Tag Archives: design

Game Designers and the 2002 Oakland A’s


Fun, yes. Glamorous, no.

I am a professional game designer. Somebody pays me to do it; I don’t need to work another day job, I don’t scribble notes for my next Kickstarter as a creative outlet, I have a full workshop and supplies at my disposal paid for on the company’s dime rather than mine. I have an excuse to play and read about board games while I’m on the clock at work.

I’m incredibly lucky in this. My wife reminds me all the time, and rightly so. I get to do something I love, to a degree that many, many people don’t and maybe never will. Sometimes I forget this.  I happen to have had what many people would consider a “dream job” long enough that it’s become normalized, not quite “just a day job” but something that’s a basic, foundational part of my day-to-day routine. I don’t really think about it beyond knowing that it’s what I do.

If you’re ever going to have any work/life balance, every job eventually becomes, at least partially, internally normalized; “just part of who I am”. It’s not unthinkable to forget about the uniqueness of the role you play. Even when you know you’re good at what you do — that you deserve and have earned your place in that role — it’s possible to look at other people in similar roles and wonder if you stack up.

New opportunities are scary, even when you know you’ve got a 20-pound bag full of qualifications. That is a near-universal truth.

Hello, internet world. I’m going to trust you with a something personal. Right now I’m working on broadening my horizons. It’s not really a secret, even within my current job, that I have an interest in exploring new kinds of projects with new kinds of collaborators and teammates. I want to surround myself with other game designers with ideas and visions I haven’t had the chance to learn from yet.

In sports, this would be a lot like going into free agency, particularly if you’re aware you’re not necessarily J.D. Martinez or LeBron James. Even within the narrow “dream job” world of professional game designers, I’m no Eric Lang, Alan R. Moon, or Freidemann Friese. In baseball terms, I’m a veteran utility player with a solid on-base percentage (OBP). I am the moneyball player, one of the guys in the Oakland Athletics (A’s) 2002 lineup. For most of those guys, they each knew they had strong proven value, but after their time in Oakland they went into free-agency situations still knowing that any team they joined likely already had more known superstars than the one they were leaving.

For me, this is the knowledge that any team I eventually join already has people with years of experience navigating their particular terrain.

There’s some irony in my sense of intimidation; as I’ve said, I know I’m good and I want those new surroundings to learn from. I’ve also spent the last year or so working in a department where my projects have largely been solo ventures, and I want to get back into the realm of collaborative design. It’s at the very top of what I want from a job in game design. Well, that and a commute less than the 90-minute one I have now. Seattle traffic blows.

I like tossing ideas around with other designers. I love debates rooted in design philosophy and theory. I like sometimes stepping back from the weight of needing to initiate a concept from scratch and instead being one of the guys who helps paddle someone else’s canoe. (I still love you, Nick Offerman.)

Knowing those other designers have had more time to develop and practice the theories relevant to their particular projects is still heady stuff to walk into. Striking the balance between being respectful and humble enough to let them guide you into their process and walking through the door confidently from day one is far from a no-brainer. It’s something that, when I stop and let myself think about, is pretty daunting. And I know I have what it takes to do what they do, because I do it every day, and have done it for years.

“Dream jobs” are tricky that way.


The 2002 Oakland A’s, celebrating win number 20 in their 24-game win streak

Pro athletes have dream jobs. Millions of people want to play for the Lakers or the Seahawks or the Red Sox or Real Madrid, but only a tiny handful of people ever actually will. I am absolutely certain that with very few exceptions, every single one of those pro athletes facing free agency does so with a nervous twinge when they think about re-acclimating and adjusting to match the pre-existing chemistry of a new team.

I don’t need to worry about not being J.D. Martinez. I need to remember that in the world of professional game design, the things I value most are found in teams built like the 2002 Oakland A’s.

Less about my own journey and goals. More about today’s lead: game designers and the 2002 Oakland A’s.


The second time a picture of Brad Pitt has shown up on my blog

To say that the Oakland A’s did it with no “stars” is misleading. The story Aaron Sorkin and Brad Pitt told in Moneyball was a functional retelling of a pretty amazing modern-era sports story, but it left a few details out. Moneyball glorifies (justifiably) the value of a team built to be a team above all else.

If you want to get picky, Sorkin left out the fact that Oakland’s pitching staff was a group of guys who were really good, and pitching is probably the least “team performance” process in the sport. One good pitcher sets the tone of the entire game, limiting the average number of runs any opposing team can score in a single game and setting a threshold for the number of runs their own team needs to score to win that game. The pitcher does that with a single arm and the help of a well-versed catcher. After that, there are seven other players on the field who have virtually no bearing on whether the hitters the pitcher is facing make contact with the ball. The real Beane knew this, and that’s the part the movie glosses over.

For my purposes today, I will too. Mostly.

Baseball is a strange mix of personal and team performances, and Billy Beane demonstrated that handily in building his team. If you know the movie, you know most of the story. Beane was the General Manager of a team that was hemorrhaging whatever A-list hitting talent they had into organizations that could pay more, and had little budget for new headline “mashers” (guys who are exciting to watch because they hit the ball really, really hard. Like, inhumanly hard.). He realized that the math of the game proved that the mashers weren’t actually the guys that won games though; it was the process of consistently getting a lot of players on base that produced slightly better-than-average runs per inning than most other teams.

Let me clarify for the non-baseball readers I may have brought in today; “masher” is not a technical baseball term or position. It’s an archetypal kind of player, someone whose performance as a hitter is not directly tied to their role on the field. I’ll use the term quite a bit in the next few paragraphs, so it’s worth getting that all cleared up now.

Mashers typically come up to the plate to hit every two to three innings, and need players ahead of them to be on base in order for the big hits to be most effective. An opposing team’s pitchers can often stifle that sort of strategy by pitching around the masher, giving them intentional walks and limiting the hitter’s production to only a single base instead of a potential four. This is especially transparent when the masher doesn’t have another ultra-threatening hitter right behind them in the batting order, since the prospect of an extra runner on the bases (the walked masher) when a weaker hitter comes up is less scary to the pitcher than the prospect of seeing that masher let it fly.


Partial listing of the 2002 Oakland A’s roster. Not a lot of “A” grades on the hitting power assessments, but a TON of .300-plus OBPs, and Slugging Percentages, one after another after another…

The moneyball strategy is, primarily, to forget about putting a dedicated masher in the order. One masher necessitates further threats, as well as players who can reliably get on base in front of the masher. Moneyball argues that by just having more of the reliable singles and doubles hitters, the home run hitters aren’t necessary, and your lineup gives opposing pitchers fewer opportunities to pitch around tricky situations. When you get three guys on base with little, un-flashy, productive hits, the opposing pitcher is put with their back against a wall. They absolutely need to induce outs if they’re going to prevent runs; there’s no allowance for error on them at that point. Pitchers make mistakes and get fatigued though, which means that, ultimately, the team that slowly grinds guys onto the bases faster than they make outs will be able to score more runs than a team that relies on a few huge hitters.

My experience is that game design works the same way.

Most games begin with a single idea, often from a single person. I suppose we can look at that idea and person as the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball. Fitting, because the first thing the originator does when they bring the idea to a team, a publisher, or backers on Kickstarter is to pitch it.

Apart from that, much of game design is a team effort, and a really good game has more to benefit from having many well-rounded contributors than it would gain from having a single genius on a metaphorical island.

Consider the stages of making a game: inception, concept, initial design, development, playtesting, cyclical iterations, production, publishing, sales and marketing, distribution…

Yes, there are games, even some incredible ones, that have, visibly, a very small number of superstars that carried multiple phases all alone. Cephalofair is a very bare-bones, hyper-efficient operation. Stonemaier Games is another. The era of Kickstarter has allowed more of these studios to exist, but the really successful ones — the “quit your old day job because game design is your new one” ones — are few and far between. They’re the exception to the rule. Most in-it-for-the-long-run studios and publishers run with very deep support staffs that cover a lot of bases through being consistent short-hit, high-OBP team players. Although, in the context of this article, “covering a lot of bases” might be a mixed metaphor.

One person can conceive the idea for a game. I’ve invented several games that way myself. Conversely, the inception of a game might just as readily come from a group discussion, where the primary kernel of that idea would never have happened with multiple people discussing a different concept from the one that ultimately arose. I have a list of games I’ve worked on elsewhere in my blog archives; see if you can figure out which ones I came up with “alone” at my own workstation, and which ones came from a bunch of people around a lunch or conference table.

Concepting is a stage that comes just behind the inception. It’s the process of determining exactly what kind of game the idea is best expressed as. This can be done by a single person, but examining all the options and determining the ideal one is generally faster and more thorough with several veteran designers kicking those options around together. I would personally rather have the right concept to fit an idea arise from another designer in my team than the wrong one emerge when I’m working on it alone.

Initial Design is the process of fleshing out that concept with mechanics, either original or reimplemented from other games in a new way that fits the themes or goals of the new game. It typically includes creating a prototype so that the design can be workshopped and tested in a practical space. Almost by definition, the workshopping and testing of any competitive game require a collaborative mindset, as the designer or designers are creating an experience meant to be an experience for multiple players at once. One person sitting in all of the players’ seats at once will never accurately approximate multiple players seeing different aspects of the game, and considering those different views is critical to good game design.

Development uses a completely different set of skills than designing; one tends to be more intuitive, the other is more analytical. It’s possible to have a single person tackle both processes, but that increases the chances of blind spots and retention of “precious” designs that an separate developer would objectively question. Thorough development benefits significantly from having a different team member (or members) than the one (or ones) who’ve been focused on the design.

Playtesting for every rich game (with the possible exceptions of games meant for cooperative or solo play) is functionally impossible without multiple team members. The team for this stage will need multiple well-heeled players with broad experience in gaming. Usually this is the part that benefits most from a really large list of team members and participants, and it’s the part that most closely resembles the theory behind moneyball. The most valuable playtesting results are the ones that provide enough data to properly see consistent patterns emerge under different circumstances, and that means you need a lot of data. Gathering  lot of data means you need a broad team.

It’s also useful within the playtesting cycle to have multiple people observing the players. As much as you want the players to find and stress-test the mechanics and processes of the game, you want the observers to catch significant moments and variance in the way the game is being played by the testers. Different observers will see different aspects of the players’ responses and recommend improvements to the game accordingly.

Cyclical iteration is all about crunching the numbers after each round of playtesting to optimize any incremental changes being made to the design. It requires the designers and developers to quickly and efficiently balance their contributions into a cohesive new prototype or set of rules. The collaborative process of iteration is probably the single phase that most resembles the moneyball philosophy; changing a lot of things at once in one huge jump in the game’s design is a far riskier proposition than relying on a consistent, longer sequence of smaller clusters of adjustments.

Production is all about dialing in the physical components, from materials and ergonomics to artwork and styling. While it’s usually important to have a single shot-caller to tie all of the physical elements together, visual design for complex games can quickly become a team effort. Visual content is time-consuming, and the workload for something with a lot of visual content can keep a designer or artist under pressure for a while. Understanding materials is a whole other sphere of knowledge that comes into play, and without solid execution can ruin the end user’s gameplay experience. Production is often a headache best shared in a divide-and-conquer manner rather than one person trying to hulk through it by themselves.

Publishing, sales and marketing, and distribution are components of game design that generally occupy a different kind of head space than the prior stages, but they’re not entirely unrelated. Knowing the best business practices that will go into getting the game to the intended audience, or the current interest trends and preferences of that audience, can help inform key decisions all the way back to the initial concept phase. These last parts are generally outside of my own range of experience in the overall process, so I can’t speak directly too much to them. I can say that, as someone who’s worked on games without needing to do the publishing/marketing/distribution lifting myself, I feel I’ve been able to put in more focused work on any or all of the prior pieces’ teams.

Moneyball. A broad team with multiple experienced players, all capable of keeping the line moving at a regular pace. Fewer superstars whose absence would cripple the strategy. The notion of valuing consistency over flash, with a welcome allowance for flash to happen.

Is there risk of too many cooks? Absolutely. That’s a problem for team managers to handle. But if you’re in it for the long haul, you need to know you can keep the pressure on the competition longer than they can rely on big, explosive moments.

I want to play on a moneyball team. I want to know that I don’t need to outperform another team player to show my value, or outperform completely different team all alone. I understand how all of the pieces fit together, and I’m in it to support all of them with the knowledge that they collectively help shore up my own weak spots. My skills and experience aren’t those of Martinez, James, Lang, Moon, or Friese, but they’ll add to the sum total and keep those averages up where they need to be in order for the team to rack up wins.

24 wins in a row in 2002. The A’s were a team that knew how to get it done.






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Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 4

Community Improvements

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

Writing rules is hard. I know; it’s part of my job.

Naturally, the more complex the game, the more difficult it is to write the rules. Game complexity can come from a whole slew of places, but when actually writing rules, one of the most challenging types of complexity to explain comes when a game has tons of little sub-routines.

Games that get their complexity from strategic depth can actually have very simple rule sets. The difficulty in comprehending chess, for example, comes from the fact that on any given turn, the number of choices presented to a player are huge, and each possible outcome will each affect that many more possible outcomes on the opponent’s turn. Every choice opens up a geometric expansion of further game states.


Source: Wikipedia

The rules for chess though are elegantly short; they account purely for the game’s setup and the rules for moving the various kinds of pieces. Chess also includes a short list of additional rules for various game situations and movement exceptions, but in total, chess can accurately be explained in fewer than 1,500 English words and only a handful of simple diagrams. These can all reasonably fits onto a single sheet of standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, using both sides.

The depth of Chess’s strategy however is a subject that has been the subject of tens of thousands of books and articles over the course of more than 1,000 years of play. A child can learn the complete rules of chess in a matter of hours, but the study of the game’s strategy can consume a lifetime.

Then there are games where the gameplay can be entirely open-ended, but also less strategically complex in their play than chess. The rules for these games might still require dozens of pages (if not more) to explain.


Source: Gloomhaven Kickstarter campaign, Cephalofair Games. Image used without permission.

Gloomhaven is a tactical “campaign” style adventure game with deep roots in narrative exploration of a city and its surrounding world. It is huge in every sense of the word.

The box measures around 17″ x 12″ x 18″ and weighs 20 pounds. There are 18 sheets of 11″ x 17″ heavy chipboard punchboards, including literally hundreds of map tiles, monster standees, tokens, and markers. There are 17 little paperboard boxes for different unlockable character classes, each with sculpted plastic miniatures and over two dozen cards, markers, and other pieces of paraphernalia. There are at least 1,500 different cards covering a range of purposes — player actions, attack modifiers, monster stats and actions, equipment and other treasures, randomized events, randomized side-quests, and more. There is a book with 95 playable campaigns. There are envelopes with secret content to be opened at various stages of the game. There is a board showing a map of the city of Gloomhaven and a chunk of the continent surrounding it, and a sheet of stickers to add to the expanding range of known locations on it.

And there’s a 52-page rule book.

The community response to this game has consistently been incredibly positive. When Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games first launched Gloomhaven’s first printing in September of 2015 on Kickstarter, he went in seeking $70,000. He finished the campaign with over five times that funding goal, and after the orders were closed, demand on the retail and secondary markets far exceeded the supply.

A second printing was announced in April of 2017, and at that point I knew I had to back the game. This time Isaac placed the goal at $300,000.

He hit the mark in five minutes. By day 4 of the campaign he had over 16,000 backers, nearly all of them in for at least $95. The next day the pledges totaled over $1.6 million, and over 2,000 of the backers were actively participating in a Gloomhaven mini-adventure Isaac was hosting through the Kickstarter updates.


The unboxed contents of Gloomhaven. Photo courtesy The DM’s Apprentice, link in footnotes.

After all was said and done, Gloomhaven’s second printing raised $3,999,795, coming in only $205 shy of the 4 million mark. The guy I shared an office with pulled his own $105 pledge just hours before the deadline because he was putting in an offer on a house and opted for financial adulting. (Sadly, the bid on the house was not accepted and he wound up kicking himself for withdrawing on Gloomhaven).

The backers of the second printing had largely received their copies of the game by late November 2017, and a retail release date was quickly set for mid-January 2018. At the time of this posting, the number of remaining retail copies is dwindling to a point where copies regularly sell online for around $200, significantly higher than the $140 MSRP. The current placement on BoardGameGeek.com’s all-time board game rankings and the user ratings back up the hype; Gloomhaven holds the number one slot, recently edging out Pandemic Legacy, and boasts a remarkable (and yet fully-deserved) 9.0 out of 10.

The game is largely narrative-driven, despite not actually being a role-playing game. Some reviewers categorize it as legacy game, though that’s up for debate. There’s a very good case for it being a turn-based strategy game — in a similar way to how a lot of video games are categorized as such — themed as a dungeon-crawl adventure. There’s no question though that the 52-page rule book covers a lot of technical/mechanical ground, and this is where the game’s complexity becomes apparent.


The Gloomhaven rule book, Cephalofair Games, 2016. Image used without permission.

As I said earlier, part of my day job is to write rules documentation for games. Writing rules for themed strategy games with lots of parts and sub-routines is really hard. I have a number of tricks I fall back on to help push clarity in my rules (I’m not averse to repeating a paragraph if having it in two different places helps people get through a process without having to cross-reference), but I’m always looking for ways to improve the information design that goes into writing rules.

And that’s ultimately what it is; information design, the place where my career and professional training began. It’s not an easy skill to build, and it‘s something that can make or break a player’s first experience with any game, let alone one as complex as Gloomhaven. Isaac and his graphic designer Josh McDowell did an amazing job pulling all the rules together in that book, and presented them with a visually beautiful and well-designed structure. Still, even with 52 pages to get everything in there, there’s a lot of stuff that players have found a need for beyond those rules.

Usability through information design extends beyond rules too, affecting the design of individual components. Great components are intuitive in their purpose, and take into account the way the audience is likely to interact with them. Weak component design can stifle the play experience before the players even get to the heart of the gameplay.

This is where the story fits into my Reading the Room series; Gloomhaven is a prime example of the game’s community coming together to listen to questions other players posed, looking at how to better present information for players and then building better tools with which to learn and play the game. It’s not my own research and synopsis about usability and product design, but it’s definitely about improving a product based on community feedback, and in that, it’s something I can carry forward in my own rules-writing and component development process.

By this past November, before I had even received my own copy of Gloomhaven, I had spent hours upon hours reading through discussion threads on BoardGameGeek.com about the game. My goal was to know as much of the workings of the game as I could, so that when it arrived I could dive right in. It’s entirely possible that I did more active studying for the arrival of this game than I did for the arrival of my son.


At the time of the writing of this article, there were 6,207 discussion threads about Gloomhaven on BGG

Despite the amount of reading I’d done within the community threads, I never read the actual rules until I had the game in my hands; a PDF of the rules existed on the Kickstarter campaign page, but I tried to stay as unspoiled as I could about the actual game components. That included the rule book.

Instead, I followed discussions on the merits of pre-fabricated storage inserts, do-it-yourself options, painting guides for the starting characters, miniature landscape accessories, and so on. I read about common mistakes made by new players, and the methods for adding and removing players from the game over the course of a campaign (because not everyone in the party will always be available to play ever time). There were minor spoilers, but it was worth it to me to have a general understanding of the kinds of things I’d be able to do and the ways I’d be able to share the game experience.

At one point, Isaac posted a link to a set of graphical assets that he and Josh were making available to the community for the purposes of creating new home-brewed dungeons and quests. Isaac’s only stipulation was that if anyone wanted to use the assets for anything other than making their own campaigns for personal use, that they request his permission first. A chorus of gratitude and applause for the move followed from the community. The assets were embraced and immediately put to good use, evidence of which can be found in the many web-based tools, third-party apps, and printable materials that can be found in the BoardGameGeek Gloomhaven Files forums.


The Files forums for Gloomhaven on BoardGameGeek.com

The kinds of files available range from schematics for home-made storage inserts to tuckboxes and envelopes for components to rules reference materials. Subscribing to any of these threads will quickly demonstrate how much the creators of these files care about their usefulness. Dozens of them show multiple stages of curation with periodic file updates and version tracking numbers. The originators frequently take and respond to questions in the forums, incrementally making the utility of those files more attuned to the needs of the end users.

With the availability of the art assets, the creators of the files are able to build things like full rules and campaign books translated into different languages that look just like the original. Players can also create appendices to the rules that summarize game sub-routines in formats that the rule book wasn’t able to devote space to.


Bill Norris’s “Gloomhaven One-Sheet”

For example, Bill Norris (BGG username Harleyguy) was able to create a one-sheet summary document with key game information for use as a quick reference guide. It begins with the full back page of the official rule book, but adds a reverse side with brief summaries of key combat-related conditions, effects, and sub-routines. Because Bill had access to the iconography, stylistic elements, and typefaces that Isaac and Josh had used, he was able to make his player aide visually tie in to the original game materials seamlessly.

BGG user Gekey took advantage of the art assets to create a simple, attractive board for setting out cards relevant to players’ visits to the city of Gloomhaven through the game. It’s a nice accessory piece that adds some flavor and focused visibility of thematically connected game components. I’m personally already seeing ways I’d like to use this in a constructing a physical tool for storing armor, weapon, and item cards available in the game’s marketplace.


Gekey’s “Visit Gloomhaven board”

Takeaway Number One for me: As long as there’s little concern for counterfeiting, trust the community and provide them with digital assets for creating supplemental materials. It’s impressive how much the community can add to the play experience when provided with elements that help them create accessories and player aides. Better assets will only help them build those pieces in ways that tie into the game’s existing richness and environment.

One of the most useful kinds of user-made appendices that I’ve found is flowcharts. While Isaac and Josh are thorough in explaining in the text of the rules how every process works, with a few exceptions, most of those processes are shown only as text. Given the enormous number of multi-stage procedures in the game, properly parsing and executing all of the rules text for those procedures is difficult. Even with decent quick-reference indexes (the rule book actually includes two of them, and each character box holds a simplified turn guide), it’s easy to miss or misunderstand key steps in any of those processes. Flowcharts have shown to be an excellent way to get from start to finish without overlooking anything.

There are many of these flowchart documents available in the Gloomhaven files forums, with varying degrees of detail in their step-to-step writing. One of the most useful flowcharts I’ve used is also one of the simplest. Erik Nilsson (BGG username Arne_Sven) created a clean, bare-bones four page set that explains the process of setting up and playing the game. They are elegant in their brevity, and were indispensable for my first dive into character creation and playing of a campaign.


Pages from Erik Nilsson’s “Gloomhaven Flowcharts”

Takeaway Number Two for me: Any rules document I create from now on for games with moderate or high complexity will include one or more flowcharts as appendices to help players quickly understand the flow of rounds and/or turns.

(Assessing the quantifiable meaning of “moderate or high complexity” remains to be worked out.)

Even in some of the lighter games I’ve designed and developed, I’ve seen time and time again that text alone often isn’t enough to explain concepts that play out within the game. Every game experience has moments where a choice or choices will create branching paths that the game process can take from that point. Static paragraphs of text can’t account for or accommodate the changes in procedure that the choices create.

Even visual diagrams will come up short when describing sequences with a set of interconnected or nested decisions and results. Diagrams nearly always need accompanying text to explain what’s going on in that diagram, which then in turn necessitates a structured system through which the text and diagram components are connected. Diagrams tend to be absorbed by the eye as a whole, while the text or copy that correlates to the diagram must be processed — in part or in whole — in a segmented, linear manner.

This is all to say, once again, that good information design is hard. Using flowcharts in the rules I write will reduce my own headaches and those of the people trying to play the game I’ve put in front of them. Why has this not occurred to me before? No idea.

Much of the fun of Gloomhaven is the discoveries that happen as the story unfolds. One of the first things you’ll notice when you start digging into the community’s conversations and home-made tools is how often the words “spoiler warning” appear, and how emphatically they hold others to respect that concept.

All of this can make discussing rules and asking questions about specific in-game situations very tricky.

Luckily, Isaac and Josh came into this prepared for some of the biggest potential spoilers. Within the game, there are points in which certain boxes are opened to reveal new characters. The game needs a way to tell you to which box should be opened, without ruining the surprise for players as to what kind of character they should be expecting to find.


The 17 character class tuckboxes included in Gloomhaven.

Six of the characters are available right from the start of the game — The Cragheart (broken diamond), the Scoundrel (stacked daggers), the Tinkerer (gear), the Brute (three horns), the Spellweaver (swirling star), and the Mindthief (brain). Eleven others begin the game locked, and are brought into the game as previous characters complete objectives and are “retired”. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the names of those eleven other characters are, and I don’t want to know.

The real beauty of the icons Josh made for the character classes is that they provide only the most minimal information I need right now, and spoil nearly nothing that I don’t.

Beyond that, they give the community a way to identify them without ever mentioning their names directly. When I reach the point that I’ve opened the character box with the Cthulhu–looking symbol and I have a question about the way something in that box works, I can go to the forums and post a question with “Cthulhu-looking symbol” in the title without spoiling a single thing for anyone who hasn’t gotten there yet. Other users familiar with the contents of that box can then click on my question and respond with full confidence that they’re not unnecessarily spoiling things for me. Anyone who hasn’t opened that box yet can glance at the title of my question and walk on by without concern of seeing something they don’t want to yet, and feel assured that they’re also not missing critical information that would be valuable to them right now.

There is clarity in the obfuscation.

The game also keeps plenty of information under wraps through the use of decks of cards, kept separate from the main game components and accessed only when directed. Some of these are numbered so that a game event can tell players to go retrieve a certain card (and be surprised by the results), and others are kept in stacks that are shuffled so that they can produce randomized results (that will also keep users surprised by the results).


Numbered treasure cards from Gloomhaven. No spoiler alert necessary; these are available to players at the beginning of the game.

During a campaign’s setup, the campaign book may show you that there’s a treasure chest to be looted. It may even say that the treasure chest contains an item — but knowing that that particular item is shown on card #070 won’t ruin the surprise until you’ve looted that chest, retrieved card #070 from the box, and read what kind of item it is. And much like the character class symbols, the numbered card system allows players to reference and discuss items, treasures, and events without ever risking spoiling other players’ experiences.

This is not to say that the game’s creator and designer did a perfect job of hiding things that players want to discover gradually.

The particulars for setting up any given campaign are shown in the campaign book. It’s a static document; it would be impossible for the creator and graphic designer to hide any or all of the setup for any given dungeon from the players once they’ve turned to the campaign’s page.

There is a deck of cards that comes in the box meant for generating randomized dungeons, so a system of cards that might only reveal dungeons one room at a time is theoretically possible. It would be exceedingly difficult to organize and produce though — the sheer volume of cards needed to hide each room’s contents, along with story introductions, event descriptions, special instructions or conditions, and other relevant information for all 95 scenarios (in just the base game) would number in the high hundreds. That’s on top of the more than 1,200 cards already in the box. The book, while an imperfect delivery system for hiding spoilers, is the most practical option available.

But then the community showed up, and they found a way to improve on Isaac’s design in a way that fully maintains and respects the thought that went into the initial design.

BGG user tds_gaming went above and beyond, working his way through a PDF of the entire campaign book and adding opaque blocks that can be toggled on and off. The result is an interactive digital campaign book in which users can hide and reveal information as their campaign progresses.


The iOS Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer, by RVG Software Ltd

RVG Software Ltd (Roy Goncalves, BGG username Riggert)went one step further, bundling the interactive campaign book into an app, available for Android and iOS devices. I’ve used the app to play through campaigns myself, and while visually the covers are a bit choppy, the overall effect on play experience is exciting and well worth the download. Not knowing quite what’s going to be behind the next door adds both challenge and atmosphere to the game in a way otherwise lost in the physical book.

The app and PDFs also have the benefit of obfuscating story points that couldn’t be considered as anything but spoilers. It’s tough to pretend you can’t see a full paragraph of “future” story text when you’re scanning the spread to make sure you haven’t missed the information you need right now.

Takeaway Number Three for me: When keeping information back is critical to the enjoyment of the game, having elegant ways of hiding, revealing, and — in particular —discussing that information makes a world of difference. Numbers are functional and accessible when dealing with a high quantity of hidden information, but the are clinical and devoid of flavor. The iconography created by Josh for the character classes is exceptionally flavorful, mysterious, and exciting, and it serves its function incredibly well.

I’d like to use a similar iconography system if I ever need one for a future project, but I need to keep in mind that each icon will eventually be described by players as a tool for spoiler-free discussions. Icons built for this purpose must be vague in the sense that the contents are a secret, specific in the sense that they flavorfully represent the contents are known, and specific and distinct from each other so that players can accurately reference them when speaking with each other in open forums.

The final question after all of this is whether the community finds these tools as valuable as I do; after all, this entire article series began because my own personal read on what a game’s greater community liked and disliked didn’t line up with the actual likes and dislikes of that community.


Poll in the official Gloomhaven Board Game Facebook group, February 1, 2018

Facebook polling has proven relatively useful for me in this regard. The sample size I was able to gather within the official Gloomhaven Board Game Facebook group was smaller than the ones I’ve been able to put together in Magic: The Seatlling, but it was informative none the less. 62% of respondents there reported having used community-made tools when playing Gloomhaven. One group member gave recommendations on the apps and sites he’s found to be most helpful — John Tonkin’s Arcane Library is just one website that frequently comes up in community discussions of useful sites to have bookmarked.

BoardGameGeek.com also keeps statistics on the number of times files posted to the site are downloaded. This makes it even easier to evaluate how often community members see a need for a supplemental accessory or aide created by another community member. While the raw numbers don’t speak to whether the file was used or not or how the user might rate the usefulness of the file they’ve downloaded, they do tell us how often a community member felt they had a need for or interest in it.

Among the most downloaded file types are the flowcharts and the interactive/hidden scenario viewers (both PDF and app formats). Tds_gaming’s interactive campaign PDFs are broken into 13 different files to account for BGG upload limitations; the file for campaigns 1 through 10 has been dowloaded from the site more than 1,400 times. The most recent version of Eric Nillson’s flowcharts has seen almost 2,000 downloads to date. Roy Goncalves’s Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer has had over 5,000 downloads just on the Android platform alone; I wasn’t able to find publicly available numbers for his iOS downloads.

Gloomhaven has roughly 21,000 “registered” owners on BoardGameGeek.com — and this doesn’t include those who own the game but haven’t tracked their ownership on the site or don’t have an active BGG account. It would be easy to look at the numbers put up by Eric Nillson and tds_gaming and assume that when 10% of registered owners or fewer are downloading a file, the demand is not high. There are over 150 different files available for Gloomhaven just on BGG though, and several popular websites that have features that help players track game states and effects; using only a small sampling of the various community-built tools to assess the larger picture underrepresents the overall supply and demand for these tools.

(Which is to say that, in all honesty, I have no quantitative way of reporting how frequently players rely on these kinds of accessories and aides, but I haven’t seen any evidence that the community would rather “commando” their way through the game without them.)

Even if the larger community wasn’t finding the tools other community members were offering to be useful, all of the takeaways I’ve outlined are still valuable to me. The community has found ways of explaining and distilling complex game content that will continue to inform my own design philosophy and methods.

The community looked around saw holes where things they wanted and/or needed would fit, and they made those things. I continue to learn how to watch the community so that I can improve the things I’ll make for them down the line.


Special thanks to DM Apprentice on WordPress, and Bill Norris, Erik Nilsson, Gekey, tds_gaming, and Roy Goncalves on BoardGameGeek.com. Thanks also to Isaac Childres and Josh McDowell for the game and information design and illustrations that went into Gloomhaven and the digital asset kit.

Link to DM Apprentice’s image: https://dmapprentice.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/gloomhaven-kickstarter-unboxing/comment-page-1/#comment-89

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Filed under Adventure Games, Board Games, Community input, Do It Yourself, graphic design, Kickstarter, Strategy Games, Uncategorized

Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 3

Entry Points Onto the Autobahn

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

The Autobahn is the federal highway system in Germany. If you’ve never heard of it before, know one thing about it: it has a reputation for being fast and full of aggressive would-be F1 drivers. Overall, the general, uninitiated perception is that it’s really intimidating for newcomers.


The German Highway system known as the Autobahn. Image from http://www.young-germany.de, used without permission (sorry.)

If you’re looking at getting on the “fastest highway in the world” for the first time*, you may do well to take some advice from a native.

That native is not me. Go talk to these guys.

Many games are the same way. Games with high complexity and depth almost always go hand-in-hand with a high barrier to entry, and the initial view can look a lot like full-speed highway traffic from the shoulder.

If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, it should in no way shock you that I’m now going to talk about Magic: the Gathering — this time specifically about the ways players experience it in their earliest stages of introduction into the Magic “lifestyle”. It’s a game I know well, and while my own entry into the game was back in 1994 (at risk of making it awkward, I’ll admit I’ve loved the game longer than I’ve loved my wife), I’ve seen and helped other players find their way into the game hundreds of times now.

For first-timers, Magic is often a surprisingly social game. The richest aspect isn’t actually the depth of card interactions, it’s the depth of interpersonal interactions. Magic is a game that thrives because of the tight-knit communities that form around it. Ironically, as close as the smaller communities are – often defined by the games/comic stores they meet at — these groups are almost modular or interchangeable in their structures; since the language and “customs” of the game are the same everywhere you go, it typically doesn’t take long for a player to migrate from one store/community to another.


Pro Tour Austin, 2009, and Pro Tour Philadelphia winner Samuele Estratti, 2011. Images from http://www.aintitcoolnews.com and http://www.wizards.com, used without permission

Magic as a brand has recognized this for a long time, but has recently begun to put even more special emphasis on it, shifting some of the “outreach” efforts from promoting large, high threshold things like the Pro Tour and Grand Prix events back to the local shops where people congregate. The Magic brand has seen and encouraged a return back to its grassroots-style person-to-person viral origins.

The large-scale events are still around and thriving — the 2017 World Championship event alone paid out $350,000 in prizes, and prize payouts for the 2017-18 Pro Tour season total $2,600,000 over 8 events. The Magic Pro Tour requires players to qualify for events through a series of qualifiers, limiting the field to a global elite, best-of-the-best pool.

Mid-tier events like the Grand Prix tournament series are open to all Magic players of any skill level, and carry prize payouts in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, as well as Pro Tour invites and points that can be accumulated to qualify for inclusion on the Pro Tour for top finishers. Each Grand Prix is a massive weekend-long convention-like spectacle, with a main event surrounded by dozens of smaller side tournaments. 2018 will see 60 Grands Prix held all over the world. Any one of these can attract well over 1,000 players, there for games, prizes, trading, celebrity appearances, exclusive Grand Prix souvenirs, and more.

The Pro Tour and Grands Prix have spawned side industries like websites that stream tournament coverage with full, professional production crews and commentators. These sites often sponsor teams of pros, and roll that visibility into selling content subscriptions, accessories, and single cards used by players to build better decks with. Magic, even outside of the sphere that Wizards of the Coast inhabits, is a multi-million dollar engine of commerce.

This is the fast lane of Magic. Getting here is certainly doable, but the first-time player can come in facing an overwhelming cacophony if they attempt it without a guide of some kind. One does not generally attend a Grand Prix hoping to learn the game from scratch.


Some of the contents of a typical Prerelease Pack. Image from http://www.wizards.com, used without permission

Pulling onto this Autobahn begins at the first game of Magic someone plays. In all likelihood, it’ll happen at a kitchen table or in one of those aforementioned thousands of shops with small grassroots communities. And with the depth, complexity, and history of Magic, even that can make for an intimidating view. Just learning the game in the first place is an undertaking best done with a living, breathing person there to teach you. Wizards of the Coast has embraced this rite of passage by creating an events schedule aimed at the local scenes, where new players can meet and learn from other more experienced local players. Building upon the weekly “Friday Night Magic” series held at participating shops, players can now jump into the game through novice-friendly events like Open Houses, Prereleases, Draft Weekends, Leagues, and Store Championships.

The tournament scene is in itself a product, carefully designed to create comfort zones for players of all types and draw them more securely into the fold. That’s about the brand though. We’re here to talk about the design of physical products.

When I recently interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast with Mark Globus (as discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this article series), one of the questions he asked me was how I might improve an existing product aimed specifically at new-ish Magic players in the early stages of learning how to build a Standard-format deck. I admitted that I’d never purchased a Deck Builder’s Toolkit, as the product first launched in the spring of 2010 — a full 16 years after I first learned how to play and build decks for Magic — and I never really had a need for one. I’d looked at the product several times at retail though, and was generally familiar with what came in them.


Two editions of the Deck Builder’s Toolkit. Images from http://www.wizards.com, used without permission.

The Deck Builder’s Toolkit (or DBT) has undergone some changes from its first version almost eight years ago, but the overall makeup and purpose are essentially the same. It’s aimed at players who are just beginning to build their own decks, rather than using borrowed or pre-made decks. The goal of the product is to present the player with enough cards to build a deck that can be brought to and played at a typical Friday Night Magic Standard event. While the specific components vary across the editions, all of them contain a pre-selected set of semi-randomized and fixed content comprised of common and uncommon cards, four booster packs from recent sets, a stack of basic lands, a “learn to play” guide, and a storage box. Recent DBTs have scaled back on the amount of random card content and include small “seeded” packs of cards that all fit a specific theme to give users a choice of visible paths to start with.

Beyond this, I didn’t know much about how well the DBT actually jump-started a player’s collection or deck building stock. I asked Mark if I could take a few hours after the interview to refresh myself with the product and send him some written notes on improving it.

With such a short turnaround time, setting up online polls or directly interviewing players at a local shop wasn’t going to be a viable means of research. Google pointed me to several video reviews on YouTube, including some from Tolarian Community College. The Professor’s a pretty watchable guy, and his reviews are consistent and well-balanced. After running through a couple of videos in which he examined the whether buying a DBT was worthwhile (the videos each cover a different edition of the DBT), I had a pretty good idea of what was going on inside the product.

Overall, The Professor’s assessment was that some of the DBTs were worth the $19.99 MSRP when looking at the individual contents (four booster packs purchased individually would cost someone $16). That judgment varied slightly from year to year, as the expected return value of the sets represented by the packs rose and fell based on the secondary single-cards market. When he looked at whether the DBTs provided new players with a viable entry point into learning how to build a deck — evaluation based on effectiveness in its purpose — his findings were less promising. In his estimation, it was very unlikely that the contents of a single DBT could provide a player with anything resembling a competitive deck that would keep pace at a Friday Night Magic event. Further, he noted that by including packs from multiple sets, it meant that at least a quarter of the cards in any given DBT would be obsolete within a very short time, which would almost certainly prove frustrating to new players.

The problems presented seemed to me to be the exact place to start building in improvements to the product. My gut said that by narrowing the range of the cards and packs in the product, players would get a more focused set of thematically and mechanically linked cards and packs. This would mean losing some of the DBT’s ability to reflect the breadth of the current Standard environment, but it would keep more cards relevant within that Standard environment longer. And in fact, after writing my recommendations to Mark later that night, I went back and watched more of The Professor’s reviews. In fact, it turned out that he had drawn some very similar conclusions in his other YouTube reviews.

What I’ve learned recently though is that, much like with movies, the opinions of the reviewers and the opinions of the masses are not necessarily simpatico with one another. Just because The Professor and I were seeing the DBTs along the same wavelength didn’t mean our takeaways matched those of the larger audience. Our opinion came from the perspective of two Magic veterans who weren’t actively in the process of supplying a new player with the tools to construct their first deck. So I turned once again to the community within the Magic: the Seattling Facebook group to see if the “narrow DBT” plan resonated with other players. I was particularly interested in seeing what an experienced player would recommend to a friend whom they were introducing to Magic for the first time.


Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, November 28, 2017

In an effort to minimize any skew that might come from respondents whom had preconceived opinions on the DBTs, I shifted the context by looking almost solely at the makeup of the booster packs. In retrospect, I realize that my posed scenario used six packs rather than four, but I have no reason to believe this error had any significant impact on the poll results.

When faced with setting up a friend with the cards needed to build a deck for Standard format events, 86% of experienced Magic players felt that a new player was better served with the more thematically and mechanically concentrated card pool.

Several of those who responded in the comments noted that they’d prefer to simply hand their friend a deck that they’d built themselves, but I felt that this circumvented the actual question at hand. My goal was not to find out the best way to teach someone to play a proven competitive deck, or to find out what that ideal pre-built deck was. This stage of the research was purely about optimizing the tools to allow a new player to learn the process of evaluating cards for decks and building those decks. The answer seemed clear; the community agreed with the evaluation that The Professor and I had come to.

As I saw the results come in, I realized that a DBT built from just a single set began to bear a strong resemblance to a supplemental product that already had strong traction in Magic’s larger community: The Bundle Box (formerly known and now frequently mis-referenced as the Fat Pack) is a product aimed at more enfranchised players.


The original Mercadian Masques Fat Pack, 1999

In the 18 years since they were first launched, Bundle Boxes have undergone numerous configuration changes to get to what we currently know them as. In 1999, when the first Fat Pack was released to coincide with the Mercadian Masques set, the product included three booster packs, a tournament pack (a 75-card box of rates, uncommon, commons, and basic lands typically used for certain tournament formats), a randomly selected foil basic land and a randomly selected foil common card, a visual guide to the set, and a paperback novel. Over time, notable changes included the discontinuation of the novels and tournament packs, the addition of a spindown life counter (see Reading the Room: Part 2), an increase in the number of booster packs, and the inclusion of a storage box capable of holding a few hundred cards.


Ixalan Bundle components, 2017

The current configuration has become particularly streamlined: ten booster packs, an assortment of basic lands and token cards, one spin down life counter, a visual guide, a one-sheet “how to play” guide (common to all Magic supplemental products), and a storage box. There is also a smaller box that purports to be for holding dice, since it’s too small to hold actual cards. The smaller box is often maligned in reviews as less than useful, though I suspect the true purpose of the dice box has more to do with simply making the Bundle look larger on a retail shelf than with any kind of usefulness as a game accessory. All in all, while a Bundle box offers a fine return-for-MSRP value, they’re not particularly exciting in their array of components.

Ironically, there is another product in the Magic line that is effectively no more than a smaller Bundle, but that generates a ton of excitement for both new and veteran players: the Prerelease Pack (a picture of which can be seen earlier in this article). Prerelease Packs are available only at specific events, but apart from a premium foil rare or mythic rare card with the event’s date stamped on it, typically have very little exclusive content that players will want to hold onto after the event. Otherwise, the Prerelease Pack amounts to a six-booster Bundle rather than a 10-booster one. In the past, Prerelease Packs for some events included packs from two or more associated sets and/or special seeded packs that allowed for a higher concentration of cards that showcased the set’s themes. Barring any seeded content though, future Prerelease Packs for the new “single-set block” structure will have little reason to be much more than 60% of a Bundle.

Compared to the DBTs, Bundles somehow manage to promise less than and still likely deliver more of what a DBT promises. The simple concentration of card themes and strategies makes virtually any deck built from a Bundle’s pool more streamlined and potentially competitive than a deck built from a DBT. On top of this, a higher percentage of the cards acquired in a Bundle will remain playable in the associated Standard format longer than would in any in a DBT.


Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, January 4, 2018

My polling has shown me that more than 80% of new players learn from another human being rather than through their own reading of printed materials or video game tutorials. With either product, a new player will still get more mileage from sitting down with a friend who can teach them deck building basics in a one-to-one setting than they would from simply buying the product off the shelf and reading from an impersonal guidebook/sheet. This means that, given a friend with any Magic experience to learn from, the Bundle is almost ALWAYS going to be a better value to the new player learning to build their first deck.

This doesn’t mean that the Bundle is any more apparent in what it offers a new player or the quantifiable value it provides over a DBT. The DBT talks a good game, while the Bundle more or less says “here’s a bunch of packs and a spindown”. The former sounds more instructive and function-driven, while the latter sounds flat and unremarkable. The difference comes down to external messaging.

I believe that the two products could be merged into one and, with a few new features, be as attractive to — and functional for — both audiences at the same time. This is, as Magic Head Designer refers to the principle, Lenticular Design; one thing that has two different apparent purposes when viewed from two different perspectives, but that provides significant value to both. It is the ideal vehicle for both the inexperienced driver looking at the Autobahn from the merging lane as well as the fearless one doing 200 kph in the left lane.

There is no official special term for the moment when a Planeswalker (a mythical wizard-type character who can travel from one Magic world to another) actually arrives on a plane (one of those worlds).

I had this conversation with Gavin Verhey, a Senior Product Designer at Wizards of the Coast a few weeks back. What is it called when a Planeswalker gets to where they’re going? Airplanes and birds land. Cars and trains arrive. Boats dock or run aground. Planeswalkers “walk” between planes in the multiverse, and it could be easily be settled upon that they “arrive at” or “walk to” Ravnica, Zendikar, Ixalan, or any of the other planes that they may be visiting. Still, there’s no special or exciting term for that exact moment when their feet (or whatever they have) touch the matter of a new world. Gavin was as stumped by the question as I was.

That moment is a fairly significant one with different meanings for different people. As players, we each have a first experience with Magic, and it’s the biggest introduction point into the game we’ll ever have. Veteran players still experience fresh arrival points whenever a new set is released. To have a word that specifically references that experience through the eyes of a Planeswalker would be pretty handy.

It would also be a perfect name for a product meant to introduce players to a new game and/or a new setting, depending on their experience level.

For now, we’ll go with The Planeswalker Arrival Kit. It implies an entry point into the game to those new to it, while also referring to something veteran players expect Planeswalkers to do all the time.

I’ll take a second here to revisit the purpose of this article series: I’m retraining myself to look closer at how people use (or don’t use) the products available to them. It’s easy for me to explain why I like or dislike something, but when it comes to understanding someone else’s preferences, it’s easy for me to forget that there’s an underlying “why” in that preference. When I say I like “A” and you say you like “A” and the conversation goes no further, I only have partial information. It’s likely that my confirmation bias will kick in, and I’ll assume you like “A” for the same reason that I like it. This isn’t necessarily true, and recently it’s been the case that my personal preferences take some really random routes to reach the same places other peoples’ do.


Brad Pitt is totally into product design.

That is to say, if I wanted to build a better DBT, or a better Bundle, or something that hybridised the two, I had to be sure the stuff I put in the box wasn’t just stuff I’d want in the box. Since half of the potential product I was thinking about comes from something I’d never used (or had an immediate need for), I had to get a better understanding of how other players felt about each component of the DBT. Since the Bundles have been gradually stripped down to the barest of essentials, getting breakdown data on those was less pressing; there’s very little fat on that particular steak. If there was something that players outright hated about the Bundles, it would most likely show up alongside the data I wanted to mine regarding the DBTs. Somewhere in the data was, hopefully, an ideal and exciting product that served a wider audience than either the DBT or Bundle does on their own.

Now, before we get into the nuts-and-bolts of this, please bear in mind that I’m no marketing guy. I know that specific price points and the surface area of a product’s shelf facing have an impact on the way the product is viewed by various consumer bases. I have no idea what those ideal price points or surface areas are. I make games, and I’m good at figuring out how to optimize the play experience of those games within a pre-established budget. Any product proposal that follows in this article comes purely from my ability to ask questions, apply some pretty rudimentary analysis of data, and make logical assumptions as to which components make others necessary or obsolete.

After my initial poll on Magic: The Settling regarding the mix of packs that a new player should be presented with, I decided to get a little more granular in what they felt a new player really needed in order to get going. I proposed a list of potential components that they might put into a kit for newcomers, along with typical or estimated MSRPs on those components, and asked what they’d give a friend new to the game. If the popular components were ones that veteran players also had frequent use for, the odds of making a viable Planeswalker Arrival Kit that met the needs and interests of both player subsets would go up.


Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, December 21, 2017

Based on aggregated component costs (estimated based on other products and MSRPs) over selections made by at least 83 respondents, I was able to see that the average price a player would pay to offer a friend a “startup” kit topped out around $22.90. Since the MSRP for the Ixalan DBT is $19.99, the price point arrived at through the polling wasn’t too far off the mark. The price was right, but the components needed some adjustments.

The top component selections actually bear a strong resemblance to the DBTs. However, prior polling indicated that veterans preferred to give friends a more concentrated pool of cards, and the popularity of the Fat Packs/Bundles, leads me to say that the overall product built upon this data would get more traction among both new and veteran players with a single set mix than with a multi-set “Standard” mix. I believe that by tying the hypothetical Planeswalker Arrival Kit to only one set at a time and including features that players can only get in the PAK, Wizards could have a product that would not only be giftable to new players, but would have quarterly relevance to enfranchised players looking to buy a “kit” product for themselves.

Several people who commented on the poll said they’d like to see basic introductory decks included in the product. Some recommended what amounts to an “after-market” pre-made deck product sold by local and online game stores made from cast-off common and uncommon cards, like the Card Kingdom Battle DecksWelcome Decks (free decks given away by Wizards of the Coast as training tools or at open events) are an existing Magic product that would easily fill this role. These would allow for newer players to either play the Welcome Deck right from the box, or to modify and tune it with other cards from the included Booster Packs. Veteran players may not see the same value in such a feature, but with a few notable alternate art cards and mid-tier rare cards included in the deck, this could still have appeal for them.

Within the poll, the closest analog to a Welcome Deck is the pre-assorted mix of 120 Standard format cards. If the Welcome Deck-style feature were substituted into the build-out of the PAK in place of the 120 cards, the estimated price point could stay about the same, if not drop slightly. Alternately, the PAK could include five 30-card mini-Welcome Decks designed to be shuffled, two decks at a time, into ten possible two-color decks with a slight increase in cost.

A Welcome Pack–style component would also be a way to pack additional basic land cards — a piece that those polled felt were a critical supply for new players — into the PAK. If the cards in the pre-built decks included roughly 60 basic lands, the remainder of the 100 basic lands requested could include more alternate art or full art, providing a little more novelty and exclusive content in the product.

There are several other possible components I’ve thought of since posting the poll that I’d be interested in putting into a PAK. The most significant of these would be a sign-up form for a DCI number. This low-cost feature would provide new players with a nudge to attend officially sanctioned Magic events and reinforce how easy it is to become part of the “card carrying” Magic community.

So here is my proposal for a new DBT/Bundle hybrid product, with an MSRP coming in around the $30 mark. I offer you the Planeswalker Arrival Kit:

  • 1 Card Storage Box
  • 1  Plastic Deck Box with key art from the associated set (example)
  • 1 Spindown Life Counter with set expansion symbol
  • 5 30-Card Mini-Welcome Decks built from the associated set
  • 6 Booster Packs of the associated set
  • 1 “How to Play” foldout insert
  • 1 “Deckbuilding Tips” foldout insert
  • 40 Full/Alternate Art Basic Lands
  • 1 DCI Membership Sign-up Card

If response to the price point proved too high for new players, I’d recommend dropping two of the booster packs and cutting the number of full/alternate art lands down to 20; this would push the MSRP to or below $25. The overall appeal to veteran players may drop when fewer packs are included, but part of the goal with the PAK is to improve upon the very dry build of the current Bundles with something that carries a wider variety of exciting product-exclusive features still attractive to veterans.

The challenge I gave myself was to retool one or more products into something that better serves the stated purpose — providing a new player what they need to really get started in Magic — and, if possible, still holds appeal for enfranchised players. I may never actually know if the Planeswalker Arrival Kit would do that job as intended, but once I started figuring out what it would look like, I had to see where that road would go.

On-ramp and travel lane.




* While I can’t personally speak to how scary the first approach onto an on-ramp on the Autobahn may be, I can say that if you need a more domestic thrill-ride, try US Route 6 on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There are literally entry “ramps” that are no more than a T-intersection with a stop sign between a residential neighborhood and the 60 MPH highway.

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Filed under Card Games, consumer research, Product design, redesigns, Uncategorized

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.


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. 


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.


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.


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 accessible. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367. Citation reprinted from Wikipedia Commons.


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

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.


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.


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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Filed under Do It Yourself, prototyping, Uncategorized

Ludum Videtur!

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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