All posts by Derik Duley

#30: Special Guest Matthew Rodgers (Gamesicle)

This week I’m fortunate enough to bring on yet another designer that I met at Strategicon.  Matt was very open to meeting, discussing design, talking the maths of printing and shipping, and was just a great guy to be around and play with.  I asked and he was kind enough to do this little interview right in the middle of the final push of Bane‘s campaign.  Without further flattery, here’s Mr. Rodgers!

Please, tell us a little about yourself and Gamesicle.

I’ve been gaming all my life; games of all shapes, sizes and types. I played a lot of RPGs and board games in my formative years. I have always been attracted to game systems that have immersion and quality player interaction. Gamesicle was born from this tradition.


I have only recently begun to devote my energies full time to building Gamesicle. Before that I worked in Information Technology and Emergency Management. I also have a lot of experience in the performing arts (primarily theatre) and that certainly shapes how I view and approach things.


At Gamesicle our quest is to connect players through immersive game experiences.


How long have you been working on Bane?
Bane was originally conceived in 2010, but we have been working on it mostly over the past 2 years or so. Bane has shared development time with several other projects. Our approach was to have several games queued up ahead of time so that when we made the move to build Gamesicle we would be able to grow.

What inspired Bane?  Where did it come from?
Bane’s inspiration was simple: create a game where the players felt like hunter and hunted. We wanted a simple mechanic that placed the players in tricky situations of survival. The use of the Vampires, Werewolves and Humans took a bit of doing, as I was opposed to using it at first. But, over time (and with substantial testing) it was the favored direction. I had to create my own I.P. for it though, make the world of Bane a living, breathing place in order to be pleased with the look and feel.


How much did your experience with Junkyard King influence the development, iteration, and marketing of Bane?
Our first game, Junkyard King, was a deliberate step we took as a startup game publisher to learn the ropes so-to-speak. It has taught us a lot about how we want to make games. We still have more to do with Junkyard King as well; we want to bring it to full retail.

How long have you been preparing for this Kickstarter campaign?
We’ve been building our network or relationships for about a year and a half and began in earnest on this Kickstarter campaign about 9 months ahead of launch.


What was the most important piece of advice about Kickstarter projects, which you found before launching?
Make sure your first 2 days are as strong as possible.


I know you hit some unfortunate hiccups just as you launched.  Could you tell the audience about that?

The 3 weeks leading up to launch got really crazy. Let’s just say that things didn’t go according to plan. But, that’s life and business. You have to be ready for anything, flexible. Because it was my first time running a Kickstarter I found myself saturated with information, it was very challenging to know what to do with the final details, how to pull it all together. In the end, I stuck to my commitments and stayed focused and followed my instincts.


What is the most important piece of advice you can give about Kickstarter projects now that you have launched?

Make sure that your first 2 days are going to be very strong. Build lots of support. Get your prototypes made early and get the word out that your game is coming. Let people see it, touch it, play it and review it. Talk about it, share it and promote it.


Make sure that every Plan A has a Plan B.


What is your favorite aspect of Bane (component, mechanism, art, etc.)?

What I like most about Bane is how interconnected the mechanics are. The deck composition, the core mechanic, the scoring mechanism, the turn order, the player setup, the special powers, the bane token and the game boards all blend together to create the unique experience that is Bane. Because of how it’s designed, Bane scales itself to the players. The decisions and player interactions are the soul of the game.

What was the most difficult aspect to get right?  

Creating what I answered in the above question. Balancing the right amount of chance and choice took an awful lot of work and time.


What part of the game changed the most between inception and now?

The game boards were the last major design addition. It completely transformed the overall experience. The game instantly became much easier to manage and learn when we added the boards. The overall experience elevated and grew more immersive. 

What was your favorite experience playing Bane?

I don’t have a single experience that I would label as a favorite. What I always enjoy about Bane is that you constantly have interesting plays presented to you throughout the game. Even when you are behind the leader you have plays you can make to give yourself a chance to win. Your goals are not always identical to the other players and those goals can change from turn to turn. I love this about Bane. There is always something to work for, some line of play you can pursue.


What is next for Gamesicle?

We want to further develop the world of Bane (RPG… maybe?), we have a strategy game in the wings and we’ll begin working on a project this summer with another design group – but, I can’t release those details just yet.  ; )


Any additional comments or advice for the audience?

 Thank you for your interest in Gamesicle! Let’s do this again.




Awesome!  Thanks, Mr. Rodgers, for taking the time to chat with me about your great project and exciting company.  YOU!  Out there in the world: go thank Matt for taking time out of his crazy busy schedule to talk with us.  He can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and the web.  More importantly, Mr. Rodgers currently has a Kickstarter campaign running RIGHT NOW!  Bane can be found HERE.  Honestly, I got to play it at Strategicon and it was great.  I love blind bidding (Top-Deck) and he does a beautiful execution of it.  Not only that, he layers the mechanics in a way which allows for quick pick up but a lot of depth and growing strategies.  I can’t say enough good things about this guy and his project.  But don’t take my word for it – go check him out  😀

#29: Special Guest Brent Critchfield (Studio Woe)

I know I’m excited about all of my special guests but this time we’ll be hearing from someone I’ve actually met in person!  I was blessed with the opportunity to attend Gamex (by Strategicon) this past weekend.  During a lull in my schedule, I had to go over and see what the deal was with this “Gruff” game.  It turned out to be pretty fantastic!  Not only was the game a unique take on my kind of fun, but I really fell in love with the theme and Mr. Critchfield’s storytelling (I mean, come on!  Weaponized goats!  Fat, mean, weird goats!).  Anyway, this guy impressed the snot out of me with his skills as a designer and his approach to this business.  So, without any further ado, here’s Mr. Critchfield!
Once upon a time, I was working at a company called Vigil Games in Austin Texas (The guys that made the Darksiders Franchise and the ill-fated Warhammer 40,000 Dark Millenium Online). Their publisher, THQ, was in their death-throes, and I lost my job as the studio dissolved.
I had been excited about creating a card-game for ages and when my wife got a really great job offer in California I saw an opportunity to deep dive on this idea. I had been creating a Steam-Punk Americana shoot-out game where you would take Cyborg John Henry and have him fight Carnegie Melon in a Mech-suit. On the long drive from Austin to LA I remembered a project that Virginia had been working on where she had filled sketchbooks full of the weirdest, meanest, and fattest goats of infinite shapes and sizes. Whenever I saw those goats I wanted to see how they would animate, how they would fight, how they would evolve. It dawned on me that I should merge those crazy goats with the crazy card engine that I had built. It took another 9 months before that idea resembled anything like Gruff, and another 2 years of testing before it was ready to be shown to the public but now it is all together and I am really having fun with the results.
From the earliest stages, I knew I wanted to make a game that was both visually and mechanically “Over-the-top”. Something that would quickly escalate from a slap-fight to a world-shattering conflict. To do that I created an exponential resource generation system, and open ended cards that would easily combo into one another. I love those moments when you are playing a game and all the elements that you set in motion finally come together in some devastating effect. Gruff is designed in a way to make that happen as often as possible.
I knew I wanted to embrace the inconsistency that you get from a deck of cards, but I also knew that I wanted players to have important choices that were independent of randomness. By using self-evolving stats and board positional gameplay, players should always feel like they have important choices right up until the end of the game. Players should never feel like the game was over just because they started the game with a bad hand.
 Ready_Deep_Brine002 (1)
Primarily, I knew that the success of the game hinged on expressing the personality of the individual goats. To do that I created specific card pools for every goat, and gave them unique abilities that encouraged people to play with them in a specific way. After each match I will ask players who their favorite gruff is. People don’t always name the same gruff, but they are always very enthusiastic about their choice​. When I started seeing that type of reaction I knew the game was close to done.
 Getting to Kickstarter was a really complex path. The thing that really saved my project was meeting up with a local “Support Group” of other Kickstarter hopefuls and veterans. The advice I got from them made me realize that I had planned on releasing the game much too quickly. The scariest part of getting ready for Kickstarter was all the complications that arose once I had actually committed to a date. I had a printing catastrophe that almost scrapped the entire launch. I gave myself 2 months to prepare demo copies for review, and it was not nearly enough time. The next time I Kickstart I am going to give myself 4 months from the date of preview content completion and the moment I actually push the button.
The one big newbie mistake that I made was launching on a Friday. We were lucky to have a really great first day, but all of that inertia evaporated the moment the weekend hit. Next time I will definitely run a mid-week campaign.
8633557_origOne thing that went really well was the creation of an “Online Launch Party”. Basically a Facebook event that I advertised a month in advance in order to prepare people to support the game on day one. I really can’t overstate how important day 1 support is. Campaigns like this are all about momentum. If you do not start strong it is almost impossible to build up momentum mid-campaign.
It has been a struggle and I have made a lot of mistakes (poor launch timing, not knowing when to slow down my messaging, getting the wrong people to review my game) But it has absolutely been a great experience. I feel like the experience I gained during this process has made me a better developer. I have come away with a much greater appreciation for all the hard work that goes into the games that I love.
Such a great story!  Thanks for taking the time out of your super-busy week to share with us, Mr. Critchfield.  Everyone, please do yourselves a favor and check out his highly successful Kickstarter campaign for Gruff.  Great price, easy shipping, fantastic product for 2 players or a 4 player draft – it’s a no brainer.  For me, this was an auto-back and I will even be demoing it with him at Gateway in September.  I can’t say enough about this guy and his game.  Thanks for reading!  Be sure and look for Mr. Critchfield on Twitter, Facebook, and on the web and thank him for sharing 😀

#28: Special Guest Jared Barry (Mad Ape Games)

Holy smokes, today I have the privilege of sharing with you an interview with Jared Barry of Mad Ape Games!  Mr. Barry is the proud publisher of the gorgeous 2 player dueling game, Clash! Dawn of Steam, which funded back in July 16, 2014.   I recently reached out to Mr. Barry about Clash! and his latest projects, and he was gracious enough to give me a bit of his time.  Following are some great insights he’s picked up on his 1.5 year long journey to get Mad Ape Games off the ground.
 Mad Ape Games
I know you work in a print shop by day, but do you have any background in the game industry itself?
 I worked in a print shop for the past three years and just a couple months ago I was fortunate enough to transition into a position doing graphic design and marketing for a motorcycle company. This transition has allowed me to spend more time working on building up the studio, which has been just terrific.I don’t actually have any real work experience in the game industry prior to Mad Ape Games. Though I’ve been an avid gamer for the last 15 years, which may be an insignificant measure of time compared to some industry veterans, but considering I’m only 23 years old that’s more then half my life. I like to think about it like this, being so young I have plenty of time to build the studio and grow with the gaming industry. Everyday I wake up and feel so lucky to be healthy and to have the opportunity to make games for others to enjoy.
 See when I was 17 years old I found out jarringly that I had a rare form of cancer in my spinal cord, and that they would have to do emergency surgery to remove the tumor the next night. My chances of survival were very low (around 20%), yet I woke from the surgery in the ICU having suffered severe nerve damage but alive. Then I went through the gauntlet of chemotherapy, radiation, and physical therapy to fight off the cancer and get back to living my everyday normal life. I’ve now been living cancer free for five years proudly. The point of that back story is that when I was going through very hard times getting together and playing games with my friends pulled me through.
 That’s the magic and power of gaming, though many outsiders look at it just as some geeks rolling dice, for many it’s a great source of joy and positivity. If I can momentarily brighten up just one person’s world when they play my games then I am more then satisfied with spending the countless hours bringing those games to life.
 Clash! Dawn of Steam
Where did the idea for Clash! Dawn of Steam come from? How did it start? 
Well to be honest my first love is wargaming, but with the cost and room for error so high with regards to miniatures production I decided quickly that I wanted my first published game to be a card game.  Next I actually brainstormed what sort of mechanics I personally liked that I would want to put into it. I came up with the idea for a card game where one player lays siege to a city and the other defends it. Not an original idea by any stretch, yet, many of my favorite things included these types of epic sieges (Lord of the Rings, R.A. Salvatore books, Game of Thrones, Privateer Press, Final Fantasy to some extent etc). I really liked the idea of a fantasy world with no magic being suddenly hit by a storm and now magic is an unexpected reality for the people.
A lot of great questions stemmed from that concept, how would the different nations be affected? Surely some would be quick to embrace this “Dawn of Steam,” as the world is thrown into an industrial revolution fueled by magic. Others would be resistant to change like the Edenites in The Scuffle for the SS Rogue. So to answer the question I just became obsessed with this concept and tried to dig deep into this world of Asyria, that was the start in this case.
When did you KNOW that you had something special, here?
Well my first prototype for Dawn of Steam looked terrible with neon colors and the balance of the cards was crazy swingy, but the game had something I really liked about it. I think the thing I liked about it so much was that to me, the play felt reminiscent of an old Japanese rpg as players would watch what the opponent did then strategize how to outfox them most efficiently.
 Clash layout
Reading your descriptions of a huge world and the 2 decks in Dawn of Steam give the distinct impression that you have even more content waiting in the shadows. Why did you decide to move forward with these decks and characters, specifically?
I’d love to keep releasing 2-player boxed sets(as a matter of fact I have many plans to do so), thus really shedding more light on the world of Asyria. I am very much into story and narrative in gaming and though Dawn of Steam is a light card brawler I still wanted the fluff to be here for those interested. Honestly every game the studio releases will likely have some sort of narrative element whether weaved into the game or as a companion book.
I felt these factions represented the initial struggle to assimilate into this new world of magic really well. The Magister Praeta are religious alchemists who fight zealously for their god, the All Mother. Naturally they would be quick to industrialize, as it is a religious principle for them. Meanwhile the Salvation of Eden is a faction from the primitive island nation of Eden, they are hesitant to change. Prior to the Dawn of Steam Eden by location was safe from outside influence, as the sea was too treacherous for an army too reliably cross. With the invention of airships brought invaders from all corners of Asyria upon Eden, raiders eager to plunder the ancient treasures of the nation.
 At first the Edenites were no match for the technology wielding invaders and much pain and misery was inflicted upon the primitive locals. Cities burned, temples pillaged, many slaves stolen from their homes, and at the darkest hour the Primarch of Eden Zdeno Xao was poisoned and later went mad before being put to final rest by his people. Newly ascended cub Braeatak Xao was crowned Primarch of Eden, tears still in his eyes from the grief of his people, he vowed that this would never again happen. Guided by a human orphan who had been adopted by his people when she washed ashore many seasons past. The now adult Eve of Eden shared her insights as to how to beat the invaders by using this new technology against them.
 Together they wielded this new technology and drove the invaders from Eden. With Eden now in ruin they set sail with the remaining army to bring an unrelenting war to the main land, intent on rebuilding Eden by reclaiming all that had been stolen.
For those who are unfamiliar with your story, it took you 3 tries to
successfully fund. The funding goals and pledge amounts were wildly different each time. What kinds of changes to your approach of the campaign itself did you make each time?
 I guess you could say I’m resilient. Well I learned so much it’s hard to even find words to begin. I learned that everything needs to be ready for change, if a better solution is presented I’d be a fool to not at least consider it. This is the philosophy I adopted, and I posted all over the Internet trying to get as many minds to help me as possible. Some people will hate for the sake of hating, but most people in this gaming community really just want more awesome games to be released for the benefit of all.
 In this way I learned how great the community is and the value of sharing with any and all that would listen. I’m really glad that the campaign didn’t fund the first two times because it allowed me to refine the presentation that much more. My willingness to take good advice was the big change from then to now realistically, other then that just experience and coming upon the knowledge of James Mathes and his blog was hugely beneficial.
Were there any changes you made to the game? 
Many many changes were made, from mechanics to aesthetics to approach. It ties to the positive progression through feedback as mentioned above. I believe it’s important to be totally open to change, resistance is futile after all.
How much of your experience from Dawn of Steam is affecting your process with your next projects? Are there specific roadblocks which arose with Dawn of Steam that you are now planning / designing around? 
I wish I could say Dawn of Steam was perfect and that I was all knowing enough to foresee and prevent the little problems that arose, but honestly speed bumps did occur.  Mainly we printed the game here in California with a local print shop (note, not a game manufacturer). We thought the quality of the product would be through the roof with this approach and that the game would be done twice as fast as one coming from China, thus distinguishing our studio as a promising young studio.
Sure we knew it would be a big task to sort these games and fulfill them ourselves, but this was something I was willing to do for my dream of making games. This turned out to be a huge undertaking, not to be taken lightly, seriously other game designers don’t do this. I felt like if I did it this way just for the first game that it would give me a taste of the American dream, well I got more then a taste that much is certain. In the future we will be manufacturing with one of the Chinese factories, likely PandaGM. The quality of our American print shop was actually nowhere near as good as what was shown to us via samples and some of the cards were miscut after multiples send backs.
What can you do though but live and learn, I’m proud of CLASH! Dawn of Steam as our debut release at the end of the day.
Now that Clash! Dawn of Steam has been fulfilled and is moving into distribution, feel free to brag a bit about your next projects: Exfiltrate Xenos 9 and T. R. E. N. C. H. A Deep Sea RPG. 

Well these new projects have me giddy like a school girl, the first Exfiltrate Xenos 9 is an engine building points grab type board game in which players each become a different mutant waking up with amnesia from cryosleep in a creepy prison set to detonate. Mutate to survive as you try to learn as much about who you are as possible before the prison goes up in flames. This one is a blast and play testers have enjoyed it much so far, I’m excited to show the game industry what a young studio can do with the launch of this game.

T.R.E.N.C.H. is a roleplaying game set in a future where all land mass above sea level has been destroyed, as such civilization carries on at the bottom of the sea. People live in giant Sanctuaries on the bottom of the ocean, here only the bravest venture out across the open sea in ships called Vessels. An rpg about exploring a world of peril that aims to crush you. More to come on this subject in the future.

Any other thoughts? Advice?
My main advice to others who love games or aim to make games, just do it. Nike paid me to say that, seriously though, put equal parts passion and problem solving into the process and you will make it happen. Pay an editor or let your backers proof your game. Other advice pertains to being active in the community, this is an age of the internet, go make friends with others who share similar interests via facebook groups or bgg, or even in person at your local game store or convention.  Thanks again for your time my friend,
Thank you so much for your time and wisdom, Mr. Barry!  Wow.  This guy is going somewhere and doesn’t mind sharing how.  If you are interested in finding more information on Mad Ape Games you can find him on the the web HERE; his Kickstarter campaigns HERE, HERE, and HERE; on Twitter HERE; and on Facebook HERE.  Please, check him out, follow him, and thank him for taking the time to talk to us 😀

#27: ADSftK Designer Diary 3 (The Obvious)

Welcome to part three of my series on the MANY things I learned from The Game Crafter‘s “Time” Design Challenge.  My entry was A Dragon Show for the King and the lessons were bountiful. Last time, I went over the headaches involved with this game’s art and theme.  I think today we’ll go over a list of much shorter, more obvious lessons.

*Firstly, let me apologize for the great delay in between these posts.  My first attempt at writing this entry turned into a rant about balance.  The second attempt met with some unexpected revelations about design and, therefore, required some extra time to refine.  Then. . . this third try required a bunch of images 😛 Thanks for your patience and I hope you enjoy!


You may have noticed that I really enjoy a rambling, story-telling style of writing.  I originally thought it would play well with the goal of sharing lessons I’ve learned about game design and self-publishing.  Well, I realized just today that I’ve been basically wasting “blog” time for about a month now.  You see, I’ve been preparing some very pretty words for a deep conversation about generating interaction between players, building a fun “experience” instead of just a clever game, and balancing meanness to player control.  The discussion actually ballooned into 2 posts!  Today, I suffered a moment of clarity and realized that none of that fluff had to do with any lesson I learned from designing ADSftK or taking it to print.  While the writing did lead to a revelation about the design process which I have now begun implementing, it’s not in line with the goal of this series.

Therefore, the lesson here is FOCUS – something I tend to struggle with.  Instead of giving what I promised, I was writing expositions on my design philosophy and what I find fun in games.  While some people might find that interesting reading, it’s not the point.  To that end, moving forward I will be putting more effort into outlining my posts so that I have a clear picture of my topics, and I will try harder to write about lessons as they come up – instead of recapping months later.

speaking of “in line”. . .

Central Alignment:

I feel so dumb.  My first version of this game looked like this:


Pretty enough.  Just a little something to convey information to my players.  When I finally settled on a theme, I kept the original layout, changed the icons, added eggs, and prettied things up.  Then, I hit this card:

(3+) 2-0

Do you see the problem?

Not enough room.  Know why?  Because EVERYTHING is center aligned.  Ugh.  For the most part, the information flow is pleasant.  I still love the pretty linework that it allowed.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough room for time, egg, abilities, and power all down the middle.  Not to mention, I need extra room for the next topic:


(3+) 6-8

This was seriously the dumbest mistake I made in this entire project.  I assumed.  At first, the abilities simply happened.  As I figured out cooler abilities, they needed special timing restrictions.  It was pretty obvious that I had to specify something happened at the beginning or end of the turn, and that some things happened when the eggs hatched.  And that’s where I stopped thinking.

I just figured that people would READ the abilities.  If there was no timing restriction listed, they would come to the conclusion that it occurs anytime it would make sense (all the time), right?  Nope.  For a month and a half, my testers and I just played and assumed.  No one thought it was strange or even commented.  So, I submitted my game for the competition.  Then, I got the first email asking about when something happened.  Before I even finished reading the question I knew what I did wrong. . . and it was huge!


(3+) 12-24
I have lost count of the number of times that I read “don’t assume”.  I even gave that advice to others.  Then, I went and did it anyway!  Fortunately, the fix was “easy”.  Changing the layout for the previous reason and utilizing icons in the ability text created plenty of room to showcase the egg and add this beautiful new timing label.

Information Breakdown:

This actually goes hand-in-hand with my previous post on using spreadsheets.  Go on, use them!  Don’t just lay out your cards, though.  If you have a finite resource, like how ADSftK has limited space and time, track it!  When I submitted this game, there was a real problem with staging eggs.  It always felt like players just could not get ahead.  Testers in most games I saw would end the game with at least 3 eggs in each hatchery.  That’s a problem.  You should feel smart for planning well, not feel overwhelmed and stupid.  When Willis first suggested staging eggs, I knew I would have to rebalance the times so that it would be more reasonable.  Well, I didn’t expect it to be so very bad.

When I finally input the cards into spreadsheets and looked at the times, I was shocked.  I calculated that the most “time” a single player could process in a 12 round game is about 33.  There was over 90 time in a 2 player game.  That’s a problem!  It meant that no matter how well a player planned, they could never clear their hatcheries by the end of the game.

Information Breakdown Part 2:

I could write an entire post on this point, but it’s here because I discovered it while writing the huge novel that was going to be Design Diary #3.  Very early on in the iterative process, break down exactly how you want players to interact with the game.  Once I decided to make every egg with a special ability unique, I actually had a difficult time coming up with new and interesting abilities.  This problem stemmed from not fully understanding my game’s inner workings.  I was only thinking about the big picture of “time”.  However, each ability’s effect on “time” was actually affecting the dwindling hand / decreasing choices, limited work space, randomly distributed eggs, and risk / reward system (abilities vs. score).  If I had taken the time to define those parameters, the development process would have been faster and easier because I would have known the ultimate goal from the start, instead of blindly stumbling into good abilities.   But, hindsight, rushed work, and all that jazz.

notesThanks to that epiphany, my process is now:
1. Brainstorm idea, story, theme, mechanism, etc.
2. Write Design Goals AND Specific Interactions
3. Prototype, test, refine, and iterate.

Summary of Lessons Learned:

  • FOCUS – write more outlines so that I can stay ON TOPIC!  If I really feel the need for an Op/Ed, write it on my own time and post it elsewhere.
  • PLANNED LAYOUT – while cleaning up the plain prototype is easy, I have to adjust the card to cleanly convey all of the new art, icons, and information that I’ve added along the way.
  • EXPLAIN EVERYTHING – don’t assume.  Tell the players what must be done and when.  Unnecessary confusion is a quick way of ruining an otherwise great game.
  • COUNT – track your finite resources, number of cards, each ability, everything!  Testing will tell you if it feels right, but counting will tell you if you are even in the right ballpark.
  • DEFINE INTERACTIONS – this does not have to be rigid or all inclusive.  Just as Design Goals set big picture parameters for the game, this list is an amazing tool for brainstorming new (game appropriate) ideas and to filter abilities and mechanisms.

Well, that’s it for A Dragon Show for the King’s race for The Game Crafter’s Design Challenge.  The Challenge is over (I didn’t win) and the world has moved on.  I still love this game and plenty of people have had a great time testing it.  Therefore, I am currently reworking the time balance so the game actually works and redoing all of the art so it isn’t as hideous 😉  Stay tuned here and the Facebook page for updates.  What do you think of the game’s progress?

Game Logo

#26: ADSftK Designer Diary 2 (Art and Committing to Theme)

Alright!  Now that they holidays are over and everyone’s work schedules are returning to normal, let’s see if I can get this baby back on track 😀

Finally, part two of my series on the MANY things I learned from The Game Crafter‘s “Time” Design Challenge.  My entry was A Dragon Show for the King and the lessons were plenteous. Last time, I covered the design goals and physical components. This week, I’ll be discussing art and a little bit of theme.

Firstly, a subtle but serious problem.  I’ve mentioned before that this game was quite unique for me in that, out of 10 game designs over a year-and-a-half, this was my first which grew around mechanics – no theme or story.  Seriously! If you go to the game’s page and download the PnP you can see how the cards looked right up until the last few days of the competition.  Just grey cards with some information listed on them.

At first, I wasn’t worried about it.  “A theme will come,” I thought.  “I’ll just work on the game-play now, and finish the look and polish later.”  Yeah, the problem is, “non-gamers” and “gamers who learn rules a little more slowly” have a very difficult time grasping what they should do, when, how, and why without a frame of reference.  As I mentioned in the last post, accessibility was very important to me.  I thought “Draft a card, Cook it for X turns, and Score it” was simple.  It turns out that some people need to know why they are picking a card before anything else can make any sense at all.

Most people could be coaxed along through the learning curve, though.  Just when I was feeling my lowest about this problem, a lady from my FLGS asked to play it again.  The week before this she had played, was confused, and lost badly.  But this week, she said it was fun and wanted to play again!  That’s when I knew I had something worthwhile.  The biggest problem with “No Theme” was still to come, though.

I was so comfortable with the game as it was and so focused on making it a foundational Lagniappe game, that I resisted putting a theme on it.  Any other time, this could be argued as holding out for the perfect story.  Unfortunately, I was on a time-crunch.  I wasted weeks!  Wasted because “dragon eggs” was the second reasonable idea, first good idea I encountered! *Special thanks to Teale Fristoe (@nothingsacredg) for the suggestion of a celebratory dragon show instead of a kingdom wide war!*  Instead of committing to a good idea so that I could actually move forward, I continued to spin my wheels and ask everyone I could what theme / story they thought would work.  DON’T DO THAT!  Not only did I look really desperate (because I was), it tainted my image and ruined the conversation with a number of people who were nice enough to try the game.  The delay ultimately caused a LOT of headaches for the rest of the project.

By not committing to a theme early, I put myself in the awkward position of needing art in a VERY short period of time.  3 ARTISTS.   3 different artists came and went – unable to do the work I needed in the time I had left.  3 WEEKS.  Being a nice guy sucks when it causes you to flush 3 weeks waiting for one artist to actually produce something. 3 weeks down with nothing to show for it is scary!  I didn’t even dismiss her from the project until the 4th week.  When I finally did man-up and tell her, “Dont worry about this,” it was out of pity. With everything going on in her life and only 2 weeks left to finish the entire project, it was better for her to not have this extra stress.  It wasn’t all her fault, either. I utterly failed to follow Mr. Rodiek’s advice on working with artists.  I didn’t have solid numbers on how many dragons or eggs I needed.  I just couldn’t decide, which made her job a bit harder.  It’s always easier to do a lot of things when you know how many need to be done – instead of doing a lot, checking to see if it’s enough, yet, doing some more, ad nauseam.

After all of this hemming, hawing, and negotiating I ended up having to do all of the art myself in the last 5 days before the end of the contest.  Not fun at all.  I still didn’t even know what numbers I needed.  The original plan was to have dragons on the card backs. That way, when players flip the eggs into their score piles, they’d be building a group of dragons.  Right out the window!  I didn’t have the time or skill to pull that off.  This late in the game, I was just happy to have eggs.  I painted up a whole bunch of eggs – went until my brain ran dry.  Then, I worked up some hot coals for the background, built some symbols in Illustrator, and just started laying eggs on cards.  The number of eggs required for the project quickly became apparent.  Certain sets, color adjustments, and repetitions of similar styles were obvious now that I was actually doing something.  Ugh! It hurts to think of how much time and heartache I could have saved by building card illustrations and making a pretty prototype early on.

Now, let’s wrap up my lessons from this post.

  • Commit as soon as I have a theme which works with / explains how and why the game works.  This means not worrying about how the game’s theme (wizards and dragons and murder, oh my!) represents the company.  For me, contests are more about the designer than the publisher.  Besides, theme can always be changed.
  • Once I have a working foundation for the game, start mocking up illustrations.  Most people say to keep the prototype completely plain for as long as possible to save money on printing and retain modulation between edits / iterations.  Mocking up illustrations was key to my understanding of what art assets were needed.  Therefore, when time matters, I need to develop the look of the game ASAP (even if it means borrowing art from others) so that I have more time for fixes and adjustments.


  • Shop for and network with artists EARLY!  Even if I don’t know what art assets I need, yet.   While most people focus on how expensive art can be, my primary experience has been one of great difficulty in finding an artist.  PERIOD.  A dependable artist who is somewhat familiar with board games would be ideal.  However, someone I can stretch my budget to afford AND who is available has been a bit of a crap-shoot.  Looking for someone at the last second for any project isn’t exactly setting yourself up for success.
  • Mock-up the game before talking with an artist about the project.  If you find an available artist, they want to know what you want  – ALL OF IT – now.  To save yourself and your artists a lot of headaches, you should have a complete list (and complete understanding) of the art assets you need before they begin working.  *Quick note: if you are doing “full art” cards (illustration over the entire card instead of using a card boarder) make sure your artist leaves extra space around the focal point of the illustration.  Your printer needs a bleed area and your graphic designer needs room to layout information without covering up important parts of the image.  This layout. . . this version of framing the image is not natural for an illustrator.  If you don’t make your needs clear ahead of time you will be left with sub-optimal card art.
  • Learn to wear SEPARATE hats.  There are times where the Lagniappe Games publisher really interferes with Derik the designer.  Some times, I need to allow myself to work a game design for the experience.  It might become a great game, and it’s okay if it’s not “Lagniappe” worthy.  The important thing is to allow myself that learning experience.

Thanks for reading!  What have your experiences with design challenges been?  How do you pick your theme?

#25: ADSftK Designer Diary 1 (Design Goals and Physical Components)

As promised, I am going to start rolling through the MANY things I learned from The Game Crafter‘s “Time” Design Challenge. The entry I eventually submitted (at the last possible minute) is A Dragon Show for the King and the lessons are plenteous.  *I promise to try and keep this brief and to the point 😉

I guess the most logical place to start is the beginning. The contest began about 2 months ago. I found out about it with roughly 50 days left. Fear and doubt had no place in my mind because it was racing with the potential of a game which used time as a resource – not a simple timer or “clock”, but as something which could be manipulated for the players’ benefit. My Idea Notebook went everywhere with me for a week because I could not stop the flow of game concepts. Sometimes it was just a possible mechanic. Other times the thoughts involved an entire thematic idea. There were so very many  options to choose from – even some great ideas from my friends.

With time running short, I had to make a decision on ONE project to build up and publish, though. Here are the associated design goals I was cooking through:

Contest Requirements:

  • Time as a resource
  • Cost cannot exceed $24.99
  • Publish Ready: logo, backdrop, shop ad, action shots, description, cool factors, all images proofed, and have packaging
  • Must be new and must be (legally) yours

Personal Goals:

  • Small / easily transported (because of the dwindling clock and monetary restriction)
  • Lightweight / easy to learn (because it’s small)
  • Easy / fast set up and break down
  • Good player interaction
  • As many players as possible (because interaction is more fun with more people)
  • An element of randomness to improve replay value
  • Players should feel like they have control over their end-game
  • No player elimination & hidden score (so the game can be fun all the way to the end)

Now, with the exception of the first 2 points, these personal goals are generally how I like to design anyway. Honestly, I don’t even write this stuff down. It’s just how I filter game ideas as I’m preparing to work on a project. So, with all of that in mind I reviewed my ideas and went with the most exciting and “complete” one I had: a drafting game where the chosen cards had to “cook” for a set number of turns. After the cards processed they were turned face-down in a score pile to hide the actual score until the end of the game. Some cards would have abilities which sped up or slowed down the progress of other cards. Some of those abilities would specifically mess with other players.

Why was that the most exciting? Didn’t you have something bigger / better in that book? Well, let me tell you. . .

I love drafting games. Teale Fristoe at Nothing Sacred Games gives a wonderful breakdown of many reasons to love the format. Primarily, I wanted to keep this a drafting game because it utilized randomness in a way to give players a different view of the game play after play, while still allowing a level of control over how the game panned out. Depending on how the draft is structured, you could have a built-in clock to end the game in a set number of turns – thereby giving me control over how big and how long the game was. Because I knew how many turns I wanted the game to last, adding more players simply involved adding a known number more cards. Finally, as Mr. Fristoe points out, a huge benefit of drafting is simultaneous play. Thereby allowing me to add up to 6 players to the game without drastically increasing play time.

The first iteration was actually quite easy to build. The challenge, really, was in determining how many cards I would need. Ideally, I’d be able to fit this whole thing into a tuck box. However, I wanted at least 6 players to be able to play and, as I just mentioned, adding more players meant adding more cards. So, the total number needed to divide evenly into player groups (i.e. 2, 3+, 5+) to allow for easy set up. Secondly, the number of cards divided by the number of players determined the number of turns for a game. Too small a card pool and the game would be extremely short. Too long of a game and players would start with an unwieldy hand (imagine on your first play through holding and sorting 30 cards all at once).

My gut told me that I wanted a 2 player game to last between 10 and 14 turns. This should allow just enough time for players to get themselves into trouble and race down to the finish line without feeling overly long. Whatever I decide for 2 players would be my foundation – no other group would have fewer than this number of turns. After doing a tiny bit of math and a lot of intuitions 😉 I settled on 24 cards. This gave 2 players 12 turns to work their magic. It also multiplied beautifully: 3 players would have 16 turns each, 4 players 12 each, 5 players 14* each, and 6 players 12 each. The one acceptable complication being 5 players. In the end, I put some REALLY strong and crazy stuff in those 24 5+ player cards. So, losing 2 wasn’t really a problem.

This means that the total 6 player capable version would only involve 72 poker size cards. Yay! Small game? Check! Easy set up? (Shuffle together up to 3 complete sets of 24 cards depending on the size of your group.) Check!

That pretty much covers design goals and how I determined the physical details of the game. Tune in next week when I’ll start covering more of the virtual aspects of the game, like: player interaction, time as a resource, theme, etc. In the mean-time, have a great week!

Please, Forgive the Delay

Hey there,
How’s it going? I’ve been slammed, lately. I just finished a 50 day race to the finish line of The Game Crafter’s Time Challenge. The last week I actually took some time off of work and a LOT of “free” time at home to quickly finish up what has become “A Dragon Show for the King“. It is not the theme I wanted, the card back I wanted, or even the art that I wanted, BUT it is deeply satisfying. Not just because it’s fun to play. I’m a happy-happy camper just having it “finished”. This was my 10th game. Tenth! The first game I have roughly finished. And in finishing, I have learned so VERY much. Over the next few weeks I’d like to share with you the personal, design, and publishing tricks, issues, and lessons I have struggled through.

Unfortunately, my learned lessons won’t be ready until next week. Until then, please head to The Game Crafter and check out all of the great entries in the contest and let me know what you think 😀

#24: If It Ain’t Broke

This was a fun lesson to learn and falls right into the most common question I’ve seen asked of experienced game designers / publishers. “How do I know when my game is ready / done?” Many people shy away from answering because we don’t want to give you bad advice. I don’t have the “right” answer, either. From personal experience, though, I can tell you that if it ain’t broke, fix it anyway!

“Fix it anyway” because recognizing a broken game is easy. Improving a not quite awesome game can be really hard. Remember when I said that better does not mean right? Hold that advice to heart because it can make all the difference.

Way back when, I had a really scary situation arise with Top-Deck. I’ll go into more detail elsewhere, but, for the sake of this post, I’ll say it experienced a couple of big changes. Originally, the game was just the Play cards and Bonus cards. Then, Gamer-Friend recommended some kind of Role. The idea sounded thematically fun and gave additional player interaction. Thus, the Roles were born. A lot of effort went into creating a slew of Roles with unique passive abilities and cool, theme appropriate Bonus cards. Months of development, balance, and polish followed. It was fun, but felt a little flat and excessively chaotic. After the “flat” feeling had time to ferment, I realized that it WAS too random because I was putting all of the unique Role effort into the fat Bonus card deck which had to be sifted through to reach YOUR cards. The most common request (and what the game really needed) was stability. What I needed to do was move those thematic abilities onto the Role cards, instead. Which meant I had to completely redo the Bonus deck, rebuild all of the Roles, figure out some-kind of cost for the new abilities, and re-balance the whole game. I was mad, broken-hearted, and scared. It took about 2 weeks just to start the process. But, Top-Deck is so much better for that extra effort.

More recently, I’ve been working on The King’s Highway. I felt confident enough with the work I had put into it to declare it as done to Peter Vaughn and plop down money for art. HOWEVER, it always felt a little flat to me. Not broken or wrong, just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. It just seemed like it could be better – even though I couldn’t find anything to actually change. I almost ruined my interview with Chris Handy in order to ask him if my game was okay. One week, I played it with a new friend at my FLGS’s game night. He listened to my concerns and started throwing out ideas. Most of them I had already considered. There was no way I was adding even more dice or extra complicated rules to what I was trying to make as a micro game. Then, he suggested something pretty special: marked faces which MUST be played. Brilliant!

You see, that flat feeling I had, the root of my concern, was because the game had NO conflict. Sure, through timing and selfishness you can put another player in a tough spot of sub-optimal plays, but it’s a pretty minor inconvenience at best. Plus, I was usually the only person at the table taking advantage of the special rule allowing for a re-roll. This new mechanic makes the game harder by removing some of the flexibility, making your multiple dice and re-roll option more vital and leading into more player vs. player conflict. Players are now forced into that semi-cooperative environment that I originally wanted. Even if this change doesn’t completely fix the game, it has, at the very least, reinvigorated my excitement for getting this game published – and that’s pretty important.

So, the point I am trying to make today is that, if you are not completely confident in your game’s readiness, you probably need to work on something somewhere. My 2 favorite games (right now) from Lagniappe were drastically altered and improved by a very small suggestion. Maybe all your game needs is a little tweek, too 😀 What do say?

#23: Tell Your Rules With a Story

I have been pretty open this past year with my opinion on the importance of theme in game design. Mostly, that opinion has been rooted in a love of games which can envelope me in their story – preferably an interesting story. Even though I believe in and generally practice a theme first policy, I recently found myself in the awkward position of having a mechanically complete game with no theme. At all.

This has been a true lesson in the importance of theme, but not for the reasons I expected. Which of the following game descriptions are easiest for you to follow?

The game board consists of nodes sparsely distributed across a grid. Straight, forked, and intersecting line segments are randomly distributed to players, who use them to connect all of the nodes together. Once all line segments have been placed, penalties are assigned for any circuits left open. The player with the most complex contribution to the game wins.


In order to improve trade, quality of life, and his militia’s ability to quickly respond to threats, the king has commissioned anyone willing to work to complete highways between the towns and villages throughout his Kingdom. Players will use road segment covered dice to construct the king’s highway and earn prestige. Be careful, though, ending the highway before all of its paths are connected will cause you to lose prestige for shoddy work. If anyone wastes the king’s supplies and the highway fails to finish, you will all be hanged for incompetence. In the event the project is completed, whoever has the most prestige is given the credit, the glory, and the money!

Now, which of those two actually painted a picture in your mind? Which one could you imagine playing? A few designers have recommended reading through rulebooks regularly to improve your ability to write your own rulebook. Along the same lines, I challenge you to take your favorite game for new players, strip all of the theme off of it, and then teach it. Turns out that we aren’t just guilty of relying on “gamer jargon” to glaze over complex interactions. We also lean heavily on common knowledge related to elements of the game’s theme. Drafting makes sense to those of us who have done it. Recruiting an ally from a group of diplomats makes sense to mostly anyone at the table.

So far, my biggest take-away from this game design challenge has been that theme doesn’t just make your game pretty and interesting. A good theme makes a fairly simple drafting game MUCH easier for new players to understand. Let’s keep running with this new drafting game. For the first 15 or so games, I really struggled with explaining the game in a way that non-gamers could understand. At first, I was making the mistake of thinking I could say “draft” and they’d figure it out as we went. Then, I found Frank Zazanis‘s great advice in his guest post, “Pitch Slap Your Game to a Customer” over at The League of Gamemakers. Not only did he recommend removing jargon, but specifically addressed drafting games: “BLAH is a game where you pass cards around and pick your favorite ones.” Cool. Then, I went back to Teale Fristoe’s (Nothing Sacred Games) great posts on drafting and his game “Shadow Throne“. He asserts an interesting definition: “By drafting, I mean a mechanic in which players take turns choosing from a collection of options, where one player’s choice eliminates that choice from players downstream.”

While I had not fully considered those perspectives on what was happening in-game, it didn’t help in the way I was hoping. Three weeks into testing, I was finally able to have a heart-to-heart with one of my oldest (and non-gamin-est) testers. I had to figure out why he still didn’t know what was going on after 3 games. After a lot of poking and prodding, I was able to determine that part of his problem was rooted in understanding when he should be doing these things that he didn’t quite understand. It was this second piece of the puzzle that clued me in to the real problem. With no theme, most of our actions OR their timing lacked a recognizable reason. With no reasons, he couldn’t formulate a game plan and was just sitting there, waiting for others to tell him what to do. Poop.

This realization forced my hand. I had been sitting on a potential theme for the game for a couple of weeks. It worked perfectly into the mechanics and added a fun story to get people interested in the game. I didn’t want to use it because it wasn’t quite in line with the family-friendly goal of Lagniappe Games. Unfortunately, with player fun on the line and a fast approaching deadline for the competition, I HAD to go with the best option: DRAGONS. Let’s try that comparison game again:

Each turn, you will pick up your stack of cards, choose your favorite card and place it in front of you, and then pass the rest of the stack of cards to your left. That number at the top of the card is the number of “time counters” that you place on the card when you play it in front of you, and the one on the bottom is the value (Victory Points) at the end of the game. So, on each turn you will: 1) remove 1 counter from all of your cards, 2) choose a new card, 3) pause – because some abilities trigger at the end of the turn, 4) pass your hand. When the last counter is taken off of your card, you will perform any abilities written on the card and then place it face down in your score pile. Now, be careful: you only have 3 slots in which to work on those cards, the game ends when all cards are gone from all hands, and anything left unfinished in front of you counts against your score at the end of the game.


You are all kings and queens of your kingdoms. Ambassadors and Scouts estimate that a great war will arrive on your castle gates in roughly 12 days. Therefore, you seek to build the most powerful army on the continent in that short time. Fortunately, there are vendors who regularly rotate through the kingdoms carrying precious dragon eggs. With no limit of money, a mass of Beast Masters, Handlers, and Sorcerers to do the dirty work, and 3 hatcheries, you set out to make the most of your short time. Each day a new vendor will come and go, offering up your choice of eggs. Each egg requires a certain amount of time to incubate and specific hatchery preparations before the dragon can hatch. So, you must carefully budget your time and space. Complicating matters more, some of these eggs have powerful abilities which can help other eggs or suck the very life out of them.

*I did leave them both a little vague and short to speed this along*
Forget the ease of understanding, just look at how much of the process can be inferred through setting. New players figured out how to “draft” just because I called the hands vendors which rotate every day and said you’re buying an egg from them! Theme also gave me a fun way to give players the restrictions on the game without having to stop and say, “Oh, by the way. . .” 12 days (turns), 3 hatcheries, cost and actual work aren’t an issue for a king / queen, etc. Holy smokes!

Well, this is running a little longer than expected, but I think I got my point across. If you are having trouble with comprehension of your rules, turn progression, etc. consider your theme. Make sure your theme permeates the rules – don’t use game jargon and take your players out of the story. Most of all – have fun with it! Thanks for reading today, and please share YOUR thoughts 😀

#22: Salt and Pepper

There is a lot of great advice out there warning new / indie game designers that adding more to your game does not fix your game. Often, experienced designers will say things like, “My rule for designing a game is that anything I can take out of the game, I take out, as long as it doesn’t undermine the base part” (Alan R. Moon). While the advice is sound, the other side of this token is presenting half a game. One of the most common criticisms that I read about “Kickstarted games” is that they have no replay value. As a backer of 50 projects (at the moment) I can attest that the games I receive usually feel unfinished. I am here to encourage you: be not afraid to ADD to your game!

I understand. If you were the buyer instead of the designer, you wouldn’t want to struggle for 2 hours to complete what felt like 3 different clunky games smashed together. That’s why, as always, my advice comes with the caveat of “all things with moderation” and MUST be followed by testing. ALWAYS test your games! Therefore, I am not saying to just dump into your game every crazy idea that pops into your head. There is a right way and a reckless way. The reckless way might work (if you are extremely lucky) but because of it’s uncertain success, let’s discuss the right way, instead.

“If your gut instinct tells you that your game is missing something, it usually is” (Christopher Chung).

That little voice of reason in your head? It can be tough to find, let alone hear. Fortunately, the more you test the louder it gets. Until I think a game is “done”, I typically am involved in every single play test. When I, as the super-excited designer, start feeling bored or “in a rut”, I rest assured that a customer will have already been feeling that way for a few games. Even if you can’t quite pinpoint what that fatal logic-loop is, if you’ve been asking good questions of your testers all along, their feedback should put you in the right arena. Once you’ve found the problem area, you can slowly and carefully add in those nuggets of spice and flavor that have been rattling around inside your head.

EXAMPLES: I have spoken about The King’s Highway before. It is a simple road and map building dice game. Every play-through felt different because of the random element of rolling dice, but not every game was fun or exciting. It turns out there was no player interaction; therefore, the game relied on the players to carry the conversation. I added in mines, placed by players onto the board at the beginning of the game, which would “blowup” and reset dice around them. NOW we had some conflict. “Don’t go over there! What are you doing?!” Unfortunately, because placement was left up to players, it didn’t always work. So, I removed a few of the paths (it was slightly too easy anyway) and made new special dice, one per player, with new settlements to connect to, boulders to block the path, and other crazy abilities. This introduced just enough control and player interaction to consistently offer fun (crazy), short games.

My current project has no name, yet, and is an entry for The Game Crafter‘s Time Challenge. Players simultaneously draft cards which require a certain number of turns to process and, if finished, offer a certain number of victory points at the end of the game. In order to stir in some interesting choices and conflict, some of the cards have special abilities which modify other cards. At first, I only had the basics: add / subtract a turn, move a time counter from here to there, etc. It felt very redundant to me, and no one was wowed by the game. Testers weren’t displeased with it but they didn’t have a great time, either. So, I went through and readjusted to make sure that no ability cards ever repeated. Then, new abilities had to be envisioned to add much more variety; don’t pass hands this turn, when you would add or subtract do it twice, target player scores target card, etc. This wasn’t just to make the game bigger. These changes were because a small drafting game MUST have a lot of different cards to not get old quick (because everyone sees every card every game). It was also a chance to add more control through interesting choices and increased conflict through player interaction.

Now, a bigger game: Top-Deck! It began as just a blind bidding game which used action points to filter a player’s deck for a better hand and/or buy a few special ability cards. Again, testing quickly showed the need for more variety. As I added cool new ability cards, though, the randomness of the “Bonus” deck became the real problem. This “control” element offered no real control because players were drawing off the top of a shuffled deck. So, I rebuilt the system and added an additional resource. Now, players wield individual character cards with variable powers in addition to a scaled down Bonus deck used as a kind-of reward system. This allows players to choose a specific play style and have more control over how their game progresses.

The point of those three examples is to show games which needed some spicing up. Some of the additions I made were not necessarily needed for the game to function, but they HAD to be made to keep players interested. With the voice of “Fat Cutting” ringing in my ears, I was terrified to make that change to Top-Deck! The addition was big and, at the time, clunky. Something had to change, though.

With all of these examples, adding and refining made the game much better – much more fun. Please, test the mess out of your games and, if something doesn’t feel quite right – you have a little nagging in the back of your mind – don’t release it yet! Flavor it up with a little salt. . . spice it up with a little player interaction. . . see what changes you can make. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll kill that doubt.

P.S. –
Thanks to Cardboard Edison for collecting the quotations I used today!