Lithium

SEMI-Commercial…and now we return to our regularly scheduled program.

Sorry about the noise in here, it’s just the TV’s been going off and on and… What? No TV. No noise. No Zombie invasion?!? Well that would seem to imply that I’m insane. Hmm…meh.

It was early September. We had come back from our very first GenCon enthused, despite my insecurities. I was adding new side effects to the game because that’s what people felt it needed. Then, for no apparent reason, I just stopped. My wife was confused about my feelings towards both games. I expected Kaiju to be the star of the show, but despite decent reviews it was a lot rougher than I thought. Side Effects was just a light side project but it had stolen the show. I felt embarrassed to have even made a party game.

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I was corresponding with Dirk Knemeyer, host of the Game Design Round Table and owner of Artana, about publishing and questions I had for the show. I had mentioned that one of my games was really successful in playtesting at GenCon but I didn’t want to put it out because I didn’t want my first game to be a party game.

It wasn’t until I received his reply that I realized how pretentiously I was behaving. It wasn’t that he was trying to make me feel bad about being a snob, but I was too embarrassed to reply after reading his email. Was I too good for party games?

We have a bevy of party games which I love, but secretly I’ve always thought, These aren’t real games they’re just fun activities. I might as well enjoy myself. Playing party games always felt like eating ice cream and pop corn at 2:30 in the morning watching a Netflix marathon of Matlock.

I also had a reasonable excuse to abandon the project. Gil Hova from Formal Ferret was getting ready to run a Kickstarter for his game Bad Medicine. Which, when pitched to me, sounded like the exact same game I was going for. I backed it. It’s not the same game. The games aren’t even in the same damn sport.

pulp
2 Cool Cats discussing Relations in Pulp Fiction

It’s not likely that Side Effects May Include is going to end up a gamer’s party game. It does one thing really well; it makes people laugh. One playtester who played laughed so hard he couldn’t breathe. Another playtester thought she was going to pee herself. And one came back with her man the next playtest. We became friends and they’ve brought the game to GenCon ever year since. Why would anyone put that on a shelf?

Side Effects May Include focuses on what board gaming is about for a great many people, especially newer gamers and Pearites. It focuses completely on having a good time with your friends or potential friends. Players are scientists working for Big Pharama and they are trying to make a drug that works without rapid hair loss, loose stool, and death.

SEMI-Cover
The little swirl in the corner was the logo of my now defunct board game publishing co. Tidal Games.

So the game plays on. I’ll revise the old cards to remove things which complicated the game. I have a few things to add to some of the cards as a suprise for my 2 dedicated Side Effects fans out there. Also, I have a list of about 300 cards and growing(my original offering of 148 was nowhere near enough), so I’m going to finish this project up and start trying to sell it to every publisher who might be into party games of this ilk.

Sometimes you have to step away from a project and see it from someone else’s eyes. Sometimes you have to look at it objectively. Sometimes you just need a swift kick in the ass to get motivated. Anyone else need one? I’ve been working on my drop kick.

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Die Die My Darling

I’ve feel like I’ve reached the limits of my knowledge. I sometimes doubt the wisdom I’ve inherited from my forefailures. It was fun for awhile—writing in such a self deprecating way—but I want to write about my design work in a living world, now, and not as party of some anonymous board game eulogy. It’s impossible to look forward when you’re always looking back. That said, we’re going to take a look back at two games that I refuse to give up on, and how I’m moving them forward.

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I recently read a great blog post from Micheal over at Gravitas Board Games, in which they discuss rebooting their current project, Fusion. In particular, it was about killing their darlings. Michael is a really nice guy, and we had a brief discussion about the topic. The idea stirred something in me. Naturally, I did what any writer worth their salt would do, and stole the idea. I started to think about the darlings I’ve killed, and those which’ve yet to be killed.

Continue reading “Die Die My Darling”

Adventures in Thought and Design

This week we have a ménage à trois of games for you. It’s a really exciting and really polyamorous article. So let’s get down with the get down.

uae-imports-exports-reexportsThe first of these lovely ladies is the rather dully named Import/Export. She has my heart for being the first, and lowest scoring, entry of mine in the BGDF Game Design Showdown.

Next we have Architetro, which is by far the shortest member of the household but makes up for it in spunk. Smash together tetrominoes and architecture on a timeline. What’s not to love?

Finally, in the lovely night gown with the horses and cows captioned above them—I’m a little unstable in the mornings and I’m not in the mood—is the game from the Design Showdowns that meant the most to me personally. It left A Lasting Mark.

1024px-cardthisisthelifeWait. Where do I fit in all this hot polyamorous love action? Girls? Oh, I see… Look, if it’s the video cam… Not that? I can put the latex suit back in the car… But… Okay, that’s fine. No, that’s just fine. I didn’t want anything to do with your sick, twisted, freewheeling lifestyle anyways. And that, boys and girls is why Ronald Reagan created AIDs. 2 years in office and… BAM! And that is how free love died. He still couldn’t erase black people and homosexuuuuaalls.

But I digress. The Game Design Showdown is a bit of a misnomer. This is something that I realized after A Lasting Mark. You’re not really designing a game at all. What you’re doing is delivering a pitch for a game idea. This is a great thing to be able to do. It’s an absolute necessity as a game designer and well worth some practice. But as I found myself “designing” these games I realized that nothing I was doing in the design was anything more than any Jane or Joe on the street does. I was just thinking about something.

thought-experimentGame designers like to refer to this as thought experiment. While this can be useful in the very early process of the design, you haven’t really designed anything yet.

First, I think it’s important to understand what the process of design is in it’s simplest form, because one of the things that people find difficult lies in the fact that there are  two different but easily confused definitions of design. First we have the proper definition within the context of an architect, or a fashion designer, even a game designer:

1. to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan.

Then we have the definition which is confusing everyone:

2. to conceive and plan out in the mind.

Does everyone see what’s going on here? Because I didn’t.

tim-gunn
One of my personal heroes.

Yes, a game designer often conceives and/or plans in their mind, but that’s not game design. Game design is putting those plans on the table and seeing how they work in the really real world. It’s assembling the parts and testing them until they are refined.

If all you have are some mechanics, a theme, and a dream, you aren’t designing a game yet. You have just performed a thought experiment. Once you have built and tested the design you have begun the process of game design.

So were any of my lovely lasses up there actual designs? As a matter of fact, yes. Every single one of them. They’re all unfinished designs, granted, but there has existed physical copies of these games. Import/Export was a Sheriff of Nottingham style game using a standard deck of cards and some envelopes. I played with my family and they really enjoyed the dynamics. It got shelved for things I was more interested in at the time.

IMG_0071Architetro never made it to the Game Design Showdown but was conceived and documented there. It’s a game about frantically building something using tetrominoes. The fun factor was meant to be high. It’s something I would definitely like to continue work on in the future. She’s a keeper.

As far as A Lasting Mark, I hope this game stands someday as my magnum opus, even if I’m a total failure as a game designer and it is only a 6.9 on BGG. At least, I can say, “It was the best game I ever made.” I’ve built prototypes, but I know nothing that I’ve created so far has done what I want the game to do. It’s a Eurogame where players play entire Chiefdoms trying to survive, prosper, and stave off colonialism as they are forced further and further away from their homelands. In other words, it’s the opposite of pretty much every Euro game ever (hyperbole).

We’re going to try something a little different and I hope at least one of you decides to take me up on this.

This is your very first homework assignment. It isn’t mandatory and won’t be graded. I want everyone who reads this who has any interest in designing something, to take your thought experiment to the scary part, the hard part, the part which requires blood, sweat, and years. Move forward to the design.

Congratulations.

You’re one of us now.

Yet Another Unfinished Project: MOS 657

Omaha Beach Blood

I was really excited when I came up with this one. I wanted to make a game that was in a war setting but focused on the military aidsman (medics) during World War II.

I intended it to be a pickup and deliver game but it was only on a certain setion of Omaha beach. The board was long and the object ended up being to get through the channel at the end of the beach and save as many troops as you can while getting there.

Every time a unit moves they run the risk of dying. There is no combat, it’s all just are they dead, greviously injured, wounded, or active. Counting saved lifes was tricky and I wrote in a rule that wounded patients could be treated and turned into active units the next turn.

MOS657 LogoThe AI simply picked a hex at random for the lines that your units had reach and rolled to see where the shell hits that round. So there was plenty for the medics to do, but all of it seemed rather dull. There was no pick up and deliver (unless you count getting casualties out of the ocean before they drown).

I Can’t tell you how many hours I spent pouring over information about D-Day and where the points of omahadefensesstruggle were. I went through reports used for citation. I collected maps of the different beaches broken down into subsections. It was really pretty amazing we didn’t cock up the whole thing, honestly.

But no matter how interesting the subject, the game simply wasn’t that interesting. I could have worked tirelessly iterating on the idea but I had already moved on. It just wasn’t going to be the thing I wanted it to be. This year a game came out that captured everything I wanted to say about war with a deck of cards and a few tokens. The game can be an extremely difficult, frantic co-op. The game is The Grizzled (Les Poilu
s in the original French).

pic2595195If you haven’t played The Grizzled, do yourself a favor. The game is being manufactured by Cool Mini or Not. Suprisingly enough, there are no minis in the game (cool or otherwise). Still, its one of the cheapest games you’
ll buy this year, and we’ve gotten more playtime out of it than any other Game in 2015.

Honestly, I’m not down on myself about MOS 657. There was some interest in the Solitaire Print and Play 2015 Contest so I’m sorry to those people that I couldn’t deliver.

A lot of game ideas turn out to be nothing. If you can’t handle that you probably shouldn’t seek this lifestyle. No matter how good an idea is in your head, if you can’t translate it into functioning game mechanics then it’s crap.

I’ve even done some experimenting with a solo variant but I’ve got a lot on my plate right now with my health and another project. It’s a project that might even turn me into a professional designer (meaning I have a designer credit in a published game). That’s huge because I’ll have to change the subtitle of the website. So for now at least, the solo variant of the Grizzled will have to wait. MOS 657 is being put to rest.

Status: Aboned

Game Designs #9 & #10: Dosed and Pharma

This blog post is only briefly about these game designs at there is very little worth mentioning. It’s really about my issues and I’ve got more than the New York Times.  More specifically, it’s about my issues as a designer. The biggest one is that I never finish anyth…

After I designed my party game about pharmaceuticals, I thought: why stop there? Why not do a whole series of games about pharmaceuticals. So I came up with a microgame and Euro, neither of which made it very far in development.

pill-bottleMy idea for the microgame was called Dosed. It was a bunch of colored circular disks and I thought it could come in one of those orange pill bottles. I eventually came up with a game that works (this year) but it’s a bit short and not near enough fun at this point to warrant pursuing. The theme of passing around pills is a bit problematic anyways.

The other one I’m still really interested in. I want to make a Euro game which is a scathing commentary on the drug industry. I also want to fairly accurately represent the drug development process.

These projects were both overshadowed by the projects of the day. I was getting ready for my first GenCon. I had a half finished Kaiju game and a drug induced party game to think about; there wasn’t much time. And when I got back, I moved on fairly quickly to the next thing. Not finishing things has been a reoccurring theme in my life.

gytCGguWhen I was 12 years old I started my first novel. It was mostly just mimicry of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the few other science fiction novels I had read, but I was really excited about it. Until I wasn’t.

My dad bought me a junked out Corvette to work on when I was 15. If I fixed it up I could have a sweet ride when I was 16. I got as far as powder coating the frame. I could have finished it. But I didn’t.

Fast forward to my dreams of being a computer programmer, mostly dreams of being a professional hacker. I wrote a lot of scripts in Linux. I started at university to be a computer scientist. But as with the education I never wrote any programs worth mentioning. I have 3 novels in rough draft (all of which are really pretty dreadful).

When I was 20 I joined the Army. 6 months later I was released with an entry level separation after sustaining injuries that put me on crutches for several months. I’m not sure I’ve ever finished a thing in my life.

I mention these things not to disparage myself as a human being or as a  writer, a programmer, or game designer, but to make myself face the fact. I’m someone who has, in the past, not finished things.

I’m also someone who, in the future, will finish things. I will do so because I want to be a great game designer and in order to be a great game designer you have to finish your designs.

Kaiju is in a finished state and I’m pretty proud of that. But it’s not enough as a game designer to finish the game, is it? You have to get it into someone’s hands.

Finding a way to become more methodical in my iteration process will help me finish my projects. So my goal for the next 2 months is to come up with a structured design, playtesting, and iteration system to follow along with a methodical system of communicating with publishers about my designs and finding ways to get them into the hands of said publishers. These systems should be somewhat mutable but lend me a framework with which to design, develop, and sell my games. That means on December 16, I will be reporting about said framework.

There’s not much to say about designs #9 and #10 because there’s just so little there. Had I had some kind of system maybe Pharma (my Big Pharma Euro) would be in a factory somewhere in China waiting to be shipped. Maybe not.

Currently, I’m working on a game for the 18 card microgame contest at BGG. My entry is what I call a microConSim. It’s meant to take the COIN system and Battleline system, mate them with Love Letter and see what comes out of it. GMT, lock up your daughters.

The Great Micro GameThe Great Game Card3It’s called the Great micro Game and it’s about the conflict over Central Asia in the 19th century between the British and Russian Empires. It’s going rather well. If you want to check it out, here is the WIP thread. I’ve gotten a really positive response from the design community there and from the 1 Player Guild, both of which are great communities.

This game will be finished because there is a deadline and maybe that’s what I really need. So my deadline for finishing Cold War is July 1st, 2016. That way I have time to arrange some meetings with publishers before I leave for GenCon.

Status: Abandoned

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

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 facebook.com/billyboardgame or in the comments below.

Thanks for reading.

Status: Abandoned

Isn't this dreadful.

Game Design #1 – Sphere of Influence

I first logged into Board Game Geek in June of 2012 and by February of 2013 I had come up with an idea for a game. The idea was so brilliant I had to share it with the world.

In the game players took on the role of revolutionaries staging an uprising in a grid based card game that I would describe as Pixel Tactics meets Arkham Horror. All I needed now was a game. Let’s see we’ve got:

  • A couple of card driven mechanics
  • A theme, lightly pasted
  • The ability to write letters and numbers on scraps of paper and put them in card sleeves

And that’s it. The first iteration of my very first game was done.

It was absolute rubbish. It was so bad that I threw it all away and started over.

I worked on the theme and the mechanics for another couple of weeks and the game transformed into something I called Sphere of Influence. A game of global politics and conflict, it appealed to me in a way that the initial prototype didn’t.

I played it all over and over in my mind. I had a spreadsheet full of cards that I merged into a template in Open Office. I was ready. So I printed out the second iteration.

The game play was… not great, not even good, really. I was disappointed, but I felt optimistic that with a few more iterations those problems would just work themselves out.

Isn't this dreadful.Fixing It Again?

I spent the next few months working on graphic design. I focused on making the cards looks really cool (or at least what I thought looked really cool at the time).

After spending about $50 in toner I had a set of cards that we could really play the game with. The cards looked great(snicker). There were unreadable fonts and sci-fi brushes galore.

This iteration would play so much better than the last one because everything had been fixed in my mind.

My partner and I sat down to play the game. I went over the revised rules with her and after some hesitation she was ready to play. The game play was only slightly better than the last iteration.

When to Fold ‘Em

I spent the next few months trying desperately to make it work. When I was done I ended up with little more than a glorified hour long game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Development continued until September of 2013 when I found design contests at BGG.

What I Learned

  • Game design is hard work.
  • Know when a design is bad and be able to move on.
  • Iteration is key to the design process.
  • Fix things on paper not in your mind.

What I Wish I’d Learned

  • Take notes during game play in a special design notebook.
  • Don’t waste toner on fancy cards that will be in the trash the next day.
  • How to find the fun in a game.
  • I needed to play more games.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on the game at the time you can look back at this thread on BGG. I look back at what I thought I knew and have to laugh.

This week’s recommendation for serious reading will be The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. I wish I would have read this book before I started designing games. It is easy to read and it opens your eyes to so many different ways of viewing games.

The Wrap Up

Sphere of Influence was abandoned in September of 2013. The remains are kept in storage in the vault, should they ever prove useful to future generations.

Sphere of Influence: Status – Abandonded

February 2013 – September 2013

Up Next

Our plucky hero faces the psychological brutality of Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Can he withstand the endless nightmare bureaucracy of the castle and the relentless torture at the hands of the Villagers. Tune in next time to find out.