Nov 302007

At this week’s meeting, I mentioned this dexterity game that I made for a BGDF designer challenge about two years ago, and I thought I repost it. I don’t remember why I brought it up, but it did come in second place and I think it’s pretty good. It’s really easy to make (household stuff), but be warned you will get light headed with all of the blowing you’ll be doing!

Downdraft Skiing
By Dan Manfredini

For any number of two player teams


• 1 Cotton Ball
• 1 Ping Pong Ball
• 1 Crumpled Paper Ball
• 5 (or more) Unopened Cans (Soda, Beer, Soup, etc.)
• 1 Stop Watch
• 1 Sheet of Paper w/ Pencil
• 1 Long Table

The Object of the Game

Downdraft Mountain is notorious for its strong winds and deadly cliffs, but that doesn’t stop skiers from attempting to slalom down it. The object of the game is for you and your teammate to blow your skier (ball) in and out of the flags (cans) to the end of the course.

Setting up the Game

• Clear off a long table and remove all of the chairs around it.
• Place 5 cans down the length of the center of the table. You may use more cans depending on the length of your table. Player may agree to stagger them off of the center to increase difficulty.
• Designate a “start” end and a “finish” end to the table.
• Assign teams of two players.

Playing the Game

The game will consist of three rounds. The type of skier will vary each round:

Round 1 – Cotton Ball (Stops reasonably)
Round 2 – Ping Pong Ball (Does not stop)
Round 3 – Crumpled Paper Ball (Stops too early)

On Your Run

Each team will get one chance during each round to run through the course.

On your team’s run, both players go to the “start” end of the table. One player stands on the one side of the table and the other player stands on the opposite side. One player will place the ball on the table in front of him.

Designate a player on another team to be the referee. That person will give a countdown, tell the players to start, and then start the timer. The player will then blow his ball through the first gate (between the edge of the table and the first can). The teammate will then blow the ball back around the next can. This will continue until the ball goes through the last gate (between the edge of the table and the last can). When the ball passes through the last gate, the moment it leaves the table is when the timer should be stopped. The referee then records the time for that run.

Special Rules

• While the ball is on the table, it may not be touched, except the replace a fallen ball.
• If the ball falls off the table, put it back on at the edge where it fell off.
• A player cannot leave his or her side of the table.


At the end of each run, that team is penalized one point (+1) each time the ball falls off the table, one point (+1) each time a teammate touches the ball illegally, and two points (+2) each time a player leaves his or her side of the table.
At the end of each round, the team with the best time marks off two points (-2).
At the end of the game, the team with the least points is the winner.

Let me cast my memory back to Tuesday night where Ian, Dan and I huddled around a collection of gems as we played Dan’s As Yet Unnamed abstract bead game. I had given the rules a once over (easy to understand, just a few clarifications needed) and then we started to play. An elegant game, beautiful in its simplicity, like Othello. Dan wondered if the rules were clear. At the end of the game, I opened my hand to reveal the most gems. Yes, the rules were very clear. ;)

We discussed the fact that it might be hard to pitch a game which is essentially a sheet of rules one could use with spare change or common household objects. Dan said the hook would be cool, customized pieces. Zombies, perhaps. I agreed with his thinking.

Then Ian set up a game he had thought up on the drive over. It was actually more of a marketplace/resource generation mechanic that might be useful as part of a larger game. It involved a wheel of rotating prices. Buying an item made other items cheaper for other players. It had glaring problems, but the concept was cool and I could see it work as part of another game, as Ian suggested.

I had never played Salvage, so Dan brought that out. Marc arrived shortly thereafter and witnessed Ian’s vast Tool farm. I thought Salvage was well put together, but it failed to engage me like the brilliant Monkey Lab. Dan set the bar pretty high with that one. So if it were *monkeys* scrounging around a post-apocalyptic landscape, I’d totally buy into it.

Afterwards we discussed GenCon and Ian held forth about his deep love for Reiner Knizia. He shared a few poems he had written in the designer’s honor and we all kind of had a moment.

Ian brought up the idea of a Flywheel podcast. A monthly program in which we all dissected a game from a designer’s point of view. Rather than reviewing a game, we would deconstruct it, explaining why we loved or hated specific mechanics in the game. The podcast would also be an avenue for advertising our own games and raising awareness of our projects. We all seemed very interested in this idea. Once a month would have a small footprint on our busy schedules. Ian has the equipment, we’re all pretty tech savy, and I’ve actually done podcast work before.

Marc whipped out his Pangaea game and I was soon humbled by Dan and Marc’s wicked deployment of little blocks. Since there are so many games on the market involving settlers roaming about an island, I suggested that the game be re-themed to take place on a microscope slide, a world of amoebas and paramecium. Blank stares. Then I think Ian mentioned dinosaurs. Everyone loves dinosaurs!

At the end of the evening a design challenge was posed: Take your favorite game and transform it into a dungeon crawl. The components and essence of the original game must remain, but game play must involve “kicking in the door, killing the monster, taking its stuff.” Dungeons of Puerto Rico, anyone?

Jun 062007

Mischa, Dan, and myself met tonight for a couple hours at Austin Java to give Dan’s Travelogue prototype one last go-around before it was shipped off to Italy. A three-player game ran just over half an hour, and I must say, it was a pretty solid, fun card game, all around. Mischa smashed out the lead with a monster twelve-point “trick”, but the scores were satisfyingly close, and everyone felt a certain level of control and pacing throughout the game. I like the broader range of scores on the cards, and the new stacking system for the destination cards. There were a few other modifications from the last time I played that I wasn’t sure of at the beginning, but it all hung together very well, and although I know that Dan loves to tinker, tweak, and twiddle his games over and over until everything is perfect, it feels like a winner to me already. I look forward to seeing how it fares in the contest.

We chatted some more and fiddled a little bit with designs here and there – Mischa brought out a copy of Siege Stones, and we played around with a few designs around the pieces in the box, including one based very loosely on Lines of Action. Dan also gave us the sad news that he’s going to be re-theming his Monkey Lab game along the lines of some fantasy thing, to make it more palatable to publishers. (Wah!) Mostly game chat, though – although, and the end, we decided that Flywheel needed another challenge, and we each put in one restriction. So, Flywheelers, here is your challenge: you have one week (or two, or three, or however long it is before you show up to the next playtest hootenanny) to devise a game that 1) uses a board, 2) does not use any numbers, and 3) uses cards, with some kind of “flip and take” mechanic. I’ll leave those open for now – if anyone wants to post a clarification question, the person who put forth the restriction can pipe up and sort things out.

In production news, I have found myself some artists! I have a spreadsheet delivered to and a promise received from an illustrator friend of mine in San Francisco to draw me some pretty spaceship parts for my RocketYard cards, and another one in Austin who says he’ll kick down some art for Pangaea and Fluffy Bunny Tea Party, and potentially some Flat Track Action down the road, when I get that game not to suck so much. This means that I need to get back on track with hunting down cheaper card and box printing for RocketYard, and start thinking about how I want to package Pangaea up – I’m leaning more towards a flat board, rather than the (pretty sweet) bandanna printing I used with HoneyPot, but we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully, with a few more games available (or more, if the rest of the Flywheelers want to sell some stuff indie-style on Gizmet instead of waiting around for a publisher) I can make more of a marketing push, and get things moving a bit better…

Mar 282007

Well, it looks like I won this challenge by default, even though my game wasn’t really good. The thing was that I had a playable prototype, and Ian only had a partially drawn out concept.

My game is a simulation of stop and go traffic through a series of traffic lights. Ian commented that it looked like an abstract game because I was using colored tiles as cars and a deck of cards with colors and numbers. The basic gameplay is that you choose a color car and then try to position them closest to the next traffic light through card play. It still has rough edges, but it played through to completion with little rule complications.

Ian’s game is about getting passengers in cars to where they need to go throughout the city. The problem is that the cars are controlled by all players and wrecks happen frequently.

This week’s challenge is more of a preparation for a real game competition put on by Lucca Games and Comics. Basically, we’re trying to get a playable prototype card game that is language independent, has less than 110 cards, and contains no other components. Preferably, it would also fit the theme of the contest: Round Trip. This gives me the motivation to get a game finished, polished, and hopefully published!

Mar 142007

Ian and I came up with a challenge for next week to get the design mush in your head to start churning. So here it is:

Design a game using only glass beads. The quantity and color are up to you. No board, no paper and pencil, nothing but the beads.

We’ll judge them at next week’s meeting!

This is something I came up with last night. No play testing and I don’t even have the pieces needed to play. This is very rough. 

It is a two player game that uses 2 sets of tree house pieces. That’s 30 pyramids in 5 different colors and 3 different sizes. 

Setup: Take all of the large and medium pyramids and randomly place them into a 4×5 grid. Then both players take turns placing the remaining small pyramids on top of the large and medium ones of different colors. 

Play: Players take turns moving a single pyramid one space on the grid. A player may immediately move the same pyramid once more if it landed on a larger pyramid of the same color. At no time can there ever be more than three pyramids stacked. A player may only move a pyramid a maximum of two spaces during his turn.  

 Goal: To get sets of three pyramids that are stacked from largest on top to smallest on bottom. This scores 1 point if it the stack is made up of 3 colors, 2 points if made up of 2 colors, and 3 points if made up of 1 color. Once a player has formed a triple stack he must immediately remove it from the table and place it in front of him. The empty space on the board may be moved into by other pyramids. 

 Game ends when one player has 5 points. 

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.

Time’s up!

Okay, flywheelers, post your games – make a new post if you want, or just add comments here. Here’s mine:

Two to five players, with one tree of icehouse piece each (small, medium, large pyramid), and one die for the game.

Set up with pyramids in radial lines, large in middle, small on outside – so for two, it looks like: S M L . L M S – a player wins when they can create a .LMS line in one of the other arms.

Put the die in the center, with the 1 facing up. Pick a player to start, and run clockwise. On each turn, the player turns the die to an adjacent face and moves one piece that many spots. A “spot” is either where a pyramid currently is, or the empty “spot” at the end of the line. Empty spots close up after movement. If the player moved the die to a number that was higher, they may “cap” an opponent’s pyramid with a pyramid of the same or smaller size – capped pyramids may not move. A player may cap their own pyramids similarly at any time. If the player moved the die to a number that was lower, they must move a pyramid of theirs that is capping another if possible. If a player moves a piece off the end of a line, past the empty spot, the pyramid is tipped, and the player must take a turn to right it. A pyramid may not be moved past a tipped pyramid. If a player is unable to make a legal move, their turn is skipped.

(Cleanup, editing, and photos pending…)

Long time no post. Time to fix that. Speaking of…

I met up with Mischa and the Nicks at Epoch this evening for some gamey activity. There was much talk about roleplaying and fondling of books, but we wound up spending most of our time playing three games – Category 5, Zendo, and Treehouse. Two of these games were a lot of fun.

If you’re not familiar with Zendo, you should be. The basic mechanic is this: one player takes the role of the “zen master”, and devises a rule to describe whether or not a particular configuration of Icehouse pieces (called a “koan” in the game) has the “Buddha nature” or not. He then sets up an example of one which does, and one which does not, and the players try to figure out what the rule is. For example, a simple rule might be, “A koan has the Buddha nature if all the pieces are the same size”. The zen master then sets up one that demonstrates that rule (say, three small pieces all pointing at each other) and one which does not (like a small pyramid stacked on top of a large one). The players then take turns building koans out of Icehouse pyramids, and either asking “master?”, in which case the zen master tells them whether their koan matches the rule or not, or “mondo”, after which each player puts forth a guess as to the correctness of the koan or not. Each player who chooses correctly wins a guessing stone, which may be used to make a guess about what the actual rule is – if they figure out the rule, they win the round, and become the zen master for the next round. The game sounds deceptively simple, and it kind of is, but the play is fairly deep, and requires a good deal of thought, both on the players’ parts, and for the zen master to pick a rule which will be challenging and fun to figure out, but not too hard or too easy. I highly recommend checking out Kory’s account of the design history of the game – it’s a great read, and gives a good amount of insight into the process.

This was the first fun game.

We also played several rounds of Category 5 (also known as “6 nimmt”), designed by the esteemed Wolfgang Kramer. This is another deceptively simple game with fairly deep play. The game consists of a deck of one hundred and four cards, numbered from 1 to 104, each of which are worth a certain number of points. (Most are worth one, some worth two, three, or five, and one worth seven.) The goal is to take the least amount of points possible, and games are generally played to seventy-five points – there are several variants, but we didn’t try any last night. The way points are scored is this: each player is dealt ten cards, and four cards are laid out face-up for starters. On every turn, each player chooses one card to play, and the cards are revealed simultaneously. There are some simple rules to determine which cards then go where – basically, starting with the lowest card, you either place your card on the end of a row if your card is greater than the value of the last card on that row, but less than the cards on the ends of the other rows. If the row that you place your card on already has five cards, you take those cards (and score the points that they are worth), and restart a new row with your card. Also, if your card is lower than the end cards on all the rows, you must choose one row to score, again starting a new row with the card that you played. Ten rounds are played, one for each card in the players’ hands, and points are tallied at the end. Sounds very simple, plays very quickly, and, as it turns out, has an amazing amount of strategy and tension for the amount of apparent randomness in the setup. This is a game that non-gamers can pick up very easily, but that still has enough meat to it that experienced gamers will still enjoy it greatly. It kind of reminds me of No Thanks! in that way, and may be my current most favoritest pick-up game outside of Jungle Speed.

This was the second fun game.

So, it looks like poor little Treehouse is left out. I really like the idea behind the game – it’s a little like Fluxx – but every time I play it, there’s a lukewarm reaction, and I usually never wind up playing it with the same set of people twice. So, what went wrong? Take a look at the rules – like the other two games, it seems simple enough, and it reads as if there’s a good amount of interaction between players and a wide range of stuff that can happen during gameplay. But in actual play, none of that comes out. The actions that you can perform on your setup are too random – the game doesn’t last long enough for the randomness to diffuse across the potential outcomes, or across the players. The rule that you must perform an action on your pieces if you can severely limits the number of interesting choices that the players can make – and whatever choices they can make are usually blotted out by the chunky randomness of the other players’ actions. I’ve never played a game of Treehouse where it felt that the winner won by skill – it’s always felt like it was just a matter of time that the player’s setup or the house changed to the right place where they matched, like a spinner coming to rest on a random number. Thankfully, a game of Treehouse lasts about five or ten minutes, and after a game or two, we usually move on.
Treehouse does not seem to exhibit what I’ve been calling “deep play” here. The choices available to the player are minimal, and the effects of those choices are minimized by random elements or other player choices. There is no tension in the game – we might not know who’s going to win until the last second, but nobody ever seems to care, either. There is a very limited range of action, and the possibilities that come out during game play feel like they are exhausted rather quickly. There rarely feels like there’s a reason to play it again, because it doesn’t give the players that feeling like they could maybe win this time, if they just did this or that differently, or that they may have won, but only because they outsmarted their opponents. I’m sure that my gaming companions could add to this list, and I hope they do so.

However! I would still recommend that you buy Treehouse, for two very good reasons. First, the tubes of stashes that make up the game set are an excellent and affordable source of Icehouse pieces, which can be used to play a whole boatload of different games, some of which are really, really fun. I’ll probably be picking up another four or five stashes myself in the near future.

Second, I hereby issue the first Flywheel Design Challenge! Mischa and I were discussing the shortcomings of Treehouse after playing last night, and decided that there’s a good game in there somewhere, and we should try to pull it out. So, Flywheelers, here it is: take a Treehouse set (five differently colored stacks of three Icehouse pieces each – small, medium, and large – and a six-sided die) and create a game using only those pieces. It should be easy to explain to a random person in a coffee joint, and you should be able to play it with two to four people on a small table. Try to limit game play time to, say, fifteen minutes to a half hour. You have two weeks to comply – I will collect submissions and post the results here.


Jul 232006

This weekend, I had the singular opportunity to sit on a panel with esteemed game designers Allen Varney and Greg Costikyan. A friend of mine was helping to organize the Texas Indie Game Developer Conference here in town, and signed me up to do my “game design improv” panel with a couple of luminaries. (Previously, I did this last year at… MilleniumCon, maybe(?) with James Ernest and Wes Jenkins.) I also do improvisational theater on the side (mostly with my troupe, Improv For Evil), and I’ve found that there are many parallels between the way we construct fiction on the fly, and the way that we construct game designs. So, to demonstrate this a little bit – and to have a bit of fun – we go before an audience at a game developer conference, take a number of suggestions from the audience, and design a game in front of them, in about half an hour. It’s a hoot.

Our suggestions/constraints this time were a very small budget, a year and a half development time, mobile platform target, something to do with World War II, and a target demographic of seventy years old and up. Whew. We eventually came up with a casual tactical/puzzle game game that would be built with a small team using open source tools, and sold and distributed on cell phones that are given out by our strategic partner, a retirement community. The game was a networked turn-based square hunt, where you had to help lead your grandchildren out of Nazi occupied France during the war, by hooking them up with resistance operatives and finding various items on the map, trading them between players and helping each other along the roads. I should have taken better notes – it could have actually been fun – but this is the nature of improv. Ephemeral. Big fun, and then it’s gone.

Anyway, it was a great experience, and I look forward to doing it again sometime soon. Yay game design, yay, improvisation.