Tag Archives: #A Dragon Show for the King

#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 😀

#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?