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.




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.




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.

Gen Con 2015 Schedule

This week is that special week–the week when gamers across the country and around the world converge on Indianapolis for Gen Con. For my part, I’ll be running a number of demos and would love to see you there. Drop by for a game or simply to chat–look me up!

Dragon Tides   10:00 AM – 12:00 PM   Hall D, Table Green 56
Rolling Freight  12:00 PM – 2:00 PM    Puffing Billy Area
Dragon Tides   5:00 PM – 7:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 57
Rolling Freight   7:00 PM – 9:00 PM    Puffing Billy Area

Rolling Freight   12:00 PM – 2:00 PM     Puffing Billy Area
Dragon Tides   6:00 PM – 8:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 56

Dragon Tides     10:00 AM – 12:00 PM   Hall D, Table Green 56
Dragon Tides     6:00 PM – 8:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 55

Dragon Tides     10:00 AM – 12:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 56

Forget Your Fears

It’s a cliche but true nonetheless; gaming has brought a lot to my life.

In an effort to give back, I give talks and participate in panels at a number of conventions. These sessions tend to have titles like Networking in the Game Industry, Curating Licensed Properties, and Finding and Serving Your Core Engagement. With titles such as these, you would be right to say that our audience will be filled primarily with freshman designers.

Being new to design, attendees also tend to be a little bit timid or hesitant. That’s okay. It’s perfectly natural.

If you’re in that audience, I want to see you succeed. I really do. And so do the panelists sitting to my right and left.

Each of us begins as a beginner–a beginner who needs encouragement, support, help. We understand the position you’re in. We were there. You can depend on our sincere desire to see you succeed.

Some of us however need more. Some of us have a devil on our shoulders and we need to talk about it.

We all have them; the fears and the doubts that fight back against our own best interests. What I speak of now is bigger than that. This little bastard digs its pitchfork into your shoulder and whispers its foul lies into your ear and it must be stopped

Looking at my body of work, you might think this kind if thing came easy. Not at all.

The day of my first meeting with a major publisher that demon had me terrified. I was convinced the the scout would laugh at my work or berate me for wasting his time. Reaching out across the cellular network, Debra was the voice of reason that got me to the table.

So let’s talk about some of the most common fears and dispel them.

I didn’t bring my proto because it’s not ready to test.


51st State started with only a handful of cards and the question “is this interesting?”

Your game is ready the test the moment you have bits to move and rules to guide them. To wait longer is to waste development time.

My game isn’t good.


Be assured that every game of mine started out as bad. Many of them still are.

Playtesting is all about turning bad games into mediocre games. And turning mediocre games into okay games. And okay games into good games. And good into excellent. It’s an iterative process. If you want your game to be excellent, put your proto on the table and get to it.

No one plays/publishes this kind of game.


The only people in a position to measure your work are the people you share it with. When you decide not to share your work, you are pre-rejecting it.

Share your work with everyone. Some of them may indeed reject it. But others will love and admire it. Provided that you give them a chance.

Furthermore, it may be true that no one has published a game like yours. What if no one’s published a game like yours because no publisher has yet seen a good game like yours? You could be filling a critical gap in the gaming landscape!

My game’s theme has been done to death.


Consider what Fiasco did for role playing. Consider what Star Realms did for deckbuilding. Consider what 1960: Making the President did for political games.

Great games reinvigorate bloated genres. Make yours the best game ever to serve its theme. Success will follow.

These are the lies I hear regularly. And these are the responses I give, whether it is your demon speaking or my own.

For further encouragement, I urge you to check out Austin Kleon’s enlightening books Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work.

What are the lies your fears tell? How did you move past them? What did you learn from the experience? 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.

New Games (to me)

Like the town cobbler whose children go barefoot, being a game designer often means that you don’t play any games.

Last weekend was a reprieve from this sorry condition, a little break from design and just play. Or so I thought. It seems that even when taken out of the workshop, the steady stream of analysis continues.

These are the new (to me) games I played and what I thought of their design.


AquaSphereStefan Feld is known for introducing one pivotal element into each game and wrapping myriad scoring opportunities around it. AquaSphere obeys that format. In this case, the principal mechanism is ousting the previous player’s pawn when an area is selected. Your pawn goes in its place and the previous one goes to a holding area. Should too many pawns be in the holding area, some get returned to the owner’s play mat. And did I mention that getting pawns *off* your mat is one of the ways you score? This element gives AquaSphere a direct competitive element most eurogames lack. It will be interesting to see if other euro-style designers make this a trend. If so, we may see a revitalization of the style.


CodenamesIs there anything Vlaada Chvatil can’t do? I mean really! He’s brought us a co-op game, a pattern game, a fantasy exploration game, and now a partnership word game. Had I not met the man personally, it might be reasonable to accuse him of being a team acting under a single nom-de-plume.

In any case, Codenames has all the elements needed to be a breakout mainstream hit. At heart Codenames is Password meets Hollywood Squares. You give a one-word clue and a number to your partner. Your partner tries to find the words associated with that clue with the number indicating how many fit the pattern. There are a couple of small wrinkles but that’s the main point.

Unless GenCon holds a major surprise in its aisles, Codenames will be this year’s pick for best game to play with nongamers.


PanamaxBeing born in the Panama Canal Zone gave me a particular interest in all things Panamanian. Discovering that there was a meaty game about moving cargo through the canals made it a must-buy. And then it languished on my shelves. A few friends stepped up and walked me through my first play.

Panamax is essentially a rail game set in the canals. Each player has a company to manage but can buy stock in other players’ companies and thereby profit from their successes. I have believed for some time that the mechanisms of rail games needed to expand into other settings and this one is a solid example of that concept.

Guns & Steel

Guns & SteelFrank Branham introduced me to this compact Japanese game. It is thematically a civilization game centered wholly around its tech tree. The tech tree is dealt out at the beginning of the game and each player gets a starting hand of resource/technologies. Managing those cards to acquire new resource/technology cards is the heart of the game. In my mind, this game is a super-streamlined version of Innovation. Clean and well-designed, this game played well with two players and Frank stated that three was the magic number.

The Golden Ages

The Golden AgesEarly in my play, I dubbed this “Civilization: the Euro” and that’s a pretty good summary. The game plays over four eras. Players may change leaders at the beginning of each era. During eras, players compete to take control of resources on the game map, to develop technologies, and to purchase wonders. These are all recognizably elements of a Civ game. But all these activities are in the pursuit of Victory Points and this makes the entire experience undeniably “Euro.”

Have you tried any of these games?  What were your thoughts of them?  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.

Protospiel 2015 After Report

Last weekend was the Protospiel main event, organized by all-around spiffy guy David E. Whitcher.  It’s a great opportunity to see some creative folks in action, to have them dissect my work, and to get a sense of the general trends in design.

Courtesy toward other designers’ work forbids discussing most of the games in detail, but I’ll share will all of you what I can.

Mayfair has a license to create a series of Star Trek games and Protospiel organizer David is also the author of Star Trek: Five-Year Missions.  He kindly gave us all a full playthrough.

ST Five Year Missions at PS

The Crew of the USS Protospiel

Star Trek: Five-Year Missions is a fully cooperative game.  The eponymous missions are events and players roll dice to satisfy them.  This is definitely a family game–think of it as a notch or two up in complexity from Catan and should therefore be a solid addition to the Mayfair line.

Francois Valentyne brought an excellent design which contained a tile-laying element, a pick up and deliver mechanism, and an economic element.  It’s a testament to Francois’ flair as a designer that all of these mechanisms fit into something that still qualifies a a family game.

The majority of other games at Protospiel were instead in the “gamer’s game” category–Kennerspiel candidates if you will.  Magic and magic users were a recurrent theme.  Some were abstract, as a eurogame might be.  Others were quite literal, like a magician’s duel.

Another common theme was global war a’ la Risk or Dust.  Some were serious, some were ironic–to be played only with tongue firmly placed in cheek.

Racing games were rare, although Michael Brandl brought one of which I am quite enamored.

Two of my own prototypes also hit the table this year.

The Grand Sorcery drafting game (described last column) was tested with three different groups.  Their feedback was overall positive.  Everyone agreed that the game needs more development but the flow of the game interested several players as did the multiple ways in which each card could be used.  One publisher even made an unsolicited request to see it!

Grand Sorcery at PS

Grand Sorcerers hard at play

The other game was Muster & Battle–the working title–a civilization game in the spirit of Manifest Destiny.  I’ve been developing this one for about three years and Protospiel has been a consistent touchstone throughout.  When it was little more than an alpha, it was the Protospiel crew that dissected the underlying engine.  When it was one year older, it was again the Protospiel crew which gave the critical outside opinion and helped keep it on track.  Now in late beta, the Protospiel crew again stepped up to analyze its moving parts.  I cannot imagine M&B would be half the game it is were it not for all of their assistance.

M&B at Protospiel

Muster & Battle shown here at its first Protospiel

Have you attended a Protospiel event?  How was it?  What did you learned from the experience?  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.

Writing a Compact Majority Game

Small games are obviously the big trend in game design right now.  The Love Letter effect is still rippling across the tabletop industry.  Publishers want a compact game with deep play and designers want to sell it to them.

One subcategory which intrigues me are the simple majority set collection games.  Like many other games, they feature a set of scoring tokens and players compete for majorities.  Nothing new there, right? the distinguishing feature comes from the scoring mechanism. Each scoring token has a number. This number is both the quantity appearing in the deck and the point value for holding their majority at the end of the game.

Choson 2I’ve seen this type of game several times throughout the years–Reiner Knizia’s Cheeky Monkey and Tutankhamen are good reference points–but two stood out for me recently–Koryo and Choson, both by South Korean designer Gun-Hee Kim.  What particularly interested me about Gun-Hee Kim’s approach is that he compressed play into just to a deck of cards and a few additional tokens.

Kim inspired me to try and build on his work with a Kevin G. Nunn flair.  The first goal was to streamline the components even further than Kim. This game must get by on nothing but cards.

What shall be the theme?  Theme, theme, theme.  Theme should compliment the game mechanisms.  At the same time, the choice of theme should inform future game design decisions.  And I’m stumbling to find something engaging.

Reaching back to my pastoral childhood, farms and farm animals become the theme.   Always be prepared to revisit every decision.  My choice of theme was later overturned in favor of a sorcery theme which better fit the flow of gameplay.

I love card drafting but seldom get a chance to incorporate it into a game.  Let’s take this as a chance to begin with drafting.  Players will get dealt a hand of cards, pick one, pass the rest, and continue this process until their hand has been fully drafted.

What to do with the drafted cards?  Do players reveal the at each stage of the draft as in 7 Wonders or will they be held until the end of the draft, as in Fairy Tale?  Let’s put that decision on hold for now.

So what about that game play?  The goal is to win pluralities in a variety of sets.  Drafting is the method of acquisition.  These elements may be a good foundation but they’re not enough. Cards in this game will have multiple uses; each player has a play mat with three locations. Each card must be assigned to one of these spots when it is drafted.  Ah–now the solution to the earlier question has revealed itself.  These assignments are made face down, not to be revealed until all positions have been drafted.

And since the cards are going multiple places, they should have multiple uses.  The first location is scoring; any card in this space goes to your score pile.  The second location is activation; each card will have its own special abilities which are used only if the card is in this space.  The third is turn order; cards in this space set the order in which players carry out their special abilities.

Player Card

What kinds of abilities will the cards have?  I wanted this to be a dynamic game, highly tactical, with a touch of screw-your-neighbor.  Abilities let trade your cards with the deck or with other players. Abilities let you negate other people’s powers.  Abilities let you replace bad cards.  Abilities let you extend your majorities.  Abilities let you use the abilities on other players cards.  Obviously, these abilities will need to be revisited throughout the development process but they were enough to get something going.

Card Example

With these abilities in place, we began playtesting with three-card hands.  This wound up being a bit dry so we expanded to four-card hands.  The first three drafts fill your three spaces.  The fourth draft may be used to replace any one of the cards you already drafted or may be discarded directly.

We also found that alternating the direction of the draft between rounds relieved the counterproductive tension of consistently sitting in the same player’s shadow.

As of this writing, the card deck has undergone five major overhauls.  The last two tests have led to only small changes however–tweak an ability here, clarify a power there.  It seems to be closing in on its final form.  It’s time for a big test with players outside my normal group.  Grand Sorcery will be travelling with me to Protospiel this weekend to be abused by some of the sharpest designers out there.  Let’s see what they think.

What do you think of this game’s design?  What is your favorite game in this genre?  Why?  Have you created any games like this one?  What did you learned from the experience?  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.