I've been told in the past that speed puzzle games don't really sell well, but I saw a lot of Dimension and Dr. Eureka being played at BGGcon, so surely there's some room for that category in the market. Here's a quick idea for a speed puzzle game:
You have 16 discs featuring conceptual pairs on either side of each disc: cat/mouse, dry/wet, sun/moon, city/country, plus/minus etc.
Flip a puzzle card. Two teammates must arrange the discs in the correct shape, with the correct sides visible, within the 30-sec time limit. In the example above, you'd score 1 point for for each disc in the correct position with the correct face visible.
Then you swap out teammates La Boca style and tally individual points across several puzzles.
It's a start, but the kind of component-based design I'm going to develop more often as I explore game ideas beyond the chrome ceiling.
Alrighty, time for some more long-form thoughts on how BGGcon went for me professionally. I spent most of my time approaching publishers with my prototypes or demoing my self-published games at the main hall with new friends. I had enlightening conversations with several very smart experienced members of the community, including Eric Lang and Kevin Wilson.
I thought going into meetings having just finished a $99,000 kickstarter campaign would be a boost to my credibility, but more people came by talking about my blog, tweets, or my new youtube series. More than once some famous games person came by while I was pitching to a major publisher and say nice things about the game. It was pretty dang awesome.
I got some sobering feedback about the current state of my portfolio, but hopeful advice about the future. Let's start with the sobering stuff first.
The Chrome Ceiling
There was one bit of advice that kept coming up as I worked through each presentation: My games are so optimized for profitable $9 POD sales that there isn't much room to add the bits and "chrome" that would justify at least a $20 retail price tag.
For some background: It takes a lot of work for a publisher to put out any game, regardless of its chrome, but the chrome determines the price consumers are willing to pay for the product. "Chrome" in this case can refer to literal box size, the components, the goodies included as stretch goals, etc.
At retail scales, new components don't add too much manufacturing per unit, but they can command a much higher markup, and thus a more profitable product. On top of all that, a publisher only has a few slots in their yearly schedule to fill with product.
However, I'm faced with a similar choice for my own time. What makes me profit most quickly is these impulse-buy filler games that I can release via POD. There are only so many hours in my day, and my bills still come every month on the clock, so I have to decide which projects are going to be most worthwhile contributions to my household.
So yeah, sobering.
A New Hope
All that sounds very grim, but there is hope! Eric Lang suggested I keep cultivating my small games and focusing on the international licenses, since I apparently have a first mover advantage in those markets. I could keep trying to get games licensed in emerging markets like Brazil and China, where few domestic publishers even pursue licenses in the first place.
That can support my path toward bigger retail-friendly game design. Eric reminded me this is a very, very long-term path, but at the end of that path is a much more sustainable career. Kevin Wilson said when you get your first big game, everything changes. More than one person expressed enthusiasm for what I might do when I'm cut loose from the constraints of POD card games.
They all said I established a rep for making solid games with good sales in my small market. So, my next step is making a few games that I couldn't do on POD or are less optimal in a POD format. For example, Regime is my most expensive product and makes the slimmest profit margin for me because I try to keep most of my games under $9.99.
I upgraded my prototype by tossing out all of the scoring cards, replacing them with chits I mocked up from sticker paper and cardboard. I also replaced the hard-to-handle faction cards with poker chips and sticker paper. I stopped short of making a board, mainly because I already had a very heavy bag I was lugging around, but it could easily have a board for placing the faction cards and chips.
So next year, I'm going to dig into my catalog and see how I could upgrade old games and develop new games with retail in mind.
The Fun Bits!
To be clear, BGGcon was an amazing fun experience. This professional side of things was only about 50% of my con. The rest of it was...
Hello! This post comes to you the day after BGGcon when I'm still bleary-eyed and recovering from a fast-paced four days of pitching and playtesting. It was a wonderful experience and I'm sure lots of folks will have much better documentation of the event than I do.
Instead, I wanted to show you a snapshot of what it was like with such a critical mass of game designers in one place. Emerson Matsuuchi, Chris Rowlands, Adam S., Mark Streed, and I were hanging around the main hall on the last day. I pulled out a deck of cards and openly noodled a few different interactions I've had tumbling around.
In particular, I had idea of being a merchant in Nottingham trying to earn wealth, but not so much that Robin Hood would steal your ill-gotten gains. Sort of the inverse scenario of Sheriff of Nottingham. Here's what we came up with after lots of playstorming and collaboration. I can't claim sole credit for this game, it was definitely a collaboration between all five of us.
In the taverns of Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, the locals play a card game inspired by Robin Hood's legendary bandits who rob from the rich and give to the poor. Players try to earn the most wealth without catching the attention of the thieving Merry Men.
We only tested this with five players, so the rules below assume five players are present. Each round of play lasts about five minutes and we liked to play multiple rounds, tracking our cumulative score.
We remove one suit and the jokers from a standard poker deck.
We shuffle the remaining cards and deal seven cards to each player's hand.
We set aside any undealt cards out of the game.
We play out a six "days" in Sherwood Forest. (The local merchants take Sunday off.)
Each day, we each choose one card from our hand and put it face-down in the center of the play area. The heart of the game is in negotiating with each other and coming to agreements about which cards we agree to put out into the pot. A common deal would be
"I'm playing a 5 this day. Anyone else playing a 5?"
"I can play a 5, sure. You got a deal."
These negotiations are not binding. We may and probably will be bluffing about half the time. Paying attention to the other negotiations is also important, as the other player's side deals will affect you as well.
Once we all put in our cards, we reveal them. Aces are considered 1, Jack is 11, Queen is 12, and King is 13. Then some mandatory trades will occur, listed below:
- If two players reveal the same rank, they must trade their cards.
- If three players reveal the same rank, they must trade clockwise with each other.
- If no one reveals the same highest rank or lowest rank, then the player who revealed the highest individual rank must trade with the player who revealed the lowest rank. (This is Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.)
- Everyone else keeps the card they played.
Once trades are resolved, the card we received this day goes into our personal stockpile face-up. (In other words, a public tableau.)
We repeat this process for a total of six days, then we discard the one remaining card from our hand.
Endgame and Victory
At the end of the game, Robin Hood strikes one last time. We determine who has the highest sum of all ranks in each suit. If you have the highest sum, then you must discard those cards from your stockpile. If tied, you must both discard those cards from your stockpiles.
As an optional rule, you may decide if each of your Aces are valued at 1 or 14, thereby giving you a little bit more control of whether you get to keep your cards away from that thieving Hood.
Your final score is highest ranking card you have in each suit added together.
It's time for another preview of the art coming up in Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, the new Fate-powered RPG set in the Do universe. You saw Jacqui Davis' cover last time, so this time I wanted to show off Dionysia Jones' amazing work on the double-page spreads. Here was my art direction:
The three pilgrims gather in the middle of ancient ruins to discuss what they will do now that the temple has disappeared. They agree that their mission of helping people in need should continue, regardless of the temple’s existence. It’s just the right thing to do. They agree to this new pledge with an all-together handshake as shown in the placeholder art.  In the distance, amidst the ruins, we might see the silhouette of the dragon observing this pledge intently. The dragon will be learning from the pilgrims while they go on their adventure, so they must set an example for what will potentially be a very powerful force in the universe to come. Still, each pilgrim approaches this pledge with a light heart, only Marked Ghost showing a sense of sincere solemnity.
Dionysia decided to go with a style inspired by Legend of Korra. Her foreground characters are drawn with fine lines and sharp cel shading while the backgrounds are more richly textured. I think the result is stunning and I can't wait for you to see how the rest of her work turned out. I'm super duper excited!
 I provide lots of example art for each piece, including a sample page spread using characters from Korra for this illustration:
Hello folks! It's a new episode of Card At Work, my ongoing series of lessons on graphic design in tabletop games, particularly cards.
This episode introduces the basics of using DataMerge to create prototype cards. This lesson covers how to make simple resource cards like you might find in a euro strategy game such as Settlers of Catan.
Please like, share, and subscribe! Support further episodes at http://www.patreon.com/danielsolis
That's all I can say for how amazing the Kodama: the Tree Spirits campaign has been the past 30 days. Hard to believe what began as this weird little idea a few years ago has grown so big. As of this post, we're just over $90,000 and 3000 backers with 14 hours left. This is by far the most successful project I've been a part of and a wonderful way to close out the year.
If you haven't backed yet, please do so! And tell your friends!
Here's a quick idea for a little tavern-style card game where everyone has a hand of cards, but one of which is moving around secretly from hand to hand. I imagined it as a stowaway on a boat sneaking around trying not to get caught.
A tavern-style card game for large groups, from 5-10 players.
You’re the crew of a pirate ship hiding an innocent stowaway. The Stowaway sneaks from one dark corner of the ship to the next, trying to avoid being caught by the cruel Captain. Eventually the crew will have no choice but to point out where they think is currently harboring the Stowaway.
- From a standard deck of cards, gather two cards per player, minus one.
- Take the joker and add it to these cards. The Joker is called the Stowaway.
- Shuffle the cards (including the Stowaway) and deal two cards to each player’s hand.
- If you ever hold the Stowaway, you’re called an Accomplice.
Each player simultaneously and secretly passes a card to the player on their left. Repeat this two more times.
Then players discuss where they think the Stowaway is hidden. Players may negotiate and debate as long as they like, but eventually all players must simultaneously count to 3. Then each player must point a finger at who they think is currently harboring the Stowaway. Whoever has the Stowaway must reveal it now.
If you have the Stowaway and fewer than three fingers are pointing at you, you and the Accomplices win.
If three or more fingers are pointing at the player with the Stowaway, anyone pointing at the Stowaway wins. The Accomplice and whoever is harboring the Stowaway loses.
This is the bare seed of an idea. Not even tested yet. I'm sure there are all sorts of bugs and broken strategies inherent in it, but I find it useful to get these loose thoughts down into something "discussable." What do you think?
W. Eric Martin had a very, very good interview with legendary game designer Reiner Knizia. You can watch the entirety of it above or at the original BoardGameGeek post. I pulled out a handful of quotes that I thought were relevant for designers at all levels of their career.
On understanding the production side of things:
"If you’re going to do good game design, you must understand a lot of things. What can be afforded, what can be put in, how quickly can you do it if you work to a deadline."
On global licensing:
"Once you have put in a lot of energy into creating an IP, creating a game, it is most natural to not only market it in one market, but to market it worldwide."
On starting with small publishers:
"Getting your first game published is always a very wide step. I was lucky that I went with small publishers. If you go with small publishers, they take you seriously and you learn from them. A small publisher cannot afford a flop."
On "failed" designs:
"Most of my ideas die in the first hour… Is this a failure? I don’t call it a failure. It’s an experiment… The problem is in your head, everything works.... It is very important to realize when something doesn’t work. I have two or three designs where I didn’t want to believe it doesn’t work. Then you come into this sunk cost fallacy stuff. These are the real dangers, when you fall in love with your design too much."
On design goals:
"What I want to achieve: Simple games, but then the people bring themselves into it. And you see out of the simplicity, a second level of depth. That keeps you playing."
On how theme and game are conflated:
"I took a game to America, Tutankhamun, I opened it and the publisher said ‘Ah, we already have an Egyptian game, we don’t need that.’ A few weeks later, I show a German publisher, they say “Ah, we already have an Egyptian theme, so we might not take that theme, but let us see the game first.’ At that time I realized what people see as a game are completely different things."
On 'tabletop vs. electronic' dichotomy:
"Board games do not compete with electronic games. That’s far too narrow a view. Games compete with other leisure experiences."
On making relevant games:
"Books and games are, for me, a mirror of our time… If you want to make relevant games, you need to look around and see what happens in the world and then reflect that in the games. Not only from a theme point of view, but from a dynamics point of view."
Part of that is making a sale sheet for the games I intend to pitch. Usually sale sheets are sent from a publisher to a distributor as a promotion to get the products out to retailers. In this case, my sheets are one step before that process, going from designer to publisher. Different demands in that case. I followed advice from Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim back in this post from five years ago. I also looked at the Akrotiri sale sheet posted a year later, since I'm a big fan of how that game ended up.
As Jay and Sen recommend, I'll be bringing this sheet and others along with me as a quick pitch tool without having to set up a complete game on the spot. These also make handy leave-behinds with my business cards.
You can download the PDF of Light Rail's sale sheet here. Happy to take feedback!
I'm a member of Game Designers of North Carolina, a local group of tabletop game designers who exchange playtests and insights in the craft of game design. We were playtesting a game where a particular endgame state resulted in a loss for the whole group, as in a co-operative game. Barring that outcome, there would only be one winner at the end of the game as in a traditional competition.
The tricky thing is that each player individually accumulates their own points so even if the "group loss" state occurs, if I have the most points, the game can't stop me from feeling like I won. This brought up a brief and very useful discussion about the essential social contracts surrounding games when players agree to certain game-states as being desirable and worth pursuing. We discussed simply calling the "group loss" state an "endgame" state, which would fundamentally change everyone's strategies and tactics without changing any of the mechanics.
It got me thinking of a few other games that fiddle with the semantics of games without doing too many wildly original mechanics.
Oil Springs of Catan adds a Tragedy of the Commons element to traditional Catan. Oil is an extremely valuable resource, but also strictly limited. One of the endgame states is extracting all of the oil and ruining the environment for everybody, essentially resulting in a group loss. The designers here have already anticipated my earlier concerns. In this case, the player who best managed the environment is the winner, not whoever happens to have the most points at this time.
There's a similar structure to Fram R'yleh, a new Lovecraftian themed trick-taking card game from Japan. The goal of the game is to collect a bunch of mind-shattering Lovecraftian relics while keeping your sanity. The player with the highest sanity score is the winner... but sanity can go into the negative range in this game. If every player's sanity is in the negative at the end of the game, then the player with the lowest sanity is the winner. You may eke out a victory with only 1 point, or steal victory with abysmally low double-digit negative score.
There's a game called Why First? which is a simple racing game where only the player in second place in each round scores points and the player with second-most points at the end of a series of races is the winner. This game might have easily been a bland racing game with a traditional victory condition. Instead, dictating that only second placers can carry over their points is a surprisingly challenging and fun concept to plan around.
In each of these cases, the semantics of "victory" and "loss" are innovative, but clearly understood and agreed upon by all players. Each has strict guidelines about how "points" are accumulated, who may earn them, how many they may earn, and how they are valued at the end of the game. This isn't necessarily an old idea, as there are many traditional card games where you're trying to avoid taking points, for example.
For more on questioning game assumptions, check out this post from 2014 inspired by Rob Daviau.
Do you have any favorite games where "victory" and "loss" are a defined in interesting ways? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!