Tag Archives: game design

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


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

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

These are the shelves in my office.

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

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

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


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

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Banned Words, 2017, Wonder Forge

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safeword_Cards_160922-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludum Videtur!


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

HPHB

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (2016, USAopoly)

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

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

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

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

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

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Typical board game aisle at Walmart

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

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

It needed a board.

And dice.

And movers.

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

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

co-op_deckbuilder

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

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

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

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


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The House Dice from Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle


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

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

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


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

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

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

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Color-coded player boards, starting decks, and tokens

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

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

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Early prototype cards for the collaborative deck building game

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thank you to all of you!

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

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

The Mods


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

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

-From Dictionary.com

Reasons for graphical board/card game mods:

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

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

Mod #1: Graphic Restyling and Retheming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original Vinci board, published by Descartes Editeur.

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

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

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

Mod #2: 3-D Customization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mod #3: Improved Playability

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

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

The offending Medici board, published by Rio Grande Games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friedrich Nietzsche and What Looks Like a Game


My sister Melissa emailed me the other day to tell me that she and her colleagues in the Sociology department at the University of Notre Dame (she’s working on her Doctorate there) were looking at a stack of trading cards with pictures of famous thinkers on them. I guess one of them had bought them during their grad studies, and now the department was getting a good chuckle comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the various social theorists. Melissa mentioned it was too bad there was no set of rules to play with the cards as a game, “like have them have points or whatever so I could pit my Pierre Bourdieu against your Michele Foucault”.

This got me thinking. I scanned Wikipedia, and in about 15 minutes time, I produced this:

Custom-made Friedrich Nietzsche card. Not from a real game.

I posted it back to Melissa’s Facebook page with a couple of goofy one liners (“in the online version, the card text actually says ‘God is pwned’’, “once he evolves his PokéSkills, he can filter krill like a whale”), hoping that that would be enough to tip her off that this was not a real card from a real game. By all logic, I’d have guessed that she, knowing I am both a graphic designer with the capabilities of producing such an image as well as a gamer geek with a warped sense of humor, would immediately put greater odds on the possibility that I’d just made this on the spur of the moment for her amusement.

She didn’t. Her next post back to me was, “Where did you find this?”. In fairness, she did quickly realize that there was a good chance it was a fake, and then asked if I’d made it.

We then chatted about the possibility of a game that would use a card like this, and I suggested that what we were looking at was a game in which social theorists banded together to form a Barnum-style traveling circus where they competed to one-up each other through daring feats of physical (and metaphysical) and intestinal fortitude.

What I really find interesting in all of this though is the notion that if it looks like a game, there must be a game. Melissa knows enough of the non-standard board game world (by which I mean the games you won’t find in WalMart or Toys ‘R’ Us) that she doesn’t balk at the thought that someone, somewhere has made a game like this. I haven’t gone looking for it, but even I would guess that some twisted goof out there has devised a game that features these sorts of (occasionally questionable) geniuses of social theory as the primary characters. In this case, the suggestion of evidence of that game – my fake Nietzsche card – not only convinced someone, however briefly, that the game existed, it started a line of thinking that could ultimately bring that game into a real existence. So what about the gag gave it this much credibility?

Call me self-serving, but I believe it’s in the plausibility of the card’s visual design. The card bears a resemblance in its layout to other popular trading card games. It features a real illustration of the title character – borrowed from Wikipedia. it has three arbitrary number values on it’s face, arranged to appear to have some greater meaning in the context of a game. These alone suggest that it’s a game, but may not be enough to convince the audience that it’s a “real” game. I think that what puts this image over the threshold of plausibility is the subtler details of the card – the big-top radial burst in the background, the color toning, the drop shadows, gradients and lighting elements. As a designer, these visual elements are second-nature to me; in the right context, they’re what move a piece from rough concept to polished, finished work. Where I saw a few quick “tricks” to make the card look more aesthetically pleasing, even when it wasn’t necessary, my sister saw the fingerprints of an actual “studio-produced” game.

It may seem to be completely backwards; that a game should start with a concept and mechanics and gain aesthetics through it’s evolutionary development process. In this case, the theoretical game came from first an unlikely visual presentation that simply put strengths and weaknesses on pictures of people. This led to the question, “Why isn’t this a game?”, then to a joking mock-up of a piece of a game that never was. Ultimately, there’s now enough of a base to build the real thing from these ideas.

To a gamer, the more it looks like a game, the more likely it actually is a game — even when it’s not.

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Filed under Card Games, graphic design, Social Theorists