Mischa Krilov

Between various members being out of town, I hadn’t been able to make a Flywheel meeting until last Tuesday, the 15th. I played both Dan’s Travelogue and Ian’s Sky Castles for the first time, so I got to offer criticism and feedback for the first two or three hours of the evening.

Once we found ourselves with no more prototypes to play, someone suggested we do another collaborative game design exercise, much like last time. Since I missed out on that one, I really wanted to do it this time. The basic rules are similar to general improv games- you can’t say “No.” Only “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” Everyone’s contribution, once written, is golden. In creating this game, we discovered that the rules were sound and playable, but horribly unbalanced. While nobody vetoed a rule during creation, we certainly hammered out a few details and noted that certain values would have to be tweaked.

Here’s the rules for “Ranch Hands,” in order of creation, as best as I can recall/infer from my scribbled notes. Yes, that’s a working title. Commentary is in brackets, images are from Board Game Geek since nobody used a camera while we were playing. This game is by Ian, Dan, and myself.

  1. The player with the most points, wins.
  2. This game uses no cards.Roads, settlements, cities
  3. This game uses the wooden bits from The Settlers of Catan. [We briefly debated if the dice were part of this rule- since they were wooden, they were in. Strictly speaking, are dice “bits” or something else? Either way, the majority was in favor of dice.]
  4. The dice are not rolled during the game. [Ian squashed the use of dice pretty quickly.]
  5. Each player has one color.
  6. There are two “pots” of points, as indicated by the dice.
  7. Players can increment or decrement a die by one.
  8. This is a three-player game. The fourth color is neutral, but in play. [Remember the base game for Settlers only has four colors.]
  9. The robber pawn is used to indicate one pot of points is negative.
  10. The robber indicates one die as a “cost,” and the other die as a “gain.” [This is interesting as a direct riff from the previous rule, with no context for what’s next.]
  11. The cities are used as toggles for resources: pointing up [like a regular placement of a city in Settlers] indicates a player has a resource.
  12. Neutral bits can be acquired. [We don’t know how, but you can.]Terra Nova in play
  13. This game is played on a Terra Nova board. [Ian grounds us from an abstract game.]
  14. Players can acquire other player’s resources. [We still don’t know how yet! :)]
  15. The terrain on the board does not matter. [I had to nip those potentials in the bud. Now we’re just dealing with a well-illustrated albeit oddly shaped hex map and a track of numbers.]
  16. Players can spend resources to build fences. [Ian demonstrates with roads on the board and we start fiddling.]
  17. Fences are places inside a hex, corner to corner. [They fit just right!]
  18. Players start with $20. [We use one settlement to track money around the edge. I liked my rule because it uses the board differently than as a victory point track- it’s interesting to work with creative constraints.]
  19. Ranches (settlements) are built on the board. [Finally, we get a theme. The earlier rule about fences is only halfway there- Terra Nova is about fencing off areas already.]
  20. Ranches are built inside a fenced-in area that uses your color fence and another color.
  21. This game has a western theme. [I spent a rule to make sure nobody would whip out magic dragon powers.]
  22. When you score an area, you get victory points equal to the positive die.
  23. The dice are pieces on the board.
  24. The edge of the board counts as neutral fence.
  25. You can buy a neutral resource for $5.
  26. Building a fence or a ranch costs a number of resources equal to the cost die (marked with the robber).
  27. It costs $5 to take two fences off the board and into your personal supply.
  28. When you score, the robber moves to the other die.
  29. When the robber moves, any fence he crosses pays out $3 to its owner.
  30. Spend $1 (maximum $5) to move a die one hex without changing its value.
  31. You get 5 Action Points per turn. [We still do not know what this is for, which makes it an interesting rule addition!]
  32. There is a starting setup. [Insert diagram here: Place three neutral fences in a Y-shape. Each player places four more fences to form three two-color enclosed areas, and then one ranch of the correct color inside each fenced-in area.]
  33. Spend 1 AP to flip one resource.
  34. Spend 1 AP to gain 1 dollar. [Note well this rule for later commentary.]
  35. Spend 2 AP to change a die’s value by one.
  36. The game ends when there are ten ranches on the board.
  37. The dice are rolled for setup. [This would normally be not allowed, as it directly contradicts an earlier rule. However, the majority liked it and technically the previous rule was no dice rolling during the game.]
  38. It costs $10 to build one ranch, plus the cost in resources. [We knew this was unbalanced.]
  39. The start player is the person with the closest birthday. [It happened to be Ian’s birthday when we created this, so he was our start player. Naturally, this rule was added with him in mind.]

And so, we finished because we wanted to play our game. We stopped when we knew everyone had added an equal number of rules, then added a few more setup and housekeeping rules.

  • Players start with no resources
  • Anything costs an AP
  • Only one ranch per fenced-in area
  • Let’s use glass stones to keep track of actions

Amazingly, this game works. As noted, it’s pretty seriously unbalanced. In retrospect, we’ve got several currencies running around between resources, money, victory points, and AP- this is keeping too many plates in the air for an improv design. Ian felt that we could consolidate money and AP somehow, but I’d rather see them separate things for players to balance. That said, money drains too quickly, and building got prohibitively expensive (in terms of resources:AP over time) rapidly. We really liked the mechanic of moving the robber between the dice- it added an interesting dynamic of balancing VP and cost, plus his motion between dice is the only real way to generate significant income.

We played so each of us got a handful of turns (maybe two dozen all told), enough to basically see most every rule get touched. I think the game was a tie, and I know I was seriously broke. Dan and I cornered Ian out of the neutral resources, which bankrupted us for a long-term advantage. At the end of the day, we all agreed that we would play it again if it were balanced.

A few months back, I had lunch with my brother. We do a fair amount of lifehackery to keep each other focused on getting things done; this isn’t the venue for that post. At this particular Chinese lunch, we were talking about patrons in our respective creative fields: film and games. It’s not uncommon in the gaming industry to hire a designer to make a game- I’m pretty sure that this happens to Reiner Knizia with some frequency. It’s also not unheard of for RPG designers to do the same. Hollywood, that great specialized bank, does the same: if the money is right, the talent produces. As a result of this discussion, my brother commissioned me to design a game for one dollar, with a provided theme of “heists” and possibly “Australia.”

Evidently, I’ve got a lot simmering around in my brain, and quickly was able to sketch out a game idea that revolved around players sending in a crew of specialists/thugs/criminals working to complete jobs for points: the Faceman, the Driver, the Femme Fatale, the Safecracker, the Hacker. Each had various strengths that could be used to win the jobs- the long con, the jewelry store heist, smuggling, and so on. At this point in the development, my working title was “the Fourth Guy,” a nod to noir masterpiece The Third Man.Most every tweak and idea I’ve had must fit in with the theme somehow, or it’s getting dropped.

I’ve had TLG through a dozen or so minor variations, many that I discarded without playing. I’ve kept notes on them for possible inclusion in a later revision. For instance, I’d like to include the notion of rewards that a player earns for completing a job. Right now, I’m still working out the basic mechanic and deck distribution, so “powers” are on the back burner for now.

So far, I keep running into a runaway leader scoring problem, where it’s obvious who will win and there is literally no point to continue play. That, and the game plays in less than ten minutes, which feels short. The length isn’t as big a problem as I originally thought. Since The Last Guy is fundamentally a trick-taking game, those games are usually stretched over several hands to make for a compelling game. A series of hands neatly solves the leader problem, I think.

I don’t have a huge production studio or a color printer and stock in foamcore like some of our members, so my current prototyping constraints include that the game must be playable with standard playing cards. This means that I don’t waste time making up a prototype that won’t pass muster after one play, and that I can focus on tweaking the core of the game instead of throwing extra unplaytested cards at a (perceived) problem. I also have about ten decks of two-for-a-dollar cheap-as-hell cards that I found at Target. I picked these babies up expressly for prototyping, and they are so cheap they’ll tear with a rigorous riffle shuffle, I kid you not.

This portability has also let me playtest it with people I wouldn’t normally. I don’t need to drag around a huge board or a custom-printed deck of cards. With several decks of regular playing cards (and once with a six-suited Rage deck), I can make radical changes in gameplay without fretting about investing in the time needed to produce a complete prototype.

Almost every time the game has actually hit the table, it passes the “Let’s Play Again!” test, which is huge for me.

Here’s my mostly unplaytested game for the Treehouse Design Challenge. I call it Cosmic Iced Rum, taking inspiration from Cosmic Encounter, Guillotine, and Rummy.
Cosmic Iced Rum

For two players and one stash, plays in less than ten minutes.

  1. Shuffle a stash of treehouse pieces (five colors, three sizes each), and create a single-file line. Use the tube to clearly mark one end of the row as the end of the line. All pieces will be drawn from the start of the line.
  2. Roll for powers, using the standard Treehouse die:
    • Aim: Reorient a pyramid. Force left or right placement on the other player
    • Dig: Draw from end of line.
    • Hop: Pull n+1th piece, depending on size (second for small, third for medium, fourth for large).
    • Tip: Precog defense, shift target one to left or right.
    • Swap: Swap end pieces with freshly pulled pyramid.
    • Wild: Your choice. Only if you roll Wild can two players have the same power.
  3. Play phase one, loading:
    • On your turn, draw the pyramid at the start of the line. It goes to the line you’re building in front you you, either on the left or the right.
    • When you place a pyramid in your line, you may aim it either at yourself or at your opponent, indicating the target of your power.
    • When you use a power, you must take a flat pyramid and make it upright.
  4. Play phase two, fighting:
    • Any remaining flat pyramids now fire, starting with the start of the line.
    • Shooting an upright pyramid causes to to be removed.
    • Shooting a defensive pyramid causes it to become offensive.
    • Shooting an offensive pyramid causes it to become upright.
    • When you use a power, you must take a flat pyramid and make it upright.
  5. Scoring: When all pyramids in both player’s lines are upright, a player gets five points for two like colors next to each other, and three points for two like sizes next to each other. A single pyramid may score twice: once for a match on the left, once for a match on the right.

There’s definitely a game in here somewhere, but it needs some TLC.

Jun 262006

I recently purchased a number of games- big surprise. At Bryon’s festival on Saturday, I had the opportunity to play a number of them and discovered that two of my recent acquisitions didn’t pass muster. You mihgt even call them less than stellar. These two games are You Need Drew’s Truck and Zig-Zag. I’ll post a full game session report for everything on my blog in the future. In a nutshell, Zig-Zag is a pattern-matching racing game with a bit of memory and action as its main draw (pardon the pun) and You Need Drew’s Truck is a pick-up-and-deliver game that uses a magnetic tetris-like gimmick.

Dan offered an excellent suggestion before trading away these games: Use them as a design exercise. I’ll bring both of these games to the next playtest meeting, we can play them as-written once, then see if we can come up with better rules using the same components.


Some of you know that I have a new noodle for a board game. Its working title is Take the Money and Run. Now, it’s been a while since I actually designed a board for a board game past the back-of-the-napkin sketch stage, and certainly the first time that I’ve done so using today’s modern digital tools.I know that the board will go through several revisions as I playtest the game, so I didn’t want to spend too much time polishing up any layout. In fact, I wanted to make a very simply layout that I wouldn’t get attached to and wouldn’t have a moment of hesitation when I needed to write on the board, to either mark up a change, or doodle an idea, or pencil in approximate starting spots. I didn’t even want something as well-put-together as a Cheapass game board. I aim to design TTMAR very specifically from the mechanics first, which is not the way my ideas usually flow. I therefore know that the theme I have in mind now may or may not change with the game, and didn’t want to obtain cutesy albeit well-themed clip art or fonts.

I currently envision the board as three concentric tracks- fundamentally, TTMAR is a resource-magagement race game. I want players to progress from the outer track to a middle track, to the inner track, with the goal in the center. (Yes, this is mildy inspired by the Talisman board layout.) Since I want this game to play well with a varying number of players, I started with sixty spaces on the outside track- Those who like math or the Mayans may know that sixty is the first number that is evenly divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; the Wikipedia has a good deal more information on this cool number. “Plays with 2-6″ is a good label to have, I think. I chose 28 spaces for the middle track and twelve for the inner track, by taking half the spaces of the previous ring and rounding down to the first number divisible by four. We’ll see how it works.
TTMAR-1aI made my first two mockups using Inkscape, an Open Source and cross-platform vector graphics editor. This means that not only is it free, but it will run on Linux, Mac, and Windows. Plus it’s vector graphics, which scales really well and looks very sharp. I couldn’t figure out how to take a simple shape and repeat it sixty times without making my eyes bleed by doing it manually, so I improvised with polygons and stars. Regardless of the appropriateness of this board layout, I really like this first image. Cat says it’s Jungian, so make of that what you will. Trying to plan what to use for markers, I realize that those common glass stones everyone uses for tokens or markers simply won’t fit in the spaces as done. I also squeezed the tracks a bit closer together.
TTMAR-1b I made this next image by simply transforming the circle to fit in the full frame of the page. This image, when printed out onto tabloid (11″ x 17″), is the board used for the first two-player playtest between Cat and myself. I inked the 12-, 3-, 6-, and 9 o’clock positions as a visual aid and penciled in starting positions and inter-ring paths. I’d say these first two versions took the space of a couple of hours to produce, including choosing an app to do the art in- but I wasn’t working solely on these images all the time. Call it an hour and a half, max.

Cat won the first game- it took maybe twenty minutes, including middle-of-game discussion. I recall a very important playtest guideline- make sure that you playtest rules as written, rather than house-ruling problems away in the middle. You’ve got to give the rules a complete chance in order to understand what happens and why. This is a hard line to toe- we humans are all fiddlers at heart.
TTMAR-2I hit the intertron to find a better means of making the paths as I envisioned, and found a how-do-I-make-cogwheel-shapes blog post that helped me to do exactly what I needed in Adobe Illustrator. (In a nutshell, you use the Rotation tool on a selection, then alt-click the center of focus, choose copy.) This speedy methodology resulted in this second version mockup, shown here. Now that I had a better idea of what I wanted to do, the layout and design learning curve became apparent- producing this layout took about a half-hour. I like this a lot more, since you’ve got less ambiguous spaces for tokens now. These spaces are also smaller than in previous versions because I realised that I’d included a rule that prevents tokens from sharing a space- it’s never going to happen in this version. I’ve also shaded in the four compass directions in the image, again as a visual aid. Even though I now had an idea where to place the paths between rings and where to place starting pieces, I’ve left it off this image on purpose; I know that I need to physically fiddle in order for things to make sense to me. Tonight’s playtest will use this layout streched onto tabloid.
TTMAR-fjlBased on an IM conversation, an architect friend who wishes to remain Hieronymous (you know who you are) threw this mockup together in a CAD program in less than ten minutes. This proves that someone who knows their tools well is a valuable asset in game design! I like the design – much more cabalistic – but I think the interleaved spaces offer too many opportunities for confusion during playtest. Also, I’m not 100% sure that I’ll stick with these numbers or this layout, but it does showcase the difficulty of using the number of spaces that I ‘m starting with.
I have a rules sheet, already the second revision after one playtest. I’m ready for tonight’s playtest with more than two players.

Jun 132006

I found a good article recently on Do’s and Don’ts of Components: things to consider when choosing components. It includes good links to other articles: color, material, box dimension, etc.

In case you missed it, Peter Morrison has a long history of the production of Viktory up. Long, but well worth the read.

Following the same vein, you might want to read Tom Jolly’s thoughts on the subject of manufacturing and marketing.

Does anyone have any other good places to start?


May 252006

Hello, everyone.

I’m Mischa. I’m a transplanted New Orleans native now living in Austin, Texas. Game-wise, I’ve got two roleplaying games on my burners, and four board/card games and ideas on the back burners in various stages of development. I have a few ideas for computer games, but as I’m not a programmer, it’s likely not to happen. That’s fine with me. Right now, I pay the bills by keeping computers running. I’m really in IT for the glory.

I’m very interested to see where this little open-air experiment goes.