Category Archives: Board 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.

Safeword_Cards_160922-1

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)

pic338410_md

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

Mr. Fletcher Goes to Essen


Sadly, not in person. I wish. Someday. Probably better that I wasn’t, as my wife would kill me for dropping too much cash on souvenir games.

I had two games I designed for Forrest-Pruzan showing at Essen last week, and a third that was being pitched to prospective publishers. The third is still well under wraps, but the first two were in full demo mode, and one was for sale. It’s worth noting that the games have been licensed out by Forrest-Pruzan under the Prospero Hall imprint/pseudonym; All of my most recent published games will show Prospero as the designer (company policy), but not all Prospero Hall games are mine.


Kero, published by Hurrican

This one began as an empire building game, and has evolved under Hurrican’s fostering and Piero’s illustrations into a really badass post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque game of resources and wasteland survival.

(Images originally posted by Ludovox_fr)

http://ludovox.fr/jeu-de-societe/kero/

kero_Packaging

Kero packaging

kero_at_Essen

Kero on display at Essen 2017

https://twitter.com/search?q=ludovox%20kero&src=typd

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Close-up of Kero sand timers


 

CONEX, published by HABA

CONEX is a light family strategy/card game that plays out like an irregular game of dominoes. The origin was a game I created for FPC called “RIVIT!”. Here’s the finished game that was on display at the HABA booth at Essen (shown here on a less-than-trade-showy card table in my office) along with a look at the original prototype I built.

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Final CONEX packaging by HABA

CONEX_play

The final component build and art from HABA’s CONEX

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For comparison, my original prototype of RIVIT!, which eventually became CONEX

It’s interesting to see how similar the finished product is to the original. I suspected this would be the case, since I’m an awesome graphic designer and they wouldn’t have to do much work. Also, because in development, I discovered that just about anything other than a fairly flat tone for the color space created all kinds of visual dissonance, and HABA’s testing bore out the same findings. (In all fairness, HABA’s graphic designer Benjamin Petzold did a great job updating the visual design of the cards, rules, and packaging once we handed it off.)

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Dice Games, Essen, Family Games, graphic design, Published Games, Strategy Games, Trade Shows

Ludum Videtur!


Or, “Teaching a Confusing Game Mechanic to the Uninitiated Through Subversive Design”

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Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (2016, USAopoly)

This is the story of how Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle came to be. Sort of. I was the lead designer for a collaborative deck building game engine built by Forrest-Pruzan Creative. That engine was later licensed by USAopoly, who then in turn combined it with the Harry Potter license to make a really awesome deck building game. What you’re about to read is an account of the design processes that got us to the point where USAopoly decided put our engine to use. 

Around the spring of 2013 I had an idea for a collaborative deck building game that I pitched to my bosses at Forrest-Pruzan. I described it as a backbone that we could apply a license to and show to a publishing partner (other than USAopoly) that we knew published lots of licensed mass-market games. That it would eventually become Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle wasn’t even a blip on our radar.

What I did know from the start was that I wanted to build a system that would ease non-gamers (or at least the kind of consumer that buys a handful of games a year through mass-market retailers) into the deck building genre. Deck building hadn’t been done with much success in mass-market to that point — and generally speaking still hasn’t — so I knew I had to distill the genre down to something that could be taught in about two pages of rules. It would also need a strong theme with characters players would immediately recognize. Those characters had to have intuitive connections to the cards they lived on.

We didn’t go with Harry Potter. That came later, once USAopoly licensed the game structure from us. We began with another well-known set of family-friendly characters that occupied an enormous world that gave us fertile ground for expansions. I won’t spell out exactly what the property was, since we didn’t ultimately partner with them, but if you want to guess, you’re welcome to. There was little doubt that the theme would catch peoples’ eyes when they were wandering through the game aisle at Target, Walmart, or Toys ’R’ Us, but whether those consumers would understand what a deck building game was from the box was another question entirely.

Something to always remember about games that sell at mass-market: consumers are far less likely to buy a game if they don’t immediately understand what the components do, even if they love the theme. To a complete layman, deck building games look and sound like collectable card games, and collectable card games are generally considered to be a much bigger investment in products, time, and mental energy than most people want to jump into. Games purchased at mass retail are predominantly impulse buys, and a product that confuses or intimidates that impulse buyer doesn’t help itself much in the sales column.

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Typical board game aisle at Walmart

All of this meant that even with the universally loved theme we were building our concept prototype with, there was a trap sitting in between us and the consumer. If a customer didn’t understand right away what it was — or at least what we wanted them to believe it was — they’d walk right past it. We needed to take the deck building game and make it look, at a glance, like something anyone with absolutely zero understanding of deck builders would still see as a “typical” board game.

You do that by giving whatever game you’re making, regardless of genre or category, the trappings of mass-market family strategy board games.

It needed a board.

And dice.

And movers.

To your grandmother or neighbor or gym teacher who’s only ever played Monopoly, Scrabble, and Yahtzee before (apologies to gamer grandmas, neighbors, and gym teachers), games have these specific things. Boards, dice, and movers are, in one combination or another, in (unscientifically calculated) roughly 98% of the games you’ll find on mass-market shelves.

Boards and dice and movers aren’t generally necessities in deck building games, but we weren’t designing a deck builder for a crowd that already knew what they were looking at. We had to hide something that was likely new and foreign inside a facade they were comfortable with. So we made this.

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One of the first prototype boards that eventually became Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

There’s not a whole lot of revolutionary design in creating a play mat that shows the setup for a card game, but it checks off the “has a board” box when grandma looks at the back of the package. After we determined that the board was an aid for setting up the game, we saw that we could also use it as a scoring track; something else that mass-market game consumers are familiar with. Most other deck builders counted Victory Points at the end of the game, but the majority of the board games this audience was familiar with had transparent scoring that tracked turn-by-turn. We steered into that.

The idea was that as the team of heroes played the game, the villains they fought against were slowly marching up their side of the track in the center of the board towards the crown. You and your partners scored points and climbed up your own side of the track by defeating villains. Whomever got to the crown at the top first won.

This covered the board and the movers, though the latter was eventually dropped from the final Harry Potter build. Now we had to figure out how to make dice relevant to the game. Once again, I’m going to stop short of laying out the full mechanics of the die integration. My initial build didn’t make it into the finished Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle game that USAopoly published, so I’ll keep that under wraps for now. Instead, I’ll offer you a sidebar that’s probably more interesting than the initial design itself.


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The House Dice from Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle


In early 2016, the Forrest-Pruzan team had a meeting with the USAopoly product team that was working on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. USAopoly had secured the rights to the Harry Potter license, and had brought along a rough (but surprisingly polished) prototype of the game that they had built. Late in the meeting, one of the USAopoly designers pointed to the dice, which even at that point looked a lot like the House Dice that appear in the game now. “We’re not entirely sure that we like these though,” he said. “I don’t know for certain if the game needs them. Was there a reason you included dice in the initial build?”

“Honestly?”, I asked. “It’s because if someone who doesn’t know what a deck building game is turns over the box, they’ll see dice and say ‘oh, I know what dice are, this must be a game’ and put it in the cart. Seeing dice makes people think they know how to play it right away.”

The USAopoly group laughed, entirely amused at how subversive the real function of the dice was. Later that year at GenCon, one of their designers told me that this revelation led them to look a little deeper at how wide they thought the audience might be. Thinking of the game as something that would likely be the first foray into deckbuilders for many consumers led them to breaking the game into seven sub-games, starting with a super-simplified “intro game” and progressively ramping up the mechanics and challenges as the sub-games went on.


USAopoly did use dice in the game, though not the way I’d planned. I think their execution was done really nicely within the game, and at the end of the day, my whole reason to use them at all was literally just to have them on the box. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle stayed true to that, and stepped it up in its execution.

Now we had our board, our movers, and our dice, all there to disguise a deck building card game as a standard-issue “roll and move” game. The next step was to start baking in things that would help new players get started once they’d bought the game.

Thinking back to the first time I ever played Dominion, I knew there were a few places I could see new players having trouble. First, there was the idea that you’d have a fresh set of cards every turn. Second, I knew it would feel foreign that you didn’t draw your cards at the start of the turn, but instead at the end, when you couldn’t use them. I also wanted as many aides as I could fit in that would help players set up and put away the game. Lastly, and this may have been the biggest challenge, the tracking of resources in deck builders can be brutal for someone who’s never even heard of a deck builder before, let alone played one.

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Color-coded player boards, starting decks, and tokens

The turn flow issues were simple to solve (or at least alleviate). I knew right away that I was going to give every player a basic player board to use as a cheat sheet. “Put your deck here.” “Discard your cards here.” “If you need to draw a card but there are none left, shuffle your discard pile and put it back where your deck was.” It’s hardly something worth taking any credit for as design innovations go.

Next, resource tracking. I wanted a game where players could gradually chip away at villains, so that meant having a physical counter of some kind that could be placed on villain cards on the board. Working backwards, that meant that rather than just counting up damage that could be dealt with cards in your hand and checking them against a villain’s threshold, I could just have players gather tokens on their player board before allocating them to villains. This also gave me a simple currency system for buying new cards from the board; play your cards, get tokens, spend tokens to buy stuff or fight bad guys. At the end of your turn, unspent tokens went away.

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Early prototype cards for the collaborative deck building game

Using tokens, I realized, also gave me a way to make collaboration matter. Since I had a physical accounting device, I could have effects where resources could be given, taken, or carried over from one turn to another. Card effects could go beyond giving you resources for your current turn, and could branch out into ways to set your teammates up for theirs. It was something I’d never seen executed quite this way before, and it felt incredibly intuitive as a way to encourage players to work together and help each other navigate through their first few games. From that point on, the cards were all mechanically designed with this kind of teamwork in mind.

Setup in deck builders can be a little daunting to newcomers. There are typically dozens if not hundreds of cards to sort through and keep properly arranged. In order to simplify this process as much as possible, I built several visual cues into the prototype. (This is my background as a graphic designer showing through.)

The players’ starting decks would have obvious, color-coded faces. This meant that players could pick the starting cards out from the full hero cards deck very quickly, and that there was no counting of different kinds of cards when assembling starting decks. Each player had three “attack” and seven “money” cards, but unlike in other deck builders where setup included counting out three-and-seven for each player before the game, here you just handed the red player all the red cards.

Once the starting decks were sorted out, the only cards left to sort were the purchasable hero cards and the villain cards. Keeping these visually distinct was easy; the card backs for heroes had a light color and the word “HERO”, and the villain cards were dark and said “VILLAIN”. Additionally, the layout for the card fronts were very distinct; hero cards always used a “portrait” orientation, the way most playing cards are viewed on a table or in hand. The villains were set up using a “landscape” orientation, leaving no room for confusion.

Lastly, I used some mechanical shortcuts to make setup faster and easier. There would be no “always available” step-up resource cards like in most other deck builders. This once again reduced sorting when setting up and putting away the game. I also decided early on that the hero and villain decks, respectively, would be entirely random. This meant that setup was a simple as shuffling the deck and placing it on the board. No sorting of card stacks needed at all.

It went over like gangbusters in playtests, especially with folks who’d never seen other deck building games before. Together, the whole package was one constructed with them in mind. I’d built a game engine and prototype that had all the trappings and touchstones of a “traditional” board game, while maintaining — and building on — the depth and comparative novelty of a deck building game, and it flowed intuitively.


While the game design goals and the prototype construction decisions were all my own, I owe gratitude to several other FPC team members and contractors who gave feedback and helped build parts and mechanics. It was an early-stage concept pitch meeting with Andy Forrest, Alan Pruzan, and Jay Wheatley that made it clear to me that introducing an advanced game structure to a mass-market audience would require disguising it as a more basic game model. Our contractor Dan Emmons pushed for more clarity in how players needed to win as a team rather than as individuals with a common goal. Eric Duffy ground through days of editing art files, painting tokens, and cutting hundreds cards for the prototypes. All of us, plus the entire in-house staff at FPC played through dozens of games to see where we had to add, dial in, or abandon various mechanics.

I also have to give enormous credit to Andrew Wolf, Kami Mandell, and so many others at USAopoly who paired our prototype with the Harry Potter license and kept designing the game towards that property. They did an amazing job of turning our engine into a finely-tuned performance automobile.

Thank you to all of you!

*Ludum Videtur: Loosely translated, it’s Latin for “appears like a game”.

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, deck building games, Family Games, graphic design, Published Games, Strategy Games, Uncategorized

The Mods


There’s nothing like an original… except when there’s something very much like the original, but just a little bit better.

mod·i·fy
[mod-uh-fahy] verb, -fied, -fy·ing.
1. to change somewhat the form or qualities of; alter partially; amend…

-From Dictionary.com

Reasons for graphical board/card game mods:

  1. Restyling or retheming
  2. 3-D customization
  3. Improved playability

Graphical modifications in board and card games happen because the user sees some way to improve their enjoyment of the game through effort and artistic inspiration. Sometimes the mod is a simple retooling of pieces to add a new aesthetic or incorporate a theme that would otherwise be unrelated to the original game. Some mods add dimension – literally – to the game by reinventing the board and/or pieces in three dimensions where there had originally only been two. A third variety of game mod – and perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of game designers – is the modification that directly improves the playability of the game through improved graphic presentation.

Mod #1: Graphic Restyling and Retheming

This is by far the simplest form of graphical game modification. The game stays effectively the same but it gets a new paint job, either to add a new level of flavor or to simply bring a different artistic angle to the design of the pieces. Anyone with some pens, a decent printer, a pair of scissors and some glue can create a functional board or card game mod this way, and the results are almost always enjoyable for the proper audience. This form of mod is also incredibly profitable for established board and card game publishers. Adding a licensed intellectual property or brand to an existing board game is a fast and easy way to produce a collector’s item with a pre-built consumer audience. Just look at the number of sports-franchise-themed chess sets, Movie-franchise-themed trivia games, pop-culture-themed Uno™ sets and region-specific Monopoly™ boards available. Seriously. A search for the publisher USAopoly on Amazon.com nets over 1,000 different results.

Eventually I’d like to write a piece on some of the most successful, most innovative and most unusual commercial mods of this variety. If anyone has input or access to actual NPD data for this project, by all means, write to me and I’ll gladly give you some co-authorship credit for the column.

Meanwhile, I’ve found the following examples of user-created restyle mods.

Marcus Kellerman’s Simpsons-themed Battle Line set. Photo by Marcus Kellerman, posted to http://www.boardgamegeek.com.

Marcus Kellerman, also known as Sharkus on BoardGameGeek.com, created this Simpsons-themed “homebrew” version of  Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line. The activity became an almost communal effort when he opened his creative process to the BoardGameGeek forums. Other users of the web site were able to help him edit and refine his ideas as he worked on it, even suggesting materials and processes that helped Sharkus deliver a more authentic feeling presentation in the end.

Cards from Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line, published by GMT Games.

Battle Line seems to be an incredibly popular game for restylers, and when you look at the simple presentation of the original cards for the game, it’s easy to see why. The cards feature a name, a number value and an image. Apart from the historical relevance of the particular units and their tactical relevance in relation to one another – which even within the game is taken loosely – the game is already something of a blank canvas waiting for new themes. In fact, the game can still function if the cards are reduced to nothing but a number.

Mark Mahaffey, who posts at BoardGameGeek as West2, is actually a professional designer and mapmaker who has worked on the production of numerous board games. His own blog, The Mapologist, documents his creative process of the design of several game boards, both original and reworked. I discovered Mark’s board designs through a gallery he posted in the BoardGameGeek forums, and was particularly impressed with his minimalist take on the Vinci board.

The original Vinci board, published by Descartes Editeur.

The official Vinci board is completely fine by itself. the spaces are clearly defined, have easily recognized terrain attributes, and feature well designed icons. The scoring track is simple, but perfectly functional and impossible to misread. If the board has any weaknesses, it’s simply that the function outweighs the aesthetic. The broad palette of colors and textures can be a bit jarring, and the title typography doesn’t exactly speak to the game’s “dawn and growth of civilizations” theme, but none of this hinders the way the game plays, only how it looks.

Mark Mahaffey’s Vinci redesign. Artwork created by Mark Mahaffey, posted to http://www.boardgamegeek.com.

The redesigned board presented by Mahaffey quiets the cacophony by replacing the textures with muted color washes over a subtle stone-like texture. The typography has become far more elegant and suited to a game of European history. Even the icons within the spaces have been simplified to basic black silhouettes against the earth-toned colors. The sum is a map that, while less detailed than many of Mark’s other creations, has the look and feel of a classic European fresco. A new richness and depth of style is given to the game simply by visually modifying an already playable board.

Mod #2: 3-D Customization

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a well-crafted three-dimensional customization of a board game is nothing short of a labor of love. The investment of time and materials alone would be enough to deter anyone but an absolute devotee of a game from taking on this challenge.

A hand-made 3-D Puerto Rico board created by Doctorfaust.

Take, for example, the hand-crafted centerpiece for Rio Grande Games’s Puerto Rico created by a Korean gamer who goes by the moniker “doctorfaust”. While I’m unfortunately unable to translate his blog entry, he does a wonderful job of documenting his creative process through photography. Because Puerto Rico is primarily a resource drafting game, Doctorfaust’s elaborate center staging are makes for an incredibly creative way to present the various pieces. What begins as an already deep and rich strategy game takes on a whole new layer of richness in the historically inspired depiction of the game’s setting.

3-D adaptations of Rio Grande Games’s Leader 1, Days of Wonder’s Pirate’s Cove, and Fantasy Flight Games’s Talisman. All images from http://www.boardgamegeek.com

Racing and dungeon games are also popular targets for gamers with a penchant for model building. These kinds of games are often structured so that the “negative space” of the board offers plenty of room for creative license and embellishment. The supplies to craft these game adaptations are often readily available through hobby shops, or can be cannibalized from landscape features from various tabletop miniature war games. Trees, terrain and even buildings originally intended for model railroad landscapes become features of road races, shipping ports and long-lost catacombs with relative ease for a seasoned model builder.

Conventions seem to be popular places for craftsmen to show off their creations and adaptations. To the audiences at these gatherings, the work that goes into the reinvented boards is immediately appreciated, as the function is as apparent as the form. These modified games are sometimes even used at events by publishers to draw attention to their more affordable retail-ready counterparts. Whether created by fans or professionally commissioned by publishers, the most successful 3-D adaptations must take care to fuse attention to detail with the same standard of playability the original game is known for.

The Catan 3-D Collector’s Edition, published by Mayfair Games. Photo from http://www.boardgamegeek.com.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the potential drawback to such creations is that the addition of sculptural elements can occasionally create difficulties with the playability of the game. In 2005, Mayfair Games released a special limited-edition 3-D 10th Anniversary edition of Settlers of Catan. While the overall response to the set was quite positive, a number of reviewers pointed out the less-than-spectacular compatibility with other Catan products.

Part of the appeal of the Settlers of Catan games is their expandability; while the basic game is made for three to four players, expansion sets allow up to six players, and the complexity of the game can be enhanced with the strategic expansions, Cities and Knights of Catan and Seafarers of Catan. Where Mayfair’s 3-D set does include pieces for four players to play the Cities and Knights expansion, the results of trying to integrate any other Catan sets – available only in the traditional “2-D” cardboard materials – can only be described as “aesthetically clunky”. The combination of sets creates a situation where each terrain type is effectively represented by two different visual presentations, and roads, settlements, and cities built at the juncture of the two different tile types just don’t set quite the way they should.

By itself, the special edition of Settlers is a phenomenal success. Taken in the context of the entire franchise? Not quite as much.

Mod #3: Improved Playability

Of the three types of board game modifications, this is the one I personally find most interesting. What would otherwise be a fantastic game can be virtually crippled by a poor visual presentation. The designers of a game may give so much attention to refining the mechanical aspects that they completely overlook flaws in the aesthetics. Sometimes a persistent fan finds they can fix the offending game with a retooling of the graphic elements.

Once I set out to find a prime example of this issue, it didn’t take long to settle on the ultimate case study. At a party where several professional game designers were getting together, I lobbed the question out for debate: Do any games come to mind that would be greatly improved simply by reworking the graphic design of the board or components? Almost immediately, the answer came back with multiple confirmations: Medici.

The offending Medici board, published by Rio Grande Games.

When Rio Grande Games first published Reiner Knizia’s Medici in 1995, it was nominated for a Spiel des Jahres award. Mechanically, it was a solid auction and set collecting game. Right away though, players had issues with the components of the game. Crucial symbols on the board were small enough that player markers could completely obscure them. Foreground and background colors all fell in the same range, causing the overall readability of the board to be a bit muddy. The colors chosen for the pyramids representing the five traded commodities were very similar to one another. The confusion the color scheme caused was only compounded by the design of the cards for the game, which didn’t quite match the board. Some reviews even critiqued the size and weight of the game’s cards; players felt they were awkward to hold and difficult to shuffle.

Kilgore’s rework of the Medici board and cards. Image from http://www.BoardGameGeek.com, art by Sampo Sikiö

Fans took matters into their own hands. Numerous players of the game were known to take paints and markers to their boards to help make the colors more distinguishable. Several even threw the board away entirely, opting instead for their own creations. As photos of these home-brew versions made it on to the forums at BoardGameGeek.com, other fans began taking these new versions even further, creating even more stylish components and even packaging for the aesthetically new-and-improved game.

Click the llama to visit Sampo Sikiö’s game design portfolio. Artwork by Sampo Sikiö.

Perhaps the most popular of these custom redesigns was that of Finland’s Sampo Sikiö, known to BoardGameGeek users as “Kilgore”. Kilgore’s board was hailed for its bold colors and incredibly clear readability, and still had a beautifully stylized graphic presentation. His cards were larger and easier to associate with the colors of the board. If there is any weakness in Kilgore’s design, it would simply be that the black numbers on the blue and green cards are a little tricky to read due to low contrast, but the overall result of Kilgore’s effort is a vast improvement on the commercially-available version of the game. Where Rio Grande gave us a muddled board, Kilgore made absolute clarity. Where Rio Grande created a round space, making it difficult to compare positions at a glance, Kilgore fixed the issue by orienting all tracks in the same direction. And where Rio Grande gaffed on the size of the cards, Kilgore replaced them with a standardized card size known for it’s for easy shuffling.

Kilgore’s Medici tin and game components. Image from http://www.BoardGameGeek.com, art by Sampo Sikiö.

To top it all off, Kilgore used an antique-looking tin to package all of the smaller components of his home-made set. (Author’s edit: since the intital posting of this article, it was brought to my attention by Kilgore that the tin was actualy created by fellow BoardGameGeek member Gary Garison.) The full effect is a visually rich and creative deconstruction and reconstruction of a game hampered only by the original publisher’s poor choices in design. Out of the box, Kilgore’s version of the game is bright, clear, and full of style. Inside the box (or tin, in this case) it appears to be the kind of treasure you’d find forgotten in a dusty attic, just waiting to be rediscovered and played.


There are, without a doubt, plenty of striking and innovative methods and reasons for graphically modifying games; most of them though, I believe, would ultimately fit into the three major categories I’ve described above. If I’ve committed any major oversights in my presentation, by all means let me know. I can always use more to write about!

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Do It Yourself, graphic design, redesigns, Uncategorized

Chutes and Ladders, Part 2


Chutes and Ladders teaches young children more than morals; it’s also been proven to be one of the most effective games for teaching counting skills. Compared sided by side with other board games aimed at the same age group, Chutes and Ladders consistently teaches counting faster than other games, and even helps kids “learn to learn”. Why? The design of the board.

Results published in 2009 from a study by Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland researchers showed that preschoolers who played games with a board with numbered spaces (Chutes and Ladders) learned counting skills faster than those who played games with a colored board without numbers (Candyland). This alone didn’t particularly surprise the researchers, but when they compared the results of the children who played Chutes and Ladders to those of children who simply studied counting through traditional classroom methods, they found that the students playing Chutes and Ladders outperformed the classroom-taught students. The results seem to indicate that the presence of numbers on the Chutes and Ladders board combined with it’s snaking path over a ten-by-ten grid give children a very visual way of understanding counting concepts.

A related educational study showed the progression of numerical estimation abilities in children between preschool and the second grade. Researchers presented children a line with the number 1 at one and 10, for preschoolers, or 100, for second graders, at the other end. They then presented the students a number that would fall on that line and asked them to guess where on the line the number should go. What they found was that while children were typically comfortable estimating numbers within their given range, when a number above the given range was presented, the amount that the estimate was off by increased significantly.

The research has revealed that children progress through a consistent developmental sequence. Young children generate logarithmic patterns of estimates, in which estimated magnitudes rise more quickly than actual magnitudes (e.g., the number 15 is estimated as being around where the number 60 should be on a zero – 100 number line). Older children generate linear functions (e.g., the number 15 is estimated as being around where 15 should be.)

Fig. 1: The basic 10x10 Chutes and Ladders path

The overlap in these studies comes down to the visual layout of the board games given to children in the first study. Using the Chutes and Ladders board as a control, researchers also studied how boards of other shapes affected the learning process. Compared to a circular board with numbers, Chutes and Ladders still taught the children to count faster. The difference lies in the visual presentation of structured groups of ten.

Fig. 2: A circular alternative game board

The square board with the snaking path, shown in figure 1, has a clear beginning and end, and well-defined groupings of ten spaces. The circular board (figure 2) is less clear about where the start and end are; even with a defined start space, the path loops back on itself. It also lacks the rigid ten-at-a-time structure found in the square board. Where the turns in direction on the square board give constant and regular points of reference to the child playing the game, the round board has only a single point of reference: the dividing line between the finish and the start.

Fig. 4: Clearly defined groups of ten on the square board

A child playing on the square board can easily isolate their focus on the single row their piece occupies. Rather than seeing one board with one hundred spaces, they can effectively look at it as ten boards with ten spaces each. The smaller frame of reference is easier for preschoolers to process, and the act of counting out spaces each turn is made easier by the clear sub-structure of start and end points. Understanding the relationship between the number ten and the number four (or six, or one, etcetera) comes naturally over time on the square board.

Fig. 4: Groups of ten spaces are far more arbitrary on the round board

Unfortunately, the round board simply can’t teach such a numeric relationship as easily. Without the pre-defined groups of ten, there is nothing for the child to compare the number of spaces they move to. As seen in figure 4, even if we artificially define a group of ten spaces on the board, those ten spaces could realistically start or end anywhere, or even overlap another group. Both boards will still teach the child that six is more than three, or that rolling a four means you move (one, two, three, four!) four spaces further along the path, but it’s the added element of spatial relationships that makes the square board a far more effective tool for teaching counting skills.

It’s no wonder the Candyland board doesn’t teach counting skills the way a traditional Chutes and Ladders board does. Candyland, with its colored, meandering path, lacks both the elements of number identification and spatial relationships. The layout of the traditional 100-square Chutes and Ladders board, whether it was intended or not, was designed in a way that inherently has ideal visual cues to help kids not only learn to count, but learn to learn.

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Packaging Board Games for the (Retail) Masses


I stepped into an Uncle’s Games today and had a minor brainstorm: more board games need to be packaged in software-sized boxes.

Now, I’m probably biased as I’ve spent several years making software and DVD boxes for retail, but there are some very smart things DVD and software packagers are doing to merchandise their products at retail that board game companies are not.

The issue became clear to me as I spoke with the store’s regional manager about a game he had on display at a table near the front of the store. I was observing the fact that while the game looked great out of the box and set up on a table, inside the box it didn’t fare so well. The cube-shaped box was awkward to handle and less visually appealing than either of us expected the publisher would have wanted.

“It’s terrible on the shelf,” said the manager. I could quickly see why. The unusual dimensions made it an odd fit on a standard display rack, and the cube shape made it very easy for browsing customers to put it back on said shelf sideways, backwards, or even upside-down. There was absolutely zero chance of placing it on a pegboard, like similar predecessors of the game had done. The box, despite stylish and flavorful graphics, was a merchandising mess.

Board and card games tend to appeal to a similar audience as software and DVDs, so it’s reasonable to say there’s something to learn from the latter product categories about merchandising. Software and DVDs are sold in all kinds of stores; non-mainstream games typically are not. A game like Carcassonne has enough wide-appeal that it bridges the gap for many gamers, moving users from the world of Monopoly and Scrabble to games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Marketing a game like Carcassonne in a store like Target or Walmart could be an incredible move for game publishers in that it could expand the gaming audience significantly. But how and where in the store does Carcassonne fit? Not with the toys. With the DVDs, video games and computer games.

And what is the number one reason people don’t generally explore new boardgames? They’re unfamiliar territory. Working in software and DVD packaging, it was my job to give the consumer reasons to buy titles they might be unfamiliar with. It all came down to informative packaging.

Game publishers might consider using the DVD/Software packaging model for a number of reasons:

1) Location. Big Box stores already have shelving fixtures perfect for 5.25″ x 7″ boxes. They keep them all in one location, where teenage-and-older guys tend to congregate. The gamer types are already browsing in that part of the store. And in most cases, the electronics department isn’t particularly far from the toys, either. Convincing a big-box retailer to allocate shelf space to unproven, irregularly sized boxes that don’t display well spine-out is tricky. Convincing them to give some space to a face-out product designed to conform to their existing fixtures is notably easier.

2) Information Presentation. People pass on games because they don’t instantly recognize what they’re about or how they work. Many of the more “hardcore” board games out there (and non-collectible card games — generally speaking, games under the umbrella of “eurogames”) don’t do a particularly good job of familiarizing a browsing consumer with the product. You don’t learn about games from the box, you learn about them from other gamers, and without other gamers around, you don’t sell the box. There’s typically tons of flavor expressed by the packaging, but even on the back, not much that illustrates the actual experience of playing the game.

I learned all about solving this very same issue by designing for retail digital media. Use a bookflap on the front to create a full “center spread” to really show off both flavor and features. Show consumers what the product is really like and how easy it is to learn the game. Give us pictures of people enjoying it. And on the back, make it plain as day what it’s about, what it’s like, and who’s going to want to play it. Several game publishers already use a basic grid to show number of players, age range and duration of a typical game. This is a good place to start, but not nearly enough on it’s own to get grandma to pick it up as a birthday gift. If she feels like she “gets it” though, it goes straight into the cart.

3) Economy of Cost of Goods. Turned-edge laminated slipcase boxes are not cheap. These days, most are printed and manufactured overseas. Standard-issue software boxes can easily come in at less initial cost than a traditional board game box, can include features such as embosses and foil strikes that help draw consumers in at the point of sale, and are readily produced domestically. Additionally, if multiple games are being put to retail at once (and most big-box store corporate buyers are looking for assortments of products when they fill their resets), then the cost of printing the boxes gets mitigated by ganging multiple boxes into one print run. If all your boxes use the same die, then the cost of cutting, folding and assembling is also lowered.

It won’t work for every game. Some games could substitute a cloth or vinyl board for the traditional turned-edge laminated board, but others will just lose too much perceived value. Still, for many tile based games including Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, all of the key components can already be packaged to fit inside a box 5.25 inches wide by 7 inches tall. Even if the box needs to be ever so slightly deeper than the typical 1.3 inches to house the game, you’re still delivering a product that retails cleanly and easily, and lives neatly in a gamer’s bookshelf or cabinet.

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Filed under Board Games, Retail packaging