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.


Jun 192006

Went over to Chris’s last night for some playtesting and confabulation. Myself, Chris, Ian, Dan, and Mischa. Tested the latest round of Monkey Lab (below), Hive (which, I think is done – all I need is art and production), took a look at Ian’s (unnamed) game, and played Mischa’s prototype of Take The Money and Run. Which has a lot of potential.

Each player has a team of politicians (with four players, three each) that maneuver around the tracks and try to buy a spot in the middle (office?). There are two currencies, dirty and clean money, which are gained and used in different ways. You can buy “protection” for your pols, hitmat, lawyer, hooker, each have different effects on different thingies. Cost to go down levels, starting positions. Obviously an early prototype, but a strong theme, good mechanics, and a lot of fun – good stuff, and I look forward to playing the next revision…

Ran a couple more playtests of Hive at ghg on friday with ryan and yari – there’s still some debate whether or not the second player has an advantage. I think not, but I’d like to run another batch of tests, paying closer attention to that.

My latest few revisions to Monkey Lab included the following changes:

Shared Scoring

When a player scores by unlocking a cage, the players in the same room or adjoining rooms also score (except one less point). The score keeping is now done with numbered chips that are kept face-down instead of opened cage tiles kept face-up. This main problem that this fixes is the runaway leader problem. When one player got a huge lead, the other players felt hopeless. Now, since the points are hidden, and since scoring happens more often, players are unsure of who is exactly in the lead and by how much. In the few tests I’ve tried with this, this seems to work nicely.

Once side-effect of this new scoring is that players can now cooperate. It is a nice addition to the game since it adds a bit more depth to your decisions and it really works with the theme. It even works well with two players and gives the players a big incentive to use the combat mechanic to scare the other player away.

Game Ending

The game used to end when the guard made his way one time around the board. No matter how much I wanted it to happen, players always forgot to move the guard. I tried it at the beginning of the turn as well as the end, but no luck. I decided to remove the guard moving altogether and add a different end game condition. Now, when the deck runs out of cards, the game will end. I’ve tried this a couple of times, and it seems to be a good timer. Players have control over it and it guarantees a certain length to the game. I still need to tweak the number of cards in the deck, but this seems to work.

The Guard IN the Rooms

I liked the mechanic of the guard so much that I didn’t want to completely get rid of it. I instead added cards that moved the guard inside the lab rooms. He has the same effect of limiting actions to his room and adjoining rooms. Thematically, it works since he is slowing the monkeys down by chasing them. It adds a certain amount of tension because the other players don’t know when he will strike. Also, since he starts out off the board, there is a certain time of “free play” in the lab. I’m not totally convinced that I want him to affect adjoining rooms as well since it seems to really hinder players options. I’ll probably test it more both ways to see which I like better.

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?


Jun 092006

Hi everyone,

My name is Ian, and I live in Austin Texas. I have been designing role-playing games and then playing them with my friends for about 20 years now, and it has been a very fun hobby for me. However, I now have a new hobby; designing and playing board games (I still play RPG’s too).   
I have just recently discovered how important having a regular play-test group is. I have been meeting with a group for several months now, play-testing games and talking about game ideas. Not only has this really helped me to stay motivated to keep producing prototypes, but I find my self thinking up new ideas much more often.

Last night I met with Ian, Mischa, and Chris to do some playtesting. Here’s the scoop:

We started the night with playtesting my game Salvage. Salvage is a card game for 2-4 players that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the landscape is a junk yard, and you are there to salvage, build, and survive. The main mechanic of the game is card drafting, similar to a booster draft found in collectible card games. Players go through hands of cards picking the components they want to keep and pass the remaining to the next person. After the draft is over, they use that junk to build one of four types of projects: camps, tools, weapons, or vehicles. The projects are double-sided cards and players can spend junk cards to upgrade them (flip them over) as well. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

I tried out a new rule for my weapon upgrade. It states that on the turn you upgrade the weapon, until the end of the turn, whenever someone else builds or upgrades, they must discard a card. My goal is to create balanced abilities on all the cards that only become powerful when used at the most opportune moment. For example, this one wouldn’t be good to use when everyone has few cards in their hands since they probably aren’t going to build. It worked out pretty well in the game we played. What I didn’t expect is to have two different players use them at the same time causing a two card penalty for building. That was pretty cool though. As it stands right now, it gives both the weapon user AND the weapon victim a choice. “Do I build now with a penalty or wait until next turn?”

It was also suggested that I experiment with the quantities of the projects available to build. I tested out last night with 8 of each project. The tools and camps were the first to go. There were about 2-3 each of the weapons and vehicles. I’ll have to test this out more. I don’t want limit any one strategy. If a player just wants to build vehicles, then I want that open to him.

I’ll write more later about the other games. Please comment with your thoughts about this playtest.

Jun 042006

Well, I said that I was going to talk about ways to overcome design blocks, but it looks like I’ve been distracted by the worst kind – something shiny. It’s always easier to let my attention drift away from something that I’ve got in some kind of decent shape to pour some energy into a new project (or a new phase of an ongoing project), instead of steaming ahead. But that’s okay – working in parallel allows me to apply things that I’ve learned in one area to another, so, let’s go with that.

The shiny thing in question here is, of course, “Hive”, the board game that I brought out for playtesting on Friday, which Dan was generous enough to give me a good amount of very useful feedback on. The game is in the late stages of prototyping and playtesting, and I feel like it’s pretty solid right now. The prototype that we played on Friday was the same one that I’d slapped together last year, just some glued-together construction paper for counters and a very poorly sketched and cut apart game board. Dan’s feedback impelled me to polish that part a bit, so that this next round of playtesting won’t be so painful – as much time was spent trying to hold the board together and keeping pieces from moving around as was playing, I think, and a better quality prototype will allow me to focus on making a few final tweaks to the gameplay, without having to spend all that time apologizing for the sorry state of things.

So, I sat myself down yesterday and fired up Inkscape and before too long, I had a spiffy looking new version of the board ready to go. A quick trip to Michael’s craft store in the afternoon got me all the bits and pieces that I needed to glue up and cut out the new board, plus a bunch of other goodies that I’m sure will come in handy one of these days. The counters are another issue altogether, though. They’re supposed to be 1″ hex shapes, with printing on both sides, and they need to be a bit thicker than the previous ones, as Dan mentioned, to make all the flipping a bit less odious. I brought home a few different kinds of materials to try out, with varying levels of success. I printed out the counter art on some full-size label paper, and went to town. My favorite ones so far are the 1/8″ balsa wood counters, with the stickers on either side, but each one takes a couple of minutes to cut and assemble and clean up, which is a bit prohibitive for the number of counters that I’m looking at producing. Fortunately, I also made a trip to a teacher supply store on the way, and picked up a few things, including a bag of 1″ two-color counters. A little sharpie magic, and I’ve got some eminently usable markers for the game – round, not hexagonal, and nowhere near as pretty as the ones I mocked up, but they’ll do the trick.

So, enough about the look and feel of the game – how does it play? Dan summarized the rules nicely in his post – one of my primary design goals with Hive was to make it as simple as possible, but it’s possible that I may have run too far in that direction. The full rules for the playtest version are literally short enough to be written on an index card, which I like a lot. While there are a couple of strategies and counter-strategies that emerged during the initial round of playtesting, it’s possible that casual players may find the game play a little “flat”. I added some optional rules in an attempt to address this – such as the corner cells scoring double – which will require some more play to work out the details. Hopefully, this will break up some of the clumping behavior that we observed, and lead to some new play angles – I’ve worked them out a bit in solo testing, but more brains will really bring out the wrinkles.

There are still some design issues that I haven’t been able to fully address. One that Dan mentioned, keeping track of the direction of the tiles when they are flipped, has vexed me since the very beginning. To be honest, I’m not sure that there really is a solution to this one – I’m just planning on making the counters as clear and easy to handle as possible, and hope that the players can work it out. The other issue that bugs me is during setup; the players must sort out their piles of counters without them being clearly marked as to which ones belong to which player. I do have a solution to this one, but I totally forgot about it in my eagerness to pump out the current batch of tiles, so it’ll have to wait one more go-around. Fortunately, it’s mostly a cosmetic hiccup, and shouldn’t be too big of an issue in testing.

Dan also mentions that he’d like to see some kind of numerical analysis of the optimal scores on each move. I have to admit, I’ve done very little number crunching on this one – the concept seemed simple enough, and tested well enough initially (after the usual fiddling and grumbling) that I didn’t really feel like it was necessary to break out the spreadsheets. Maybe I’m wrong – it’s definitely something to look into. Mischa also brings up a couple of ideas in his reply to Dan’s post, which intrigue me. I’m not sure I’d want to cut down on the range of numbers for the tiles – I like the amount of granularity versus complexity with 1-9, as opposed to, say 2-4-8, but I’m not against testing some alternate number spreads. I do really like the idea of allowing the players to rotate their pieces in some way, but I think I’d like to get what I have now solidified before throwing completely new stuff in.

All in all, Hive is feeling very close to done. I’m very much looking forward to busting through the next round or two of playtesting, and then moving on to the next phase – finalizing the visual design, and then trying to figure out how to manufacture, sell, and distribute the little guy. Fun, fun. As usual, any other input, comments or thoughts are greatly appreciated.

(Historical note: Hive was originally intended to be a chronic mini-game in a larger online science fiction massive-ish multiplayer game, in the vein of Pazaak, Triple Triad, or Tetra Master. The over-game, Parallax, was shelved indefinitely, but Hive took on a life of its own, in the non-virtual world. This is one of the joys of designing in multiple game media – things like this, or like Wu Xing, going in the opposite direction are bound to happen.)

Next: Zombies!!!

Jun 032006

I got to try out Marc’s hex board game last night “Hive”. Here are my thoughts:

The game is an interesting abstract where your only move is to place a numbered double-sided hex with “arrows” onto a donut-shaped hex board. The goal was to have a higher total of points from your hexes than your opponent. This was accomplished by capturing (flipping) your opponent’s pieces by pointing your higher-numbered hex’s arrow toward your opponent’s piece, or by teaming up with smaller pieces and “equaling” the enemy piece. The rules are simple and gave me time to focus on the strategy.

Of course, I wasn’t 100% sure of what the strategy was, which is a good thing. I mostly ended up playing a piece to at least capture one of his pieces so that I felt like I was making forward progress. When I decided to spice things up by placing my piece alone on the other side of the board, I didn’t get any immediate “feedback” from it. Was it a good move? I wasn’t quite clear about that until several turns later. In fact, I’m still not quite sure if it was a good move or a bad move.

I’m not sure I like that the game tends to grow from one location. There seems to be little incentive to play all over the board. This is, of course, a huge incentive to play near the group – capturing!

I would really like to see an analysis of the optimal score per move. Each player has two sets of 1-9 tiles. That’s 90 points per side. (Now that I think about, we might have mis-added the totals up because both of our scores were in the eighties!) So, a player has to get more than 90 points to win. I’m going to venture a guess and say that a player needs to score at least once per turn to win (or at the very least keep up the rate of the opponent).

I like how the angle of the double arrows is at 120 degrees. That seemed to prevent a lot of double flipping in one turn.

Mechanically, I didn’t like having to keep track of the directions of the arrows when I flip. I think I messed up on a few occasions. If this was a video game, then I could see the captured color just changing, but as a board game, the flipping has to be taken into consideration. Is there any way to make this easier to remember?

Another thing about flipping: Any game piece that you have to flip repeatedly should be of some thickness. I know this is a prototype, but when you move to the next step, thicker pieces will help.

The game was very close at the end, which was good, and it was unclear who the winner was until we totalled up the score. Now after thinking about it, I want to play again to test out some of my strategy theories.

Overall, the rules were very complete and all cases were handled. I think there is room for some more spice in the game. Give something to the players to consider besides flipping hexes.

Here’s some other abstract games that this game reminded me of:
Ingenious – Play it online!