Dan Manfredini

Today I received some feedback from Mike and the guys at the Royal Steamwork Society about Stellar Underworld. Here are some of the main points I pulled from it:

Rules Clarifications

Can contraband assets be delivered in multiples?

Yes. This will have to be explicitly stated in the rulebook. Contraband assets are different from other assets in that they don’t require any contracts to score them (because contraband is always in demand). This leads to some extra rules in dealing with them, and I guess this area had some confusion.

When can a sector ability be used and how often?

For the most part they are used during the docking bay ability phase. I will need to clarify this a bit more. I also plan on adding a glossary for each sector to answer any specific questions.


Is acquiring henchmen too powerful of a strategy?

There are two methods of scoring points in the game: recruiting henchmen and completing contracts. It has been suggested that taking a strategy of heavy recruitment is the best way to go. I know that henchmen are important because they not only score points, but also provide the manpower to activate abilities. I don’t believe you can win by ignoring them, or by solely focusing on them, but I need to test this out.

Test: Play a test game where one person only scores via henchmen.
Test: Play a test game where one person does not recruit any more henchmen.

Are warehouses necessary?

An interesting occurrence happened during the blind playtest: In their second game, the players completely ignored one feature of the game because they deemed it too weak for its cost. The feature is the warehouse. The warehouse allows you to move assets around more effectively, keep them safe from commandeering, and set up more efficient scoring. The cost for loading an asset into the warehouse is one henchmen. You also have to pay the cost for unloading too. In all of the other playtests, everybody used their warehouses. I am always on the lookout for dominant strategies, but I failed to look for utterly weak ones. Maybe the warehouse is too weak. I haven’t really thought about it, but I will need to investigate more.

Play a test game with one player does not use his warehouse.


Players don’t feel like they own their ship

In the game, each player has one ship and there are two neutral ships. Owning a ship means that if someone tries to commandeer (steal) it, you can defend it and try to stop them. Other than that, owning your ship means nothing. In real life, owning an object really means nothing either except that you feel like you would need to defend it (by force, lawsuit, etc.) if someone tried to steal it. That was my reasoning, but it doesn’t seem to come across to well in the setting of a game. Especially in a game setting where stealing is an everyday occurrence.

Possible Solution: I think that stripping out the idea of owning a ship is the way to go. I have an idea on how this would work, but would like to experiment with it first.


The board is too small for some components

The board is a map of a space station with a space in the center for the “bank” of henchmen and contracts. I underestimated how many of these things there would be and it does look cluttered.

Solution: This one’s easy! I think I can just reduce the number of pieces or make the board bigger where it needs to be.

Frustration Points

Replenishing no assets or no Contracts at a sector

Frustration: The production system in this game uses a random method that could result in the sector gaining no contracts or no assets. Having no contracts at a sector means that you can’t score points there, and having no assets at a sector means that when you arrive there you’ll have nothing to ship back on the return trip. Statistically, it shouldn’t happen that often, but when it does, it is really frustrating. I have yet to determine if this actually hinders the player or if it is a psychological issue.

Possible Solution: I need to add more flexibility to this system, but I’m not sure how to do this just yet.

Having limited end game options

Frustration: The game uses a system where each player has an identical set of cards. Each turn you play one card a turn until no players have cards. This system inherently causes the end game to have limited options.

Possible Solution: Make the end game occur before the players reach their last card, possibly third to last. This will still give players choice on the last turn. Of course, this solution will cause a new frustration: player wanting to play the rest of their hand!

Not being able to ship directly from sector to sector

Frustration: The core idea of the game is that you always have to stop at the space port when traveling from sector to sector. There is no direct route. If there was a direct route, there would be little reason to use the space port (the whole point of the game).

Possible Solution: Give each player one or two Direct Route Cards to allow this to happen. It should appease player frustration enough, and answer that question “Why can’t I just go from here to there?” The best “abilities” in games come from easing player frustration.

Ian’s Unnamed Space Game Playtest

Ian, Jon, and I played a newer version of Ian’s unnamed space game. This game is your basic 4X game: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Actually, the “explore” aspect isn’t really there because the board is pretty much open information from the beginning. So, I guess it’s a 3X game. Anyways, the real ingenuity of the game comes in the form of flicking, as in Crokinole or Ian’s other game Taktika. Instead of dice or card draws, the random element of the game comes in the form of flicking. About 80% of the time, the flicks are successful, but that remaining 20% keeps players in a haze about their future. You see, the rest of the game is perfect information, and the only uncertainty comes from your opponents and the flicking. All in all, this game is coming along nicely. It will take a lot of play-testing because there are so many build paths and strategies.

Venture Forth Playtest

Ian, Jon, and I played my latest incarnation of Venture Forth. This game started as an ambitious project two years ago to make a Euro-style Talisman. It has gone through many many incarnations between periods of being shoved in the back of my closet out of frustration. The core of the game has remained throughout: character ambitions. My big beef with fantasy games is that it is assumed that all characters have a bloodlust to kill monsters and an unending desire to acquire treasure. My game would allow the character to be who they are and be rewarded for it. For example, in the current version, you can have just a lone Faerie in your party and score points by just ‘making friends’. There is still treasure and there is still killing, but only certain characters desire those things.

Last night, I got to test it with more than two players and it worked great! My new bonus point system worked as well as my new cube ‘currency’ system. Everything fell into place, and I couldn’t be happier.

Math Can Be Annoying

In Lost Cities you have this wonderful scoring event that happens at the end of the game. There is nothing better after a fun game than taking a math test. It helps to have a pencil and paper handy to calculate your mess of a score. You have to sort through bases points, penalties, multipliers, and bonuses. Recounts seem to happen more often than not. All in all, this is a clunky system.

Here comes Keltis, which is sort of a reworking of Lost Cities. You still have all of the math, but it has been cleverly baked into the game. As you move your token, it magically does the math for you. At the end of the game, all you have to do is add some simple numbers together, and viola! you have your score!

Math Can Be Anti-Climatic

Ticket to Ride requires you to track your score as you lay tracks. The rules could have been written such that the players add up their score for tracks at the end of the game, since that method is equally as valid. The big difference is that the end game would be so full of addition that the finals scores would be anti-climatic. Thankfully, the current system lets the player after laying tracks to just move their score token by counting the spaces out or adding two simple numbers together.

Math Can Be Easier

Whether or not this was intentional, I like how in Through the Desert (and probably countless other games) the math is smoothed out at the end of the game. Through the game you collect all of these small valued scoring tokens. Then at the end of the game, you get bonuses for enclosed areas. Lets say you score 7 points for an enclosed area, you would take a 10 pointer and return 3 of your small tokens. After you do this several times, you are left with a lot of 10 and 5 point tokens and fewer 1,2 and 3 point tokens. When it comes time to score, it is a lot easier dealing with adding up units in 5s and 10s than it is dealing with 1s, 2s, 3s and 5s. Its a small thing, but I really like how the math feels like it has been smoothed out for me.

What Did I Learn?

In my game Venture Forth I’ve taken some actions to reduce the amount of calculation that occurs at the end of the game. The game didn’t have a ton of adding, but I wanted to add more scoring opportunities and that was limited by the current method of scoring.

Firstly, I am introducing a score track – nothing too innovative here. When you get points, you move up on the track. As simple as this is, it is one of the best ways to keep track of score and it allows players to gauge their rank.

Secondly, I am removing an equation from the game. This is not something I actively sought out to do. It just occurred because of other changes that I made. Once it was gone I noticed how smooth the scoring looked. Basically, if your adventurer had less “points” than his “power”, then you got a penalty. Now, if your adventurer has “tokens” on him, you get a penalty. What I did was took out the comparison. I know this is a simple little thing hardly worth mentioning, but it does illustrate that math can be moved around. The comparison is still there and the game plays identically, but now you just have to glance at the board to see if you have any penalties rather than to do some quick math.

What other games have math smoothed out?

Jun 242008

I saw this very interesting site today called BoardgameBits. They sell all the little wooden game pieces that you see in all sorts of boardgames, like roads, cubes, cylinders, etc. The best part is that he is local (to this continent) so you get all of the European quality without the overseas shipping costs.

Jun 112008

Last night Ian, Jon, and I met.


We started a bit differently by chatting about games on the couch. We talked about our games being published, and all of the details that go along with that.

Ian told us about his newest game idea involving dice, Chun-Li, and fireballs. We were very taken with the idea of a Street Fighter-based game, and Jon and I were spouting out ideas left and right.

The topic of designing to prevent cheating came up when Ian mentioned using dice behind a player screen. Jon said one of his biggest pet peeves was when playtesters ask: “How do you prevent the players from cheating?” He said that cheater will cheat regardless, and there’s no reason to work to stop them. I was concerned with unintentional cheating: accidentally giving the wrong answer in Mystery of the Abbey, or not following suit when you have one in you hand, or, in Ian’s example, accidentally manipulating some game state (dice, score track) that is behind a screen. Those actions can derail a game sometimes. I think we all agreed that taking the time to consider these problems is worth it, regardless of whether or not we fix them.

Haunted Destinies

Knowing that the night was slipping by, we decided to head to the table and play Jon’s game Haunted Destinies. It was a deduction game, but it lacked deduction. It was more in line with a “stab in the dark” style of detective work. The players had to determine who the bad guy was by revealing cards from the individual player’s decks. If they saw the bad guy card, then they knew how to proceed to victory. This sounded good when Jon described it, but I felt like it was a slow process. With 30 some cards to look through, a player may stumble upon the bad guy right away, or, through no fault of his own, not find the card until he sees everyone of them. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. In a three player game, the maximum amount of cards you actually need to look through is 2/3s of them because if you don’t find the bad guy card in player 1 and player 2’s decks, then it must be in player 3’s.

The revelation part of the game was, for me, the part that needed the most attention. The other parts of the game, however, were actually very clever: Eliminated ghost players, and making setup of the board into a mini-game. I hope Jon continues to refine this game to make all of the mechanics shine.

May 192008

Over the weekend, I realized an important aspect of suits in game design. They restrict options and therefore increase tension.

Imagine a game of Lost Cities where all of the cards were of the same suit and they could be played on any expedition. Now instead of a 20% chance of drawing the suit you need, you have a 100% chance. The discarding aspect of the game would be pretty pointless. In short, all of the interesting decisions go out the window.

This seems pretty obvious in retrospect. In fact, I’ve added suits before to games for that very reason. I guess I was just oblivious with my perpetually undone game, Venture Forth, which was lacking suits. The game gave you lots of options, but ultimately felt flat. I added suits yesterday and all of a sudden the tension in the game started to come out! Behold the power of suits!

May 072008

Last night at our design meeting, I mentioned a game that I thought related to the topic at hand. We were discussing designing a game with a space ship control panel, when I remembered this game called Wormhole that had that very thing.

According to the entry on BoardGameGeek.com:

‘Wormhole’ by www.worldworksgames.com is a tabletop space combat game which promises an affordable yet paradigm shifting gaming experience. Taking the “virtual board game” concept to the bleeding edge; instead of forcing overpriced lead miniatures on players Wormhole offers a complete fleet of high quality 3-D models that you print and build from your home printer. This feature alone gives players the opportunity to build massive fleets without breaking the bank.

Wormhole promises “cinematic” space combat with visual style and presentation not yet seen in the genre. Rules are easy to understand but offer a scaling level of depth for a variety of play styles. Wormhole also introduces an interactive damage and orders system which removes heavy book-keeping tasks and replaces it with a “control panel-like” interface (you feel absolutely in control, barking orders to your fleet). A number of unique gaming elements conspire to make Wormhole a truly immersive and completely original gaming experience.

Notice how in the top right picture how the panel is modular!

I don’t know if it is just the lighting, but this looks awesome!

And here are the ships you actually play the game with.

After a hiatus, we returned to meeting last night. One activity we partook in was to come up with lists of board game titles. We then exchanged them and tried to describe the game that came to mind. Below is the list of game titles that you may one day see at a game store near you:

  • Longest Beard
  • The Missing Pocket Protector
  • I’ve Never Eaten So Much Licorice in My Life
  • Leptoglossus
  • The Happiest Alligator
  • Drunk on Christmas
  • Whatever Ian Wrote
  • Don’t Drink the Milk!
  • Mrs. Bossman
  • Oubliette
  • Space Hemorrhoids
  • Knizia Takes a Dive
  • Emo Factory
  • Llama Race
  • Euthanasia: The Game
  • The Hand of Solitude
  • Gordon’s Waffles
  • The Land of Cyclops
  • The Bloodstorm
  • Night of 1000 Sores
  • Robot Detox
  • Omelet of Disease
  • Crossbow Cows
  • Turtle Trance
Feb 262008

Tonight we will be able to continue with out weekly design meetings on our regular night and regular time. I’m stoked!


I have been playtesting Stellar Underworld at my local game store and with other gamers here and there. At one of those playings, I had one especially “thorough” playtester who offered more advice than I expected. I knew we were in for a rough game when he questioned my decision to include almost every aspect of the game. Why do we start with two of these? Why not three? Why not have an ability to do this? or that? Now keep in mind, a lot of these comments were before I was even finished explaining the rules. I was getting frustrated pretty quickly, but once the game got going, it settled down a bit. After the game, and after I had a few days to think about his comments, I realized that there were a lot of kernels of truth in what he had to say. The thing that stuck with me the most when he rolled his eyes a lot when I explained certain rules. To be more precise, it was the exceptions to those rules that were the problem. Thats when I realized that my game was full of exceptions.

For example:

  • You can use one henchman to transfer a cube into your warehouse, except for the first one each turn which is free.
  • You can use one henchman to trade a cube with the black market, except for the first one each turn which is free.
  • The starting sector is just like every other sector, except you can only take two cubes from it, it doesn’t replenish, and it starts with two cubes per player.
  • Cubes next to your ship as considered aboard your ship, except when your ship is at a sector where they are considered available for pickup.
  • Abilities can be used any number of times, except for the cantina ability which you can only do once, and certain sector abilities.

There are probably more, but these are the ones that jumped out at me. Exceptions are ok in small numbers, but in larger quantities it makes the game more difficult to follow for new players. My goal now is to weed out some of these exceptions, while retaining their original purpose. So far, I’m having luck at some of them, but others are kind of difficult. It is a three way battle between simplicity, gameplay, and theme. Hopefully, they’ll all be winners, and I know the game will be better for me having taken the time to put this problem under the microscope.

Feb 082008

Lately, our meeting schedule has been in flux, so last night when Ian and Marc came over, it was a nice treat.


Ian discussed his latest scenario for Taktika. It involves a special disk known as the Glyph of Protection. The rules were simple and straight-forward. We recommended that he publish it on the web.


Marc showed us some really neat looking rings that he is using for his game Coalescence. He has painted them in such a way that, depending on the number of players, the rings can be used as different colored player pieces.

Dice Game

Marc showed us a quick two player dice game that he whipped together. It had a hand drawn board that kept track of the score. The players rolled the dice simultaneously, then selected one secretly to withhold. Depending on the dice left over, you could claim a spot in a column on the score chart. The earlier you get into a column, the more points. I think he’s on to something here, and I applaud any new non-yahtzee-like dice games.

Space Port

Space Port has shed its placeholder name and now dons the title Stellar Underworld. It connotes the seedy side of space life and has a unique ring to it. Just be thankful I didn’t put Galaxy or Galactic in the title! We’ve had enough of those words in game titles these past few years.In this latest version, we used new sector cards. The sectors are now split into three distinct groups each with their own deck. This allows players to have access to the sectors of one particular group if they want to use it as a part of their strategy. This was initially done to allow guaranteed access to sectors that desired contraband. Since several other mechanics revolved around contraband (Black Markets, Inspections) I didn’t want players to have to wait for the luck of the draw to utilize it. Besides putting contraband-loving sectors into one group, I also distinguished the groups by tiering their production. Sectors now either produce two, three, or four cubes based on their type. Overall, I think this system work great.

This was Marc’s first game, excluded some earlier proof-of-concept mock up. He said that the game had a daunting feeling to it when he started. Every player is given the same 16 cards, and each can only be used once. He felt that is was a difficult decision to play any particular card since he wasn’t sure how valuable any given card was. Also, the first turn gives you so many options that don’t pay out until later turns. After his actions started getting him some points after a few rounds, he said it started to click for him.

In the end, the score was 10 (Ian), 11 (Dan), 12 (Marc). I was very pleased with the way the game was played. Everyone was into it until the end. I’m stoked!