Category Archives: Game Development

#31: Perception (Set in Stone)

With the launch of my first ever Kickstarter campaign looming (Febuary 1st), I figured now would be a good time to start listing all the crazy things I’ve learned in this mad race (because the amount of planning, preparation, and work needed is really starting to feel like a dash to the finish).  To that end, I think my first lesson will be a more universal one.

To date, Hot Pursuit is the closest I have come to taking a game from concept to final, published product. Although I’ve printed “real” on-demand copies of other games and even spent money on art, this is the first time I’ve gotten my game into the hands of other people and sought out 3rd party reviews. Therefore, this particular game has seen many different “coverings” or art styles, a few different methods of play, quite a few different boxes, and has even been to 2 conventions and a 1 day event.

Through all of those different appearances and various players, I think my most surprising lesson has been that perception matters.

Now, this has little to do with the fact that a cohesive story or setting makes the game easier to teach or that you’ll get more people to try prototypes with some kind of art (instead of hand-writing on index cards). Neither does this have to do with getting testers or future customers to take you seriously. While I completely advocate doing everything in your power to respect the precious time given to you by testers, these aren’t the topics I’m talking about, today.

What I discovered, quite by accident, is that the kind of feedback you receive and how people talk about your game depends a lot on how players perceive your game. While the rest of the post operates on a generalization, understand that I am working on the premise of mostly unsolicited feedback from NEW players. Here are the 3 main ways that players see the games they are trying out:

1 – Early prototype (Proof of Concept)
2 – Working prototype
3 – “Finished” product

This list is based purely on how people react to playing my game and the way they talk about it afterwards. But what does it mean?

Well, when the game is clearly an early prototype, new players tend to treat the game as an experiment – “will this thing work?” As such, without specific prompting, they tend to talk mostly about whether or not it worked. Sometimes, they will even feel strongly enough to tell you what specifically did or did not work. This step is pretty awful on testers. They aren’t getting much out of it and have plenty of other things they could be having fun with. So, try not to abuse testers by spending a lot of time with that hot mess in front of them.

Finished” product means that you have commissioned most, if not all, of the art and have a great prototype for people to play.  It may not actually be the FINAL product, but it should look like it and be discussed as if it is. My absolute favorite experience in this step was at this past year’s Christmas and New Year’s parties. At both parties I and/or my wife told the testers that this was “my” game. Well, most of us arrived with several games because the majority of the day was being spent playing games (also known as heaven). Apparently, they didn’t get our point. At both parties, we played multiple games. Each party surprised me with the people who “got it” and ran the table. It was great! Each session ended with a quick – “That was neat. Where’d you get it?” It’s MY game – I made it 😀 (it’s tough not to follow those words with that face). “Oh!” Yeah, I’ll be seeking funding for an actual print run in February. “Wow. I’d totally buy that!”

See how the communication was about the fun had and buying the game? Yup, that’s what I needed to hear – if they liked it and whether they would buy it (even with the current art and graphic design).

Working prototype. In some ways, I really hate this step, and it all comes down to how players perceive which step you are at. You see, “working prototype” is when your game mostly works. Mostly. Therefore, you are obviously seeking to make it better. Right? God, I hope so because the only feedback you are going to get will be things to add to make it awesome. Don’t ever think you are just going to test out this one idea. Early in development, this is fantastic. 3 of my favorite games in development wouldn’t really be a game if not for testers throwing ideas at me. A word of warning – I am getting pretty good at just saying “Sure!” instead of explaining ANY of what is actually going through my mind.

“How can you hate that?” you are probably asking yourself. Well, let me give you another story from the New Year’s party. I took Into a New World with me. I commissioned gorgeous art for the tiles and mocked up a pretty box. This WAS going to be Lagniappe’s first game until Willis and I came up with Hot Pursuit. I had the opportunity to play it with a couple of guys who didn’t quite have enough time to play chess. The first game was a learning experience. The second game was awesome. One of the guys was looking over my box trying to figure out who on earth made it. “Is this from a Japanese designer?” he asked. He seemed to be really enjoying working through strategies and probabilities. We had some pretty exciting discussions about the gameplay, components, etc. 😀 Unfortunately, after he discovered it was MY design, the conversation quickly turned. The next 20 minutes was him giving me his thoughts on box size / construction, component sourcing, and finding manufacturers via his favorite websites.

He only spent all that time giving me advice because he was interested and wanted to help. Which is great! Immensely appreciated. However, I have already spent over a year researching and planning all of that. The moment people discover that the game they just tried out is a prototype, they immediately back up to the concept of a working prototype – something which can and probably should be “fixed”. Surprisingly, it is often more difficult for me to accept those “fixes” on a “finished” game than when it’s brutally honest feedback on a broken game. Ugh.

Please, keep in mind that this is an observation – not a complaint. Hopefully, I can save you from some of the stress I’ve experienced with these unexpected reactions. That being said, there are steps you can take to ensure that the table talk doesn’t veer off point. Obviously, you can try controlling the conversation by asking pointed questions and using feedback forms. If you are like me and you prefer a more natural, organic conversation, then you’ll need to control their perception. Use a professional, finished looking prototype, be candid about the tremendous amount of work and research you’ve already put in, and be careful with your words – talk about how excited you are to finally publish, instead of how excited you are to finish. If you can give the impression that your design is set in stone, then new players are more inclined to talk about how much they enjoyed the game, if they would buy it, and how much they think it’s worth.

What do you think? How do you like to carry the conversation with new players?

#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!

#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!

#21: Duh!

Good day!
I am just so very excited to be back for another Thursday edition of “Things I Recently Learned, But Should Have Known All Along!”

This week, I’ll be discussing spreadsheets and how I should’ve known better. First, let’s start with some background information. As I mentioned before, until just a couple of years ago, the only real game I ever played was Magic: The Gathering. I thoroughly enjoy the deck building process. Every time I build a deck, though, (even the 100 card Commander decks) I sort cards into piles and spread out all over a table. It helps me think to be able to hold, see, and sort. The fact that I cannot do this on Magic Online makes it pretty uncomfortable for me to play.

What does this have to do with the topic? I am currently working on a small card game for The Game Crafter’s “Time Challenge”. It involves drafting and some variable power cards. Being a small game (24 cards for 2 players, 48 for 3+, and 72 for 5+) I figured that I could just do what I was comfortable with and build my piles. You see, I was on my 3rd iteration. I had a chance to see how it operated, experience some balance issues, and was simply cleaning up the game. So, I had plenty of cards to work with – I just needed to fine tune the balance.

Unfortunately, I was very tired and kept losing track of where I thought a certain ability should be, what my cost spread was on that particular number of players, and which card I wanted to move where. It was a frustrating few hours. I was also constantly second-guessing myself. Some major changes were being made to the 2 player version and I feared that I was destroying the game balance. All the while, I was arguing against the logic of using a spreadsheet. “This has always worked before,” regularly rang through my head. The difference I refused to accept this time was that I was dealing with many more adjustable variables, and I just couldn’t keep track of it all.

I went to lunch, came back, and couldn’t remember a big chunk of my work on the 5+ portion. Screw it. I have to use a spreadsheet. So, I set the columns for card abilities grouped across game sizes and the rows for card costs versus victory point values. Then, I filled in information from the last iteration of the game (because I liked the general balance but needed to move some things and remove some redundancy). Next, I added in the changes I knew that I wanted to make. Finally, I was left with a very clear picture of the holes I needed to fill, an easy display of power distribution across the game sizes (friendlier cards for 2 players, more powerful, game-breaking cards for 5+), and a helpful print order (because I build my pages of cards to print as JPEGs).

In half the time, I was able to address a potential balance issue, finish No-Name-Game Version 1.3, and print it up. Driving home the fact that I should have done this long ago, I misprinted a card for the 2 player set. The mistake was discovered as I was prepping for a game at my FLGS. All I had to do was pull up the spreadsheet on my phone, confirm which cards were in the wrong place, and proxy replacements. Amazing!

I am quite sure this is a no-brainer for most, but, as I said, I was cocky. Please, learn from my hubris and work smarter not harder.

What are some tricks you use for organizing your thoughts?

#15: Special Guest Eduardo Baraf

Hey there! We are launching a day early because we get to hear from a great guy, Eduardo Baraf! He has an impressive background in digital games, and now has a Kickstarter campaign going right now for his wonderful little board game, Lift Off! After seeing the obvious signs of extensive preparation, I invited Mr. Baraf to share some insights. He was kind enough to send along this little breakdown of his process from development up through launch. I hope you are excited as I am about what he has to say. Here he goes:

On The Prototype
Like everyone else, I started with pencil prototypes. I’ve actually uploaded a number of the designs to Twitter and the game’s Facebook page. Early on though, I knew I wanted to have a prototype which would last for a long time and be a showcase for what I actually intended the final game to look like. While doing the design work we explored the visual style and once they were both in great shape moved to making the prototypes (there are 3 in existence).

All of the prototypes are hand made. We used cardboard, masonite, wood and a jigsaw. Lots of trial and error and crafts work to get it right. I’ve included some of those steps along the way in my Uber Fan package on the KS.

On Playtesting
Playtesting is critical.  To start, I played tested early versions by myself. Playing as multiple players, etc. Then I played with my wife, Nichole, and Adam. This was the core group who played multiple games. From there, I had game nights to play the game. This was the meat of the early playtesting.

I set up group to do playing where a) I didn’t play and then b) where they used the instructions on their own to play. Then for a long time it was a game I pulled out with different groups – just took notes each time. Getting ready for the Kickstarter there have been a TON of plays. Also in sending it off to reviewers and friends.

On Printers
I evaluated a ton of printers by looking them up, checking online resources, asking people for references, etc. Then I sent out my spec for bids from four I believe. Three came back with bids, two of which are actually competitive. I had those two bids as I rolled into the Kickstarter.

Leading up to the Kickstarter
I began my planning and prepping for the Kickstarter roughly 1 month to launch. This was after the lion share of the material was complete for the Kickstarter. This period I really focused on lining up reviews, talking to blogs, reaching out to people, building my following on twitter etc. I would have liked to have started 3 months before!

Advice / Lessons Learned
I found it very hard to cut through all the mountains and mountains of information and advice on how to be successful for Kickstarter. Amazing stuff out there, but it is information overload. I’m not going to do that here!

Be humble, listen, always try to do better, and pay it forward by helping others.

Your key destinations will be Facebook, Twitter, and BGG
You will need a YouTube channel too, but just to get a H2P [how to play] video up. 

  • Facebook: This acts as your home base for users and your website (you don’t need a website). This is easy and quick to setup.
  • Twitter: Start early. Twitter accounts grow slow and steady. Your reach is a reflection of the time on Twitter. To start, the only thing you should be doing on Twitter is helping other people, building trust, and being interesting. Pay attention to good use of hashtags, pics, links, etc.
  • BoardGameGeek: Basically a requirement and a snarl to set up. You need to wait for admins to approve and they are picky. Get this set up a month in advance.


Setting up your Kickstarter
Let me save you a lot of time. Go find your favorite Kickstarter, which you thought was most effective. Copy it (layout, content length, information amount, etc). Then take a look at 3 other successful campaigns, figure out the delta, and take one improvement from each. Then pass your preview links around readily and listen to feedback.

Build a small group of 15 super individuals to be your core
One of the best things I did. Early on I recruited friends and strangers to be on my Lift Off! SWAT Team. Only requirement was that they let me tell them what I was doing and what I was thinking. Helped a ton.

Make a Calendar
Use Powerpoint, Keynote, or an actual Staples calendar to chart out every day of your campaign and what is happening. THIS IS HUGE. Fill gaps.


  • Consider what you are willing to spend on reviews
  • Consider what you are willing to spend on ads
  • Get to know blogs and bloggers
  • Look at what everyone else is doing.
  • Use Backercamp (solid $10 value)
  • Be weary of everyone else.


Get to know every single backer that will let you
I’ve written a direct note to all 400+ backers of Lift Off! some respond, some don’t. If they respond I start a dialog.

Front-Load, but still have more
You absolutely want to have a big first 2 days. Your entire campaign rides on it. At the same time, do make sure you have interesting things going on for the duration of the project. If you have nothing happening during slump you’ll get super depressed.

Wow! How great was that?! I gotta tell you, I first saw Mr. Baraf on Twitter, @ebaraf, where he was constantly chatting with designers, sharing other projects, and enticing us all with teasers for his game. When he finally launched the campaign, I was blown away by the professionalism, open communication, and extensive preparation that I saw on every inch of that page. I really appreciate Mr. Baraf taking the time to share some of his knowledge with the rest of us. Please, check out his campaign for Lift Off!, and, more importantly, stop by his website, Facebook, or Twitter and let him know how much YOU appreciate his advice.

#13: Special Guest Mark Basker (Around the Clock Games)

You are in for a special treat, today. At the time of this writing, his first Kickstarter project, Virus the Card Game, is 583% funded with 274 backers. He obviously is doing something right! So, I asked Mr. Basker if he would be so kind as to write up some of the things he is/has learned from this current adventure. Mr. Basker graciously sent the following message along:

I am writing this post on the request of my friend Derik Duley (@Festerduley) from  Lagniappe Games.  He asked me to write about what I learned from my first Kickstarter Project, which was for Virus the Card Game.

1.  Your Dreams – I am by no means an expert in Kickstarter.  In fact I barely knew what Kickstarter was a year ago.  I knew of course that you could take an idea and present it to people, but I always thought it was for “someone else”  not me…  I’m not an artist, or a big shot designer, but I realized Kickstart IS for everyone.  It is for “Your Dreams” too!

2.  Everyone’s a Critic – I received a lot of critical advice before and during the project.  A lot of people said they don’t like X or Y or Z.  The first thing I realized is not everyone is going to like everything about your project.  Just like everyone doesn’t like chocolate ice cream.  You have to realize even though you can’t please EVERYONE, you can still please hundreds of people with your project, and that’s great!

3.  Listen to your Backers – I changed many aspects of the game during the campaign, but it was an enjoyable and collaborative process with my backers.  I went in with the mind set to listen to them in the first place; welcoming ideas.  I actually enjoyed taking their advice, and trying to improve it how they saw fit.  I couldn’t change everything for every person, but most ideas were great, inventive, and friendly.  My backers were like my friends rooting for my project.

4.  Don’t be Afraid – I was really afraid to push the start project button on Kickstarter.  I wasn’t sure if Virus the Card Game would even fund, but I realized I would never know if it would or not if I didn’t try.  Fortunately, it was more successful than I dreamed it would be!

5.  Enjoy the Process – I heard a lot of people talk about how the process was so stressful or so burdensome.  I have found the Kickstarter process to be fun and enjoyable.  The one aspect that seemed taxing a bit was the fact that the 30 days seemed to drag on forever.

Those are the lessons learned, or tips, or whatever you want to call them.  I’m already planning my next project, Airline the Card Game, and am really excited about that as well.

Thanks for reading!

by Mark Basker (@Bloodmoondice) – Mastermind of game development at Around The Clock Games.

*Thanks a lot Mr. Basker! If you haven’t checked out Virus the Card Game, yet, there are still 3 days to go on his campaign! Head on over to the project, or even to Around the Clock Games, say “Hi”, and thank him for sharing his experience with us.

#9: Extracting Constructive Criticism

You may have noticed I love writing about things we all know we should do or work on. Today,  we’ll be discussing play testing!

We all know that we should test our games because every blog, podcast, YouTube channel, and forum out there reminds us of this very fact. With so many of us starting fresh in the industry (no prior time developing games) and lacking access to experienced play testers, we often leave a lot of useful information on the table. Mr. Stegmaier gives a perfect example of what I’m talking about in his post, “There is No Perfect Pickle.

“If you’re like most people, your answer to the question at the beginning of this entry (“If you’re a coffee drinker, do you prefer a dark, rich, hearty roast?”) was yes. However, in truth, the vast majority of people prefer milk, weak, slightly sweet coffee.”

The simple fact is that we don’t know what we don’t know. For most of us, we just don’t know how to break down our experience with a game in a useful way. You may be working with very smart and analytical  people, but unless they’ve tried before they don’t know how to tell you that this resource collecting mechanic is overpowered. Worst yet, they could be friends or family who are worried about hurting your feelings. My circle knows I want them to be completely honest, but they don’t always know the difference between helpful criticisms and hurtful opinions – so they sometimes don’t say anything.

Therefore, the question becomes how to get the useful information out of these helpers who don’t know how to give feedback. Ask the right questions! We all learn how to do this, eventually. We make a major change to a game driving mechanic, so we ask a lot of questions about it. Or we make a deck building game, so we take notes and ask questions to ensure players felt like they had options in the choices they made and routes they took. But I’m here to help you figure this out without breaking 4 of your own games and testing 3 – 5 from other people.

Check out this awesome feedback form from Unpub‘s website. It is a free, recommended asset they offer to indie developers. As Mr. Stegmaier said in his “Don’t Copy and Paste,” lesson, don’t just copy this form. The information you gain by dropping this in front of players may be better than asking them, “Did you like it?” But, as I mentioned here, better just means less bad. You know your game. You’ve already played the heck out of it and know some of the holes and weaknesses. So, talk to the testers about those problems. Now, starting a conversation about your game and the tester’s experience will generate good feedback. However, guiding the conversation with smart, directed questions will garner the constructive criticisms you truly want.

The easiest method I’ve found is to bring up an aspect of the game and ask a specific question. For instance: “Back when you guys were building the map, did that seem overly complicated? Do you think it slowed the game down unnecessarily?” Or, “I noticed you went straight for the Bonus cards but didn’t use your character’s abilities, much. Did you not like the character?” Then, give each person time to respond but don’t demand that they comment. In the last question the player’s reasoning could be that they felt the character was too under-powered or they just preferred the random chaos of the Bonus cards. Don’t forget to give them room to occasionally change the subject and / or circle back to a topic from earlier – sometimes it takes a few minutes to figure out how to articulate a feeling. When you get them thinking about specifics and then give them room to converse with you, you’ll both be surprised by the insightful critiques you can come away with.

The biggest key here to continued help is to accept everything as if it is golden advice. Are you going to actually use all of the advice and criticisms? NO. They don’t need to know that, though. Your testers DO need to know that you appreciate their time and thoughts. So, don’t correct, cringe, or chide. Just smile, take notes, and thank them.

Thanks for sticking around for my ninth lesson and letting me talk at you. How do you overcome the generic, “I liked it”? What questions do you find the most helpful to ask your testers?

*Edit: I recently found this extremely helpful article addressing much the same information. I hope it helps: 10 Insightful Playtest Questions.