Dan Manfredini

May 132009

Last night Ian and I had a discussion about tension in games. We wanted to figure out how to add more tension to a game, but first we need to define what exactly tension was. We decided to break it down.

First, we picked out some games that we felt had tension. I brought up Ticket to Ride as a game with a lot of tension. As a player, you are always on egde wondering if you will get the right cards in time or if someone will steal your route. In my book, there is no greater tension than in a five player game of TtR. Another game that has tension is Carcassonne: You can feel it when tie up a lot of meeples in a city or farm all the while unsure of whether you can make it pay off.  Agricola also has tension in that you don’t know if you can feed your family or if someone will take the resources you desperately need.

Second, we tried to find the common factor in all of these games. The first thing we noticed was that the player took a risk. The bigger the risk, the more tension felt. The second thing we noticed is that the longer the risk takes to resolve, the higher the tension. In Ticket to Ride, you make have an LA to New York ticket from the start of the game. You may not complete it until the very last second. In Agricola, your entire plan revolves around getting the grain action, but you have to sit there patiently waiting for the other players to place their farmers.

In summary:

Tension = Risk  x  Time

This seems obvious laid it out like that. Now that we have the formula, we can think about it in terms of our own games. What can we do to ensure that our games have the right amount of tension?

I just sent out a prototype to a publisher this morning. It was kind of expensive shipping it overseas, but it was worth it.  The postal worker explained that if I didn’t use a flat-rate box and I didn’t care when it got there, I could have saved $20. Oh well, I’ll remember that next time.

It is a nice feeling to get a game off of my docket. It frees my time up to work on other games, and gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I feel that it is much better to have a prototype sitting on a publisher’s shelf than on my shelf waiting to be tweaked for the umpteenth time.

This game was the first of three that I will be courting to publishers. They were all sitting on my shelf either done or 98% done.  My plan is to diversify the games with different publishers. Hopefully, this will mean the gears of progress will always be turning somewhere even if I’m not actively doing anything.

Now to start the process with the second game in my queue.

Dec 102008


Last night Ian, Toby, and I played my prototype for A Loss For Words, a party word game. The game involved getting your teammate to guess your randomly-chosen photo from an array of stock photos using only one word. That one word must start with a letter from a card in your hand. Your team has a deck of each letter, so even the bad letters must be used at some point. You get points (which are bad) for each letter card in your hand, and you can choose to draw cards as you wish. The more options you have in your hand, the more bad points you get.

It played like I imagined, thought I can see room for improvement. Toby gave some important feedback – there is a lot of downtime. That is true, and I need to alleviate it. While one player is being clever in their head, other players are just sitting and waiting.


We also played Stellar Underworld with two new changes:

  • You can ship cubes to any sector, not just your own, but at a cost of twice as many cubes.
  • The black market got an overhaul. Now, the player draws cubes from a bag and swaps them with theirs if they wish. They can assign more henchmen to pull more cubes.

The new shipping freedom was used a lot more than I had imagined, even though it wasn’t really efficient. It has the added benefit of messing up your opponent’s plans, if you choose to. I’m calling this one a keeper!

The new black market also worked well in my opinion.  It has a bit of push your luck to it. Most importantly, it solves the problem that the older version had: Using a market on landing AND launching gave the player no benefit. Now, the player can benefit because they get two shots at pulling the right cubes they need. Before, if you recall, they were fixed cubes.

The final score was 101 (Dan), 100 (Toby), 92 (Ian).

Dec 042008

Ian got a shipment of professionally printed stickers from Frontier Label this week for his game Taktika. They look really nice and save Ian a whole lot of time printing out and cutting his own. On Tuesday, Jon and I helped Ian apply stickers to the discs to make a few sets. It seemed to take 10-15 minutes per set to apply the stickers. Ian is gearing up to send a shipment of games to his distributer Brown Box who in turn is filling orders at Thought Hammer. Go pre-order yours today!

Nov 262008

At BGG.CON, both Ian and I participated in the Proto Alley, where designers tested their prototypes. Here are some snippets about my games:

Venture Forth

I taught Venture Forth to Patrick, Ben, and Gil. I was still a bit rough on the explanation of this game, but before you knew it we were up and playing. The game lasted about an hour for four players.

Theme: Some feedback I received was about the theme. The game is a fantasy adventure game and that genre comes with a lot of baggage. Players expect experience points, killing monsters for gain, gearing up your characters, etc. My game has none of these. I am trying to break new ground, but it is difficult when the feedback I get is that the game is not like the tried and true dungeon crawls. I’m sticking with my vision, but I am open to tweaking it to get more acceptance.

Level Cards: The new system for level cards worked, but as Patrick pointed out, it could be simpler.

Tension: The other feedback was about tension.  You just go through the motions of your turn with very few points of suspense. The punishments from the enemies that you encounter is not that severe, so traveling down a path with one isn’t so scary. I suppose I could crank up the consequences on some of the enemies. Other than that I will have to really think this one out.

Stellar Underworld

I played this one with Ian and Brad. I explained the rules fairly well, and there weren’t many questions to come up. The final score was 100 (Ian), 101 (Brad), and 102 (Dan). I was pleased that the scores were close because we all had different strategies. Brad took a lot of sectors, mostly the resource generators. Ian took a few sectors for their abilities, as did I.

After the game was over, Brad was a little quiet on the feedback. He did suggest a desire to be able to ship to any sector, not just your own. After thinking about it for awhile, and remembering other people giving the same feedback, I decided that I needed to address that. The current plan is to allow shipping to opponent’s sectors for twice the amount of assets. Thematically, it would make sense because you have to “outbid” them on their contract. I don’t think it is a viable startegy, but it does give the player an extra option.

Design Tip #1: Don’t tell the players they can’t do something. Tell them that they can do it, but it will cost ‘em!

Design Tip #2: Fine, tell the players they can’t do something. BUT, make a special power that allows them to do it

I just received word that Monkey Lab will be delayed until Spring 2009. That is a real disappointment for me because I really was looking forward to having it be available for BGG.con and to a lesser extent Christmas. I’m not sure when “Spring 2009″ is, but in my experience anticipating boardgame releases it usually means “Early Summer 2009″. I suppose that all I can do is wait and work on my ideas for the expansion.

I am excited to announce that my game Monkey Lab is going to be published by AEG. I have been waiting on letting the general public know, but I think enough information has been let out already and it is a few months away from being released, so I figured it was time.

So, let me tell you a little bit about Monkey Lab. You play as escaped research monkeys who return to the lab to free your monkey brethren. Since you don’t have access to the keys, you must use the items around the lab to break, pry, pick, and smash the cages open. You score points by releasing monkeys from the cages, or by standing around a newly opened cage and taking credit.  You can work with other players to free a deluge of monkeys through clever card play, or you can work against them by invoking your monkey combat or by sending the guard thier way.

AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group) is publishing the game as they have just started their expansion from CCGs and RPGs to the boardgame publishing world. They have recently released Tomb which has already gotten great reviews.  I’ve been privy to the work they’ve done on Monkey Lab so far and it looks great! I got to see the drawings of the monkey figures – Who doesn’t want a game with monkey pawns? Everything looks awesome and they did a great job bringing the game to life.

The release date is still cloudy, but my hope is that it will be available before BoardgameGeek.con so I can see people play and enjoy it. I will be posting some stories about the making of Monkey Lab in the coming weeks either here on on BGG, so stay tuned!

~ Dan Manfredini

Sep 112008

Argghhhh!!! Hurricane Ike is causing Texas A&M University to shut down this weekend! Protocon takes place on campus and is canceled! I’ve been preparing my games for months now for the design contest, and now they’ve got nowhere to be shown. The convention is not even going to be rescheduled!

Sep 032008

I was feeling a little concerned about my game prototype Stellar Underworld. This feeling came from some of the feedback from the guys from Oklahoma, and from a botched playtest with some “improved” rules based on that feedback. All of that, and I feel pressure to get this game ready for the Protocon design contest.Well, last night I decided to try out some simple changes and see how that fared. We played and I am happy to report that it played really nicely!

Here are some of the things I addressed:

Your ship is your ship – In the previous versions, your ship could be stolen if a player sent enough henchmen to do it, though you could also defend it if you wanted to. The system worked out ok, but the feedback I was getting was that it didn’t feel like you owned your ship. The “comandeering” rules for stealing are no longer in effect. You can only use your ship and the two neutral ships. Suprisingly, this worked out pretty nicely. And it was one less thing that players had to worry about (keeping enough henchmen around to defend a ship).

A nice side effect of this is that when you used your ship, you could leave cargo aboard without fear of thievery. No need for the warehouse. However, when you use the neutral ships, you almost always have to use the warehouse. The usage of the neutral ships are amplified now that other players ships are off limits to commandeering.

This is a perfect case of the development philosophy “How much can I remove from the game, and have it still be the same game?”

Henchmen are worth less – In the previous version, a recruiting strategy seemed to be a main path to victory. Henchmen were worth the same as completed contracts, and they provided many other benefits. Now, they are worth half as much as contracts. Players still benefit from having a lot of them, but now they aren’t “double dipping”.

There were other feedback points that I may or may not address, but for now I think the game has improved. I just to make a new bigger board, and a few other cosmetic changes, and I think I’m ready to go!

There are two main states of game development:

Exhilaration – You have a list of some issues in your game that need to be addressed. You’ve come up with a solution to one of the problems on paper. You think it is so elegant and will solve all of your problems. You, sir, are a genius! You live in the land of happiness and can’t wait to try out your idea.

Despair – Your elegant solution failed completely. It made the game unbalanced. It made the game broken. It made babies cry. Now you must head back to the drawing board to face that annoying issue you were trying to resolve in the first place.

So, this process continues over and over. New issues replace old issues. New fixes break old fixes. You become an expert on your game, and you have tinkered with every aspect of the design. One day everything everything falls into place and you have a game. Sometimes this takes you by surprise. In the end, all the highs and lows were worth it.