Game Design #8: Side Effects May Include…

Drug Card Back
Drugs are bad, mmmkay…

Do you ever wonder if you’re taking drugs just to counteract other drugs?

That question and my own very personal experience with it were the game’s impetus. I was going to design a game that people can just laugh and have a good time with.

I started development at the beginning of July of 2014 and had a prototype for GenCon. This game has some of my favorite graphic design work so you get lots of pictures today.

The primary mechanic comes from a game known by many names, among others: Ranter-Go-Round, Chase the Ace, and Bohemian Poker. In our house though, it was always Screw Your Neighbor. I loved the game because my mom always paid my way in, and I got to say the word screw.

Side Effect36It goes like this.

Players are dealt a single card. They must decide whether to keep their card or pass it. The dealer decides whether to take a card from the deck or keep her card. The person with the lowest card loses. Generally there are a set number of bets and the last person with money in front of her takes the pot.

Condition Cards24
It’s funny because that’s what I have.

Now my game.

Each round a Condition is drawn and players “manufacture” drugs for the condition. The dealer sits out and decides which drug wins. She deals one card to each player. Then the game plays like Screw Your Neighbor but the cards aren’t revealed just yet. Players collect 5 side effects and then pass them to the judge in envelopes along with their drug card. The judge reads them; hilarity ensues.

I tried to add more game to it with special powers but it was more fun without them.
I tried to add more game to it with special powers but it was more fun without them.

image 7And you know what? It really did! Everyone who played at GenCon laughed. And I’m not  talking giggles. I’m talking belly rollers.

One playtester came back with her partner to play again. Amanda and Vece you are awesome and I’m sorry we missed each other at GenCon this year.

This one always got at least a few laughs.
This one always got at least a few laughs.

So, this is a success story, right? Oh, clever reader, you know me well. These are the Exploits and Misadventure of an Amateur Designer. So what happened this time, Billy?

Just after GenCon I learned that Gil Hova was working on a party game with the same theme. Gil was an absolute professional about the whole thing when it came up on Twitter. He even went so far as to offer to drop work on his project.

I decided that the game was going to go to Kickstarter. But I never launched and Gil eventually released his game, Bad Medicine. It just arrived in the mail.

When I got home from GenCon I was really excited. Then I spent all of an hour coming up with new Side Effects before I lost steam.Side Effect35

Once Gil announced that he was going forward with his Kickstarter I put the game up on BGG. And as usual, here is my consolation prize. Side Effects May Include… is my first game to be entered into the BGG game database. The files are available to anyone for download.

I had a discussion months later in which I stated that I didn’t want my first game to be a party game. It took me some time to realize I had lost sight of my goal. I want to be published. I want this site to be Exploits and Misadventures of a Professional Game Designer.

I don’t care if my first game is Jersey Shore: The Board Game as long as my name’s on the box.

image 4


Game Design #7: Heist

I sat down at our kitchen table with a notebook, a deck of cards, and a nefarious plan. I was going to steal the best game in the world.

As you might’ve already guessed, I also had a theme.

tKGtRHUfksHoEOvsSch01BvabWCThe night before I’d fallen asleep watching the move Heat. The movie was set to replay. I woke up periodically throughout the night to visions of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino face to face across a table. I will not hesitate. Not for a second.

When I woke up I was ready. Well, after I woke up and drank my coffee I was ready. After I woke up, drank my coffee, and took my meds, I was ready. After I woke up, drank my coffee, took my meds, and had a bathroom break… I was ready.

I made a list of all the heist movies I could think of: Heat, The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs. They all had some essential elements that I wanted to capture. Evidently, I wanted to do so with a standard deck of playing cards.

There have been times while designing games that ideas have vomited from my brain out of the ether. I have outlined the bones of an entire game in a single hour and the game played fairly well right out of the gates.

This was not one of those times.

My thought vomiting ether machine was broken. Or maybe someone had stolen it. I didn’t know, but as I sat there shuffling the cards, laying them out in various configurations, and not designing a game, I became intensely frustrated. Then I felt like a fraud.

What was I doing here? Why had I chosen a deck of cards? Why didn’t I leave this  all to the professionals? Even if I had ideas for games, I’d never be able to get one into good enough shape to sell it to a publisher. I was sitting on Kaiju waiting to me publishers. I was nervous and insecure about showing my games to a publisher.

Still, I sat there.

I fiddled with the cards for what felt like forever. Eventually I had an idea. I followed it up with another one. That worked okay so I tried another. Okay, this wasn’t bad. After four hours I had something that was, at very least, playable. It wasn’t great. I don’t think it was even good, but it was playable.

Heist was a card drafting game in which players worked as master thieves: to develop crews, find jobs, and make heists. But they also had to watch out for the heat. Unfortunately, it never ended up playing like I described it.

I was getting closer, though. Because this time I’d stuck to the game plan. I knew what I wanted to design and I worked towards it. I wasn’t capable of dragging it across the finish line, but I’d gotten one step closer.

Game design is similar to writing in many ways. Most people who read think they can write, and most people who play games think they can design them. There’s another parallel with writer’s block.

A quote from author Anna Quindlen.
A quote from author Anna Quindlen.

Writer’s block sucks, but it can’t be overcome by not writing. The same applies  to designing games. If I’d put down those cards that day, I’m not sure that I ever would have picked them up again. It’s funny that a really mediocre game feels so instrumental in my development as a game designer, but there it is.

Status: Abandoned

Game Design #1.5: Expeditions – The Lost Chapter

Hello everyone,

Let me preface this, by saying that I may have screwed up. Actually, I’m quite sure of it. Basically, this whole site has been a lie. And as one should do with any big lie, I’m going to stick with it until the bitter end.

While I was cataloguing my designs over the past couple of years, I somehow missed this gem which had the working title: Expeditions. The ambitious goal of this design was to have expeditionary maps as the game boards and tell the story, through the medium of game, of an expedtion to… anywhere.

I wanted to design a game system. I didn’t know that, though. At the time, I just wanted to make Arkham Horror with expeditions and modular stories.

So how does a game system work? Basically, you create a core mechanical structure that allows for adaptation and you find ways to include thematic tie-ins to the system so that each game feels different yet familiar. This is comparable to the game engine in video games.

One of the best examples of a game system is Poker. How many variants of Poker are there? More than I care to know. More modern examples would include the COIN system by Volko Ruhnke or the Command & Colors system by Richard Borg

I couldn’t have spent more than a week on this design before I knew I was in over my head. It’s likely I only spent a coupe days. I don’t even have any card mockups or images.

So, yeah… that’s Expeditions. Good bye, everyone.

What’s that? You want more? Well, look there isn’t much more to say about it. It was rubbish.

Alright, come on then.

pic1681453How about a game that does expeditions right. It’s Expedition: Northwest Passage.

From the box art to the board, every component is absolutely stunning. But the art is only one thing which makes this game so amazing.

The board is basically a giant grid with Greenland on one end and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Ostensibly, your goal is to find the Northwest Passage and get back to Greenland before everyone aboard dies of starvation or exposure.

But there are some complications.

That board is blank and you build it using rectangular tiles. The tiles can be used to make a clear path for you to sail. They can be used to map out islands, earning you victory points. They can be used to block your opponents path, earning you an enemy for life.

There is much more to do in Expedition: Northwest Passage than just race across the board. But everything you do is tempered by the fact that, at some point, where you’re at on the board will be frozen and your ship will be completely unable to move.

That’s where my favorite bit about the game comes in. There is a chunky, wooden disc painted half yellow and half blue. Each round it moves around the outside edge of the board. Anything under it is completely frozen over and players must disembark on their sledges in order to move.

The board starts with the top row frozen and half way through the game everything but the bottom row is frozen over. Your sledges can go over anything while the board is frozen but you have to be able to get back to the ship.

I can imagine Expedition becoming a fantastic series of boardgames which could include a multitude of interesting locations and one or two interesting new mechanics for each game. Designing a game engine that people find interesting is a dream. It means a great deal less work to put out more games that people will enjoy.

I don’t intend to turn this place into a review site, but Expedition: Northwest Passage deserves much more press than it’s received. So go buy it.

Thanks for reading.

Status: Abandoned

A Few Words About Family Before I Get Hitched

My partner and I have been together for 5 years. This marriage is little more than a legal confirmation of what we’ve already promised each other. That’s not to say that this won’t be a very special day, but we have been a family for awhile now. Together we have 3 wonderful children and we are raising them as gamers.

Thinking about this led me back to one of my reader’s blogs, Training a Gamer, in which he talks about his experiences playing games with his daughter. Reading it reminded me how much our family has bonded around the table.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 7.49.35 PMThere are a lot of geek parenting resources out there in the wilds of the Internet and I think it’s fantastic that gaming has become so much more socially acceptable. I hope for a time where you will see at least half a dozen good board games in the closet of every family.

Gathering around the table makes us a community and much more. So our family will continue to do so, hopefully for years to come.

Here’s to hoping your family can do the same.

To Avoid Failing Read This: League of Gamemakers

ROSE-400x185Before we get started I have a couple of announcements. Tomorrow I’m getting married to my wonderful partner. I love you, Sarah. You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met.

I can’t think about it too much or I’ll start to freak out. So, that’s all I have to say about that.

Second, my game Sixteen Stone won Best Abstract in the 2 Player Print and Play Game Design Contest this year. I’m really pretty happy about that. It’s not any great prize or anything, but it’s nice.

Sixteen Stone CoverI wanted to do something a little different for the segment today. Up until now all of my recommendations have been books, either on game design specifically or design in general. This week I’m going to focus on one of my favorite blogs.

I hesitate to call League of Gamemakers a blog because, for me, there are some connotations that go with the word blog that I don’t associate with the site. I consider it more of a game design resource. In my mind I think of a blog as something a little more personal and a little less a resource.

That’s not to say that blogs can’t be informative, just that the League is really more than a blog to me.

LoGMSCThe first time I googled “designing a worker placement game,” I felt a bit embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be able to figure this stuff out on my own? After all, I’ve played plenty. But I stumbled across this series of articles: How to Design a Worker Placement Game.

I didn’t feel stupid anymore. I felt excited. I had played nearly all of the games that were referenced. This was something I knew I could do. The League continues to inspire me, and that’s beautiful.

League of Gamemakers is something to which I aspire both as a designer and as a writer. They create solid content week in and week out and you should subscribe in some manner to their blog and go back and read through their content. You won’t be disappointed.


Game Design #6: Shogun Must Die!

I was playtesting a new game tonight and became so frustrated that in the middle of it I asked everyone to stop.

Cold War - Game BoardI did it again; what the hell Billy? I did it again. How many times can a man make the same mistake. Sweet baby Jesus! I just spent hours making a full color board and tiles for new mechanisms that were completely untested.

WTF Billy?

Up until that point the design process was going really well. I’d cobbled together a prototype out of 5 different games and some scrap paper. I’d playtested with 2 different people who both felt it was a really solid design. I was excited, but there were some adjustments that I wanted to make.

I wanted it to be a board game.

As we picked up for the night, my son found one of the cubes we were playing with was marked with an N and he remembered this game…

Shogun Must Die! is the first real board game I designed. I want to design board games. So why does everything I design end up being a card game? I have nothing against card games, but I set out to make a board game and I ended up with another card game.

SMD-GameboardI designed Shogun Must Die! as my first ever entry into a BGG 24 Hour Game Design Contest way back in April of last year. My son had thrown up at school that day which meant he couldn’t go to school the next day. That meant I’d have to stay home too.

I probably spent a total of 16 hours on the game. I made my convalescing son play the game with me a dozen or so times.

It is a hidden movement game where each player has several colored cubes. One player is the Shogun and one player is the Ninja. The Shogun has 12 red cubes, one of which is marked with an S. He places the red cubes in the center of the board on the purple “huts.” He also has several yellow, guard cubes which allow him to hunt the Ninja.

The Ninja has several black cubes and one marked with an N. Players take turns moving their cubes, the ninja may add cubes and take cubes away trying to obfuscate her actual movements. If the Ninja is killed the Shogun wins, if the Shogun is killed the Ninja wins.

The game isn’t great, but I finished it in less than 24 hours. It was my first attempt at hidden movement, and I went about it in a pretty interesting way. If I were to ever attempt a hidden movement game again, I might start by looking back at this.

Something I said in the thread for the April contest really resonates with me right now:

I really had a lot of fun designing this game and it really made me feel good about how far I could take something in such a short period of time (as I have projects that I’ve been working on for months that aren’t this far along). I really feel like it pushed me.

COeCuJUWsAAFOQbThat’s the way I feel with this new game. I Frankenstein’ed a prototype together and worked at it for hours. When I was done I had a really fun game.

Then I proceeded to screw it up.

Adding things doesn’t make a game better for me. It almost always makes it worse. It’s the process of taking away that generally makes my games better. I’m writing this down with the sincere hope that I can get this lesson through my thick skull.

It’s often said that there are two ways to go about game design. One is to start with a slab of stone and chisel away at it until you get the statue you’re looking for. The other is to start with a lump of clay and mold and shape the thing until you get the sculpture you want.

One way isn’t inherently better than the other, but I’d like to be a sculptor.

Shogun Must Die!
Status: Complete

To Avoid Failing, Read This: Characteristics of Games

Some of you, maybe at least one of you, might have noticed that I didn’t post yesterday as scheduled. The reasons for this are twofold. First, I was busy playtesting games with a friend of mine, one of his and one of mine. This took up the majority of my high functioning time. Second, when I started to write the article it felt scripted.

It’s easy to fall into routines and for work to become rote. This isn’t what I want and I’m sure it’s not what you want either. I don’t want the stories I tell to ever feel scripted. I want them to feel organic and full of human frailty. If I can’t tell you about Game Design #6: Shogun Must Die! in the way it should be told then I’m not going to tell you at all.

9780262017138That being said, I did want to keep up the tradition of a weekly reading recommendation, which for some reason has traditionally fallen at the end of the week. Today’s reading is Characteristics of Games by George Skaff Elias, Richard Mu’Frakking Garfield, and K. Robert Gutschera.

This is one of the recent additions to my design library and I feel very fortunate to have discovered it. It isn’t, strictly speaking, a design book. More, it is a guide to what games look like and how they relate to those who play them.

This isn’t light reading but it’s not entirely academic either. It has as much for the advanced game player or game critic as it does for the game designer. Discussions range from king-making and game politics to sub games and game as systems. It’s a very rich text which is leant a great deal of credence by the one very well known game designer who’s appears in the author’s credits.

Everytime I picked up the book I felt that I was refining my understanding of some topic. That’s rare to find in a book. All too often we find the same content rehashed and retold over and again until we’re convinced that there’s nothing new under the sun.

One thing that’s really nice about Characteristics of Games is that the Appendix gives a brief overview of some game theory games—in general less fun than most regular games—and goes on to give references to other great texts. It also has a comprehensive list of the games mentioned throughout the text with abstracts for each game. This gives the explorative game designer hundreds of branches which to climb.

In short you should read this.

Thanks for reading and, as long as I have something to say, I’ll see you next week.

Game Design #5: Chores

Yes, you read that right. The name of the game was Chores. The idea was that I could make doing chores fun as a game. Then, maybe the kids would end up LARPing the game. It didn’t happen.

This game was designed during the Kaiju era, in the swathes of time when I waited for art to be completed. I was eager to move on to something else. Chores was my first attempt at a Euro style board game. Up until then it had been mostly card games. Even Code Mage was more of a card game than a board game.

Chores Game BoardThe basic premise is that each player is a teenager who wants the keys to the car on Friday night. Of course, only one player can have them. Players have to gain their parent’s favor by: doing chores around the house, mowing the lawn, washing the car, and, of course, they always doing their homework.

There was the main board where players fought over household chores, but each player also had their own room board where they had Chores Player Matother chores to do. They had to: do laundry, pick up their room, and feed the pets. They could also goof off and play video games, annoying their siblings in the process.

Each round dirt,  lawn, and laundry cubes were added to the house. You could also goof off and play on the console. It got you a lot of points but if you got caught you’d have to add blue cubes to your player board which could eventually end up on the grounding track. If you filled the grounding track you would lose the game.

I don’t particularly like player elimination in games. I can’t think of any games I play on a regular basis that have player elimination. Interestingly enough, every game that I had designed to this point had player elimination. This was my attempt at a Euro game and I style had player elimination.

That’s something that I hadn’t considered. It’s forced me to reevaluate my self as a designer. Why would I put player elimination in games when I don’t like it in games I play myself? I think part of the answer is that I’ve just not been experienced enough to know a better way to do punishment. You do bad enough in a game, you lose the game. Everything looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer.

There were some interesting ideas here. I like how laundry started on your floor. You had to put it in the hamper and wash it. Then put it away. Each day you added more laundry in a never ending cycle. Mowing the yard and washing the car were worth a lot of points. However, you could only do those on a sunny day and it just happens to be rainy season.

Chores isn’t something I’m likely to come back to. It wasn’t really a fully developed idea to begin with and it’s hard to come up with a solid game that’s not based on a solid idea. Still, there’s part of me that thinks that chores could be a fun light Euro if I ever gave it some development time.

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter @billyboardgame, on or in the comments below.

Thanks for reading.

Status: Abandoned

Parky Interlude 002

Hello Everybody,

It’s a Sunday evening; the kids are all home; and everyone is watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Watching television is a campfire experience for us, not something we do frequently. We generally watch as a family. Instead, tonight I’m going to share something with you late Sunday readers (both of you).

I’ve thought a lot about whether to post video of myself when my medication has worn off. It’s ugly; I don’t like watching it. The video shows my Parkinson’s.

People with Parkinson’s get very good at hiding things. We hide our disease. We hide our symptoms. We hide away from the world. Sometimes you just get tired of hiding. So I’m not going to hide this. I’m going to show it to you because it sucks.

Parkinson’s is a disease clouded in mystery. It’s an old people disease. It’s like dementia and Alzheimer’s, and Lou Gehrig’s. It’s something you get from boxing or huffing paint or that girl down the street your mom warned you about. No one’s really quite sure what Parkinson’s is or what it does. I have it and I’m still not sure.

Parkinson’s informs every aspect of my life, but I’m not my Parkinson’s. I’m mother loving Billy Board Game with a gosh darn Dream.

So here is my Parkinson’s. Your mileage may vary.

If you know someone who has Parkinson’s please consider donating.


To Avoid Failing, Read This: Universal Principles of Design

41iM6ttit4LThis week’s recommendation is going to be a design book not a game design book.  As game designers we always want to learn new ways of thinking about games. One of the ways of thinking about games is simply as designs. With that in mind, the recommended reading for this week is Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina (that isn’t a typo unless the type runs throughout the entire book) Holden, and Jill Butler.

Univeral Principles of Design is both a great primer on design. It will introduce you to many concepts that you should consider when designing… anything. Each principle is explained in a short, two page segment with illustrations and examples.

One good example of the principles covered in the book is the Development Cycle: “There are four basic stages of creation for all products: requirements, design, development, and testing.” Does this sound familiar?

Pyramid-copyThe segment on the Development Cycle refers to the Hierarchy of Needs. In the context of game design that is a very interesting topic of discussion and something that most of us would do well to give more consideration. That, in turn, refers us to the 80/20 Rule, and that to Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

Most Advanced Yet Acceptable is a principle that speaks to innovation in game design. It may be something you want to consider when thinking about how innovative you want your game to be.

When I feel like I’m in a game design rut, and everything I read on game design is a rehash of something I’ve already read, I go back to this book and just start flipping through the pages. The principles presented here provide me with the inspiration to evaluate my design in a new light.

I can flip to any page of this book and find something that applies, not just to designing a website or a tea kettle but, to designing a game. From Area Alignment to the Weakest Link, Universal Principles of Design will not only expand your understanding of what game design is but what it can be.