Last night, Mischa, Ian, and I met at my place for some good old-fashioned playtesting. One of the first things we did was go over my rulebook for Salvage. Admittedly, it was not a polished as I would have liked it, but I tried to make sure it was as rules complete as I could make it. Writing a rule book is not as easy as it might seem. It needs to be tested just like the game itself to make sure that everything has been covered.

Both guys gave some good suggestions on layout and wording. One big problem was the lack of card layout and procedural examples. I did have examples, but not enough and not in the needed areas. As they say, you can never have enough examples.

Besides examples, I included a glossary for all of the cards in the game (there’s not that many). It serves as a mini-FAQ and a dumping ground for any notes I have about a particular card. I like it because it’s not in the way when you’re trying to learn the game, but it is there when you have a question about a particular card.

I made a change to one card that required quite a lot of explanation in the glossary. The concept is simple once you know it, but it is a real pain to write it down succinctly and clearly. Imagine trying to explain the word “most” to people who had no concept of numbers being greater than or less than others. To me, that’s what it feels like. I tried my best, but after reading it, Mischa was definitely disturbed by it because it seems like a big clunky addition to the game. I strongly feel that it is not a difficult concept, and I just need to find a better way to explain it. After we played, he agreed that it was a simple concept, and he suggested adding a thematic explanation to make it easier to swallow, ala Star Trek via Futurama:

Fry: Well, usually on the show, someone would come up with a complicated plan, then explain it with a simple analogy.

Leela: Hmm. If we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and reconfigure them to Melllvar’s frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.

Bender: Like putting too much air in a balloon!

Fry: Of course! It’s so simple!

It’s as simple as that!

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.

Jan 132007

In my quest for Crokinole discs I have found a couple of sites that sell inexpensive discs. The first is I have placed an order with this company, however I have not received them yet. The other is Mr Crokinole, which carries many different styles of discs and rings.


Our latest playtest session and design roundtable was a great success – all four of us had promising games to show, two new ones, and two revisions of designs-in-progress. I’m looking forward to seeing each one work its way into the hands of eager customers. I’ve actually been selling copies of Honeypot to people I don’t know, so now it’s time to keep turning the crank on the old game machine and get some new stuff out there.

The two top contenders at the moment are RocketYard, a card game about bidding for rocketship parts and shooting various animals into space, and Pangaea, a board game that uses some neat territory control and move-limiting mechanics to replay the breaking apart of our Mesozoic super-continent. RocketYard has been playtested pretty thoroughly, and probably only needs one or two more go-arounds before I can get some final art locked down and deepen my search for card game manufacturers. (The quotes I’ve received so far for smallish runs have been extraordinarily out of my acceptable price range. If anyone has any leads, I’d be delighted to hear from you.)

Pangaea, however, is brand spanking new, and that was my bring-to for playtesting this week. It started with my fiddling around with a little bag of plastic dinosaurs, trying to figure out if I could make a game that only used them as pieces, and blossomed into a larger strategic game that has a board with sixty spaces arranged in a grid (which is much too regular and ugly-shaped to work in the actual game – I’d like to retain the same topology, but squish it around until it looks like an actual land mass), sixty counters in six colors, and a small number of markers that the players use to nail down their territory as the continent separates. The rules are fairly simple – I’m a big fan of the one-page rulesheet – but still a little fiddly. It played well, however, and everyone in the group enjoyed playing it more than once, so I think there’s a good bit of promise in there. I almost hate to say that it feels like it almost works right out of the gate – game design is such an iterative process that when something works this well straight off, I get suspicious, and start trying to pull it apart and adding and taking out bits when it might not need pulling and prodding, just because that’s how it’s “supposed” to work. Either way, I’ll mock up a slightly prettier board and run it through a bunch more players, and see if I can smooth it out some more.

So, there’s that. Fun fun.

I’ve also got a card game in the pipe that has some potential connection to a hot little chunk of IP out there, which I’m still working the kinks out of, both game-wise and deal-wise. I’m pretty excited about getting the fire stoked under that one as well, but one thing at a time…

Jan 122007

This past Tuesday we had a productive game design meeting. Everybody got to playtest each others’ prototypes, and we all found them to be rather interesting. I brought to the table a card game I’ve been working on for over a year now called Salvage. I haven’t been constantly working on it; it’s just been on and off the back burner for a long while. It has gone through a lot of transformations along the way. I like to try out a lot of ideas, and some of them just feel as though they are meant for another game, not this one. I scrapped a lot of ideas along the way because I wasn’t happy with how they worked in the game, but I think I’m to the point where I like how the system works.

Players assume the roles of post-apocalyptic scavengers searching through the rubble of a war-torn landscape to find the components they need to rebuild their lives. The piles of junk are limitless, but the resources they need are scarce. Players alternate between rounds of scavenging (card drafting) and building. During the draft, each player is dealt seven “junk” cards; they simultaneously select one each and pass the remainder to the left, repeating until done. With the “junk” cards they have acquired, players then take turns building and upgrading their camps, tools, weapons, and vehicles which all have their own unique abilities.

The testing in this latest version was mostly about the recycling of the junk deck. The depletion of the junk deck marked the end of a “season” in the game. The game lasts as many seasons as there are players. This allows for games with different numbers of players to roughly last around the same amount of time.

In previous versions of the game the junk deck would run out, players would get short changed junk cards (by design, I convinced myself), and play would continue as normal. The player with the leader card would get less short-changed than the other players because he was dealt his card first. After the short-changed round, a new season would start. Each new season would require all junk cards (even the left over ones the players had in their hands) to be shuffled into a fresh new deck. Even though the short changing of the cards didn’t affect the overall balance of the game, it just felt sloppy. It didn’t feel like good design when players played a round with one or two new cards instead of the full seven.

To fix that problem, I decided to just have the discard pile be shuffled when the deck ran out. That let the players continue to draw their cards so that each round they had 7 new cards. When the deck runs out, the players should note that the end of this round marks the end of the season. I also allow players to keep their card between seasons. It seems like a simple solution used in countless other games (and even in previous incarnations of this game), and I just took the long approach to get there.

With that nagging flaw no longer there, I plan on focusing on the project abilities, cleaning up the rules, and more playtesting!

Jan 102007

I have had the strangest urge to play flicking games lately. Games like; Crokinole, Carabande, and Carrom. However, with my budget I just cant afford to go out and buy any of these. So my desire to flick little wooden disks has inspired me to create my own take on a flicking game (Flicking + Conflict = Fun).Flick wars can be played on any kitchen table, and will fit into a large dice bag. Each player has 10 disks in his army. There are also 3 different unit types in the basic game (I have already begun working on an expansion); Archers, Infantry, and Calvary. During your turn you can ether move one of you disks, or attempt to attack an opponents disk. Each unit has a different movement rate (the number of times you can flick the disk), and specific requirements for making an attack on another piece. The winner of the game is the first player to accumulate 6 kills. Dan and Mark played the game last night and both had very positive reactions.

This is an extremely portable game. My wife and I played it while waiting for our dinner at a local restaurant tonight. The game took about 25 minutes, and was very close. Our food arrived just as Melissa made the winning shot. The table was clean but felt a little tacky. This made judging shots a little more difficult than usual. All in all it was a very fun game. People kept watching what we were doing, and I kept thinking about how cool it would be to be able to tell them where they can purchase it online.

Mark has challenged me to get this game finished and self-published in one months time. I plan on meeting that challenge. I really feel that this game has that special something. Mark has really inspired me with his recent release of Honeypot.

I plan on posting updates on my progress in the following weeks.