Tag Archives: #GameDesign

#33: Locomotion

As promised, to celebrate my growing Kickstarter campaign I am continuing to share lessons learned from and general thoughts on Hot Pursuit. This will be a discussion about an aspect of game play that I obtusely ignored. Not intentionally – it just wasn’t something I thought much about.

Take a moment to think about 2 of your favorite games which feel the most dissimilar. So, not a couple of drafting games (which I love). Make sure they are actually different. For example, Coup and Love Letter.

Yes, they are both very short, inexpensive card games featuring player elimination. Sure, they both involve a level of bluffing and deduction (what your opponent is hiding is important information). This is where the “obtuse” part comes in. It took a year of game design for me to figure this out: Love Letter’s cards force the game to progress and end; Coup relies on the players to progress the game (the cards are simply tools).

You may be thinking, “Duh, Derik.” If not, bless you. Here’s the break down:

  • In Love Letter, the player’s turn consists of drawing one card and discarding one card for a stated effect. The game ends when there are no cards to draw or all but one player is eliminated.  The key here is those cards and effects. They are structured in a way that forces conflict. You see, players MUST discard a card and use it’s effect. Those effects all revolve around eliminating a player or gathering information in order to eventually eliminate a player. In other words, players are moved toward the end of the game by force and they can do nothing to fight it.
  • In Coup, the cards themselves have very little affect on the actual game. It really comes down to how good you are at bluffing, or how badly you can bluff when you are actually telling the truth. That’s it. That’s the crux. Sure, there is some money collection, and money is used to pay for murd… influence, but the speed with which you are able to collect said money still comes down to your bluffs. So, if everyone plays poorly and only collects “Income” (1 coin), the game rules will force an end in (10 x #Players) + (4 x #Players) – 1 turns. A.K.A. a real long time.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Why’s that matter?” Well, here’s why:

Hot Pursuit is very much a player driven game (like Coup). The game will never force itself into an end-state because the cards do nothing in and of themselves. The only way the game ends is if someone is able to wrangle the 2 (or 3, depending on story) “Key” cards (Blue, Pink, or Red) into their hand, facing them. It takes memory, deduction, and a little deception – A.K.A. a lot of work. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though. The fact that almost every single new player HORDES a Key card when they find one does make it a serious problem. You see, Hot Pursuit was originally a 3 – 10 player free-for-all. With everyone out for themselves, and the vast majority of them hording at every opportunity, games go NO WHERE in a really long, painful time. That’s a great illustration of why Love Letter is so easy to teach: even playing poorly with no direction, the game still ends very quickly and has a definite winner.

One of the toughest pieces of feedback I received (and it was only twice) was that the early game was boring because it didn’t go anywhere. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. When I played with experienced players, the games were tough, tense, and terrific (heh). But, that was the key. New players wanted the game to tell them what to do – they wanted the cards to do something. Most people couldn’t wrap their head around a game-plan for acquiring both Key cards because they couldn’t bear to give up the one they knew about.

Coup game a clear reason for your action every turn: to gain enough money to eliminate the other players before they eliminate you. Ultimately, Hot Pursuit stalled because no one had a clear path to victory. Sure, get the 2 cards, but how?  –  See that? There was no direction to the game. I couldn’t see this problem until I sat down at a convention with game designers/publishers and a few hardcore gamers. We stalled. Badly enough that everyone started throwing out ideas on how to fix it. A lot of thoughts revolved around adding card abilities (making it component driven), which I refused to do because it violated a primary design goal. Then, Brent Critchfield suggested I make it cooperative. Well, that won’t work because it’ll take maybe 3 turns to win. “Okay. How about cooperative with a traitor working against the rest?”


Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner! Some clean-up and story writing still needed to be added in, but all of a sudden players had a distinct goal to reach for. Teaching is still a little rough because of the 2 goals and counter-intuitive play (it’s HARD not looking at the card you are being handed), but everyone gets it by the end of their first game. Better yet, they want a do-over when they lose and they feel smart when they win. And they should – it ain’t easy!

Funny enough, this same lesson applies to the solitaire version of Hot Pursuit. It had a reasonable goal (get the Blue, Pink, and Red cards together, in your hand, facing you) and an AI to continuously mess up what you know about card positions, but it would never end until you either solved the puzzle or gave up and let the “bad guys” win. Until we added a timer. Just a stack of extra Yellow “crowd” cards made all the difference. Now, there was a clear and ominous goal: collect tie the paper trail (Red Document) to the Corrupt Commissioner and Dirty Detective before they are able to wash away their sins. As the crowd grew from the timer you also got this great visual of the Corrupt Commissioner making the evidence disappear forever into the city.

I really love player driven games for just that reason – they are typically tough and have high social interactivity. But, now I know that I have to make sure my player driven games have a clear direction – a relatable  goal.

What about you? What are 2 of your favorite dissimilar games? What makes them different and how is it important to your enjoyment?

#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?

#24: If It Ain’t Broke

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

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

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

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

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

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

#23: Tell Your Rules With a Story

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

#22: Salt and Pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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?

#14: Inspiration

I would like to apologize for the recent trend in blog posts. This week I realized that I have not been giving many “Lessons Learned”, so much as trying to set your mind straight. Therefore, this week I promise to talk about something which I have experienced and learned to handle better: Inspiration! Again, I am no expert – I do not guarantee that any of these methods will work for you. Also, I am trying to avoid the obvious (ask your friends). Instead, I would like to propose a few methods I have found for inspiring exciting game ideas.

Make a list of particularly unique books or movies you love. Then, consider how they would function as a game. How would you recreate that world or tell that story. How would you implement the primary conflict or even secondary conflicts? A great example of this is Christian Strain’s article, 10 Movies That Should Be Board Games. My absolute favorite idea came from a similar blog post (which I can’t find right now) and involved creating a game based on Blade Runner, with hidden identities. That prospect blew my mind!

Go to Board Game Geek or your favorite vendor – where ever you prefer to pull up big lists of games. Read JUST the synopsis. After each one, give yourself time to speculate on how that game would look and function. I know I hate trying to explain my games in a short description – never seems to paint the right idea. When I read the synopsis for most games, without looking at any game pictures, the concept that pops into my head is hardly ever how the game actually works. Thus, solid confirmation of how hard that sucker is to write and great inspiration. *I DO read more on the actual game before moving forward to make sure I am not ripping it off, though.

You know that “Idea Guy” at work? The one person who always has a suggestion about how things could be done differently or better? Yeah, tell them you make board games. If that alone doesn’t get them going, then actually play a game with them. It has been my experience that you won’t JUST get advice on the one game – they will chase you down to throw new game ideas at you. *A word of caution: this only works with the “I wanna help” kind. Does NOT work (well) with the “I just wanna complain” kind. Stay FAR away from that person.

I discovered this little gem in the last month or so. A new take on a previous project. Mr. Ignacy Trzewiczek of Portal Games has a well received little project called 51st State. In his own words, he has been thoroughly frustrated by players fighting against the rules. In other words, a fair number of actions which new players intuitively want to perform are restricted or prohibited by the game’s rules. So, in a bit of a rage, he broke down all of those barriers, remaking the game into a more streamlined interaction. This remake was then cleaned up, slightly rethemed, and given the name Imperial Settlers. It looks to be a great deal of fun. I went through a slightly different version of this with Top Deck. It’s fairly abstract – very light on overall theme. In an attempt to make it more marketable to “serious gamers” I tried to invent a cohesive theme which allowed the game to tell an overarching story. I actually came up with a world which laid perfectly on top of Top-Deck and was really fun for me to talk about. Ultimately, I decided to keep Top-Deck light on theme, but didn’t want to give up the world I had created. So, I developed Surviving Ouranos to extend that story. Now, it is nothing like the game which spawned it.

Next up for the offering is that same thing which works for writers, painters. . . artists in general. Take a shower, lay down for a nap, or go for a drive / ride / run / hike. Do that relaxing thing which often allows and leads your mind to wander. We often experience this by accident, but it can be used deliberately, too. A cynical take on this would be to take on a task which you are capable of (like illustrating a friend’s game), don’t really want to do (because you feel like being lazy), and which takes up the time you would have spent making your own games. Works for me every time 😉

Finally, my secret weapon: ask the wife. Now, stop laughing so I can explain. When it’s late at night, we’re getting ready for bed, and talking about the day, my wife is a fountain of ideas. I just say, “Hey babe, what game do you think I should make next?” And she just spouts out a steady stream of one-liners! Not all interest me, but I do usually have to keep a notepad on hand to record the cool ideas I want to return to later. It’s been a lot of fun, she gave me a couple of ideas which will become heavier games down the line, and it’s a chance for her to feel involved. I highly recommend it 😀

Well, that’s all I have for now, but what about you? Tried any of these before? Do you have your own tricks?

#12: You Must Persevere

Today, I would like to discuss with you the long run. Over the next few minutes I want to explain why making a game and building a small publishing company is comparable to weight loss. *Now, I say that as someone who has personally gone through a weight loss journey. I promise it will all make sense. Just for a touch of perspective on perseverance (and in case you have not read ANYTHING else on either topic) this journey truly is a marathon – it takes a lot of time, a razor sharp focus on the end goal, and a lot of effort.

How much time? Most independent table-top game designers spend at least a year developing a game. I’ve seen partially developed video games on Kickstarter HOPING to deliver a finished game another year from now. Not to mention, most successful KS campaigns have months of research, planning, gathering quotes, etc. put into them long before we see them.

Focus on the end goal? Oh yeah, buddy! Like weight loss, visible results can take a lot of time and faith. You won’t immediately see big proceeds from your labors. This can make it far too easy to lose your way, doubt your ability to succeed, and fall back on the old lifestyle. Guess what, our business won’t truly make money until retail sales start coming in. You know, after we built the game, successfully funded, paid the bills, fulfilled promises, and then got the game out to distributors. Sound like fun? But the journey is always worth it when you really want that end result! See why you have to remain focused? There’s a lot of stuff between you and that dream – even necessary stuff.

I’m sure you are starting to get an idea of how much effort is necessary. Don’t dismay. Plenty of people have already succeeded and shared advice on how they focused their efforts on achieving success. Now, there are a lot of programs out there to help you wade through all of the junk while keeping your eye on the prize. Fortunately for us, most of these successful programs follow the same formula: diet, exercise, and education.
DIET: read rulebooks, play games (especially games with mechanics, themes, and experiences like you want to create), and stay the heck away from negative doubters.
EXERCISE: make games(!), write rule books (whether the game needs it or not), and stay the heck away from negative doubters.
EDUCATION: read related blogs and listen to related podcasts, watch and read reviews, back other people’s crowd-funded games, find out what it takes to print, ship, and distribute games, become involved in the community, and stay the heck away from negative doubters. ~The key here is to do the things which a designer / publisher would do.

I know that’s a lot of stuff. Some of you are thinking, “My social life is already woefully inadequate and wallet depressingly depleted due to an insufficient amount of time with which to perform my existing tasks and duties.” I hear ya! Personally, I’ve given up almost all of my free time to do those things which a publisher would do. Although, I maintain time for my family and exercise so I don’t go completely nuts. With my current schedule, the only time I have with which to do whatever I please is those few hours right before bed. My wife puts on a movie or t.v. show she wants to watch and I sit next to her with my laptop and Wacom. I no longer have one of those jobs where you sit, bored, at a desk in front of a computer all day. I DO work in a state where I get two 15 minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch, though. That equals another hour a day I get to sit on my computer or write in my notepad (see this post). Are you a commuter? Listen to some podcasts and (as long as you aren’t driving) watch some reviews. A HUGE time saver and stress reliever I’ve found recently is the “Subscribe” button (hint, hint). Now, instead of trying to remember who’s website I still need to catch up with and making sure I have a good enough internet connection, I get great content delivered straight to the inbox on my phone! I know this one sounds silly, but it is unreal how much better I feel now that I don’t continuously think about where to look to feed my brain. Therefore, I don’t typically bother with blogs that I cannot subscribe to (no matter how popular and acclaimed they are). A great alternative, which you CAN subscribe to, is Today in Board Games. Just like it sounds, they send you an awesome summary and list of links relating to all things table-top gaming.

There are so many different places to look, so many different ways of maximizing your efforts in minimum amounts of time. . . However you find and consume the information, just do it. It will keep you excited and help you grow. As my dad always says, “If it’s important enough, you’ll find a way to do it.”

What about you? What are some tricks you’ve found for sneaking a little extra work into your day?

Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.
-John Quincy Adams

#10: That one Pat Benatar song

Hi there! Last week we discussed extracting constructive criticism. It may sound sound funny to some of you since criticism hurts and sucks. Constructive criticism is, as most of us have been told repeatedly is necessary for improvement. So, we should buckle down, bear through the discomfort, and learn from it, right?

Well, this week I come with a warning. When we are crazy enough to think we can design and build a fun game, we are stepping into a situation which, like love, will have a lot of ups and downs. So, just a heads-up, prepare to have your heart BROKEN. Shattered, even.

This goes beyond negativity. Angry people on forums or negative reviews – yeah, no fun. What I am referring to are those moments when you come face-to-face with an undeniable truth. The truth that something major is wrong with your game. It is no fun, doesn’t make sense, doesn’t work, or. . . whatever. After you’ve put over a year in to a project, hundreds of dollars, dozens, if not hundreds, of tests – your heart and soul, basically – that truth hurts! It hurts more than any single poopy person because it can not be refuted, denied, or dismissed.

It can happen to any of us and likely will happen to all of us. What am I talking about? There’s a word game out there. Players draw cards with words on them to build a sentence in front of them. After their sentence is built they can start using those words to guess at words in a hidden sentence which everyone is competing to complete. I thought it was a unique take on “hidden information”. Plus, these sentences were all scripture verses – so it would be an interesting learning experience, too. I spent every waking moment of 3 months compiling information, creating clusters of sentences which overlapped enough that they piece together another verse. . . worked on card layout, a point system, made sure it was scaleable for solo up to big groups. I had such high hopes! I knew this would be unique and fun. It took a couple of days to build the prototype (a TON of cards had to be handwritten). The first chance I got, I gathered a group of 4 other friends and we played. IT BOMBED. Just did not work. Too many words, too many sentences, too much stuff with too little cohesion. And I was crushed. I actually wanted to cry.

I made a fighting game last year. It started with a drafting phase where all players picked piles of cards which would eventually become their deck for the fighting phase. I loved it. My favorite part of the game, actually. Through months of playtesting I was able to streamline it so that players had a good balance of what their character needed, was relatively easy to do, and still afforded the option of hate-drafting their opponent’s cards. I took the game to several new people who weren’t afraid to tell me what they thought. Most had a really hard time learning the drafting part. Some were willing to tell me several times that part sucked. I tried to argue, but every new person became hung up on the same thing. One day I was thinking about how to improve the game, and my heart broke. It knew before my brain could catch up that I had to tear off my favorite part – the foundation of the game.

A great example from outside of Lagniappe Games is Legacy by Eric Harding at Starcat Games. This is Mr. Harding’s second attempt on Kickstarter with this game. If you haven’t checked it out, it is a BEAUTIFUL game. Truly magnificent. He also has really competitive pricing going on and has even made it EU friendly. Simply put, Mr. Harding appears to have done everything right for publishing this project page. But he is struggling to make his funding goal. I was able to participate in a conversation with Mr. Harding on the Game Crafter’s public chat while he was seeking advice. It was obvious that he was hurting. At the time, it looked like there was no way he would fund. I know it would break my heart. As bad as it must hurt to be faced with the fact that something must be fundamentally wrong for a project to fail twice, he was still looking for answers and advice. He had already made major improvements to the game, rebuilt his project page, and revamped his shipping and game costs, but he was still looking for ways to improve.

THAT is the key. You don’t give up on love just because of a few dozen crazy losers. So, don’t give up on your game! It hurts, sure, but you will survive. If the game sucks, like my word game, kick it to the curb. If the problem is fixable, like my fighting game, man-up and make the fix! Do you want to preserve your baby and just not share it with anyone else, since nobody else will play it? If your dream is to put something out there which people will enjoy and even request, then we have to bear through the pain, accept that the problems are problems, and get to fixing what’s broken. Even now, I’m facing down the possibility that my first big game, my baby, made need a theme overhaul to make it interesting. The idea that my game may be broken has been a rock in my gut for days, but at least I know it can be fixed.

What about you? Any horror stories about game related heartbreaks you’d care to share? Please, take advantage of the free therapy of getting it off your chest in the comments section below 😉

#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.