Monday, July 20, 2015

Elf Names

The start player token
Let's talk about elf names!  The elves that build the toys are a long established tradition in the Santa mythos - but you never really hear then given names.  A quick search of the web reveals a few popular names - there's a certain collection of six names that keeps popping up - Alabaster Snowball, Bushy Evergreen, Sugarplum Mary, Shinny Upatree, Wunorse Openslae and Pepper Minstix.  Meh - the only one in there that I like is Pepper Minstix.  There's Hermey from the old Rudolph cartoon - and in fact that's the POP figure I use for the first player token in Santa's Workshop.  And then there's "Buddy" from the Will Ferrell movie "Elf" (as an aside...that movie came out in 2003.  2003!  12 years ago!).

Why the interest in elf names?  Well, in Santa's Workshop, each player leads a team of elves, and these elves can be trained over the course of the each player ends up with a unique set of workers.  Right now, the elves are represented by generic meeples, which are numbered.  That's not terribly exciting, and even though I explain before every game that you don't have to play the elves in numerical order...inevitably someone thinks that they have to do just that.  So, moving forward, we're going to do two things - the elves will get uniquely shaped meeples, and instead of being numbered, they will get names.  With 5 players, each having a possible 4 elves, that's 20 names that I need. 

Current player card..."Elf#1" doesn't sound as good as "Hermey", does it?
Here's the thing...coming up with elf names seems like it might be easy...but I seem to be having a case of elf block.  So, any suggestions are appreciated.  Below is what I've come up with.  I have sort of separated them by theme, which is sort of vaguely related to the color (and sometimes that's VERY vague...or even non-existant).  Each team will have two male and two female elves.  Of course, who knows what a male or female elf name really is...

Anyway, without further's what I have so far (them in parenthesis)...

Green (nature, plants)
Ivy, Holly, Mistle, Evhar, Sprucey

Blue (weather, cold)
Twinkle, Snowflake, Zephyr

Red (Bells)
Jingles, Sylvar, Tahko, Rusty, Ding Dong

Pink (candy)
Pepper Minstix, Bubbles, Sugarplum

Yellow (miscellaneous)
Reginald Van Pippington, Gullygawk*, Buzzlewitz*, Tumbleflump

* These are names from a couple different traditions I found in Europe and the U.S.

I actually have some more, but I think I left that sheet at work...I'll update this post when any others.  But if you have any suggestions, please chime in!  Should I do away with the whole theme by color thing?  I'm wide open here...

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Power Grid problem.

Since I first played it maybe 7 or 8 years ago, Power Grid has been one of my favorite games.  I have all the expansion maps, the alternate power plant deck, and even the new deluxe version. We played just this past Tuesday at our weekly game night - this time using the India map, the first time I've played on that map.  It was a nice tight 4 player game...however the fashion in which it ended is something I've seen on multiple occasions, and it leads me to wonder if Power Grid is ultimately a flawed game. 

Here was the situation - my friend Brian and I were each at a power plan capacity of 14 cities.  He had built up to 14, I had previously built up to 15.  The other 2 players were behind us at 12ish cities.  We had recently turned to Step 3, so all 6 plants in the market were available.  The other 2 players had already purchased plants, so it was down to Brian and I, and since he was one city behind me, I had to nominate first.  The 36 plant came up (3 coal to power 7 houses).  This would push both Brian and to 18 capacity.  We basically knew that whoever got the plant stood a good chance of winning?  We bid it up to 73 euros, at which point Brian relented, and I won the plant.  We promptly flipped up the 38 plant, which takes 3 garbage to power 7 cities.  Brian, of course, was able to buy it for face value, and have enough cash to actually build up to 18 cities, while I only had enough cash to build to 17.

I have seen this on several occasions, where there's a tight bidding war...and the "loser" really ends up winning by getting a lucky draw on the replacement plant.  Now, perhaps in our situation, "better" players would have remembered all the plants that had been previously placed under the Step 3 card, and knew there was a decent chance to flip up another 7 plant.  (We looked at the remaining cards...there was less than a 50% chance - counting the plant Brian got, there was 2 "7" plants out of the remaining 6 or 7 cards (I don't remember the exact count).  So, he did get a bit lucky.  It should be noted, that most of the remaining plants were "6" values, so he likely could have won anyway, since that would have put him at a capacity of 17 vice my 18, but I couldn't build the 18th he would likely have won on tie-breaker with more cash.

Of course, I have seen the opposite, where someone gives up on a bid, and then a terrible plant is flipped, and the loser is set back to the point where he can't get back into the game.  In fact, when I really think about it, I think someone gets screwed one or the other by the plant flip in every game.  Perhaps with the exception of the China map, where they come out in numerical order.

Folks who have the entire deck memorized have and advantage, I think (especially on the China map).  I don't like that, primarily because I'll likely never have the deck memorized, but perhaps that sour grapes on my part.  So, I this a flaw in the game, or should you account for this in your strategy somehow?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Designing My First Game - Part 5

Well, I fear that I will never be a prolific blog author.  I was a little shocked to see that my last post was in February.  Here we are in April already - how does that happen?!?!  With this post, I want to finish up my series on how it's been so far as a first time designer.  Well, "finish up" is maybe not exactly correct, since I'm not done with Santa's Workshop, but I want to at least bring things up to where they currently stand.  Since my last blog entry, I want to cover the two further events where I tested Santa's Workshop, and the highs and lows that came with that. 

The first event - and the biggie - was Unpub 5.  Wow, do things first Unpub was last earlier series of blog posts.  This year, Unpub moved from the sleepy countryside of Delaware to the Baltimore Convention Center - and it's not hyperbole to say it was an incredible success.  Many other people have covered it already, and I'll point you to the fantastic video that  was made about the event.  By way of comparison - at Unpub 4, I had a grand total of 4 plays of Santa's Workshop.  At Unpub 5, I had 9 plays.  Or was it 10?  I lost track!  On Saturday, especially, it was nonstop - in fact, I had to turn people away that evening, just because I had no voice, and I needed to actually eat something!  That's a good problem to have!
year, at Unpub 4, which I covered in an

Prepping the goodie bags
But what about Santa's Workshop?  The first playtest was on Friday night, with my good friend Paul Owen, and Peter Gousis from MVP Games.  There was another fellow that joined us, and once again I am remiss that I did not write down names (it also doesn't help that I'm writing this 2 months after the fact).  We played in between some of the guest lectures that were held on Friday (Friday was designers-only, and not open to the general public).  Everyone at the table seemed to really enjoy the game, and I got some great feedback, especially about cleaning up some unneeded fiddliness - the markers I was using to track who delivered coal, and who fed reindeer were taken out - and the scoring for coal and reindeer was adjusted to account for removing those markers.  Essentially, I got rid of bonuses for the most coal and reindeer on every 4th day, and just worked those bonuses into the immediate scoring for those areas.

Saturday, as I mentioned above was crazy.  It was wall to wall people, and I was demoing Santa's Workshop non-stop.  I was blown away - I got nothing by positive feedback from all the playtesters.  There was little to no push back on any of the mechanics.  Game length at most was about 1:15 - 1:20, and I reasoned that the same players, if they immediately played again, would probably be close to an hour, which is where I would like the game to be.

Playtesting Santa's Workshop
However, there was a little dose of reality.  One of the Guests of Honor of the convention was Richard Launius designer of Arkham Horror, among many other games.  He stopped by my table while a group was playing, and watched for 5 or 10 minutes - and then was kind enough to talk to me about the game for another 10 or 15 minutes.  To paraphrase, he basically told me that as far as he could tell, the mechanics of the game looked good, there definitely appeared to be a solid game there...but he did not think it would ever sell due to the theme.  He thought at best, a small publisher might take a chance, sell maybe a few hundred, and then it would done. 

This, of course, is not exactly what I wanted to hear, and was reminiscent of what I heard from Game Salute at Unpub 4.  But, Richard told me - and reiterated in a later conversation - that he thought it looked like a solid game, and he thought re-theming it would make it much more approachable for publishers.

On Sunday, I had a chance to demo the game for a publisher.  I had reached out to this publisher prior to the con, as their website indicated that they were looking for non-violent, family friendly games that would also appeal to gamers.  This is exactly how I was trying to design Santa's Workshop.  For the demo, I enlisted Anna Rutledge to play as well, as she had played at Unpub 4, and I was eager to get her feedback on how she liked the changes. 

The demo went very well, I thought, and the publisher gave me great feedback.  First - he said that he really enjoyed the game - which is nice to hear!  However, he thought that it was maybe a bit complicated for the intended market (i.e. families).  In my opinion, the game is on the light end of euro-style worker placements, but as a gamer, I tend to forget that even games I consider "light" are still much more complex than games that non-gamers are used to.  He opined that this is a common issue for first time game designers, but he also thought that some of the mechanics, like the plastic and the training room added some depth that is not often seen in first time designs.  He also game me some recommendations on how he thought I could simplify the game.  So, even though he didn't offer me a contract on the spot, it was still a positive experience, and I much appreciated his insight. 

So, overall, Unpub 5 was a great success, with very positive feedback, mixed with a sobering reminder that the theme may be an issue.  However, you may recall from previous posts, that another "industry insider" - Geoff Englestein - opined that he thought there would be a market for the game.  So, still no clear path forward for me...but I had one more event before I really wanted to make the hard decisions.

That event was my annual trip to Prezcon.  Now, I got to Prezcon to play games, not necessarily playtest, but I was hoping to get in a test or two.  Specifically, I had pre-arranged to demo to another publisher, and other game industry folks - they had specifically told me at Unpub that they wanted to try the game.  So, the first bad news came when they had to cancel their trip, due to some bad weather and other deadlines they had.  That was no fault on them, but I was still a little bummed about that.  However, I did get a chance to get one playtest in, with some folks that have become part of our regular gaming crowd.  The Senzig family - 3 generations of them - showed up again, and they all played with my friend Brian, and also Mike Crescenzi, who'd I met last year with his brother Mark.

Now, Unpub was great - but I don't know how many of the people that played were really gamers.  Among the Senzigs, Mike Sr. has been playing Acquire since it was published, Mike Jr. has won a few plaques, and even teenage Luke has gone toe to toe with the likes of Bill Crenshaw in Agricola.  Mike Crescenzi won Lords of Waterdeep last year, and in the few games I've played with him...I've seen enough to know that he knows games.  In short, these guys are all really good gamers.  So, I thought I would get great feedback.

Unfortunately - everything that went so good at Unpub...seemed to go bad here.  The game took 2+ hours.  Mike C. used a plastic strategy to win by 100+ points.  Some of the random event cards had really negative effects that caused more havoc than my intention.  Now...I did get good feedback.  Mike Jr. gave me some specific feedback on a few things he would change.  But I wasn't sure what to take away from that playtest - was the game broken due to the runaway leader?  It's hard to say - everyone was tired, there was a lot of distractions, no one was trying to stop the plastic strategy.  But that uncertainty - is the game broken, or was this an anomalous game - is very frustrating.

Did they break Santa's Workshop???
So, I came away from Prezcon with almost the opposite feelings I had after Unpub - a lot of uncertainty and doubt.  It also didn't help that I had another very quick conversation with a publisher who had previously reviewed the rules - and he again brought up the theme issue.

I had wanted to come away from Prezcon with enough data to make a decision on where to take the game.  But I came away with enough uncertainty and doubt, that I've just ended up putting the game on the shelf and not thinking about it for the last 6 weeks.  I had very seriously thought about taking it to Origins this year and trying to show it to publishers.  But since that's about 2 months away, that's looking unlikely. 

Lastly, I'll mention that while I've had a few other ideas for games, I've not yet had a vision that was as clear to me as the first time I thought about Santa's Workshop.  So, as an aspiring game designer, that's been frustrating.  They say that if you're a writer, you need to write...and I know that's the same for game design - I just need to sit down and work on things.  But that's easier said than done. 

So, that's where I'm at now.  I will update when I can.  There may be an Unpub Mini happening in May that I'll take the game to, we'll see.  I don't typically get a lot of comments on my blog (not blogging regularly doesn't lead to regular commenters) - but any ideas are welcome!  Thanks for reading. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Designing My First Game - Part 4

Alright, when I left off I had gone through the spring and summer making tweaks based on feedback at Unpub 4, and at our Mini-Unpub.  The fall brought two more events for me to showcase the game.  First was the "World Boardgaming Championships" (WBC) - which I've been attending the last several years.  In actuality, I hadn't really intended to promote Santa's Workshop here - but after our Unpub Mini, I was contacted out of the blue by a publisher, inquiring about my publishing plans for SW.

I sent him the information, and as it turns out, we were both planning on being at WBC.  So, I brought the game.  As it turned out, we never got it to the table, and based on the rulebook, the publisher decided it wasn't a good fit for his line.  We did talk about it a bit at WBC, and there was some concern about the theme and how well it would appeal to gamers. 

The next event that I did sign up for, was the Unpub room at Congress of Gamers in October.  I brought the game, and got in 3 or 4 playtests.  I got some great feedback from folks like Alf Shadowsong and TC Petty III.  I incorporated a few more changes, such as giving elves a bonus if they became fully trained - they could use less coal in the material rooms.  On the 2nd day I playtested again with John Moller  his wife Katherine.  They seemed to like the game...but one thing was becoming length was an issue.  An average game was running close to 2 hours...about double what I wanted. 

At this point, I was sort of stuck as to where I wanted to take the game.  I decided to plunk some cash down and bid in the Jack Vassel memorial fund on BoardGameGeek.  For those that don't know - the fund was set up by podcasting guru Tom Vassel, in memory of his late son, Jack.  The fund is used to help gamers that are in some kind of need.  Literally hundreds of games - and other items - are put for auction. did this help me?  I decided to bid on the chance of having Geoff Englestein review my game.  Geoff hosts the "GameTek" segment on the Dice Tower, as well as having his own podcast - Ludology - with Ryan Sturm.  Geoff has also designed several games, inlcuding The Ares Project, Space Cadets and Space Cadets:Dice Duel (along with his children). 

I was lucky enough to win the auction, and was very excited to have Geoff look at the game.  True to his word, Geoff really went back and forth with me on the game, and gave me great advice.  Some major changes that resulted from Geoff's advice were getting rid of dice nearly altogether (the coal mine still uses dice), and changing the reindeer area.  I had heard from other folks that the reindeer track was "boring".  Geoff thought it would be great to see the individual reindeer named - so I did just that.  Now, each of the eight reindeer (yes, only eight - the legal issues of who "owns" Rudolph are a bit cloudy) get a point token at the start of each round (kind of like the buildings in builders hall in Lords of Waterdeep).  When you go to the reindeer stable, you choose which reindeer to feed - and you get the points for that reindeer, plus a bonus - for example, Dasher may give you fabric.  This really made the reindeer stable a much more interesting location.

Geoff helped point out a few other areas he thought were fiddly as well - I got rid of the requirement that on some gifts portions of the materials all had to be made out of either the "prime" material, or plastic.  I also undid a lot of the "extras" that I had added after Congress of Gamers - just too fiddly.  I also finally cut ties with the idea of "spells" altogether - the functions of those were largely taken over by the reindeer bonuses.  For giving coal to naughty kids, I just made that an option in the Assembly Hall.    One thing that Geoff mentioned is that he thought I had an idea that a publisher would be interested in - the mechanics just needed some streamlining.  I think I was able to do a lot of that with Geoff's input.  It took me a while to let go of all those dice - but I think it's a better game for it.  We talked about maybe having one die in the game, and different modifiers depending on which room you were using...but that adds to "cognitive load" - and for a game that I want to be able to pitch towards families...the less of that, the better.

The last thing for this particular blog entry I want to touch on is the problem of game length that I mentioned earlier.  It was becoming apparent that 12 game turns was too long.  I was enamored with keeping the "12 Days of Christmas" theme, but it really seemed that 9 turns was pretty optimal.  I also made other changes, such as giving players in a 4 or 5 player game only 3 elves vice 4.  Little things can build up.  One of the reindeer spots would give the player 2 untrained elves to use later that turn.  In a 9 turn game, that's 18 more worker placements - so I cut that back to 1 "super trained" elf.  As it stands now, the game plays in about an hour - maybe 1:15 for 4+ players - but I'm confident that if those folks played a 2nd time, it would speed up.  I was also able to keep the "12 Days of Christmas" theme by making days 4, 8 and 12 just "Santa's Inspection days" - i.e. not actual rounds where players placed elves (that was another great suggestion from Geoff).

Alright...that brings us almost to the current time...  The next big event was Unpub 5, and I'm going to detail that in a separate blog post.  Apologies for the wall of text in this particular post...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Designing My First Game - Part 3

Holy Smokes - the last entry was almost 2 months ago?!?!  Ok, I admit...I'm terrible at this blogging thing.  I had planned this out as a whole series...but I'm way behind - I want to write something about Unpub 5, which is already 2 weeks in the past...and Prezcon starts this, I'm going to try and wrap up all of 2014 in this one post.

When I left off in Part 2, I was getting ready for Unpub 4, which was held in Delaware in January of 2014.  I previously had a 2 part blog on that - Part 1 & Part 2.  The long and short of it was that I got 4 playtests in that weekend, and learned some valuable lessons from my playtesters.  There were some unneeded complications in the game - primarily the players didn't like the "coal cards", in which they could cast spells - or rather, they didn't like the "mean" cards - which you could use to screw up other players.  They didn't really feel that was in the spirit of the theme - and there were some horribly unbalanced cards in there.

More sobering, however, was my 10 minute pitch to Game Salute.  This was something that they were offering every designer there - and though I didn't really feel the game was publisher-ready, I decided to take advantage, to at least get my feet wet talking to a publisher.  I spent about 3 or 4 minutes describing the game...and when I was done, I got compliments on one or two of the mechanics, but the rest of the talk focused on the theme.  They thought that the theme was sort of a Catch-22 - "gamers" would overlook the game, thinking it would be too light, and families would balk at spending a typical eurogame price (~$40), and if they did...they would probably be overwhelmed thinking they were getting a game their 5 year old could play.

So...while I was a bit disappointed in that, I decided that I would stick with the Santa's Workshop theme for at least the rest of the year as I further refined the game.  The first thing I did was take out all the "mean" coal cards.  That left just a deck of "positive cards".  That still seemed to fiddly, so eventually I get rid of the coal cards altogether.  I replaced the cards with a die roll at the coal mine which gave you certain number of coal.  Instead of cards that allowed you to cast spells, I had 6 specific spells that all the elves could cast - adding an extra seat, improving your material rolls, improving your assembly roll, improving your coal roll, adjusting the reindeer track, and allowing you to pick more gifts.  At first I allowed each spell to be cast once per game, but that changed to being able to cast each once per round - if you had the coal to spend on it. 
The players tableau...about Version 9.0 or so....

But how to model turning the coal in for naughty kids?  With the coal cards, you had the choice of using the spell, or turning it in for points.  I went through a number of iterations here.  For a while, you just turned in all of you coal on the inspection rounds.  Then I played with having people sort of "blind bid" with coal on the inspection rounds - whoever turned in the most got a bonus.  Talk about fiddly!  Then I hit upon the idea of having some of the gifts be for naughty kids...and instead of building the gift, you had to place coal on that gift.  I had slots at the bottom of the tableaus, 7 Wonders style for those gifts.  I thought that would be the answer for a long time...ultimately it was not.

In July, we had an "Unpub Mini" at our local game store - the Game Parlor.  I got SW to the table 2 or 3 times and got some more good feedback.  One fellow pointed out that the training, as I had it then, was sort of pointless - it took too long to train in materials for it to be worth much.  In other words, the turns wasted going to the training room, would be better spent just collecting the material.  So, I came out of that, having to adjust the training levels.  I also found that people hated the "0" spot on all the material dice.  They did not want to waste one of their precious actions on the chance of a 0 roll.

Santa's Workshop at the "Unpub Mini"
A couple of problems kept plaguing me.  I never felt I was able to get the "tension" right in the game.  As a worker placement game, there has to be some tough choices to be made in where you take your action each turn.  My problem was - it was either too light on tension...or too high - just by taking away or adding an additional space, really swung the tension levels.  I couldn't find a middle ground.

The other problem was with the gift scoring.  In the basic calculations of the gifts scores, fabric was worth 2, wood 3 and metal 4.  But this wasn't working balance-wise.  I eventually upped metal to 6 points, and adjusted the metal die accordingly - so all the dice would average about 3.5 points worth of material per roll.  And, as a side note - with 5 custom dice in the game (fabric, wood, metal, assembly, coal) - I found that people kept having a hard time finding the right die when they needed it.

So, I made a couple of drastic changes (or so I thought).  To fix the "tension" problem, I tried a few things.  At one point, I tried a "Power Grid" style mechanic of filling each room only so much per turn - so players would have to fight over the resources.  That was short lived.  I finally hit upon the idea of having coal also be used as "currency" in the materials rooms - the elves had to fire the furnace to power the tools.  In each room, I had different spots that cost different amounts of coal - but the more coal you spent, the more material you would typically get.  Part of this change, was making fabric, wood and coal all equivalent points-wise.  This meant I had to rework all the gifts and point structure.  That was a bit of work, but I think it was worth it.  This also meant that I reduced 3 dice to 1 - just a "material die". 

Ok...on second thought I'm going to end this blog entry here to avoid it rambling on for too long...  I will attempt to follow with Part 4 tomorrow.  My apologies for the lack of pictures, and not proofreading it too well...