times that my enjoyment of Space Alert has come down to its theme. There is a huge difference in the emotional reaction to “I put the wrong card down two turns ago and so now my new card won’t work.” and “I’m standing in the interceptor room hammering the launch button again and again with my balled fist, but all that’s happening is that the robots are in the next room looking at me quizzically because I forgot to activate them.”

Game 1This sort of piggybacking is great for helping players to learn rules too. It’s hard to remember that a klark will eliminate a blarglargh if they’re in the same room – but nobody has trouble grasping that you should remove fire tokens from rooms that are underwater. I knew that I wanted a lot of interacting elements so that players can go through the game in the style of the old lady who swallowed a fly. Thematic interactions make the game learnable and playable. If I told you that the game contains fire, water, ice, imps, trolls and demons you could make some educated guesses about how most of those elements interact and the rules can fill in the blanks, allowing for a greater amount of depth from a lesser level of complexity.

Pandemic – Some people just want to watch the world burn

I think that one of the reasons that Pandemic has been such a huge success is that with a very limited set of components it does a very good job of visually displaying how bad the situation is. The visual of a pile of disease cubes scattered across a recognisable map of the Earth is very powerful and “more cubes = more bad” is comfortably inside even the most unimaginative person’s comfort zone. If players thrive on being in a losing position and clawing their way back from the brink of defeat, then the more obviously, immediately and viscerally a game tells them that they’re in a losing position the better.
It’s difficult to playtest for this sort of effect, because what I really need is for unrelated strangers to walk past, glance and the board and say “You guys are stuffed! How did you manage to set the library on fire and freeze the hoard into a solid block of ice in the same game?” Elements have proven pretty successful in this regard, when there are fire tokens everywhere it’s pretty obvious how bad that is. Enemies can be more subtle, as they are less numerous and do not replicate themselves so quickly (conversely, a big fire grows faster than a small fire) but using miniatures to represent them has been a huge visual boost.
Dr. Gregory Carslaw is the lead game designer at 3D Total. He blogs about game design at 3dtotalgames.com. His current game “Wizards Academy” is on Kickstarter now.

By |March 28th, 2015|Article|Comments Off on A Recipe for a Wizards Academy – A Guest Post by Gregory Carslaw

Cult of the New in Board Games

Cult of the New (COTN) in the Board Game world!

Big week on Kickstarter with the recent launch of several high expectation campaigns. The current successful theme seems to be projects continuing to hit specific niches within the board game community.

CROM!!!

Conan: Going on strong over a week into the campaign, already easily surpassing the $1.1 million dollar mark and escaping the gravity of the plateau/lull between opening and closing days that many high funded projects seem hit. Definitely strumming the strings of the nostalgic license market and two million doesn’t seem to be out of the question. More focus/scrutiny has come on the stretch goals with concerns about shipping/additional scenarios but that hasn’t slowed backers.

Tiny Epic Galaxies: Another multi-hundred thousand dollar hit from Gamelyn Games, emphasizing again their Tiny (pocket) empire as their corner of the market. Definitely continuing to strike while the iron is hot especially with end of year 2014 awards give more accolade to Tiny Epic Kingdoms. Not having played the game yet, is over 30 type of one card (planets) now achieved by stretch goal too much, not enough, or just right?

Cheesey puff colored explosions!

Exploding Kittens: The surprise of the week in the online community and not without its detractors or concerned citizens. The Oatmeal has marketed and manipulated its fan base into support this card game to heights that no other card game has been able to reach, however you feel about the game itself. Plus, who doesn’t like being able to put “NSFW” in their Kickstarter?

D&D character sheet in a deck

Epic PvP: Fantasy: It’s a game that takes character creation and melds it with deck building. Definitely going after the RPG market in the tabletop/boardgame world. Not overcomplicating it and adding decks with stretch goals, but I feel spoiled by other games and wish there were more decks being added for the price point. 5th edition what? (**Boston Globe article highlighting D&D’s resurgence due to increasing diversity)

Dice Dice Tower’ed

The Dice Tower 2015 Season 11: Overshadowed by the timing of the launches of the previously mentioned wallet-eaters, it has still managed to hit $160K+ as it nears closing time. Heavily promo based rewards with an arguably too high price point ($60 for one set), but the span of their reach to get as many from so many different games is impressive nevertheless.

Cones of Dun(ce)shire: A funding debacle from the usual sense, hitting at only 14% currently of their supposed paltry $300K goal. While I’m all for satire, I wonder how thought out this (alleged) PR stunt was.

Suppose you make even a semi-reasonable level for backers to buy the game combined with a reachable realistic funding goal. Mayfair and et al got their 15 minutes in the sun from this campaign from the Parks and Rec base and the mainstream media, but could they have managed to milk it for even more with a campaign that was actually designed to succeed?

Even with a limited supply, the thought behind this could be to create “grassroots-like” demand for a product on a show that likely could become revered about like Freaks and Geeks or even Community; one never given enough support by the parent company and critically acclaimed but never achieving mainstream popularity. Analyze the now success of shows like Firefly, Veronica Mars, etc. that now have a swelling resurgence within the next wave of consumers post cancellation. Why not play more to that strength instead and burn like a candle instead of a sparkler only to flame out quickly?

GAMING RELATED :

•With new BoardGameTables now coming to the dance with gaming tables at a price more can afford, how will this affect the perceived stranglehold GeekChic has on that corner of the market? Starting at roughly 1/3 the $price$ has to open some eyes to an alternative one would think…

COTN Question: How do you feel about incorporating board games + technology?

First was the innovation from Kickstarter funded Golem Arcana’s. With subsequent launches of big titles like Alchemists and X-COM (app based?) and their incorporation of apps/tech, which way will this trend go? Is this the evolution of where games are going to take us?

There’s been talk and discussion about why the “golden age of board games” is upon us; highlighted by the fact that people are trying to disconnect from the technology and reconnect in person in a culture that has rampantly diminished or destroyed our attention span (cell phones at stop lights anyone?). I know that some game groups even go as far as banning phones during game times. Your thoughts?

Specter Ops from Plaid Hat Games
-Potential hybrid of Letters from Whitechapel and Fury of Dracula from the recent hit publishers.

XCOM: The Board Game from FFG
-Based off the critically acclaimed video game series, will it be the crossover often desired but too infrequently capitalized upon?

Predictions? What do you think the next COTN games will be around the community? What am I missing?

Next issue I’ll hope to have a meta (re)view at the board game community’s 2014 games of the year selections.

By |January 24th, 2015|Article, Issue, Kickstarter Spotlight, Week in Review|Comments Off on Cult of the New in Board Games

Board Game Media Circus #1

I’m going to be trying out something new with this article, based off of a weekly sports article in my reading bin by Richard Deitsch over at Sports Illustrated who does a sports based media version.

Because like they say: “Who reviews the reviewers?”or something like that I think…

This article is geared towards a loosely mottled collection of topics including review of big trends, noteworthy contributions, news, and just plain interesting quality work from the past week or so in the world of board gaming and its enveloping media coverage. I hope to be able to do this on a somewhat regular basis even though I know that people have an oversaturation of information out there clogging up their feeds, but I hope to be able to highlight the bigger (or smaller and perhaps overlooked) comings and goings of the community and provide some color commentary to go along with it.

As a plus side, I’ll throw a few non-board game related links in at the end to spice it up so we all can feel smarter at the watercooler.

1a. Over at Board Game Geek, the hotness list accurately reflects the chatter than reviewers have been putting out. As of writing this, Plaid Hat Games’ Dead of Winter along with Days of Wonder’s Five Tribes are both in the top seven, and haven’t shown signs of slowing down yet. The impression of the community for the former has been as welcoming as any game of recent promotion or release.

1b. Let’s see how other big name releases, like:

D&D Attack Wing
King of New York
Machi Koro
Sheriff of Nottingham
Castles of a Mad King Ludwig
**insert your suggestion/nomination here fellas and ladies**

…fair in comparison over the course of the next couple months. Like Five Tribes, which may not have received as much fanfare prior to release, it’s always interesting to see what game (i.e. Star Realms, Splenor) relatively unexpectedly captures the community next by storm, regardless the size of the publisher.

1c.The later, Tribes, has some split in opinion, including the maestros over at Shut Up and Sit Down about it’s ability to be more than a…pile of cardboard rainbow emesis strewn about on a table (to paraphrase their thoughts somewhat slightly more eloquently).

1d. Esoteric Order of Gamers: while the name may not portray it’s content or usefulness, the product – concise rules/summary information for tableside use while navigating board games, is quite that. The latest includes the previously mentioned Dead of Winter, as well as the recently resurgent deck building Arctic Scavengers.

2a. The season of the German Grand Slam of Board Gaming, Essen Spiel, is upon us. Spiel, in the town of Essen, Germany, is host to a game fair including previewing, selling, publishers, designers and artists alike. Upwards of 150,000 are expected to wallow in those halls over the 4 day span of October 16-19.

The lucky few among the community are allowing us to live it through their eyes and cardboard hankerings as the rest of us get to salivate over what we’ll likely wait months for instead. The guys over at Board with Life offered up their most anticipated games of the show this year and is worth view if you’re looking for the long story shortened.

2b. If you’re looking for a particular game or are a completionist, check out the list that BGG user W Eric Martin has put together. With 22 pages and 567 items listed so far, it gives you a small glimpse into the enormity it must be if you were there in person to take it all in.

3. One of (my personally) most anticipated games from the early Kickstarter season of 2014, Arcadia Quest, is slowly traversing the pneumatic tube system of life, or postal system as well call it over here. Put out by the folks at Cool Mini Or Not, the Big Guys of Board Gaming (or BGBG as I’ll refer to them) are starting to get it to the table and Rodney (who needs a good nickname) from Watch It Played has his usual high production quality videos up and this one is so large it requires 3 parts to give you all the goodness.

4a. The Lagoon, Land of Druids review by the Tom Vassal of the Dice Tower (another one of the BGBG) is up. And similar to Five Tribes, the consensus is…that there isn’t a consensus. And this is a good thing. Designing your own game is a lot like testing a new idea out.

As noted by the Harvard Business Review:

“The reason testing is so vital is because it minimizes the investment required to eliminate uncertainty. In so doing, you increase the speed of innovation and decrease the cost of failure.”

And isn’t increasing the speed of innovation and minimizing cost of failure exactly what we’re looking to do in the board game world?

4b. The most interesting part, and the part to stimulate the most discussion, is that he doesn’t like it. To put things mildly, without quoting him, he uses the dreaded “H-word”. And as with influential negative reviews comes controversy. As one of the pillars of the community, agree/like it or not, he has a lot of pull for games they review, positively or negatively. That being said, he clearly states that they game itself is well made and does have multiple compliments for it. Check it out for yourself before weighing in with your own opinion.

4c. The negative review aspect of our industry and community is a topic I hope to explore at a later date in a column. If you have any thoughts, feel free to let me know or contact me with them.

5. I ran across these books a developer/designer needs to read, and although it doesn’t hit our usual geographic area of coverage and was done more for the video game medium, I thought the points retain all the same relevancy. I highlight this especially for the game designers among the crowd. It’s a little heavier reading than Jamie Stonemaier’s Kickstarter advise, but the principles behind it are just as important.

6a. In case you’re going through Wh-eaton withdrawal, the latest blog posting from our Tabletop Godfather is sure to cure what ails you. Our celebrity board game enthusiast has put out a partial listing of the games we’re to see played for Tabletop Season 3. The list found here includes Libertalia, Sushi Go, and Tokaido. No word on when we’ll see the life size Rampage game, maybe that should have been one of their funding stretch goals…

Also mum’s the word on what RPG’s we’ll see with the beyond successful Indigogo campaign but here’s the preliminary candidate list.

6b. Then again, for those looking for a quick laugh, there’s always this too. “Fat Wheaton Burger?”, though I wonder what “Wil Wheaton Seduction” smells like. Maybe a whiff of Trek with a smidgeon of Eureka?

7a. Sultaniya, a game on more outside of my radar, is up for review over at the League of Nonsensical (but totally sensible) Gamers. You may not agree with their decisions but their process is top notch.

7b. More mainstream pick-up via the AV Club who has their own round-up of action that went on at the recently departed Gen Con, including their list of must see games.

7c. Glad to see between this article and the Grantland spotlight on Diplomacy, that the outside world is starting to pick up on the slow moving, albeit miniature juggernaut of board gaming.

8. An interesting look at life in East Germany thru the eyes of a board game, where money means nothing and still can’t buy me love.

9. “Why I don’t let my kids beat me in board games” and why you should care. Poignant topic as we try to get the next generation indoctrinated interested in them.

10. Kotaku, of the Gawker dojo, has a post about the most satisfying board game feelings/moments, from the classic Americana games to some of the more recent Eurostyle, that’s worth getting nostalgic over.

11. Live in the New York area and have an overflowing closet of games that you don’t want or need? If this sounds like you, then maybe you could consider donating to help support our troops.

Outside, in the non-board game world but still worth taking a look at:

Let me know what you guys think of this article and what you’d like to see more or less of in the future. I left a lot out that could have been in here. And feel free to submit things that you think belong. I’m looking…

Trends in Board Games: Kickstarter Bubble?

I’m going to be doing a couple of articles loosely based on the trends that I’ve seen lately in the board game world. This is the first of those and relates to Kickstarter and it’s influence.

Everyone has an opinion or suggestion or thoughts regarding Kickstarter lately, so I thought I’d throw my two cents into the ring as well.

Recent Kickstarter promotions got me thinking, starting with how marketing goes into the success of games, and in this case, how it changes and evolves as their funding period nears the end. My twitter feed blew up with all the tweets regarding Skyway Robbery and the countdown in hours and dollars until it finally hit its funding goal with sparse minutes to spare.

Specifically, buried within those tweets, there had been a comment early in the day that gave rise to this conversation in my head. It was about why another game, perceived to be of (questionable) subpar quality comparatively, had achieved considerably much more financial backing while arguably lacking a significant portion of the major reviewers endorsements and comments (i.e. raved reviews) while the one that had them was limping to the finish line like a sprinter with a torn Achilles.

At first pass, I looked at it like similar to this scenario in another industry; the current TV market. Shows like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory are the most “popular” (by ratings) shows on television the past several years. But are these really the “best” shows on TV? Those seen above could be argued to have much more critical acclaim than their counterparts. Or have they simply used the best combination of marketing with a product that has the broadest and lowest common denominator in terms of likability and used that as an outline to success?

One of the most acclaimed shows in recent memory, Breaking Bad, had an epic, immensely touted, could not miss grand series finale on AMC that had a total of…drumroll please:

10.3 million people watch.

AVERAGE # people watching NCIS during 2013-14 season:

18.51 million (19.7 depending on the source)/(22.4 million w/DVR included)

Just so it doesn’t make it look like I’m totally skewing the data, according to this chart shows like “Mike and Molly” and “2 Broke Girls” both averaged near the 9-9.5 million views mark, which doesn’t put them much below that Breaking Bad number. And nobody should be willing to argue that they’re anything to write home about.

So basically, a middle of the road quality TV show on one of the big 3 major networks is almost guaranteed numbers wise to meet or beat a top tier quality (i.e. demographics/ratings) just through sheer attrition of people. Akin to this, a top notch written board game article on a small blog getting less reads (views) than a “popular” board game site writing one of significantly lesser quality. This is an example of and leads me right into the next point…

Popularity breeds popularity and momentum breeds more momentum which then brings success, and the board game design/publishing race is no exception to that rule (as Jamie so recently pointed out again). I frequently find myself cruising the board game launches page on Kickstarter and admit, I too, love to use the “Sort by popularity” feature to see what’s trending. But recently, my browsing has left me thinking something different; something I shouldn’t have been as surprised by and should have perhaps crossed my mind earlier…

Because as Andy Grove stated “Success breeds complacency” leading me to wonder…

Has the Kickstarter board game bubble burst?

I haven’t crunched the data but the fact that the topic has come up makes me legitimately consider such a thought. The last year on Kickstarter for board games, their funding, and the popularity has been at the very least, outstanding, and the without solid evidence to back it, most likely off the charts historically for this pastime. But like the dot com, housing, and cupcake bubbles, has common spending sense with limited financial resources finally caught up with the recent board game craze?

I’m not sure the reason it looks the way it does right now. Is it that more board games are being put up on Kickstarter thus causing a dilution of limited funds? Are more games just funding at lower goals? Maybe there just aren’t as many people funding in general currently. A big common post that can be found on Board Game Geek at any one time recently is the i.e. “Look at What I’ve Backed on KS” thread. But quite often contained within those threads are the not so subtle posts along the lines of:

“I shouldn’t have back this/as many games as I did…” or

“I’m looking to sell my Kickstarter version of the game because of …{insert reason here}…”

Interpreted basically, has the legitimate concern for having buyer’s regret combined with limited backer financial resources overcome the urge to spend on the sheer premise and promise of a game, even in the setting of stamp of critical acclaim?

Or are we looking at other factors or a combination thereof altogether?

Are people just feeling over-saturated or burnt out? You can only own so many games before some, if not a significant portion, stop being able to hit the table on regular basis regardless the hourly devotion to the cardboard craft. “Strike while the iron is hot” approach is seen on the genre and themes of games but seriously, how many party/Cards against Humanity/Zombie themed games can people back before buyer fatigue sets in? (**This is a topic deserving another article altogether**)

The complacency in this case is one where new and old designers/publishers alike have seen what has been popular, and instead of creating their own unique product, would rather ride the coattails of said theme that people seem to be smitten with. Staying with the TV theme, hence the recent relative years of betting by networks on spin offs and rebrandings (CBS comes to mind in particular for criticism here) and as much as I love me another CSI: Timbuktu (I’m looking at you NCIS: New Orlea-blah), saturation occurs. In the Kicstarter setting especially, it’s an issue even more so when it becomes compounded by the fact that there’s no instant payoff, and can often take months to even a year or more to see a return on funds that become immediately sapped from your bank account.

How about another theory? Are we simply looking at the pendulum swinging back the other direction with the big players, i.e. major board game designers/publishers ramping up their efforts to get those dollars back in their pockets? Are they upping their ante in trying to get buy up smaller games and ideas to keep from giving consumers more options? Let’s not forget how conventions play into this as well. They remain a huge market for hordes of gamers in a single place and having a product in hand that you can physically walk away with. This becomes innumerably more the case with ones biggies like Essen, where each year limited versions and amounts of yet to be broadly released games are given/sold out like Rolls Royce to only the lucky few. Mix that in with a community that has a distinct clique of “I-want-it-all collectors”, the thought of missing out tugs at their heart strings and seemingly provides an unending life to this model.

And publishers know this; they wouldn’t continue such practices if it didn’t bring in the moo-lah. Why else do you think with the recent successes on KS and otherwise, many smaller “Indie” companies have popped up? Their success, often with first projects based off of Kickstarter, allow future support of designers/publishers on subsequent projects and allow them to be more mainstream outside of the Kickstarter funded world. But this too further spreads those dollars.

So what do you guys think? Would you agree that the Kickstarter “bubble” is burst? Or are we somewhere else along that trajectory? I’d love to hear other peoples’ thoughts on the topic.

Let me be clear, though. I think Kickstarter is here to stay and won’t become a dying cause because of any of these reasons listed above. But the pendulum has swung back a little and I do think that it is starting to reach its equilibrium in terms of appeal and total funding levels. And then again, I could as easily be wrong on any of these accounts. But I do think it will remain because I think you’re still looking at a free market capitalistic enterprise where the person with a superior idea/game and initiative can/will find a way to get it funded and made. Those willing and able to be creative, inventive, and bring us games that are fun and of high quality will still manage to succeed regardless of their route.

After all, isn’t that what we’re about?

Sneak Peak of the next article’s topic: Going a little meta, talking about reviewing in general.
So if you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to send ’em to me…

By |September 29th, 2014|Article|8 Comments

Dungeon Dice: A Roll of a Good Time



      It was tense atmosphere, the air thick with palpable intensity. This was the make or break moment for the group as a lone adventurer stood wearily before the might yellow-scaled fire-breathing behemoth, task at hand; insurmountable yet fleetingly achievable. A sweaty palm held the last remaining chance for victory, a single D6 waiting to decide the mage’s outcome from this battle. He was no Jim Darkmagic but with a flick of the wrist, it rolled out of his grasp and tumbled end over end before precariously teetering to a stop near the edge of the table. The rest of the group peered intently together to discover the fate that the roll laid before them.

      A chorus of groans immediately shot up from the masses. That is, until the player himself took a look at the result and starting wooting that only comes from joyous victory.

      You see, unfortunately our heroes weren’t in the role-playing depths of the Dungeons and Dragons realm, but an ending to the semi-cooperative Dungeon Dice. The victor was triumphant via a different kind of roll this time.

      The Game:

      Potluck games was nice enough to provide a copy of the base game for review

      Dungeon Dice is, as the name suggests, an adventure game that cherry picks and simulates the best of role-playing games, the bashing and looting of dungeons through its dice rolling. This covers not only heroes, their allies, and their equipment but also the dastardly bestiary of foes that players will encounter from the “dungeon.”

      The initial reaction I had was one of honest doubt. How could dice, D6’s no less (the mere “common man’s” dice), provide such a satisfying gateway with different components and complexity when compared to a video game equivalent like Baldur’s Gate or an actual pen and paper RPG experience?

      This game, like many recent dice based games, avoids the stereotypical trope of similar dice predecessors of the past. Instead of using them to simplify gameplay and as an open invitation tool to incorporate beginners, this game is based around the permutations the dice offer. It also emphasizes player interaction, the one criticism that many other dice games are often the recipient of.

      I can’t and won’t try to do the rules justice here. The rulebook is well put together but wordy without being a burden. The touch of fellow gamers is present in its explanations and shows refinement that has only comes from intensive playtesting. Rules of complex or tricky gameplay situations that don’t come off as initially intuitive following reading are followed by example scenarios. These scenarios provide that nice clarity without having to try to interpret mid-game play, causing things to grind to a halt.

      The dice themselves are of higher quality. These aren’t your Marvel Dice Master mold jobs. The feel is more solid and yet silky smooth at the same time. The symbols are printed to precision and without dodgy quality control. And did I mention the base game comes with 87 dice? That’s not a typo. Six different colors of dice separate them by type, and then are further distinguished by the coloring of the symbols on the sides. Bags provided are again of value (not to mention svelty) and are color coded to match the dice in terms of easy division.

      Player interaction:

      This is what I imagine my game night would be like if I was with my regular friends, funny ’cause it’s too true…but not the kind of player interaction the game is going for or produces for you…hopefully

      Hopefully you guys can avoid this behavior…and if not…

      There’s always this solution…

      (the text version for anyone at work)

      [Pierce forces his way into the game]

      Abed Nadir: As the goblins retreat, you notice a naked sixty-seven year old man with no weapons lying in the grass shivering. His name is…

      Pierce Hawthorne: Pierce Hawthorne and I’m sixty-six, d**k.

      Abed Nadir: In about thirteen turns, he will die of exposure. Jeff?

      Jeff Winger: I wait fourteen turns

      One by one, players take their hand at pulling (literally) and battling a fiedish cubed monster as their opponent. Players are represented by dice themselves and can level up through successful defeat of monsters, acquiring more dice for their success. The game keeps players in check as the rules of real battle apply in the sense that players cannot be overpowered compared to monsters simply via accumulation and stacking of numerous weapon and armor dice for each combat situation. Your hero can only use a two-handed bow or a one-handed sword with shield, not both during combat. Once a monster (or hero) is defeated, the turn moves on to the next player.

      Player’s focus is on their turn and being able to battle monsters, but the interaction is based on players who are on their off-turn. First off, players have the ability to throw their weight in with another player who would like assistance in their battle, but this comes at a price, usually of the helper’s choosing. Negotiations are made and set in stone depending on the level of assistance from a single use die to the player fully alongside their comrade in combat.

      These negotiations are mildly harrowing and often the player whose turn it is might end up relinquishing goods they otherwise might not have had a remote chance of obtaining in the first place. Deals can come fast and furious as the off-turn players can equally try to out under-bid another’s offer in hopes of sometimes essentially lucking themselves into obtaining the chance for additional loot or treasure from the encounter. They’ve essentially been able to accomplish the dice equivalent of semi-kill stealing but in this case semi-loot stealing.

      The big caveat is the learning curve associated with the plethora of squared sides the game offers. Many dice have special abilities and these abilities also depend on the type of use, like the weapons. They can be used as a one tie assistance for helping the main active player but can also be used during your turn to fight. Certain monsters also have abilities or immunities that need remembering. Basically, this game will likely force you to have the manual by your side during your first few times through, but not in an overly intrusive manner. And you have to remember, you are rolling dice after all, so the time added by the initial manual check is made up for by the quickness of the rest of the turn with the rolling.

      So is it worth it?

      The Kickstarter itself is currently funding and has 8 days left of its run. After the success of the base game, they’ve opened it back up and added on an expansion as well entitled Guilds. They’re already above $110,000 in funding with time to spare for additional stretch goals. I didn’t get a chance to preview that at all but it does add what all ravenous roleplayers want: more classes and weapons, not to mention more monsters from the bestiary Dungeons and Dragons tree.

      Important to say and note that this doesn’t mean there aren’t any changes to the base game. They’ve set funding goals to unlock new and some exclusive dice to the backers this time around as well to be unlocked in the Guilds expansion. At the time of writing this, they’ve hit stretch goals to include 30 more dice for backers, and the expansion regularly will only come with 39 dice, which means you’re basically doubling your haul for the same price backing it now as opposed to picking it up at a later date.

      Apart from this, and the part that I like (though I bet you completionist gamers hate) is they’ve made nearly a dozen additional add-ons to customize and optimize your experience. Among them is a booster to make the game 5 players, additional monsters, potions, familiars not found in either the base or expansion. Plus did I mention the obligatory Cthulhu dice? Yeah, there’s that too.

      So how much will it set you back?

      I’ll break it down similar to how miniature games are looked at for worth/cost ratio.

      Base game + KS exclusives is $49 = 87 base dice + 7 KS excluse = $0.52 per die.
      Expansion (as of right now if no other stretch goals are hit) is $25 = 39 dice + 30 unlocked = $0.36 per die

      Price Point:

      Comparing that to other common games thought of as dice based (average retail price):

      King of Tokyo: $28 for 8 dice = $3.50 per die
      Castles of Burgundy: $25 for 9 dice = $2.77 per die
      Quantum: $38 for 30 dice = $1.27 per die

      Granted these aren’t the best comparisons because the games come with other components but I’m just using it to illustrate my point, however exaggerated. A lot of concern with Kickstarter lately has been the cost in comparison to actual game components. You’re getting your money’s worth with this game, especially backing it now for the expansion based on the sheer number let alone the quality and the bags to hold them in.

      If this sounds like your type of game or if you just want to separate but not divorce your Dungeons and Dragons campaign, then I encourage to heartily check it out on Kickstarter here before time runs out on June 19, 2014.


      P.S. They do have a completionist package for you guys out there too…

By |June 11th, 2014|Article, Review|1 Comment

Pixelated Sun Tzu Style Warfare – A review of Pixel Tactics 3



      Box and all

      Level 99 games was nice enough to provide me with an advanced copy of the game for this review of Pixel Tactics 3.

      As is often the case, hidden gems in the gaming community are often spread by word of mouth and recommendations taken more substantially from fellow players. Pixel Tactics from Level 99 Games was one of those games rec’d to me while first looking for substantial 2 player games that lacked the collection component. If you’re not familiar with its predecessors, versions 1 & 2 have become relatively known for being synonymous with engaging depth and expandability while staying compact in nature.

      Whether from its the under-the-radar success or low initial sales projections, the two forerunners have been relatively difficult to come by as of recently, and with the release of #3, a restock of Tactics 1 & 2 has tagged along as well. So how does a game that only features two decks featuring the same 25 cards actually work and continue to be successful? From Sun Tzu, “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.”

      Basic Overview:

      For those unfamiliar with Pixel Tactics’s core premise, pixelized version of various archetypes across genres have been enlisted to form your deck of heroes waiting to be recruited to defeat your opponent in a 1 on 1 tactical combat game. The dexterity of Pixel Tactics provides is based on the latent potential of five separate yet useful abilities each card possesses that, on paper, you could wonder how it wouldn’t supersaturate the game and clog it down to a grind from analysis paralysis.

      Designated by a color scheme to match the row-by-row board set-up (more on that later), the options become slightly more manageable. The additional iconography to clarify abilities only further eases what could otherwise be deemed daunting textual prowess on the cards and instead makes it easily translatable into gameplay actions.

      This potential that Pixel Tactics taps into is that each of the five options laid out has the possibility of being useful, depending on situation and the course of the battle. The option you choose provides the identity for the hero after deciding placement on the game board.

      Setup is relatively simple; 5 cards drawn from the deck at the game’s beginning with one of these initially chosen to be your battlefield representative and Leader, whose death brings about your defeat. The “Leader” option is via the double edge mechanic and Leaders are much more influential and powerful evolutions/versions of the flip hero each with a unique ability that becomes the basis for your core strategy.


      Red = Vanguard, Green = Flank, Blue = Rear, Purple = Order

      The board itself is a 3 x 3 grid of 9 spaces to place/field heroes, each row with a specific name designation; the front “Vanguard,” middle “Flank”, and back “Rear” make up the board. The specific row a hero is summoned thus determines which of the abilities that hero utilizes while in play.

      For example, consider the Repossessor, a new character to this edition. His front row (vanguard) ability allows his to intercept, or prevent ranged attacks from hitting heroes behind him, and is useful for guarding your Leader who remains situated in the center of the 3×3 grid during the game. His second row (flank position) changes corpses from being sent to the discard pile and now are sent to the bottom of their owner’s deck when cleared from the battlefield. If placed in the rear row, the Repossessor’s attack allows for simultaneous cancellation of any ongoing order (i.e. bonus effect) an opponent has previously played.

      His Leader, Endrbyt, is a unique strategy unto itself. He permits you to use your Draw action to draw a card from your opponent’s deck, thus depleting his deck faster. The “order” ability for the card allows you to take a random card from your opponent’s hand and add it to your own. These last two options allow for exploitation of duplicate characters in your army but also permit a deck depletion strategy to defeat your rival’s army, because as Sun Tzu reminds us “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

      Other unique character entries into this version that are notable include:

      Alice Zero – allows for switching Leaders mid-game.
      Exhufern Le Marigras – reshuffle discard pile into deck and heal for each card done so.
      Doc Silnan – Protects so that maximum damage is 4 from any one source.
      Arret Draamivar – Able to recruit up to 5 heroes per row instead of 3.
      Cherri Seneca – All actions are free actions but cannot take more than 1 of each per wave. (my personal favorite currently)

      Gameplay:

      The beauty of Pixel Tactics is that each of the options can be helpful, depending on the situational dilemmas you find yourself entrenched. The reminder that your opponent has the identical pool of 25 cards matters quite little once you realize no two players will employ the same card in the same manner. This is by design but only remains successful because Pixel Tactics has been successful in maintaining a competitive balance between the 3 games worth of 75 unique characters.

      That same feeling of options-heavy yet tactical focused gameplay is maintained in Pixel Tactics 3. Player One takes two actions in the current wave (row) then Player Two takes their two actions in the same row. This repeats until all three waves are done, then player order switches and you begin again at the vanguard wave. With such short-term lifespan of heroes, combo planning and survival strategy plays a large role. Attacking no longer may take precedent when your Leader is left exposed open to damage. Or maybe casting an order prior to drawing a card to replenish for further deployment floats to the top of the need-to-do list? Think about restructuring to move a hero to a new row in order to utilize a different advantageous ability? Or remove the smell of those space occupying cluttering corpses? If only you had selected the leader who allows you to do one of each action per turn for free?

      “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” –Sun Tzu

      Choosing actions with forethought and with prudence becomes the key to victory…and defeat.

      Final Thoughts:

      The game is refreshing; it fulfills gamers’ sense of engaging complexity and depth without feeling like a clingy ex-girlfriend trying too hard win your adornment. Even in its third iteration, it shies away from revolutionizing or rebooting itself. The fact that the games themselves are cross-compatible only adds to the replayability. My general feeling is that this version places a little heavier emphasis on the “order” ability as well as they seem to be more powerful and used more often my play-throughs.

      I like the new Leaders (my favorites being the ones noted above), another additional layer of variation to the franchise and a little more emphasis on deck management strategies in this edition as well from abilities, if you’re into that sort of thing.

      If you’re a fan (or not) of the original or its sequel, then the third will do nothing to change your opinion of the game. The complexity that remains its greatest asset, however, is the source of its limitation. Casual and or non-gamers will have a harder time being as enthusiastic to engage with this type of game. Even regular gamers might find themselves slow to go on their first go around or two. The game truly shines when two players understand the depth to which the game can function.

      Across three games, balance has been emphasized and achieved, which can further the game by allowing players to customize their own decks between versions. Playing with more of a “house rules”, two players could easily mix and match between the series without fear of over/underpowered teams. The price tag is an affordable breath of fresh air in the every increasingly expensive quagmire of new tabletop games; each version will only cost you about $10, (paper playmat included) to pick up, so buyer’s remorse is a low penalty even if you’re concerned it’s not for you beforehand.

      It’s worth a look simply because of how clever it plays with such little time commitment. Pixel Tactics 3 as a game and as a franchise in whole knows its strengths and continues to successfully utilize them with this third adaptation.

By |May 31st, 2014|Article, Review|2 Comments

Counterpoint: 7 Reasons a Board Game is Better Than a Deck of Cards



      Counterpoint: 7 Reasons a board game is (or can be) better than a deck of cards

      This article is inspired by and written as a follow-up response to the recent iSlaytheDragon article:

      “10 Reasons a Deck of Cards is Better Than a Board Game”

      History and tradition. These are two of the things are used as a basis for and that influence our current gaming system and culture. However, just because something is or was a tradition, doesn’t automatically make it the best option. The appeal of tradition for playing cards is based on past justifications for using them, justifications that are no longer as valid in the present because of the change in circumstances due to this more modern age. Also, competition can be seen a fundamental driver of progress, and in this case, a deck of cards doesn’t have nearly the competition to lead to the innovation of new and different games. Constant change makes board games exciting and the market they inhabit flexible and adaptable to the whims of the consumer.

      1. Imagination

      Don’t get me wrong, I love a good strategic game of Euchre or Hearts. A little survivor(ish) out-think, out-play mindset. But let’s not kid ourselves. The deck of cards remains just a deck of cards no matter how many fancy names or unusual spellings we give the title of the game. The fact is that a deck of cards in the end is constrained. You will never see a deck of cards with the ability to simulate the experience of connecting train lines or trying to stop the all-powerful Elder God. The true magic of these games isn’t because of their long tradition and history like a deck of cards but in their ability to capture our whims and imagination however absurd or far-fetched as we play them.

      2. Potential

      If you can think it, you can do it. With a company of four suits plus or minus a joker or two, there’s only so many ways they can be manipulated, exchanged, sorted, or divided in order to give variation. Let’s not kid ourselves with the “world” of games based upon a deck of cards. There are only so many and even fewer that get any sort of regular substantial playtime. And when was the last time someone came up to you with vigor and wanted you to play a new one? It’s the same old shtick, with a couple variations based upon region thrown in. I’m not saying board games aren’t variation upon themselves but because of the first point, these nuances can be more easily overlooked. Even a tacked on theme is still more than anything a deck of cards has. In addition, every few weeks to months, a new game comes along that catches our fascination. Yahtzee with monsters? A 14 card game about fighting for love? Dress making? No game from a deck of cards has that entrancing appeal.

      3. Living on the edge

      When was the last time you got really excited or nervous about losing a game of the ironically named “War?” The playing card games have plenty of competitive games but the only game that comes close to matching that sort of energy as in board games are gambling games like poker and blackjack. And probably the only reason for that is because there’s usually money at stake, not necessarily always due to the base game itself. The charged atmosphere that permeates through the room in a close game of many a co-op i.e. Pandemic, Robinson Crusoe, or even Sentinels of the Multiverse is often palpable. The ability to generate enthusiasm for gameplay cannot be discounted and is prevailingly and overwhelmingly in board games favor.

      4. Style

      This is for all those Eurogamers out there. A game based on a deck of cards will never solely depend on the skill of the person behind the cards. There will always be some (and often more) element of luck determining a good percentage of the chance of you winning. There are numerous games like Hearts, Euchre, or even Poker where if you’re dealt a randomly just plain awful hand, there is absolutely nothing you can do to win from that. Where’s the fun in that? At least Robinson Crusoe legitimately feigns that the players have a chance each game. Even the most basic of deck builders allows players to recover when they’re able to buy the cards they need in order to try to make up for lost ground. Feld’ian games and the sort provide those gamers that element where all they wish to do is to challenge another in a purely skill based system to prove who is the best and can do so.

      5. Dynamic Duos

      I’ll go toe to toe on this point. Board games have the ability to play cooperatively with partners and one could argue that they’re becoming more popular and ever present. See recent success of games like Sentinels of the Multiverse and Mice and Mystics. Synergy, chemistry, and social bonding are never more apparent when overcoming the odds and winning in these situations. More often than not, there’s more talk of strategy, ridicule, and experiences following a loss in these situations than when people are winning outright. Which directly leads to the next point…

      6. Traitorous Element

      Let’s face it. Everybody at some point or another wants to be the bad guy. They want to be the one who gets to be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is something so self satisfying about turning the screws the rest of the table, group, or team by revealing that all along you were the reason they ended up with that egg on their face at game end. Quite often this happens at the end, but if it occurs in the middle, now that’s the source of social bonding and trust building those weekend gurus wish they could reproduce from trust falls. It’s easy and commonplace to get irritated at a incompetent partner who can’t take card tricks you need, but it’s on another level completely with the angst it causes with the revelation that someone in your party previously deemed trustworthy openly betrays and undermines the very core reason of the game in the first place.

      7. Social gathering

      A deck of cards can only gather so many people or have so many people be an active part of the game. A common practice often used in more populous events for those looking to do something different presents and divides those playing from the larger group. Board gaming itself is a social jamboree. It’s not uncommon for groups in the 10s, 20s, or 30s to gather together on a regular basis to not only socialize in between games but among, over, and during the games themselves.

      When was the last time anyone get geeked up for a deck of cards based convention or card publisher’s press release? How many conventions are dedicated to decks of playing cards? Right. Now think of all the Cons that board games are part of, let alone ones that are solely dedicated to putting them on as a venue for those of us to meet, mingle, and cohabitate. They bring a sense of belonging and togetherness that many a gamer has longingly found at such gatherings.

By |April 26th, 2014|Article|2 Comments

The Making of Pleasant Dreams by Aerjen Tamminga

54fcce3f7350a1816eb2801b88da9831_largeCommunity
Being part of the game design community is, in my opinion crucial, when you want to design great games. Over the past few years I’ve gotten excellent advice from various people and am very grateful for their help and encouragement. Before talking more about how being connected to the community helped me shape my game design ideas, ability and motivation to persevere let me highlight a couple of these excellent sources of community:
  • The Game Makers Guild has provided resources, was my main source for playtesting, and the awesome members have given me a lot of encouragement for my project
  • The people on BGDF have given me their thoughts on art and on a series of poems that were originally on all the cards
  • BoardGameGeek was where I found Wayne Dorrington
  • MIT: taking a course on game design was a great way for me to nudge myself out of my own game design habits. By taking a more focused approach to game design, I feel that I have become a better overall designer
  • Boston FIG: working intensively on the festival was an amazing experience for me. It got me many friends and connections in the game design industry (and actually my second contract proposal) and helped me look at games in a different way. Guess that evaluating the feedback for several hundreds of games leaves a mark
  • Boston Indies: I’ve only been to one of their demo nights, when Pleasant Dreams already was in it’s final stage. I got an overwhelming amount of positive responses and some excellent food for thought
  • Various game design related Facebook pages (like this one or this one) have provided me with tons of information

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Becoming a Game Designer
Once upon a time, there was a psychologist that wanted to be a game designer… There are so many moments that I can point to as the beginning for my passion, that I can’t tell which was the decisive one.  For Pleasant Dreams I can. I would even say that there were three defining moments.

 

The Game Makers Guild
When I went to the first meetup of the Game Makers Guild, I brought a different game called Hatch. Unbeknownst to me there was a publisher present at my playtest session. After finishing, he told me that he’d be interested in getting my game ready for publication. Next to being really happy with the compliment, I was like “Wait, what? I’ve made something that people like? I can actually try and get my games published?” That made me decide to always design with the goal of publishing in mind. I’m not sure whether everyone reading this realizes what an important shift that is. It really changed how I look at game design. I still make the games that I want to play, but designing within the context of publishing seems to really help focus my decisions.

 

Studying Game Design
The second defining moment was when I decided to take the CMS.608/CMS.864 Game Design course at MIT. In this course on game design Philip Tan (creative director of the MIT Gamelab) teaches principles of game design in a workshop format. Students form groups to work on several game design projects over the course of the weeks.

 

Since I was working full time as a psychology researcher at Harvard, Philip suggested that I wouldn’t join a group but make a solo project. I already knew that I really wanted to do something with dreams, but I didn’t have any fully formed ideas. After going through a series of brainstorming exercises I ended up with a goal for an initial prototype: create how you can move through a dream.

 

In the first 5 minutes, I “accidentally” designed a ridiculously and overly complex game. I put accidentally between quotes, because I feel that most game designers tend to make their games overly complex. At least that’s what I believe after having been involved in the curation process for the Boston Festival of Indie Games, where several hundreds of games were reviewed.

 

091c2084bb3cc6e1f4218e2c3b45a8d6_largeFortunately I recognized that something was going wrong and I asked advice from Philip Tan. He responded to my concerns by asking me what I was actually trying to do. Create a mechanic for dream movement that evokes a  feeling of increasing suspense. Right, that’s something that maybe doesn’t need 10 pages of rules. With that I was back on track again and started using the push your luck (with insider knowledge) mechanic.

 

e8c6729aea6262c6e6cbb0199b9e8af9_largeOverall the whole course has been very instructive, but there were a couple of moments that definitely stood out for me. When Rob Daviau (designer of many games, with Risk Legacy being my favorite) attended as a guest lecturer and played my game, he advised me to reduce the difficulty level. Originally, you’d only win once out of every five games. Now, if you play smart, you can win most of the time.
0bf25cface704727c0425c40771f3877_largeAnother great moment was when Zac Hill (former lead designer for Magic: the Gathering) gave a guest lecture. We actually became friends and his advice and encouragement has helped me keep moving the game forward. Spoiler Alert: we’re actually working on a game together right now. WOOT!

 

The last session of the class was a day of blind playtesting. I had an amazing time when I watched two students play the game time after time where one player actually beat the other eight times in a row. That, for me, was great on many levels. Next to seeing people learn the games from the rules, it showed that, even though the game has a push your luck element, tactics still matter. It also revealed that the game is engaging enough to want to keep playing even if you’re losing.

 

A fantastic Illustrator
The third and final defining moment was meeting Wayne Dorrington. He offered his services through BoardGameGeek, where I’m a frequent lurker. After seeing the work in his portfolio I immediately contacted him. We actually talked about 3 games: Ooh! (Out of Humans), Leprechaun Slap and Pleasant Dreams. Working with him on Pleasant Dreams has been an amazing experience. When we first met I already had some ideas for the art I wanted to see, mostly based on the experience I wanted to bring across. He immediately liked it and in the brainstorming it became even better.

 

In creating the art we used objects that people have an emotional connection with. Instead of using a lot of gore, we tried to make them subtly unpleasant although I must admit some of them ended up being decidedly unpleasant. Next to giving the art a vintage tarot look, we were were inspired by prior art such as the illustrations you can find in the original books of Alice in Wonderland and Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 surreal movie adaptation of the same story.

 

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696c0e46c94285a08e0599a04bd15e16_largePlaytesting
During all stages of development the game went through heavy playtesting. The fact that Pleasant Dreams also plays well as a solitaire game made things extra easy. Add a playtime of about 5 minutes to that and you can imagine how this is a game that was easy to test literally hundreds of times. In the beginning playtesting was mostly at MIT, at home (solo and with my wife), but pretty soon I started bringing it to the Game Makers Guild too. There I’ve done regular, blind and intensive playtesting sessions. Intensive playtesting sessions are ones when the same group of people play a game many times in a row, to see whether the game holds up to people getting a deeper understanding of the tactics and strategy involved. What I enjoyed seeing is that this light game actually allows for quite a variety of strategies that are dependent on your opponent.

 

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81e5e3795bbff6070b642b051ec7eaf3_largeA little bit about who I am: I work as a game designer and research consultant and like to use my background in psychology when working on theme, art and usability in my games. That’s reflected in how I designed Pleasant Dreams. For this game the starting point was wanting to evoke an experience rather than a theme or mechanic.

When I’m not using experiments to figure out how humans work, I play games and try to figure out how humans work.

I’ve developed and taught several courses on game design, am one of the directors of the Boston Festival of Indie Games and organize the Game Makers Guild.

     My personal goal with this game is for people to enjoy themselves. That simple goal, getting someone to smile is the driving factor behind the things I do; work and hobbies alike. When I work as a clinical psychologist, I try and make people happy. As a research consultant I hope to find out how to create more happiness in the world around us and as a game designer, first and foremost, I just want to see people have a good time with each other.
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By |March 19th, 2014|Article|Comments Off on The Making of Pleasant Dreams by Aerjen Tamminga

Get your maze on: A Maze Master Review

Let’s get ready to rumble…

Maze Master is a 2-4 player game currently being backed on Kickstarter that allows the player to become Daedalus, Theseus, and Gandalf all rolled into one. Brought to us by the gents from Weaver Entertainment based out of the cheery ‘ole UK, your goal is to build a maze of your own creation whilst simultaneously inhibiting your fellow Daedali from Theseus’ing their way toward the true goal of the game: the center of the maze where a relic awaits the most nimble (minded) of players.

Gameplay: The game allows for each player to start at their respective section of the yet-to-be-built maze and build their own path towards the relic. This is where the game gets going. Apart from the six basic actions allowed per turn, there are 8 different one time use advanced actions a player can only acquire after they use up a basic action to do so prior. Each tile of the maze proper laid down also has a flip side where fire, brimstone, and enemies also await.

Building the maze yourself to get to the relic is only half the battle. The PvP element allows for other players to not only build on your maze via adding obstacles or enemies but also allows for manipulation of the maze itself. Clear path to the relic? Whoops, now you’re going down a path to nowhere because your opponents change the direction of your path. This element also opens up the ability to end up traversing other players’ mazes and to utilize their path when others manipulate your own.

Basic acid cards

The other aspect that I really enjoyed from the game is that each turn, you choose to play up to 3 cards face down in front of you, in order. Any game that has a hidden element aspect to it is a huge plus for me (especially when done well). As you go around the table, players flip their cards in the order layed to do perform actions. The cards themselves range from usually 1-3 points per card and this goes until everyone has used up their placed action cards or actions points (5 points per turn). The exception is that the advanced actions costing more, and justifiably so. Using certain actions against an enemy also costs you an extra action point thus playing its own role in choosing which actions to carry out.

But let’s say that the previous player just made played an action card that makes your next facedown card on the table moot this turn. You can skip that second card and go on to the third one layed and use it instead, bypassing the now worthless one. The only problem I ran into with this is that from the rules it is not currently clear if going back to that skipped card on your next turn would be allowed once passed over. It does force you, however, to change your strategy on the fly mid-turn. I enjoyed this because it doesn’t cause analysis paralysis (paranlysis**) but rather more quick thinking.

So what allows for balance between players and keeps them from ganging up on just one person or his/her maze? If a player finds himself the target of two or more actions in a turn, your next turn you open up the ability to lay a 4th card facedown in addition to receiving an extra “adrenaline” action point for a total of 6, giving the chance opportunity for redemption or retribution.

Critiques: The game itself can be a little confusing upon initial setup. It seems like it would benefit from the current add-on only play-mat based off of my gameplay experience. Maybe I’m just a counting noob but as you could expect when you try to guesstimate board sizes, there are always adjustments needed after the fact.

Sample board setup without mat

Trying to account for where exactly the starting places should be in relation to the relic when the board is either supposed to be 6×7, 9×9, etc without a mat was challenging to get right. For a slightly higher price, a basic foldable mat option included would be a must-have as backer in my opinion.

The copy I had was only a prototype, but that being said, I also thought that while the action cards basic and straight forward in their art and design (and I mean this as a compliment, see KISS), the maze tiles were a bit lacking to my disappointment. I know a maze is supposed to be a drab place but even the flip sides of the tiles with the enemies and blazing fire just seemed a little downplayed. I would have loved to see more attention and flare given to these to really make them stand out on the board. The creature hoard almost looked more ant-like given the size of the actual tiles. I’d love to have seen the “go big or go home” attitude with them and made it apparent to the player that these guys mean business when they’re face up on the board.

Conclusions: The gameplay allows for those who like to think outside of the box a little to really get their money’s worth with all of the different actions available per turn. This can lead to the dreaded paranalysis (copyright pending) but I didn’t find that it did as much as I would have feared initially. The fact that they’ve also included capture-the- flag-like and “first one to get their own relic” modes in addition to the “All for one” relic mode really shows me that they’re put thought into the replayability of the game as well. Maze Master is currently being backed on Kickstarter for £7 PnP or £18 for a copy of the game. Funding is open until Friday March 7 at 1700 or 5 PM EST and they’ve already hit beyond their funding so now it’s for the glory of King, country, oh and of course, the bonus stretch goals. So go ahead and check it out.

By |March 3rd, 2014|Article, Review|1 Comment