Primal Games

Primal games are so clean, so clear, that they seem ancient even when they’re new.  

Go is primal.  Its rules are immeasurably concise while its components are simplicity itself.  So are Blokus, GIPF, and Qwirkle–AKA Scrabble for cavemen.

Chess is not primal.  Its rules are littered with patches–en passant springs to mind.  Furthermore, its components fail to justify their existence–consider how many equally good abstract games start by changing the pieces of chess.

Primal games needn’t be trivial or simple however.  Consider for instance that while Deep Blue defeated Yuri Kasparov in 1997, organic Go masters are still undefeated by their silicon counterparts.

It can be difficult to overcome the desire to add a twist here or a wrinkle there.  Nobody But Us Chickens has been my best attempt so at this style far and even it has a few too many twists to truly call it primal.

Or is it that no one truly creates primal games?  Have they truly always existed?  Are their designers uncovering them rather than creating them?  Modern artists in the twentieth century faced such dismissive accusations as well.  Elegance is hard work.  It’s even harder work to make things look easy.

So where do we begin?  Where does a person begin when setting out to create primal games?  Dominic Crapuchettes once asserted that every rule in a game should fight to justify its existence.  What if you took that attitude further–to insist that every game element, every rule, every component–justify its existence?  I believe this would be right way to start.

Adopting this mindset can be a major challenge.  Us designers generally start charmed by game structures.  We want to create our own structures, to impress other game aficionados with our clever mechanisms, to spread our flourishes across the hobby like magic dust.  But to create a primal game is to deliberately step into the background, to create an experience so pure that it feel more as if it always existed rather than being a contemporary product.

I’m absolute rubbish at writing primal games but I enjoy playing them and admire the style of any designer that can pull them off.  Please show me how it’s done.

How about you?  What’s your favorite primal game?  What game came close but didn’t quite make it?  Have you created a primal game?  what was your process?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

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Having Something to Say

My annual pilgrimage to Gen Con harvests bushel upon bushel of ideas. I generally meet with at least six publishers and shoot for ten. Each is looking for games to fit certain needs and I want to supply as many of those as possible.  We do a large amount of brainstorming, looking for the best idea to fit each need. If we find something promising, it becomes my job to take that idea home and develop it.

As I work to develop these ideas into worthy games, some energize me while others drag me down.  This led me to a discovery about myself – not necessarily a good thing – to really get a project moving, it has to have something to say.

What does that mean?

It means that the game has to go someplace new. It has to speak up for itself and say you haven’t seen this before or you may have seen this before but I’m doing it better.  Offering anything less leaves me feeling more photocopier than designer.

For example, my first published game reverted to me about a year ago and started searching for a new home. While I’m still proud of this game as it is, I also challenged myself to recreate it. Twelve years of experience let me look at the game in new ways. This was where the project began to have something to say–it wanted new play experiences from the same core experience.

This understanding guided the brainstorming which followed. We focused on ideas that updated play and scoring mechanisms. I created several different prototypes, each with these ideas in mind. Of course most of these prototypes failed.  Some were flat, which is bad, while others were convoluted, which is even worse.  But because I knew what the game wanted to say, it was much easier to spot the prototypes that had real potential.  And out of this, one solid contender emerged.  Today, that contender is in the queue with a major publisher.  Because it has something to say.

To be clear, innovative elements alone do not give a game something to say.  I’ve seen hundreds of eurogames with creative–even baroque–elements that still saying nothing. For a game to say something, its elements have to serve its core engagement. It has to energize players. It has to feature interesting decisions. It has to flow.

So what does all of this have to say about me?  Am I artist or elitist?  Visionary or fool?  Honest or hung up?  I’m not entirely sure.  

How about you?  What does it take to get you excited about playing a new game?  What does it take to get you excited about writing a new game?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Gen Con 2015 After Report

GenCon Intro“The best four days in gaming” they call it and I cannot disagree. GenCon 2015 was last weekend.  It’s a great opportunity to get broad data on the whole of the industry, to see the direction each company is taking, to see some old friends, and to make new ones.

Through the experience, we featured three games and saw a number of other interesting ones.  Here are some of the highlights from Indianapolis.

 

 

Sentinel Tactics

Luther took the lead with Sentinel Tactics this year while I focused on Dragon Tides.  His coverage will be appearing here soon. Here’s a picture to tide you over…

ST Tourney
The Sentinel Tactics tournament, going strong.

 

 

Dragon Tides

There’s an annual horror story at Gen Con–the critical game that arrived late or not at all. APE Games was the recipient of this dubious distinction last year when the entirety of their booth waited until opening day to arrive. Luther and I were immeasurably relieved to see that we were not this year’s candidate. Our printers proofs of Dragon Tides arrived and we could finally share it with the world.

Whole the Sentinel Tactics tournament progressed, a steady stream of players was experiencing Dragon Tides for the first time.

DT 1  DT 2

Immeasurable gratitude must be given to these fine folks for taking DT out for a spin. It was a blast taking them on, even if they did mow through my minions like the veritable thresher through wheat.

 

 

Rolling Freight

The second expansion for Rolling Freight will be coming soon. Gen Con’s Puffing Billy tournament created the perfect opportunity to share these maps with rail enthusiasts.

For you designers out there, Expansion #2 is a good example of listening to public demand. We saw a large number of requests on the message boards for two-player maps and for faster-playing maps. These maps–one for Mexico, one for the Austro-Hungarian empire–were created specifically to respond to these demands.

 

 

Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova’s came down with a major mental affliction last year when he announced his intention to self publish.  It was then that Formal Ferret Games was born.  With all teasing aside, Gil has already revealed some remarkable designs.  Gil was tireless at Gen Con, dashing here to show his solid eurogame Battle Merchants from Minion Games, scampering there to preview his new pharmaceutical pitch game Bad Medicine, and clambering over there to preview his television programming game The Networks.  I’ve played them all and am humbled to see how good each one is.

Gil Hova

Gil Hova teaches Battle Merchants to a rapt audience.

 

Quartermaster General Expansion

The core set of Quartermaster General was one of my final purchases at Gen Con last year. We liked it so much that their Air Marshal expansion pack was one of my first. If you enjoy card-driven wargames, definitely give it a try.

 

 

But Wait, There’s More!

BWTMJay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim are neat-o guys so it follows that they would create a neat-o party game. Put simply, players have to make pitches for products in the late night infomercial vein. Each product must include special features in their pitch–the eponymous “but wait, there’s more” of the game. My group enjoys this kind of game quite a bit, having already tried Ewen Cluney’s anime-TV pitch game Channel A and eagerly anticipating Gil Hova’s pharmaceutical pitch game Bad Medicine.  I’m expecting this one to be a big hit at our table.

 

 

Codenames

Having played this gem only a few weeks ago, it went directly onto my MUST BUY list.  You can check out my overview of the game here.  As yet, Codenames still stands as this year’s pick for best game to play with nongamers.

 

 

Norsaga

I hadn’t seen its Kickstarter but the a group playing Norsaga in the boardgaming hall caught my eye and when that game wrapped, designer Kevin Bishop kindly gave me a walk through.  At its heart, Norsaga is a game of building your family tree.  At a glance, Norsaga is reminiscent of Familienbande by Leo Colvini.  However, I found Bishop’s approach clean and engaging.  I plan to pick up a copy sometime soon and take it out for a full play.

 

 

Dice CityDice City

This game was only loosely on my radar but I did get to play a brief overview.  Vangelis Bagiartakis game is at its heart a combination of Dominion with Kingsburg.  Some players compared it to Machi Koro but I found its decisions to be significantly more interesting.  The booth demo only allowed for a few short turns but that was enough to convince me that Dice City deserves a try when it comes out in October.

 

 

 

Those were my highlights of Gen Con 2015.  How about you?  Were you at Gen Con this year?  What stood out for you?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.