It's the second episode of Coffee & Carcassonne! Megan and I usually play Carcassonne over Sunday brunch at home. We hope you enjoy the gameplay and dorky conversation!
2-player abstracts are really hard to make commercially viable, but that's never kept me from noodling them a bit. This is one idea that I've had on the back burner for a long time while I was focused on card games, but I'm pushing it forward a bit now that Onitama and the Duke are more prominent.
The basic idea is using transparent cards like Gloom or Mystic Vale with an abstract movement UI as seen in Onitama, the Duke, and Tash-Kalar. Each player has identical set of unique pieces. Call them A, B, C, D, and E.
To set up the game, each player draws five cards from the deck. Each player simultaneously secretly picks then reveals a card to assign to each type of piece. In the above example, player 1 picked Elephant and player 2 picked Crab. For this game, A has the traits and powers of Elephant and Crab. Then you do the same for B, C, D, and E.
Then you play the remainder of the game using those movement rules. I'm imagining the game played on a 9x9 board, I can playtest on the lines and vertices of a normal chess board.
The goal of the game is to score three points. If you begin your turn with one of your pieces on your opponent's center space on their home row, you score three points and win the game immediately. Most of the rest of their home row scores 2 points. The corners of the home row scores 1 point. So you could be aggressive and aim for your opponent's heart or do a more controlled overwhelming push.
Button Shy's been teasing the release of POD-X, coming to Kickstarter in July 5 through July 16, 2016. It's their 3-4 player adaptation of my microgame Suspense, using the original "Escape the spaceship" theme I had waaaay back at UnPub 3. I'm super excited to see how it turns out. Hope you dig it too!
In Pod-X, players are trying to escape a fallen spaceship on the last escape pod. One player knows its location, but is keeping it secret to themselves. What a jerk! All the other players are trying to deduce and bluff their way to the secret location in this quick parlor-style card game.
Fair warning though, this is basically the Dark Souls of deduction microgames. It rewards repeated play and familiarity with the card deck. We hope you'll play again and again, developing your own mini-meta within your group. Look for POD-X next month!
Most professional tabletop game designers I've met have a day job. This is just anecdotal, but it seems a full time game designer is VERY rare. I’m more of a pro today than I’ve ever been, but most of my household contribution still comes from an aggregate of freelance projects, Patreon, DriveThruCards, and SkillShare. Only a fraction of comes from traditional game design work. And all of that totaled together is still only about a third of what my wife makes at her normal day job.
When I'm working on any game eventually I have to ask myself the scary question:
“Is this game worth designing?”
Is this game costing me too much money? Is it costing too much time? With this series of short articles, I want to share how I figure out whether a game I'm working on is worth designing and, if so, how much I can expect to earn for my time and expense designing it. First up...
How much money has this game cost already?
The most common expense is material costs. My prototypes repurpose sticker paper or bits scrounged from a scrap store, then I endlessly recycle those materials effectively making the material costs free. If I send a prototype to a publisher and it isn’t returned, I have to note that as an expense as well.
When I intend to license my games, I use stock art, public domain art, remixed vectors, or photos to save on the art budget. All of that will usually be changed by the publisher anyway, so it doesn't make sense to spend too much on it.
If I self-publish, I allow myself a small art budget to get some custom illustrations, which significantly helps sales. Lately I make sure I have rights to include this art as part of a future licensing package to another publisher as well.
If I travel to test Game A, B, and C, then I split up my entire expense of that travel between those three games. (This includes event registration, plane tickets, food, etc.)
Let’s look at a hypothetical example: I’ve spent this much designing NOODLE KNIGHT...
- Material Costs: $50
- Shipping Costs: $50
- Art Expense: $500
- Travel Expenses: $100
So any option for publishing Game A should earn me at least $700 over its lifetime of sales. This is the unusual case where I do intend to self-publish. If I didn't, then I wouldn't have spent so much on the art budget.
How much TIME has this game cost already?
This is an easy number to quantify, but harder to justify. You can easily track how many hours you spend developing, designing, and playtesting Game A, B, and C. But when you translate that to the most minimum wage income, it’s quickly apparent that being a tabletop game designer does NOT pay a competitive hourly rate compared to other careers.
This is where the passion for the job outweighs the practical considerations. Yes, you could earn more spending those same hours doing a less satisfying job, but that just shifts costs to your emotional well-being. We’re in a fortunate and privileged position that I can decide to take a hit to my wallet rather than my happiness.
Returning to the example:
- If I've spent 50 hours developing NOODLE KNIGHT, that's about ~$360 at North Carolina minimum wage. If I want to earn at least minimum wage from my game, any publishing option should also earn an additional $360 over its lifetime of sales.
You also have to consider how much additional development time you would be willing to spend if the publisher has changes they want to make to the game. Publishers vary in their development practices. Some take the whole game and test their changes in-house without much additional input from the designer, which is great since the designer has presumably already done the vast majority of design work. Some will want changes, but expect the designer to develop them on their time, which just adds to the up-front costs you'd have to negotiate in your contract.
Now I have a ballpark goal of about $1060 to earn from my game. The more time or money I spend on the game, the more I'd need to earn to just break even. Beyond a certain threshold, I can't expect a retail license or POD sales to reach that number. That's why I need to keep my material costs low and development time efficient, to make any game I'm working on actually worth working on.
Any professionals out there break down their games like this? Is it too fiddly? Do you have another method of accounting? I'd love to hear it!
I've been noodling a push-your-luck game themed around investigative journalism for a while now. At first I was exploring a reverse-auction mechanic, but the push-your-luck aspect of Circus Flohcati, Incan Gold, Dead Man's Draw, and Abyss seemed to make more sense. The idea of "digging" into the deck as a mechaphor of investigation sounded really compelling. I also really love games where the only prep you have to do is shuffling one deck of cards.
Here are the basic ideas I have right now, which haven't entirely gelled yet into a real game, but are close enough to get to the table by next week.
Cards have ranks and suits, noted by the number and large symbol along the top corner. Each suit represents different subjects your reporter is following.
Below the suit is a little arrow pointing at another suit. Lower ranks have more arrows than higher ranks. 1s are "?" and have an arrow pointing to "?"
Shuffle the deck. Deal one card to each player's hand. Discard ten cards to the discard pile face-up.
Each player begins with 0 points, 10 Credibility, and 5 Money.
How to Play
On your turn, you'll dig: Reveal a card from the deck and place it in the center of the play area. Then you must decide whether you'll stop or keep digging.
- Keep digging: Reveal another card and place it beside the last revealed card. Then decide again whether to keep digging or stop. If you ever reveal two of the same suit, you're caught and must do the penalty action noted by the matched suit.
- Stop: Take one card from the play area into your hand and do the action noted by that suit. Actions are more powerful the more cards there are in the play area.
At the end of your turn, you may file a report. Lay down a set of cards from your hand in front of you. Reports are either open or closed.
- Open: Your report connects suits to each other in a linearly. For example, Media connects to Military connects to Government. When you file an open report, score the lowest rank in the report as points.
- Closed: Your report connects suits in a closed loop. For example, Media connects to Military connects to Governments, which also connects back to Media. When you file a closed report, score the highest rank in the report as points.
"?" may be used to fill any missing connections for free.
Keep your filed reports separate from one another, face-up so everyone else can see them.
This ends your turn. The next player begins their turn as noted above. Each player must dig at least once on their turn before deciding to stop.
This is just a quick list of possible suits, their actions, and their penalties. Nothing final, just something to test at the table ASAP. In all cases, the "__" in actions is the number of cards in the play area.
Entertainment: Take __ cards from the top of the discard pile. Penalty: Discard __/2 cards from your hand.
Sci-Tech: Look at __x2 cards from the top of the deck and take __ into your hand. Penalty: Discard __/2 cards from your hand.
War: Swap __/2 cards from any opponent's reports for cards your hand. The swapped cards must be the same suit. Penalty: Discard __/2 cards from any of your filed reports.
Business: Gain __x2 Money. Penalty: Discard __ Money.
Politics: Spend __ Money to gain __/2 Credibility. Penalty: Discard __/2 Credibility.
International: Discard up to __/2 cards from your hand to gain that much Credibility. Penalty: Discard __ Money.
Local: Discard up to __/2 cards from your hand, then take that many cards from the top of the deck into your hand. Penalty: Discard __ Money.
Rumor: Add __ cards from your hand to any of your filed reports. Penalty: Discard __/2 Credibility.
I'm sure there are other subjects that would fit in this list and these subjects could have more thematic effects. That's it for now though.
End of Game
When the deck runs out, the game is over.
At the end of the game, you get bonus points for doggedly reporting on the same subjects over and over again. For each suit appearing on more than one of your reports, score the highest rank in that series. In the example above, you reported on War three times, the highest rank of which is 8, so you score 8 points.
Money doesn't affect final scores.
Whoever has the most Credibility doubles their point total.
The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
I like the idea of two competing strategies being equally valid: File fewer reports while relying on your Credibility to carry you through - OR - Spend a bunch of money filing shoddy reports aiming for an insurmountably high score, regardless of your Credibility.
Here's a new time-lapse video of a recent logo design for Catty B's, a comedy series from Angela Webber and Lucia Fasano. They were very kind and generous to let me record and share this design process.
Patrons $10+ also get a version of this video with commentary about how I designed this logo and some of the decision process. Hope you all find that useful!
Thanks to Angela, Lucia, and all my patrons for making these videos possible!
Molly Ostertag just wrapped up a new batch of art for Curse You, Robin Hood! These are the legendary characters Robin Hood, the Sheriff, Maid Marian, Will Scarlet, Little John, Friar Tuck, and the Prince. Here are Molly's final pieces with some of the art direction.
My art direction initially called for the Prince and Sheriff to be flipped here, but Molly's renderings were so distinctive that they seemed more appropriate this way. This is one of those nice cases where being in the driver's seat lets me adjust the game mechanics to suit the excellent art.
For more on Curse You, Robin Hood!
» One-Page Summary
Find more of Molly Ostertag's art on her website.
Labels: Curse You Robin Hood
Woot! BoardGameGeek just posted Branching Out from Kigi to Kodama, my designer diary outlining the history of how Kigi's international licenses eventually led to domestic development for Kodama: the Tree Spirits. Check it out!
When I get the wonderful opportunity to art direct for new characters, it's like opening a big awesome toy box. I have to remind myself of some things so I approach this job responsibly. This isn't necessarily a "tips" list, or in any order of priority, it's just what I try to keep in mind. Hopefully it's something you might find useful, too.
An inclusive mindset is a crank, not a switch.
It isn't a one-time flip from ignorance to enlightenment. It's an ongoing process of checking self, looking back on mistakes, and making assertive efforts to do better. I've never been and never will be 100% "woke," but I must keep trying to "wake up." I will make (and have made) mistakes, but that isn't an excuse to stop putting in the effort to be more inclusive. This has real practical impact when I'm working on a project as an art director. As an art director, I have so much freedom to guide artists in certain directions that it's an awful missed opportunity if I don't at least try to push.
» For more, see the Parable of the Polygons.
Question the "default."
You know how Earth is moving around the sun and the sun is moving through the galaxy, but we don't recognize it because we are born into it? That's sort of like the "Default." My beliefs, body, culture, class, or anything else is not the "default." The "default" is just the motion we're born into and assume is the standard forever. In truth, the "default" is the inertia of history, family, and culture. If I stop putting in effort, just trying to remain "neutral," I turn into debris floating along with that inertia, harming people in my path who can't go along with that inertia. It takes ongoing effort just to keep myself standing still, holding what little progress I've made in improving myself. It takes even more effort to actually move against that inertia, to change what is considered "default."
» For more, see the Medieval POC Tumblr.
Sometimes I see questionable art direction justified by "It's what the market wants" or "It's historically accurate." Even granting that, which I do NOT necessarily, it is still an art director and creator's choices that rule the day. A fictional character doesn't have an ethnicity, gender, body, or pose by accident. It's a creator's choice to present a character a certain way. Even in video games with character customization, the creators set the options available. If an option is available, that's a choice. If it isn't available, that's a choice, too. Deferring and defaulting is a choice; one that I'm trying not to make whenever possible.
» For more, see the recent Extra Credits video on character design.
Know the roles and their history.
I have to ask myself who I'm casting as a villain, a hero, the sidekick, the comic relief, the sage mentor, and all of the other standard tropes. Each of those roles has a real-world history behind it, with many examples of under-representation or ugly caricature. If I'm casting a straight white able-bodied man as the "hero," each one of those attributes is the path of least resistance. I must at least try to counter the history of under-representation or over-representation in certain roles. Does that hero have to be a white man? Are you really going to make another albino villain? If there is only one person of color in a cast, can there be two? If there are already two, can there be four? Half the cast? Most of the cast? Whether my client will go along with me, I must at least try to be the annoying force pushing for more inclusion.
» For more on race tropes to be aware of, check out TVtropes.
Character design has gameplay value.
When I cast the characters for Belle of the Ball, illustrated by Jacqui Davis, I knew they'd be divided into various sub-groups which would represent individual counties and factions. It greatly eased gameplay if each sub-group shared certain characteristics like color scheme, occupation, wardrobe, and ethnicity. It would really help gameplay if the characters who shared some game mechanical traits also looked similar to one another, so they could be recognized across a table, upside-down. In the effort to build those visual similarities, I tried to make sure there was a broad spectrum of ethnicity, age, body types, and gender expression. It wasn't just "pandering," there was real gameplay value in organizing the character design this way. Now I'm working on another game where there aren't really any factions as such. Each character is a unique individual and must all be easily distinguished from each other. Towards that end, I'm being much more assertive in seeking unique intersections of these attributes.
» For more, see Subjective Guess Who, an effort to fix the classic game.
Randomization is a start, not an end.
If I'm casting 60 characters, I’ll try to make a bunch of different lists of various attributes like ethnicity, age, gender expression, and so on. Then I randomize all of these variables for the entire cast, thereby (hopefully) breaking any of my own biases about what a "Fighter" should look like. Even with those tools, I have to remember not to defer responsibility. I can’t lean back and say "The machine made all the men white. Not my fault! Sorry you're offended!" I must check each outcome and see if it falls in line with the “default.” If so, I give it a really strong skeptical look and decide if I need to swap out or replace some attributes. Generally these changes are towards more diverse intersections. If one intersection is over-represented, I’ll try to change those to push for more even distributions.
Art direction is still my own choices, I have to check it against history and be conscious of the inertia at work in my biases. What do you think? Am I missing something huge here? Is there anything you remind yourself of when you're doing art direction? Share your thoughts in the comments. :)
Two new games are ready for you to print-and-play. Both are short 2-player microgames best played in a series to build up some nice metagame strategy over the long term. Of course, they're just as suited for a fast filler when you're waiting for folks to show up to game night. Give them a shot and tell us what you think!
Designed by Mark McGee and Daniel Solis
Card Placement | Deduction | Area Control
Players repair pieces of pottery using golden lacquer, secretly favoring one color of pottery. If you can guess your opponent's favored color, you could win big!
» Print-and-Play Download
Designed by Daniel Solis
Abstract / Hidden Information | Area Control
Players are rival armies building forts during the last two weeks before peace becomes official. This has a very simple almost tic-tac-toe feel to it, but with enough hidden information and metagame that it remains quite replayable.
» Print-and-Play Download
I hope you get a chance to play either of these! Please comment on the Google Docs and we'll clear up any questions. Thanks!