Sunday, December 28, 2014

Designing My First Game - Part 2

Alright then...back in Part 1 of this series of blogs, I described my motivations and interests in getting into the game design process.  Now what I want to do is retrace the specific design process, including various decisions I've made along the way. 

So...let me start giving a brief overview of the game.  Santa's Workshop is a worker placement style game, where your "workers" are a team of elves.  The elves can be placed in various locations around the workshop, and earn points primarily by crafting and assembling toys, but also by turning in coal for the naughty kids, and taking care of the reindeer. 

The first gift cards. Complicated with various colored letters & borders.
Gifts are built out of primarily 3 different resources - Fabric, Wood and Metal - each with a separate room to collect the material.  In the original incarnation of the game, players placed their elves in the material room and rolled a die for that material.  The game was designed so that fabric was the easiest resource to gather, wood a bit harder, and metal the hardest of them all.  This was reflected in how the scoring was calculated as well - in the formula I originally used, fabric was worth 2 pts, wood 3, and metal 4 points.  However, you can replace some of the materials with plastic (worth only 1 point), to more quickly build gifts.  The concept of being able to replace some materials with plastic was a key element from the beginning of the game.  I "borrowed" that a bit from the game Colosseum, in which you can put on Roman shows, but can accept a lower score for using less "resources" (in this case, gladiators, chariots, actors, etc.)  I wanted the player to have to make a decision on whether to try and churn through gifts rapidly or try and score as much per gift as possible.  Also, in the original versions of the game, there were completely optional components...for example, the player could choose to put metal on the electric train (for extra track).  So, not only was there components that could be replaced by plastic...but components that you could not build altogether.

In addition to the materials, when players had all the pieces of their gift, they had to go to the assembly room and roll another die to see how many assembly points they would get.  Larger gifts required more assembly points.  Originally, the assembly room was the only room on the board that a player could place multiple elves in one action.

The original tableaus - just for elf training.
Another key aspect of the game from the very beginning was the ability to train the individual elves.  This meant that over the course of the game, the individual elves would become unique as they trained in fabric, wood, metal and assembly - and so the elves were numbered.  It took an action to train an elf, so again the player is left with the choice of whether to use his actions to train or to just keep plowing ahead by gathering resources.

The reindeer stable was an outlet for the player to get points by different means.  Originally, it was just a scoring track, and every time you sent an elf to the stable, your marker would move up that track, which was added to your overall score at the end of the game.  The first player to the reindeer stable could also claim the first player token.

Stable in V2.0.  Diminishing returns as it was used
Lastly, was the coal mine.  In my original vision of Santa's Workshop, I envisioned the players trying to create finish their gifts, as they wreaked havoc with other players.  One issue with some euro games, is that it often feels like multi-player solitaire.  I wanted to have plenty of player interaction.  My inspiration here was the game Wiz-War.  So, at the "coal mine", I had a separate deck of cards.  Every time the player went to the coal mine, they could draw cards, and turn them in for coal points (i.e. supplying Santa for the naughty kids) or use the "spell" printed on that card.  Better spells were worth more coal points if turned in.  I had spells that would help you, mess with the other player, and even "shields" and "mirrors" that could block and/or redirect spells that were targeting you.

That first playtest down in Blacksburg went well.  It was a 3 player game, with myself, my wife and my friend Tom.  I certainly learned some lessons about how to phrase rules, and some text on the coal cards that didn't make sense.  And my wife and I brainstormed a lot on the ride back.  But by and large, it played pretty well for the first time.

The coal cards.  Lots of complex symbols on what could be blocked or "reflected".
My next playtest was over Thanksgiving with my family.  One thing I noticed was that the plastic option was not being used.  In one of the earliest "why didn't I think of that before", I added in the concept of "Santa's Inspection" - at the end of each 3 rounds, the player that had completed the most gifts in the preceding rounds would get a 12 point bonus.  That made it more worthwhile to complete gifts quickly.  I also tied in the reindeer stable to these days, and the reindeer points would be scored at this point as well.  Note that the first few locations on the reindeer track were negative, indicating Santa's unhappiness if you were ignoring the reindeer.

I playtested it with my regular Tuesday night gaming group, and got more positive feedback.  One woman, Tracy, who is normally pretty quiet and reserved, later wrote me a very nice email telling me how much she liked the game and that she would definitely buy a copy.  I was very flattered.

So here I was, barely 3 months into my first foray in game design, and I'm thinking I have a huge hit on my hands.  And then I went to Unpub 4, where a dose of realism set in.  More on that in the next installment....

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Designing My First Game - Part 1

Well, first things first...I have not abandoned this blog.  I'm not sure I ever had a lot of readers, mostly some family and friends, but that's ok...and sometimes life just gets in the way.  Between work, and kids activities and vacations and actually doing fun things like playing games...sitting down and blogging tends to keep getting pushed to the back burner.

But I want to reinvigorate the blog with something I've been meaning to write about for quite some time.  I want to talk about what it's like to be a first time game designer, and what I've gone through and the lessons I've learned as I've attempted this endeavor.  This will likely take me a few parts to get through things...and will also be a continuing topic, as I'm still in the midst of designing my first game!  So, here we go...

So mysterious
The first thing I want to do is give some background as to my relationship with gaming.  I can remember enjoying boardgames even as a young child.  I remember begging my parents to play Candyland (yeah, I know...that was revisited upon me when my own kids went through the Candyland phase...).  I also recall Sorry being a favorite of mine.  (Wow...Sorry was first published in 1929...I had no idea!).  Mastermind was another one that I recall spending plenty of time with - I always wondered what the story was with the man in a suit and the Asian woman standing behind him.  Boggle and Yahtzee were perennial favorites at our annual Memorial Day camping trip.

Oh yeah...I had the red box!
About the time I was maybe 12 years old, my friends and I discovered Dungeons and Dragons.  That dominated our gaming for years, although we did play some more "advanced" board games like Risk, and then Axis & Allies, and my friend Tom even got his hands on a copy of the old Avalon Hill Civilization.  In college, I continued role playing, with D&D we moved to the Ravenloft campaign, and from there into Vampire:The Masquerade.  We even ran a Star Wars campaign or two. 

Wait..what kind game is this?!
After college, my gaming tapered off for a while as I sort of did the "normal" things that single guys in their 20's did.  But a couple of colleagues from work - Grant Greffey and Paul Owen - drew me back into the world of gaming.  I think at my first "game night" at Grant's house, we played China, followed by Puerto RicoPuerto Rico, specifically, just blew my mind.  After that, I would game every so often with these guys, and they would introduce me to more and more games - some miniatures games as well.  At one point, they were discussing a convention that they attended - Prezcon.  My friend Brian and I decided to take the plunge and find out what this gaming convention was all about.  We had an absolute blast - got crushed when we sat down and played Britannia, but the whole event was great, and we've been going back every year since. 

I think it was my 2nd year at Prezcon, and Paul O. surprised us - or at least me - with the fact that he brought a prototype he had designed to pitch to some of the publishers that had booths at Prezcon.  Defying most advice I've heard since, he was successful by just walking up "cold" at the convention and pitching his game.  Trains Planes and Automobiles was picked up by Blue Square Games (a subsidiary of Worthington Games).  After Paul had his game published, he was tending to meet other game designers and publishers at conventions - often at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA.  As a consequence of hanging out with Paul at the Cons, I also met many of these people, and started to get a peek into the inner workings of boardgame design.  And that, I think, is what caused me to get the bug to design my own game.  I was caught up in the creativity and exchange of ideas that I was witnessing amongst these various designers.

So, finally, that brings me to the point where I had decided I wanted to try my hand at this whole game design business.  Where to begin?  Well, I decided that the best thing to do would probably be to emulate Paul a little bit - make a game that was family friendly, and not overly complex.  The fact that I have 2 younger kids also played into this.  I can't pinpoint exactly when or what triggered my idea for the theme...but at some point I hit upon the idea of "Santa's Workshop", where players would control teams of elves building gifts for gifts.  In the debate of starting with theme vs. mechanics, I'm pretty sure I fall squarely on the side of theme first.  Now, once I had the theme, I knew it was going to be a worker placement game of some sort.  That's probably my favorite game mechanic, and it just seemed to fit with the idea of controlling a bunch of elves in their flurry of activity around Santa's workshop.

So...I had a basic idea for theme, and roughly an idea of the main mechanic - worker (elf) placement to collect materials and build gifts.  This was probably early 2013 or so.  I spent a lot of time just "percolating" on the idea in the back of my head.  At one point I started a Word document where I just entered a bunch of ideas for the game.  I think I even described the game to a few folks, including Paul to see what they thought of the idea.  But...and I think this is probably the biggest initial hurdle for a new game design - especially if it's your first design - I hadn't actually made a prototype. 

The first prototype...I didn't even use card stock! *gasp*
What actually kicked me in the pants to finally make a prototype is that I wanted to attend Unpub 4, and I needed to have an actual game to do that!  As it turns, out, looking back over old blog posts, I already did a rather thorough post on the motivation for making a game, making that first prototype, and the initial playtest I had.  I'll refer you there for some more detailed info.  What I really want to get across here, though, is sitting down and making that very first prototype is a huge hurdle to clear.  It's one thing to have it all sketched out in your head, or even on scrap paper, but sitting down and trying to make something that actually resembles a board game is, I think, that moment when you're committing yourself.  Then you really have to figure out how you're going to lay things out, what you're going to use for components (if you're like me, you have plenty of games to "borrow" from, initially), and things like what computer program(s) you're going to use.  It's all a bit daunting, but once you've done it, I really think that gets the ball rolling on the meat of the design process. old nemesis friend...
In my case, I just went with what I knew.  I used Microsoft PowerPoint for almost all the "paper" components - the board and the cards.  PowerPoint works well for cards, I think...I can fit 8 standard sized cards per PowerPoint slide.  Here's a tip for cards, by the way, which I didn't really figure out until...oh...about 8 months after the fact.  I have a bunch of "slides" with the faces of all the different cards.  There's one slide with the back of the cards.  I'll print the faces, take the paper, put it back in the printer upside down, and then print the back side, however many times I need.  That's all well and good...what I had been doing is delineating the cards on each slide with black "horizontal", and 5 "vertical"...those would the lines where you cut after the sheets were printed out.  I had the "cut lines" on both on the face sheets, and the back.  Since, inevitably the two sides won't line up perfectly...there was always a little bit of a black line one side or the other.  It *finally* occurred to me that I don't need the cut lines on both sides!  <HeadDesk>  In any case...PowerPoint works less well for the board, as you have to try and line things up across slides.  It's a bit of a pain.  I know a lot of folks use Photoshop or the like...I haven't really settled on anything different.  Since I started Santa's Workshop in PowerPoint, that's what I'm still using.

Alright, I think that's enough for this post.  I didn't really get into any of the specifics for Santa's Workshop yet, I'll start hitting on that in the next installment.  I want to cover what my original vision was for the game, how those initial playtests went, and the various changes I've made (and un-made) in the last year since I first got it to the table.  Please stay tuned...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Top 20 Boardgames

Once again, I'm going to take inspiration from my friend Paul Owen - who listed his Top 20 games as part of the Dice Tower's "People's Choice Top 100" initiative.  As you might suspect, this was a tough exercise, and I'm left with the nagging feeling that I've left off something obvious.  At the bottom of the list I'll talk about a few games that didn't make the list, and a few that I think will probably be on there in the next year.  My list isn't in any particular order (it's hard enough to come up with the Top 20, let alone rank them!)  However, I'll start with a game that's been a favorite of mine for a few years now...

Can you hear the war drums?
1)  Conquest of Paradise - When I first played this at Prezcon 5 years ago, the theme immediately grabbed me.  There are a million games about medieval Europe, or "trading in the Mediterranean", or WWII - how many are there about the Polynesian expansion across the South Pacific.  Well, to my knowledge, exactly one.  There is a large luck element to the game based on tile drawing...which normally would drive me nuts, but it fits the theme so perfectly here that it works great.  I'm looking forward to the deluxe reprint coming from GMT games.  

2) Axis & Allies - A mainstay of my youth, this is a game I still love.  It doesn't get to the table much anymore, but I would love to pull it out soon.  I've linked to the original here, but I'd love to play the giant combined game of the newest Europe and Pacific versions. 

3) Ticket to Ride - The classic gateway game, great to teach to non-gamers, and interesting for veteran players alike.  I always look forward to a new map, and am eager to break in my copy of the Anniversary Edition.

4) Stone Age - This is a great example of the worker placement genre.  If it's not a gateway game, it's the next step up, and this is another I've introduced to many non-gamer.

5) Power Grid - In my opinion, this is one of the absolute best games to be found.  Great player
interaction via the bidding mechanic, and a fantastic market mechanic, which drives other decisions in the game, such as playing for turn order.  I keep buying all the new maps...haven't played them all yet, but I keep buying them!

6) Hansa Teutonica - This game is a favorite of my group, and is always a fallback option if we can't decide on something else.  Maybe the best example of direct player interaction in any euro game.

7) Love Letter - My group, like many others has been caught up in the social/hidden role deduction craze.  This was a tough choice for me, because there are a couple of other good ones (see below), but I chose Lover Letter due to it's simplicity...and the fact that I have the Japanese-themed version, which lends itself to terrible accents when we play.

Alright, who's got the builder lord?!?!
8) Lords of Waterdeep - Perhaps the best entry-level worker placement game on the market.  Once you get over the slight hesitation from non-gamers on the D&D theme, it always goes over great.  Replacing those cubes with "DnDeeples" is nearly a must, though.  Also, the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion provides deeper gameplay for experienced gamers.

9) Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery - A smash hit from Gale Force 9!  The combat is very simplified, but the game shines as a social backstabbing experience.  I won't forget one of our first games when Paul asked me to lend him influence for a scheme, and I declined.  He immediately followed with "How about you loan me that influence or else I'll direct this scheme against you!"  Wait-what?!?!

10) 7 Wonders - Great game with it's card drafting mechanic.  The first run-through with non-gamers can be confusing, but they soon get the hang of it.  Also a good pick for a larger group, as it holds up to 7 players.

It was a good death.  A tactical death.
11) Caylus - Another worker placement, but decidedly NOT for beginning gamers.  With the house-building mechanic that inspired Lords of Waterdeep, Caylus can be decidedly more cutthroat. 

12) Village - Another worker placement game, with the novel idea that your meeples grow old and die - where there deeds land them, in the Book of Record, or the unmarked graves, determines who wins and loses.

13) VivaJava:The Coffee Game - This game about making the best coffee blend has several fantastic elements.  First, it can hold up to 8's very rare to have a game that can hold that many and still play relatively quickly.  But the main thing I enjoy about this game is the semi-cooperative aspect, while still being a competitive game. 

I can hear the Imperial March
14) X-Wing Miniatures Game - I'm a child of the '70s, I grew up with Star Wars posters on my wall, and collected all the Kenner action figures.  This is a no-brainer for me, for nostalgia's sake.  But, beyond that, it's a great game.  Pre-painted ships (and good pre-paint at that), relatively simple rules - this is a winner.  It just needs to get to the table more often.  I haven't used many of the ships I've bought.  Yet I still keep buying them.

15) The New Science - I love the theme in this game, and mechanism where you publish for points...but allow your opponents to then build off your work, is fantastic.

16) Lost Cities: The Board Game - This is probably my shakiest entry on the list.  I felt I needed a 2-player, and was going to the list the original Lost Cities, but this board game version expands the same mechanic to 4 players, while also being good for 2 players.  Still...I can see this being knocked off fairly easily.

17) Founding Fathers - A "euro" game about the drafting of the United State constitution.  What's not to love?!  This is my favorite among the "play a card one of several different ways" games - I love the theme, and once again this is an excuse for my group to use terrible accents.

18) Wallenstein/Shogun - These are the same you prefer medieval Germany or medieval Japan?  The cube tower used to resolve battles makes this game, but the basic euro mechanics are solid.  For Wallenstein, I prefer the 2nd edition which incorporates some of the changes introduced in Shogun.

In the Game of Thrones (2nd Edition), you win or you die.
19) Citadels - I've literally had people throw their cards at me after I've assassinated them.  Enough said.

20) Game of Thrones 2nd Edition - Fantastic source material, fantastic "dudes on a map" backstabbing gloriousness.  Winter is coming.

Others in Consideration

So, what didn't end up on the Top 20, that may be a bit of surprise...and what did I seriously consider putting on there, that may be there next year (or next week).

Agricola - I like Agricola quite a bit.  But I still don't know the minor improvement or occupation cards that well.  Also the tight worker placement sometimes breaks the theme for me.  If Paul is plowing his field, why does that stop me from plowing mine?

Puerto Rico - Another absolute classic, which I still enjoy playing.  I feel like this game has a little bit of "you should know exactly what to do based on what happens before you, and if you don't do that, you've screwed up the entire flow of the game" thing going on. 

Memoir '44 - Great game that I learned to enjoy once I got past the "you can only move certain troops if you have the right card" aspect.  Just doesn't make it to the table enough right now.

Pandemic - I wanted to include a cooperative, and my wife and kids love this game.  Truth be told, I've gotten a little burned out on it.  And if I'm going to pick a coop, it's likely to be...

Robinson Crusoe - I've only played a handful of times, and the only reason it's not on the list is because I need to play it more.  But I can tell you that I already think it's the best coop I've ever played - with the different scenarios significantly altering game play, it doesn't have that "sameness" after repeated plays.

Brew Crafters - I'm highly anticipating receiving this game when the kickstarter delivers.  This is my Agricola-killer.  Unless I'm completely wrong, I would expect this in my Top 20 by this time next year.

Russian Railroads - Heavy euro worker placement.  The theme is a bit pasted on, but there's a lot going on here, and I like it!

Panamax - I have all of one play, but I really liked that one play.  Definitely need to get this to the table more before I render a final verdict.  There's some concern about some of the hidden goals being overpowered, but overall I'm really liking what I've seen.

I think that's about it...I could keep listing game after game.  As I sit here, I realize I didn't think about coop w/ trailer like Shadows Over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica.  Aaargh...too many tough choices!  There's only one thing to more games so I have more experience to draw from!

Friday, August 29, 2014

WBC 2014 Recap - Part 2

Well, I'll just pick right up from where Part 1 left off.  After another night of not enough sleep, Saturday morning was upon us.  Saturday is typically "Conquest of Paradise Day" for me, and this was no exception - sort of.  The 4th and final heat was at 9:00 am that morning.  Since Brian had arrived late, this was his 1st chance at CoP.  Due to my victory in Heat 2, I was in the semis, but I always like to play, so I joined in Heat 4 as well.  Randomly drawing Samoa again, I had fortunate tile draws.  The random effects took their toll a little bit, and the Hiva and Raitea players used them against the Tonga player and myself.  The only unfortunate part of the game was that the Tonga player misinterpreted some rules, and got a little perturbed about that, as well as thinking that the rest of the table was picking on him even when he was down.  I don't think that was true, but he had a little bit of a sore spot with the game, and that made things a bit tense.  In the end I pulled out the victory after conquering some of the native inhabited islands to the west.  This got me the #1 seed in the semi-finals.  I had my choice of homelands, so I picked Samoa, which had treated me so well in the tournament.  The semis consisted of 3 4-player games.  The 3 winners and the "best" 2nd place would advance to the finals.  I was a bit chagrined when the gentleman from the previous game was assigned to my table again, but he seemed to have gotten over the earlier game, and had a find attitude this time around.  Brian was assigned to my table, and our 4th was a young lady who's name I don't remember (I wish I hadn't lost my notes).  I thought I had another good game going, with several good island pulls.  The Tonga player and I were clearly in the lead, and Brian tried his best to convince the young woman that they should focus on us, but she was intent on attacking Brian.  That effectively took the two of them out of the game.  I was preparing to attack Tonga, but I waited too long.  By virtue of good island pulls and Arts&Culture cards, he declared victory.  I was 4 or so points behind.  One of the other games had to go to a tie-breaker, so that meant I wouldn't get in the final.  My reign as defending WBC CoP champion had come to an end.

Saturday tends to be full of semi-finals and finals, so getting into new games becomes somewhat of a challenge.  I decided to go to the demo for Concordia, a game which Paul had picked up in the vendor area based on reputation.  While waiting for the demo, we watched a bit of the Memoir '44 mega-Overlord game, which was simulating the entirety of the D-Day landing.  There must have been 16 or so players, presided over by designer Richard Borg.  I had the pleasure of chatting with him for a few minutes - he was very nice, and opined that the mega-Overlord scenario was probably a "bit much", but fun for a convention.

I had some trouble keeping my attention during the Concordia demo...lack of sleep was catching up to me, but I decided to jump in the heat after the demo anyway.  My opponents were all more experienced, but I think the most experienced had played maybe 5 or 6 games.  My big problem is that I really didn't understand how scoring would work - and scoring doesn't happen until the game is over.  Like many euros, you can score for a variety of things.  I just didn't have a coherent plan on what to focus on, but even though I finished 4th, my broad approach didn't land me too far behind the leaders.  I don't know what to think of this game...I didn't love it, but I would be interested in trying it again.

Brian had gotten himself into the Tigris & Euphrates semi-finals, so Paul and I met in open gaming for a few rounds of Confusion:Espionage and Deception in the Cold War.  This is a great 2-player game that doesn't get to the table often enough, where you don't know how your own pieces can move...thus your opponent has to say "yes" or "no" when you attempt to make a move.  The objective is to get the briefcase, and carry it off your opponents edge of the board.  Our first game was quick, with Paul essentially bum rushing the briefcase off my side for the victory.  Our 2nd game was much more "tactical", though Paul still won in the end.

Brian re-emerged, his dreams of glory in Tigris & Euphrates smashed, and then we were joined by Bryan Fischer and John Sizemore of Nevermore Games.  We broke out Thunder Alley, a NASCAR inspired racing game.  In Thunder Alley, you play a team of cars, and you use cards to move either your single card, or the entire row of cars that your car may be linked with.  As you play cards, damage will build up on your cars, eventually forcing a pit stop.  The winner isn't necessarily who finishes first, but who accumulate the most points among his cars for things like leading laps.  I liked the game, but I didn't love it.  It was a bit more fiddly than I hoped for, and there was a certain luck of the cards element.  Someone made the comparison to Formula Motor Racing, and I think that was apt.  I would play it again, but I think Formula D remains my car racing game of choice.

Bryan and John took their leave, and Paul taught us Pergamon, a game about digging for archaeological treasures, and then displaying them in a museum.  By this time, lack of sleep was really catching up to me.  I liked the game well enough, better than Brian did...but would certainly like to try it again when I'm more awake.

Sunday morning we got in a couple more games in open gaming.  Brian Goodman and Dave (gah!, what's Dave's last name) joined us for a game of Mag Blast.  This is a sort of tongue-in-cheek game about battling each other's space fleets.  The unfortunate part is that like Bang!, there is player elimination, and I was eliminated early.  After that, we got in one more 3-player game of Villainous Vikings, and then called it a trip.

So, another WBC in the books.  But what does the future hold?  The big announcement was that starting in 2016, the WBC is moving a little bit west, to Seven Springs Ski resort.  As you might expect with gamers, there is no shortage of opinions on this...many negative, and many positive.  There are some legitimate complaints, and some not so legitimate ("It's no longer an east coast convention!"'s moving an hour or so's still east of Pittsburgh for crying out loud). 

The key for me is that the Lancaster Host is simply a dump at this point.  The management doesn't seem to care about the favorite this year was the sign on a table in the foyer advertising "Sign up now for low 2013 membership rates!"  The food...never great quality...seemed a notch below this year.  And the surrounding area isn't much better.  I've stayed in 3 different hotels now - the "Rodehouse Inn", the Continental across the street, and this year, the Ramada just down the street.  All 3 of them are marginal quality at best.  I'm happy to try out Seven Springs...I think the drive will be a little longer, but an hour more at most.  But to be honest, I have limited time and money for gaming conventions.  Prezcon is a must for me every year, but I'm starting to hear the siren calls of Origins and GenCon.  I would like to experience both of those.  I may have to make a decision in the next year or two on whether to skip WBC or not.    A lot of that may depend on where I am in further development with Santa's Workshop, and a couple other game ideas I have.  We'll see...
One more year...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

WBC 2014 Recap - Part 1

Unfortunately, real life has gotten a little bit in the way the last month or two, so I've not picked my blogging back up at the pace I would like.  However, things are getting back to normal, so I hope to do this a little more regularly.  I did manage to squeeze in time to make the annual pilgrimage to Lancaster, PA for the World Boardgaming Championships from Thurs-Sunday, though.  I took some notes - but have since lost those, and I didn't do a good job with picture-taking this year (I will be glad to see Summer 2014 come to a's been challenging, and I've been off my game).  So, I'm going to do my best to give a brief recap, with some thoughts on WBC in general. 

My friend Paul Owen and I headed up early Thursday morning.  We got there around 10ish, and headed in to the Lancaster Host.  I thought about playing Stone Age, however I decided to play Thurn & Taxis, which I don't get to pay fact my last play was last year at WBC.  I was seated with 3 veterans, and had to ask for a quick rehash of the rules, which they provided.  The game went fairly ended about a turn or two before I was ready and I finished in last place...however it was very close with a 5 or 6 point spread from first to last.  I was pleased with how I fared against 3 players who obviously were much more familiar with the game than I was.  Next up for me was a round of 7 Wonders.  GM Nick Ferris has a great randomizing method to seat people with unique cards he hands out to everyone, calls a row and column and everyone had their table and seat assignment.  My three opponents consisted of 1 fellow who was pretty experienced and 2 other folks who were fairly new to the game.  We played 2 games in an hour, and I finished 3rd in both, for an overall 3rd place.  In both games, I was hampered with lack of certain resources. 

Paul didn't advance either and I tagged along with him to the Lampeter room where he was going to engage in some Wooden Ships & Iron Men.  I took the opportunity to relearn this game, and played against one of the experienced hands in a frigate duel.  As expected my experienced foe got the upper hand, I didn't adjust to the wind very well...but his hot  dice luck didn't help any.  Next up I took part in a heat of Navegador...another game I don't get to play often enough.  I concentrated on building churches, but my lack of investing in any kind of ships in the 2nd half of the game caught up to me in the end.  Still, I finished in 2nd, about 8 or so points behind the winner.  At 9:00 that night I participated in my first heat of Conquest of Paradise, which had been expanded to 4 heats this year.  As at Prezcon, we were playing with the advanced rules and random events.  My game went very quickly...we were done in under an hour.  As Samoa I started last, and my 3 opponents each found 2 or more islands on their first turn.  I only found found one, but I consistently found islands over the next several rounds, and was able to expand my Polynesian empire for a quick and bloodless win (there was no combat in the entire game). 

After that, Paul and I wen to the open gaming area where we found Peter Gousis and his friend Jerry and played a game of Tobago, a clever little game about finding treasure, where the location of the treasures is narrowed down in a sort of logical card progression by the players.  Peter had come to our Unpub Mini and I was glad to catch up with him.  After that we all joined several other players, including T.C. Petty III for some Coup, followed by Panic on Wall Street.  With Coup, we played with the Reformation expansion, where players are assigned to the Catholic or Protestant faction, and can't act against someone in their faction...although you can change someone else's faction.  It adds another twist to an already fun hidden role/deduction game.  We had played Panic on Wall Street last year, and I was kind of "meh" on the game, though as I recall I was very tired at the time.  This time we also started late, but I got into the game more...and manged to eek out a win as a manager by riding the high-risk shares. 

Friday morning came too early (all the mornings seem to come too early at these conventions...)  I briefly toyed with the idea of playing in the Circus Maximus heat, but decided to wait for the vendors to open at 10:00.  I made a beeline to the Stronghold Games booth in order to pick up the Die Fighter expansion for Space Cadets:Dice Duel.  (About a week later I had a package arrive at home...the copy of Die Fighter that I had forgotten I had pre-ordered...DOH).  I picked up a few other things as well - a copy of Caylus Magna Carta (the card game version of Caylus), Freedom:The Underground Railroad, of which I had heard many good things, and game called Quilt Show to use as a gift for a friend that is really into quilting.  I didn't actually sit down for a game until 1:00, when I decided to try my hand at a heat of Ticket to Ride.  I enjoy TTR but I haven't played in a tournament in years because it's so popular, and it tends to conflict with other things.  One player ran away with it at our table - I finished 4th...I might have finished higher but I knew I wasn't winning so went for the Hail Mary on the last turn and drew more tickets...none of them I had complete.  But I did get a set of translucent trains just for playing. 

There was another heat of Conquest of Paradise at 3:00, but instead I decided to help Paul with a demo of East India Company he was giving to a publisher.  Now, I hadn't played EIC in a quite some time, and was eager to see the changes Paul had made.  He had streamlined it by removing the dividend track, taking out the Caribbean, removing the tariffs, and eliminating the option of using wood to build new ships.  The demo went well, I thought, although afterwards, on the drive home in particular, we brainstormed some about the game.  I thought Paul had actually removed too much, and we talked specifically about a way to add the tariffs back in, and possible some changes to how the pirates work.  Now, I will also admit that I had an ulterior motive.  This same publisher had contacted me after our Mini Unpub, specifically about Santa's Workshop.  I had sent him rulebook, but he had contacted me right after we got to WBC to tell me that it wasn't what they were looking for.  Which is fine, I'm happy he looked at it...and did take the opportunity to get his advice for 5 minutes or so after the EIC demo was done.  I specifically wanted to get his feedback on the theme...which had really gotten a negative reaction from a publisher at Unpub back in January.  This particular publisher thought the theme may be a bit of a tough sell, but he didn't think it was necessarily a deal breaker.  So, I was happy to get some feedback.

About this time, Brian made his WBC appearance, and we just decided to hit open gaming.  Paul sat down to re-teach us St. Petersberg, and we were joined by a 4th player...who also wanted to teach the game.  Once we got started, it came back quick enough.  Our 4th player won, but I made a strong showing with a building heavy strategy.  Brian and I hit the vendors for a while, and I picked up a copy of Villainous Vikings.  We had seen a demo of this game last year at WBC when designer Jeremy Stoltzfus had brought his prototype to demo.  Victory Point games had picked it up, and I decided to get a copy, including a promo captain.  Brian and I sat down in open gaming to give a 2-player game a try.  Fortunately, Jeremy was a few tables over teaching some other folk, so we were able to get quick answers to some rules questions.  We had a fun game, but were thinking it would bet better with more than 2 players.  After our game, Paul joined us along with Bill and Laurie from Nomad games.  Brian had purchased a copy of Spurs from them earlier, and we broke it out. Set in the Old West, with just about every trope you can imagine packed into the game, this was probably the purchase of the con.  The best part was watching Paul and Brian "gunfight" by drawing bullets out of their bags.  Brian pulled out the victory, I was a few points behind in 2nd place.  The last game of the night was another round of Villainous Vikings, with Paul joining in for a 3-player game.  Paul ended up running away with the game, but I did think it was better with more players.

Well, I had intended to do one short recap of WBC, but I think it's probably better to break it up into two next up, Saturday & Sunday, plus general thoughts on WBC.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Unpub Mini After-Action report


Well, we had our Unpub Mini at the Game Parlor in Chantilly, VA this past Saturday - and I'm confident in saying it was a smashing success!  In fact, it really exceeded my expectations.  Now that it's over, I can say that I had some trepidation leading up to it.  First, I was nervous about getting enough designers to show up.  Well, we had 5 sign up within the first few days, and I think we had 10 slots filled after a week or two.  In fact, we pulled a Spinal Tap and went to 11 when there was some sort of glitch on the Unpub website that allowed an 11th designer to sign up.  Furthermore, I had a 12th designer, Andre Chautard, contact me a few days prior to see if he could bring his game.  I told him that he should come...I didn't know if he'd get his game out, but it was at least a good networking experience.  Andre did come, and got in a few plays of his game, so it worked out great.
A couple of early designers await the opening...

My next trepidation was our location.  The Game Parlor is the normal haunt for our group, because it's close to many of our offices.  I like the Game Parlor, and I've been going there for 20ish years, but they don't exactly have their finger on the pulse of the gaming industry as much as, for example, Labyrinth Games in D.C.  And Chantilly, while in the D.C. metro area, is a bit out of the way.  But, they do have lots of tables, and room for playing.

Finally, and this was my biggest worry - was getting playtesters.  I feared that the 12 of us would just have to split up and play each others games all day.  I printed flyers, sent emails to several local gaming groups, and tried to spread the word in the Game Parlor itself.  More often than not I was met with a blank stare that read "why are you interrupting my game?!"  However, my fears were unfounded, as we had over 30 folks playing games at our event!  I had 30 on the sign up sheet, but I know there was a few I missed.  Every designer got multiple plays of their game(s) in, as far as I know.  So, huzzah!

Not a bad turnout...this is just about all Unpubbers!

Now, let me talk a little about the designers and their games.  I'll start with the ones I played.

Escape Velocity - Shadowsong Industries

The endless track of Escape Velocity
Escape Velocity is a spaceship racing game by the duo of Alf Shadowsong and Kiva Fecteau.  The game is asymmetric in the sense that the different ships have different abilities and stats.  At the beginning of the game, players have a chance to choose their "sponsor", which will give them additional abilities, depending on how many laps the race lasts.  Movement on the racetrack is achieved by playing cards, and spending points to use different actions on the cards.  The "track" is means of a clever mechanic where the front board is transferred to the rear as racers approach the end.

I like the theme here, and this game has some things definitely going for it.  I like the asymmetric ships, and I like the board swapping mechanic.  I think some of the cards and some of the powers need further refinement and balancing - one card in particular killed me as Alf switched places with me when I was nearly a lap ahead of him - a killer in a 3 lap race.  The person who went first each turn was the person in last place, and it was not always clear to me who that was - you sort of had to look at the board...and at each player's ship tableau to figure that out.  The cards are also very text heavy - which means a lot of reading, particularly when you're dealt your initial hand.  I think if Alf and Kiva can get a little more balance in some of the card effects, and streamline things a bit for quicker play, they'll really be on to something here. 


Knot Dice - Black Oak Games

This is a very interesting dice game by Matthew O'Malley.  The game consists of 36 identical dice, each face having a portion of a Celtic Knot inscribed on it.  One of the great things about this, is that Matthew actually has several games designed using the dice.  There's a speed game, a puzzle game, a co-op game, and a "team" game where you are teaming (sort of) with the players on either side of you.  I sat down with Matthew and had a chance to play each of the iterations except for the "team" game.

The "speed game" (rolling your dice until you have no loose ends - whether it's one knot or several) and the "puzzle game" (where you can pass dice to your neighbor as you try to build a know) are pretty fleshed out games, and need little to no tweaking at this point.  In the co-op game, where we work together to build the highest score possible (scoring a point per die intersection - meaning a 6x6 grid would be the highest) - it was interesting but lacked a bit of tension.  Matthew and I spent the most time talking about this particular variant, and we eventually hit on the idea of being able to limit the amount of dice you could "throw out" of the game.  This was a little bit inspired by the "fuse" mechanism of Hanabi.  We played again, and the game definitely seemed more tense, and enjoyable.  I don't know if that's the final answer, but I think it was a step in the right direction.

I very much look forward to Matthew getting this published, as I think Knot Dice would make the perfect game to carry around and play at dinner, or in between other games or activities.  And for me, I am particularly drawn to the Celtic Knot theme (maybe I should have worn my kilt to the event).

Salvation Road - Michael Kelley

Waiting for Master Blaster to show up....
In this co-op game due to be published by Van Ryder games, players take on the roles of heroes or survivors in a Mad Max-style setting.  They must escape their fast deteriorating compound, and drive their truck to the town of "Salvation".  Players send their characters out to search locations of food, fuel and ammo, all the while trying to avoid marauders and battling hunger and other disasters.  Finally, when they get on the road, they must have collected enough supplies to make it through the journey.

I enjoyed this game, as much as for the setting as for the game play.  Thank god it wasn't another zombie game!  The game was tense, as we searched for supplies in an increasingly dangerous environment.  I enjoyed the asymmetric play of each character having different attributes (the "survivors" tend to have hindrances).  I look forward to playing this game with final artwork, as I think that will add to the overall theme.

Horrible Hex - Stone Circle Games

Not so horrible, fact it's quite good!
I have to admit, this abstract game by Jon Moffat was not originally high on my list of games to try during the Unpub Mini, but I got a chance to sit down with Paul Owen and play a game, and I am certainly glad I did.  In this game, reminiscent of Hive, players are playing hex tiles in an ever building configuration.  The tiles are marked with either a circle or a star in the middle, and on different edges, there are arrows indicating how that tile can move in that direction - sliding, pushing, jumping, etc.  Each player is dealt two cards that show a winning formation of hexes, based on the circles and stars.  So, you are trying to manipulate the formation to complete one of your patterns, while avoiding completing your opponents.  This is easier said than done.  On two occasions, both Paul and I completed our own pattern..while simultaneously completing the opponents.  This game is the definition of simple mechanics, but deep strategy.  I had somewhat of a concern that it was too similar to Hive, but Paul convinced me that it was significantly different to stand on it's own - in particular, the different winning patterns for each player make it a different game.


Aesop's Gambit - Michael Karg

A "Fabled" variant of Poker
A few of us played this poker variant by Michael Karg, in which the cards represent different animals out of Aesop's Fables.  Each round, a situation is revealed, which requires different aspects to solve.  Players bet on the card that they will lay down, and if it will have the highest attributes for that particular event.  My feeling is that this game is still in the beginning design stages.  I think that there is probably a place for a poker variant, especially one with an interesting theme...and Michael obviously did his research into Aesop.  But the card play fell just a bit flat for me - if you had a "6" in the attribute needed that round, you bet...if not, you didn't.  I think the cards need some balancing so that you can win without having a "6".  Or maybe, I'm just a bad bluffer.  But, I look forward to seeing where Michael takes this game.

Other games I did not have a chance to play -

East India Company - Paul Owen

East India Company in action
In his blog, Paul details how he wanted to trim down EIC.  I cautioned him against throwing out too much, but he still streamlined it somewhat, and got in a playtest at our Unpub Mini.  The reaction was generally favorable, and Paul feels like he's moving in the right direction.

Reactor Scram - Paul Owen

A game very much still in progress, Paul reported that in the two plays at the Unpub Mini, one went very short (which was his main concern) - the but the second went very long, which was a surprise.  But I believe he got some good feedback from all of this.

Trove - David Somerville

The very popular Trove in action...
This game was most definitely hit, as I saw David continuously demoing it during the day, and everyone I talked to had good things to say about it.  I consistently heard that some tweaking needed to be done, but this asymmetric (someone gets to play the cave!) dungeon game seems destined for good things.  This is may be at the top of my list to play at the next Unpub event.


Lords of Baseball - Max Jamelli

Baseball junkies...take note!
This is a game I really wanted to try, given the description, but I never had a chance to play.  This appeared to be the "thinkiest" game at our event, and likely the longest.  As the organizer, I was a bit loathe to commit to a multi-hour game, but this is another one I'm eager to try.  I heard very good things from those who did play.

And they're off!

Post Position - Dr. Witcz

Another one I meant to play but didn't get a chance.  Paul had been talking this one up since last Unpub.  If there's one thing that I feel bad about, it's that I think I let down Austin Smokowicz a bit.  He was wanting to get a large player count in (the game holds up to 12), but we were only able to get him a 6 player game.

Is this legal?!

Underground Street Racing - Dr. Witcz

Austin was able to get in a few playtests of their new game.  I watched Paul play a few rounds, but I had trouble following the action.  I look forward to see how this is developed prior to Unpub 5




Boondoggle - Michael Karg

There's the "Bridge to Nowhere"

This was Mike's main game to bring, and I believe he got in 1 playtest.  I'm not sure how the game went, but from the discussion I saw afterward, I think he got plenty of feedback.





Movie Links - Andre Chautard

Thanks to Matthew O'Malley for getting me the correct title of this game by Andre. I think he got in at least 2 playtests, and I heard positive reviews.  This is a party game where you have cards with movie titles, and then are disks with things like "racy" or "adventure" on them, and you have to connect the movie cards with these disks somehow...I didn't get the full explanation...but I will tell you that I think it was neat that we had a "party game" mixed in with our allotment of euro and strategy games.

Last Bastion - Peter Gousis

Several people expressed interest in this game based on the description, and I know they got in one play...I myself didn't hear the feedback, but I hope the designers got good feedback.

Hey...what about Santa's Workshop?!?!

Who's naughty and who's nice here?

Oh yeah, I had a game there!  Well, I plan on dedicating a whole blog post to not only what came out of the Unpub Mini, but what I've been doing on the game since Unpub 4.  I had snuck in a playtest the previous Tuesday, and made some tweaks before our event.  At the Unpub Mini, I got in 2 playtests, and got some valuable feedback.  I think I'm headed in the right direction after a few months flailing since Unpub 4 - but there are still some tweaks to be made.  In the 2nd playtest on Saturday in particular, one flaw became much more clear, and I think I have a better grasp on fixing that.  Stay tuned to the next blog post!

So, that wrap things up - I'm sorry if I missed a game or two in my recap.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next Unpub event - I even have a devious plan to maybe do another "Mini" prior to Unpub 5, in order to do some tweaks prior to the big event.  We'll see.  In any case, I would like to thank the designer that came out, and all of the playtesters, and I look forward to seeing you folks at future events!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Unpub Mini - Chantilly, VA June 21st 2014

I seem to have been a little lax in my blogging lately, and I will make up for that in the near future.  First thing to do, however is to announce the "Unpub Mini" that Paul Owen and I are hosting on June 21st.

Ever wanted to give feedback directly to game designers?
Interested in trying the latest board game concepts before they hit store shelves?

If so, participation in an "Unpub" event may be just what you're looking for!

Founded in 2010, The Unpublished Games Network, called Unpub, is a growing community of game designers, publishers, players, retailers and artists working towards the creation of new and unique table top games that will keep people entertained for generations to come!  
The latest main Unpub convention in January 2014 featured over 50 designers with their latest concepts.  

 An Unpub “Mini” is chance to bring the Unpub experience to local venues and reach out to gamers, giving them a chance to provide valuable feedback and participate in the game design process.  On June 21st, an Unpub Mini will be held at:

The event will run the duration of the store hours, from 11AM - 10PM.

Note that Game Parlor typically charges a $2 "table fee" that's good for all day to play in the store.  However, if you participate in at least one playtest, the Unpub Mini designers will pay for your ticket!

Here are some of the games that will be featured at the Unpub Mini:

Boondoggle - Boondoggle used to be just nice folks and dirt roads. Then, the money pours in. Small-time schemers and crooked dreamers bring their dirty machines and dirtier deals. There’s room for you in this town.  Designer - Mike Karg

East India Company - In the days of sail, opportunities emerged to bring exotic goods from around the known world to domestic markets. Players preside over European investment companies in 18th century global colonization and trade.   Designer - Paul Owen

Escape Velocity - Forget the US and USSR - this is the real space race and you're in the cockpit, trying to maneuver your space ship to victory!  Designer - Kiva Fecteau

Horrible Hex - An abstract tile laying and shifting game that pits opponents against one another in an arena of foresight and spatial geometry.  Designer - Jonathan Moffat

Lords of Baseball - An economic simulation   of owning a franchise, not playing 9 innings.  Designer - Max Jamelli

Knot Dice - Games, puzzles, and art using 44 custom dice that connect edge-to-edge creating Celtic knot designs. Included is a cooperative game, a real-time game, and several competitive dice-laying and dice-building games.  Designer - Matthew O'Malley

Post Position - An exciting horse racing game where you are literally invested in the horses. At the end of the race horses will payout only to players who own shares of those horses. Designer - Austin Smokowicz

Reactor Scram - In this co-op game, players work in a neglected reactor plant.   Some days are worse than others.  But they all know that the really bad day will come - when too many things break down at once.  Players must try to survive that really bad day and get the reactor plant in a safe condition before everything goes out of control...  Designer - Paul Owen

Salvation Road – Cooperative game in which the players try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world to reach “Salvation”. Players must survive the Marauders hunting them down at every turn and the environment itself.  Due to be published by Van Ryder Games in late 2014.  Designer - Michael Kelley

Santa’s Workshop – With the big night fast approaching, which team of elves will best help Santa prepare?  Build toys, collect coal for those on the naughty list…and don’t forget to feed the reindeer!  Designer - Keith Ferguson

The Last Bastion -  With your garrison slaughtered, you and your fellow citizens must defend your home of Bastion against the Barbarians. You aren't a trained soldier so you have to balance your time between training and fighting.  Designer - Peter Gousis

Trove - An asymmetrical fantasy adventure where players take on the roles of the Knight, the Goblin Horde, the Cave, and the Dragon — each with unique pieces, powers, and paths to victory!  Designer - David Somerville