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...