Small Pieces — G.D. via G.D.


Let’s lean back into the “arts” part of Arts and Gamecraft for a moment, shall we?

It’s almost a cliché at this point to do a post about people asking how to get a job in game design; every game designer has answered the question (persistence and luck), and written about how often they get asked the question (constantly).

There are a ton of game designers — many of whom I respect a lot — who will point out how valuable math skills are in the process of making games. You’ll hear a lot about how writing skills (both creative and journalistic) are helpful. You’ll see a lot of people with engineering and/or computer science degrees in the business. Some game designers will advocate taking an improv class or two. I’m always a little disappointed though to see my own field of study get overlooked as a phenomenally valuable asset in the gamecrafting business.

Before I was a Game Designer, I was Graphic Designer. Got a BA in Graphic Design from RIT, Class of 1999.

Side note, Elan Lee, the guy who made Exploding Kittens was there at the same time as me. We worked together for a couple of years on the campus Tech Crew. He taught me how to not accidentally detonate Kliegel lamps.

So yes, math is important (and I’ve got that covered), and writing is really useful (working on it). I’ve never taken an improv class, so I can’t speak to that personally. I can say without a doubt though that my knowledge of graphic design and the software associated with it accounts for a good third of my Value Proposition as a game maker.

Why?

When you make a game, you have to start with a prototype. When you make a prototype, you want to see how the game plays, and how quickly people grasp it. When you want to see how quickly people grasp it, the last thing you want is an awkwardly constructed prototype slowing down or hindering a tester’s ability to make sense of it. My entire career pre-games was as someone who took complex visual concepts and streamlined them into something accessible and attractive.

Accessible and attractive are really good qualities to have in an early prototype. When you first put a new game in front of someone, the entire experience begins with a fog of obscurity, and sometimes with an intimidating overload of information. By knowing how to help contain and organize that information visually from the very first prototype, I can get a faster read on the strengths and weaknesses of the game, without wondering if poor usability is what’s making it all suck.

It’s also incredibly useful to know the digital tools of graphic design when you’re dealing with something mostly comprised of printed paper. Cards, boards, tokens, chits, character sheets, rules, instructional diagrams — these are all things that will inevitably need to be processed through a graphic designer before they’ll ever get published. Having all of your components in “designer-ready” file formats will earn you considerable points with the illustrators, designers, and art directors you’ll eventually hand things off to.

Lastly, I can not say enough about how useful things like master templates and style sheets are (ask a graphic designer) when you’re creating bulk components with common elements. Being able to set up a single attractive card template, then fill it in with copy from a spreadsheet in seconds is one of the most stupidly satisfying pieces of my job. My prototypes can look close to finished before the first test even starts. Forget Sharpies on card blanks, I can output a PDF and have perfectly duplexed cards in minutes. Clean, clear iconography to help create a visual shorthand for frequently-used information? I’ve got that covered.

You want to make games? Study a lot of different things. You want to make awesome prototypes?

Learn Adobe InDesign.

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Filed under Do It Yourself, graphic design, prototyping, Uncategorized

Reading the Room With Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 1


Seeing the Forest For the Trees and Tapping It for Green Mana


This is the first in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community. 

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Magic Commander product, 2011. Image ©Wizards of the Coast, used without permission (fingers crossed)

A little over a month ago I had a job interview at Wizards of the Coast for a position designing new products to fit into their line of Magic: The Gathering supplemental products (Commander decks, Fat Packs, etcetera). I went in with a pretty high degree of confidence that I would be a slam-dunk for the position, what with twenty-four years of experience playing Magic and seven years of making game products under my belt.

At the end of the process, the hiring manager, Mark Globus, told me that on paper my resumé looked about as perfect for the job as any manager could have asked for. Before he told me that though, he broke it to me that I would, unfortunately, not be getting the job. In a series of questions he had for me during a prior phone interview, he’d been looking at my read on the likes and dislikes of the greater Magic community and how they related to the current array of Magic products and components.

In an almost alarming number of those insights I’d given as examples, my read was completely out of line with what the consumer base felt. After 24 years of playing Magic, I’d shown that I was either entirely out of touch with other players…

OR — I hope — I had unwittingly fallen into a combo-trap of looking at sample sizes that are too small and not asking enough (or the right) questions about why people have the opinions they do about Magic products. If this is the case, it’s something I can fix. In the subject of Magic preferences, I had become a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence. [1]

– Justin Kruger & David Dunning

In other words, I didn’t know that I didn’t know what people wanted, so instead I thought that I did. The hiring manager needed someone who instinctively picked up on these sorts of details and insights, and I hadn’t developed that skill properly.

In taking the time to give me feedback regarding why I’d fallen short of landing the job, Mark had done something to help me be better prepared the next time a position like the one I’d interviewed for opened up. It was one of those above-and-beyond things that he didn’t need to do, but I’m grateful for.

Obviously, missing out on the job was not the initial plan, so there’s a new plan. I aim to shore up the weakness Mark identified for the next time a job in that department gets posted. I have a muscle that needs exercise, and I’ve started in on a new training regimen to turn the weakness into a strength.

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My first research poll on the Magic: The Seattling Facebook group

My first step was to go back and analyze the answers I’d given Mark in the phone interview. The second would be to find the answers the Magic hive-mind would have given.

In broad terms, Mark asked me for my opinions about a few existing supplemental Magic products and the components of some of those products. We talked about the Deckbuilder’s Toolkits, Commander decks, the Commander’s Arsenal, the From the Vault series, and a handful of others. He asked if there were things I’d change, improve, add, or remove from those products. I gave answers that came straight from my own opinions and experience, and reached back to opinions I’d heard from folks I frequently played Magic with.

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The oversized and standard-sized versions of a Commander card

For example, when Mark asked me how I might improve the Commander products, I went with something I’d personally wanted to see more of: oversized foil cards that correspond to the commanders the decks are built around.

I’ve purchased nearly every Commander deck that’s been released by Wizards of the Coast. These products are 100 card decks meant to be played in groups of 3 or more players. Constructing a deck for the Commander format has special rules, one of which is that the deck must have as single card that the deck is built around, called the “commander” — hence the format’s name. One of the things I’ve always liked, from an aesthetic standpoint, is that the products are displayed at retail with a double-sized card of the commander for the deck showing through the packaging’s clear plastic facing. The card is big, the art is cool, the text is readable from several feet away, and if that wasn’t enough to catch your eye, the entire card is printed on a foil card stock that shines and glimmers and jumps right off the shelf. They’re the headliner on the box, and they’re a playable component of the game.

I love them. I love playing with them. As a product designer, I love how they “sell” the product with a combination of definition and style. Before I began this exercise, the only issue I’d had with them is that the assortment of commanders the oversized cards exist for only accounts for a small subsection of the greater game’s hundreds of possible commanders you can build a deck around.

This poses a problem for me though; I have a personal emotional stake in these cards appearing in the Commander products. I had let myself become skewed in my perception of the relationship between the oversized foil commander cards and the Magic players who buy the Commander products.

Almost every Friday night, I head over to a comic book shop a few blocks from my office to play Magic. While we wait for players to sign up for the draft event, several of the regulars will play Commander to kill time. Most of the decks that are played are built from scratch by the players. This means that most of the commanders chosen by the players who built those decks aren’t ones that come from the official Commander products, and therefore don’t have oversized foil versions to use. Instead, you see players who seek out other “upgraded” versions of the commanders for their decks — a commander deck is an extension of a player’s creativity, so “points for style” are widely appreciated. Some players seek out the standard foil cards, some prefer foreign printings, and others spring for altered-art versions.

My assumption: Oversized foil cards = points for style, ergo players who like style points like oversized foil cards.

The problem here was one of confirmation bias and Dunning-Kruger. Since other players never asked me why I use the oversized cards, I never thought to ask others why they didn’t use them. I didn’t even think about whether I should ask why others like or dislike using them, because I liked them, and the logic for my own preference was sound.

MarchesaCompounding my misread were comments from other players that, in retrospect, only painted a partial picture of the problem. Just a few days earlier I’d heard one of the Friday Night regulars mention that they’d “love to see Marchesa wind up in an official Commander deck”. He was referring to a card that’s popular among those who play the format, one that can be used as a commander for a deck, and that has not yet been featured in a Commander product release. Without asking any further questions, I took this to mean that he wanted an oversized version of the card. Why else would he specifically want a card that already existed outside of the Commander products to be featured in one?

To me, it was a given that players wanted the oversized cards. I saw that there was a very simple reason they couldn’t use them. I didn’t question whether they wouldn’t. I understood a small part of why oversized foils weren’t used more often, but I didn’t understand all of it, and I didn’t look for deeper reasons.


When Mark explained to me that the market research Wizards of the Coast had done indicated that players really didn’t like oversized cards, I had a little bit of whiplash. I’d given an answer to an interview question that I thought was on point. Presented with a question I hadn’t anticipated, I gave an answer based on my own experience and the data I’d collected through informal and incidental observations. It turned out that those observations weren’t as complete as I’d needed them to be. If I ever wanted a second shot at joining Mark’s product design team, I’d need to change that.

Since then, I’ve been asking around at the stores I play Magic at. I’ve picked the brains of people I work with and have played Commander with in the past. I’ve begun posting polls in a Facebook forum with a strong community of Seattle-based Magic players. I wanted a definitive, broadly sourced take on whether players liked the oversized cards, how frequently they saw play, and why players might prefer to not use them.

I went back and talked to the guy who wanted Marchesa to be featured in an official Commander deck. His reason had nothing to do with the lack of an oversized card. It was entirely because the MSRP for an entire Commander deck is around $30-35, whereas buying a single standard-sized foiled copy of the Marchesa card will set you back nearly $60. Seeing Marchesa reprinted as a featured part of an official product would give him a functional duplicate of the shiny card he wanted at half the price. If the oversized Marchesa came along with it, he’d probably still only use the standard-sized one.

But why no love for the oversized cards in general?

It has a lot to do with basic logistics. The cards are, as should be obvious by now, bigger than conventional Magic cards. This means that nearly all of the secondary accessories — particularly card sleeves and deck boxes — aren’t compatible with non-conventional cards. Nearly all players already have a supply of sleeves and boxes to store cards and decks in, and those sleeves and boxes weren’t built with oversized cards in mind.

Official Commander decks come with a paperboard deck box included; these boxes are made to reliably hold the 100-card deck plus it’s corresponding oversized card(s), but they’re not as durable as the plastic deck boxes most players use. The paperboard boxes have a basic top-and-bottom two-part form, which can easily open up accidentally if a player throws it in a backpack — which is the most common way players pack their decks for transport. They’re not deep enough to hold the 100 sleeved cards, and since so many players won’t play their Magic decks without sleeves, this alone makes the paperboard box functionally obsolete.

Sidebar: From a visual design standpoint, the paperboard boxes have no markings beyond general coloration as to which deck belongs in them. It’s not an important detail on a retail shelf since the oversized foil is packaged in front of the deck box, but when you’ve put all your boxed decks on a shelf, it can be difficult to remember which deck is which without opening several boxes.

When it comes down to it, the single largest factor that makes the oversized cards unwanted by players has nothing to do with availability, it’s keeping them safe. Without a way to prevent them from getting destroyed while traveling to and from places where people get together to play, the best way to maintain them is to leave them in a closet at home.

Third-party accessories for protecting oversized cards do exist, but they’re something of a specialty item, and not many Friendly Local Game Stores keep them in stock. Oversized sleeves can be ordered online, but they come in counts that far exceed most players’ needs. Deck boxes that can accommodate oversized cards are available as well, but again, they’re not generally stocked in large quantities by brick-and-mortar retailers, and players aren’t as likely to invest in one when they can just use a box they already have and leave the oversized card at home.

I store my Commander decks differently than the majority of players; I keep them in their native state, unsleeved and in the paperboard deck boxes that come with the product. When I travel with them, I carry multiple decks in a larger cardboard box that I once received some other Amazon delivery in. This entirely gets around the issues that other players have, and functionally made those issues invisible to me. Moving forward, I need to be mindful that the things that shape my own opinion of a product or component may not line up with the factors that shape those opinions for the greater community.

There were a handful of other reasons I heard from people regarding their disinterest in oversized cards, most of which came down to the ergonomics of actually having them in play (or out of play) in an actual game setting. Some people talked about their tendency to curl more than standard-sized cards. One person I spoke to did cite unavailability of their favorite commanders as a reason they didn’t play them, but before I could feel any vindication, they instead showed me the alternate-art standard-sized card they’d had custom-made for the deck they’d recently playing. It was gorgeous. I couldn’t blame them for being entirely satisfied with what they had.

My eyes are open. I just need to remember to open mine wider, and to use other peoples’ more often.

 

 

[1] Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 77 (6): 1121–1134. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.64.2655Freely accessible. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367. Citation reprinted from Wikipedia Commons.

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Filed under Card Games, Market Research, Product design, Published Games

The Shelfie I Can’t Show You & Things We Shouldn’t Talk About


The main focus of my job as a game inventor is to make a lot of games and prototypes. And while plenty of the games I’ve created have landed on retail shelves, many more are still on the office shelves.

And that’s fine. Sure, you always want to see every game idea you start make it to retail, but a lot of that path lies in finding the right publisher for whatever I make. There’s a part of Forrest-Pruzan that builds games on-demand for publishers who’ve already made arrangements to sell games into retail channels, and they’re more or less guaranteed a high percentage of concept-to-published projects. I’m not in that group. The things I build come with a known risk associated with them, but it makes the successes that much more exciting.

These are the shelves in my office.

I’ve taken the liberty to remove the names of anything secret (or incriminating), so don’t hurt yourself looking too hard.

About half of what’s in those boxes and bins are things I’ve created, mostly from scratch. Some of those boxes are games and products that have been published in one part of the world or another, but can still be pitched to publishers in other markets, or games on which an old publisher’s license has expired and it’s back in the pitching rotation. You may recognize some of the Wonky boxes near the bottom of the shelves from a previous post here on the blog.

Sometimes these boxes will get snatched up by the “blue team” — those aforementioned teammates who make games on demand for publishers who already have a retail shelf waiting for a game — when a client’s needs require a faster-than-light turnaround. Producer with no space in the timeline for making something new? Meet Fletch’s Shelves.


One of my more recent examples of a game plucked from the shelves to quick-fill an order is Banned Words, published by Wonder Forge. The client had a deal in place to provide the chain retailer Target with a set number of Target-exclusive new games. One of those slots had to be filled with a family-and-up party game. The blue team was crunched for time, and the ability to pull something straight from my shelves gave them a jump-start on the development cycle in a way that freed up resources for the other games in the order.

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Banned Words, 2017, Wonder Forge

Banned Words is a word association game that, at first glance, looks like dozens (if not scores, or maybe hundreds) of other traditional “mystery word” games before it, but plays at a notably deeper level than most. Its roots actually came from a different word association game I was working on that hadn’t quite borne the fruit we were hoping for.

The backbone of that earlier game centered around trying to guess the most likely pairings of words that players would select from a field of options (again, forgive me for being intentionally vague here). One afternoon, while tinkering with that game, I had one of those “jump up and tell everyone to be quiet” moments. The kernel of the thought was this: What if we let the players generate the rules about making those associations?

There’s nothing new at all in the concept of user-generated content. It’s been a staple of games — and especially “secret word” games — for dozens of decades. It’s something that publishers and developers love because it means there’s less work to create editorial content before the project goes into production, which in turn means there’s fewer things that can go sideways at the last minute. If your rules for what kind of content the players should create are sound, you as the game designer don’t actually need to put any pre-formatted content in the game at all. Any time you don’t need to put something in the game, the game is cheaper and generally easier to produce.

In that “be quiet” moment of the meeting, it occurred to me that there are lots of games where people are trying to guess a secret word or words based on other clues. We could let the players affect the rules of the secret word game by having them generate the parameters of the game as they played.

Let me explain that by turning some other games a little sideways.

 

Taboo is one of the best-known examples of secret word games these days. In it, one player tries to get their teammates to guess a secret word. There is a limiting parameter that the clue-giver must work within in that there are five “taboo” words or phrases that the clue giver may not say. The clue giver knows what the taboo words are, and is being watched by a judge from the other team whose job it is to keep the clue giver honest.

In 2015, Vlaada Chvátil released Codenames. In this word association game, the clue giver must get their teammates to identify a set of secret words from among a visible array of 30 words. The catch is that there is another clue giver offering clues to an opposing team, whose words are mixed into that same array. The parameters are that the clue givers can only offer a single clue per turn, and that clue must be only one word. They can also offer their teammates a number, which indicates how many words in the array the given clue corresponds to. The net effect is an incredibly deep puzzle in which the clue givers are trying to play upwards of nine different word association games at once, while also avoiding giving their teammates any clues that might accidentally lead them to the other team’s secret words.

Both games set parameters for the clue giver in the way clues are given, and in both games, the clue giver has a small puzzle to solve. In Taboo, the clue giver has had five of the most obvious possible clues taken away. In Codenames, no clue is off-limits, but the clues must be very carefully chosen so as to thread as many needles as possible at once. In Taboo, the clue giver works against a physical clock, while in Codenames, the clue givers are each trying to be more efficient in their selection of clues than the other.

Given the choice of which party/word game I’d want to invent, it’s a no-brainer in favor of Codenames. By far, it’s the more sophisticated game of the two, diving heavily into the concept of emergent strategy (something that I should probably write another post on someday). It forces the clue giver to craft clues that not only lead teammates to their targets, but that also steer them away from choosing words that aren’t their targets. It’s something that requires an extra layer of craftsmanship as a clue giver, since there are almost no clue words you can’t give, but in any given situation there are definitely clue words you shouldn’t give.

Banned Words got its hook when I realized that there were three parties affected by the parameters of the game: the clue giver, the guesser(s), and — the one that is more or less forgotten by the other two games — the judge.

Taboo was about being a clue giver who didn’t want to say certain off-limits words, lest the judge catch them.

Codenames was about being a clue giver who wanted their teammates to not say or select certain off-limits words, lest the judge (in this case, the game structure) catch them.

In both of those cases, the judge has very little actual power or influence in the game. I could make a secret word game in which they were the ones who secretly set the off-limits words that could catch either the clue giver or the guessers.

Banned Words is about being the judge who makes the rules, refuses to explain them, and waits for the clue giver and guessers to fail.

There’s a little bit of malicious intent in that, and that’s why it’s fun.

UNL_BannedWords_Instructions_SetUp_AHere’s how it works: Teams are separated from each other by a screen. Hidden behind the screen, the teams have sets of sixteen small dry-erase whiteboards (placards) and pens. Both teams draw a card from the box, which shows a list of five target words that the other team will eventually have to play the giver-guesser roles with. Keeping the lists hidden, the teams then have 90 seconds to write down sixteen words on the placards that the other team won’t be allowed to say during the clue-giving and guessing stage.

At the end of the 90 seconds, each team picks a clue-giver for the round, and the lists of target words are passed around the screen, face-down, to the other team’s clue-giver. One team will go first, and the clue-giver now has 90 seconds to get his or her team to guess their five target words.

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A sample card from the Banned Words playtesting prototype, with the original working title of the game.

Here’s the catch: The clue-giver doesn’t get to see the words the other team prohibited them from using, and if anyone on the clue-giver’s team — either the clue-giver or the guessers — say those words, the other team reveals the placard with the “banned” word and gets a point. In other words, the judges have set a field full of invisible landmines that the other team needs to avoid. The judges know the rules, the players do not. Once the active team’s time is up, play goes to the other team, and the roles of judge and victim are reversed.

The structure of the game adds a couple of really nice features to the standard secret-word format: it creates a constant state of “all play”, and it pushes emergent strategy.

All play:
In the first stage of the game, all of the players are furiously brainstorming and optimizing their lists of banned words with their teammates. In the second stage of the game, every player at the table is serving a role as a clue-giver, a guesser, or a judge. The role of the judge is especially exciting in this game, as there’s a constant tension as you wait to catch the other team in your traps. There’s no down time for players, and no one is ever relegated to just being a spectator.

Emergent strategy:
When you’re writing the list of banned words, writing the most obvious words the clue-giver might use is the most straightforward strategy, but it’s not the only strategy, nor necessarily the best strategy. If the clue-giver assumes you’ve gone the obvious route, they can put together a likely set of clues they shouldn’t give right away, and now your banned words list has a lot less potential to score you points. You’ve got a balancing act on your hands; on a scale of obvious to obtuse, where do you try to trip the other team up?

And if you’re the clue-giver, can you really assume that the most obvious words are off-limits? After all, if the judges assume you’d already avoid those words, they might have gone a few steps deeper into the pool and left the shallow end alone. Plus there’s the risk of steering your guessers into a banned word, which is just as bad as if you said them; how do you get your teammates to zero in on the specific target word and not something very similar that’s probably among the other team’s words?

Crafting both the list of banned words and the clues is a bit of a game of chicken, and it will evolve among the group of players over the course of the game or games.

As I write this post, Banned Words currently has a 7.7 rating on BoardGameGeek.com. The stretch of time from the very first ideas that kicked the project off to when it came off the office shelf to be presented as a concept pitch to Wonder Forge was about two months. From the point that Wonder Forge first played the game to the day files were shipped off to the factories that made the game, it was roughly one more month. Seven months after that, this past August, it hit shelves at Target stores all across the US.

Not bad for a game that had only barely begun to exist one year ago on a shelf in my office that I can’t actually show you.

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Filed under Board Games, Emergent strategy, Family Games, party games, Published Games, Word games

Small Pieces — 5 Games That Have Influenced My Life and Career


HeroQuest
(1989, Milton Bradley)

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HeroQuest was the first board game I played that actively made me want to redesign it, or at least design new content for it. My friend Adam and I spent the better part of a summer adjusting rules and stats we felt were off, and created a slew of new monsters and playable character classes. I haven’t seen those additional pages of our rules in two decades, so we may not have actually been any good at it at the time, but these days I make board games for a living, and Adam makes video games professionally, so something must have carried over.

Magic: The Gathering
(1993, Richard Garfield, Wizards of the Coast)

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I honestly don’t think there’s another game out there that’s generated as much written content about game design and applied game theory. I’ve been playing for 24-plus years, and have been able to take away so much that informs the design of other card and board games that I’m not sure I could do my job without the lessons I’ve learned from it. Dig into the underlying structure of Magic: The Gathering long enough, and you’ll pick up an intrinsic feel for the value of inter-related mechanics, strategic diversity and balance, resource systems, pacing, growth space, component power levels, utility, accessibility, and God only knows how many other things.

Magic’s influence has gone significantly deeper for me than just as a game I love; it’s also made a profound impact on my life outside of my career. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with and become friends with so many of the people that have made this game over the years. In 2006, I was able to work alongside several of them, putting in a few months of work as a contractor helping to design the Shadowmoor set, but the bigger prize has been the core of friends and “extended family” that’s been there for me, my wife, and most recently, my son.

The Great Dalmuti
(1995, Richard Garfield,Wizards of the Coast)

pic711236_mdMy introduction to The Great Dalmuti came as a direct product of my discovery of Magic. It was sold in the comic shop that I played Magic at, it was invented* by the same guy who made Magic, and it was cheap, as new games went. It seemed like a no-brainer when I picked it up.

Dalmuti turned out to be one of the most incredible party games I’d see for years to come. It was scalable, easy to teach, and had some actual strategy to it. Not much, but enough to be more than another word association game. I got more hours of lunch room and after-school bumming around out of this game than anything else I could have thrown in a backpack. Plus, there was no social stigma attached to Dalmuti, unlike Dungeons and Dragons or Magic.

Yes, I loved D&D and Magic, but high school kids are cruel.

*Okay, Garfield didn’t “invent” Dalmuti, per se. The traditional card game President preceeded it. Garfield skewed the numbers in the deck though, and it made all the difference.

The Settlers of Catan
(1995, Klaus Teuber, Kosmos)

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This should come as no shock, because I suspect it’s a pretty common experience: Settlers was one of the first “eurogames” I ever played.

What made Settlers such a watershed game for me was the way it used its pieces. You had no mover that marked where you were on the board. You didn’t even really play on the board so much as in the spaces where the board tiles met. You rolled dice, but that die roll was for everyone, and it had nothing to do with moving pieces along a track. There was no specific goal, like “be the first to build a castle” or “knock your opponent off the board and take over the world”, just a points goal and a bunch of ways to get there. Trading was such an integral piece of the game that you needed at least three players to play it.

It went against so many “conventional” rules of what I knew games were that it felt like learning a foreign language the first time I played. And it was awesome. Settlers was the game that made me actively look for new games outside of the traditional toy store game aisle, and I’ve never looked back (except when required to for work purposes).

Puerto Rico
(2002, Andreas Seyfarth, Alea, Rio Grande)

pic158548_mdFor whatever cultural jump Settlers of Catan was for me in 1999, Puerto Rico was a full quantum leap in 2002. This was a game of pure strategy — no random elements, no hidden information. The concepts of round-by-round role selection and “first turn” markers were something that came totally out of left field for me, and I loved it. Like Settlers, here was a game with multiple ways to gather points and multiple paths to victory, but the sheer depth and variety made any other comparisons to Settlers outright silly.

I haven’t gotten in a game of Puerto Rico in over 15 years, but only because it’s tough to find people to play it with. There’s a pervasive social resistance to the theme of the game boiling down to slavery, which, yes, I’m also a little uncomfortable with, but the game itself is pretty remarkable. At some point I’m going to have to paint all of the “worker” tokens purple and find some other names to put on all the buildings. Maybe then we won’t all feel so dirty about liking it.

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Family Games, party games, Strategy Games

One Game, Four Editions


The original concept for Wonky started as a possible “mini-game” within a game aimed at preschoolers. Turns out I was WAY off on the target age projection, but error in audience aside, the game’s had four different editions published on three continents, so something went right.

My first build of the game was made with a stack of wooden cubes and a hand-held radial power sander in the Forrest-Pruzan parking lot. It was a simple experiment to see if young kids could stack blocks that weren’t completely squared (spoiler alert: they couldn’t). We went through a few different gameplay models to give some structure to the activity of stacking, and eventually settled on one that riffed off the familiarity of UNO.

Wonky_Proto

One of the earliest prototypes of Wonky, cut by hand with a scroll saw

Once we started tuning the prototype, it became clear to us that hand-shaping the blocks was going to lead to some really irregular components. It wasn’t the sort of thing that would ruin the game’s core activity, but it was something we knew prospective publishers would be curious about. In order to make a more mechanically consistent set of blocks, we hired a local woodworker — who came to be known around the office as Grandpa Jim — to figure out how to make a cutting jig that could be used to cut lots of perfectly duplicated blocks at once. The big challenge was that since each flat face of the block was opposed by a curved one, shaping the third curved side required you to clamp down an irregularly-shaped profile at least once while cutting, without damaging the curve in the clamp.

I don’t know how he did it, just that he did.

Grandpa Jim was pretty slick with a scroll saw, and old-school in the truest sense of the word. When he heard we wanted him to help us make a game with wooden blocks, he started running numbers on how many copies of the game he could produce in a day (he figured he could make around 25 copies of the game a day by hand, 30 if he skimped on sanding the edges). I may have broken his heart a little when I told him we’d expect that any publisher that took on the game would likely do all the manufacturing at a factory in China.

Wonky_4-up

Four versions of Wonky, published by Tactic, USAopoly, and Broadway Games

Apart from the manufacturing methods, the game didn’t change much once picked up by publishers. USAopoly was the first to publish it, taking on the North American publishing rights. Shortly afterwards, Tactic snagged the rights to publish it in Europe. Later, Broadway Games licensed it for distribution in the Asia market. After about a year of publishing Wonky in the United States, USAopoly then riffed on the original by releasing an adult party game version, which added some challenge cards and some loose suggestions for optionally adding an element of beverage consumption to the game.

I’d designed several other license-driven kids games that got published before Wonky, but Wonky was the first completely non-licensed original game I created and saw reach stores. Knowing how tough it is to even get a single edition of a game onto shelves, it’s still kind of surreal to me that it’s spun three additional versions after that… but I’m hardly complaining.

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Small Pieces — FPC Extra Life Marathon


Starting at 8:00 AM yesterday morning (Saturday the 4th) and accounting for the daylight savings clock change, we held a 25 hour live-streamed board game marathon at the Forrest-Pruzan studios in support of Extra Life and the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Many dozen games were played, and the centerpiece of the event was a full play-through of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. It took roughly 19 hours, but eventually Team FPC took down Game 7’s Voldemort.

Then the Monster Box of Monsters expansion kicked in, and there were no more victories at Hogwarts to be had. Fatigue and a just plain-old brutally challenging add-on took over.

I avoided that test of endurance myself. I opted for about 20 different side-event games, several of which I’d never played before.

So here’s my brag: I currently hold lifetime undefeated streaks in Ethnos, Orleans, and Century Spice Road. In each of these games, I took down individual players with at least 5 prior plays under their belts.

Damn I’m good.

And tired. Very, very tired.

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The Jig


Jig02Over the last seven years I’ve built a lot of game prototypes, and at least half of them have involved having to hand-craft some kind of custom part for the early concept testing. Forrest-Pruzan, where I work, has a pretty good workshop for these kinds of things. Big printers, tons of old toys to dissect for parts, a huge cutting table, laminators, corner rounders, and as of about two years ago, a pretty serviceable tool shop, including a CNC router and a vac-former. If I need to build something, I can.

Jig06-2Sometimes the simplest projects are the toughest though. Take, for example, these little wooden coins.

They’re a half-inch in diameter, and I needed a quarter-inch hole drilled in them. (No, I won’t tell you why.) I needed about 60 of them, faster than I could have set them up on the CNC, which tends to bust a lot of drill bits on pieces this small. The best way to punch through these was the tried-and-true drill press. Easier said than done.

Jig08The challenge: Holding something that small next to a spinning drill bit seems like a recipe for disaster, and this is coming from a guy who’s taken off chunks of his fingers with X-Acto knives and keeps on using them. Adding a little more depth to the challenge, the hole in the plate on the drill press was exactly a half-inch in diameter, the perfect size for the coins to go straight through. There was no way to support the coins directly on the plate when I drilled them.

The answer was in building a quick custom jig to hold the coins in place under the drill.

I started with a pair of 10-ish inch long pieces of scrap wood trim, about half an inch thick each. In one of those trim pieces, I drilled a pilot hole  with a 1/16″ bit clean through the wood, then widened it up to about 5/16″. Next, I taped the two pieces together and drilled a single 1/8″ hole through both of them together at one end. I widened one end of that hole out to 5/16″, setting that hole in just deep enough to accommodate the head of a machine screw.

Jig05

The assembled jig, with a 1/2″ hole for coins to be placed in

Then, removing the tape and separating the tim pieces, I went back to the first pilot hole and used a boring bit to center a half-inch hole that dropped about 3/4 of the way through the trim.

The two pieces were loosely fastened together at the end with a machine screw, a washer, and a nut. This allowed me to squeeze the loaded jig with one hand to manually keep pressure on the coins as I drilled through the jig, while the other hand operated the press.

JigDuo

Left: The loaded jig. Right: Loaded jig, compressed and ready to drill.

Now I could load up four coins at a time, close the jig, flip it over, and quickly center the drill over the middle of the coins (or close enough)  in about five seconds. I set a stop on the press so that the drill never went more than 1/8″ into the bottom half of the jig. The hole I centered and drilled through doubled as a release if the coins ever got stuck.

Jig03End result: The jig took about ten minutes to figure out and build. After that, 60 coins took just over five minutes, and I could have easily made over 700 in an hour if I’d needed that many. (I didn’t.)

Problem solved.

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