The People vs. Robin Hood

It's been about two months since I posted the rules for "Curse You, Robin Hood!" for public feedback. To summarize it, you're a merchant in the time of Robin Hood. You're trying to get rich, but not rich enough that Robin Hood notices your stockpile and robs from you. Each player simultaneously reveals a card from their hand, then some players engage in mandatory trades based on whether they play matching ranks or highest/lowest ranks. Here's the gist so far:

+ Many funny surprises as a result of the simultaneous reveals and mandatory trades
+ Great quick playstyle for tavern play
~ It's feather-light, which is a plus or minus depending on your group's preferences
- Though it is easy to play, it is hard to know how to play well
- Nuances of negotiation aren't immediately apparent

My options going forward are, very broadly speaking:

A. keep it light
B. develop a heavier game with this core mechanism
1. put it on a POD site
2. put it on the pitch track for traditional publishing

A1: Keep it light and POD it
This was my usual modus operandi throughout 2014, which served me pretty well for that whole period. However, it also made for a frustrating dilemma for future publishers who took interest in the games much later. At the moment, I've had more games rejected for being too light than for being too heavy, which says to me that these light games are just better products for POD channels.

B1: Develop a heavier game and POD it
This will take a little longer as I figure out what to add to the game, meaning new mechanisms and components. I can foresee what is currently a trading mechanism instead being some other mandatory interaction, similar to the destiny deck in Cosmic Encounter. With new components, that likely raises the price beyond the usual $9.99 psychological limit. A tougher sell for the POD market.

A2: Keep it light and pitch it
I've had more games rejected for being too light than any other reason, partly because the economic pressures of POD games compel light gameplay with low price tags. As a result, it's harder to "stretch" these games for kickstarter campaigns. Meanwhile, even if it does get accepted, you have to compete with hundreds of other light games that come on the market every quarter. It's a very crowded market. Gotta admit, this option isn't enticing.

B2: Develop a heavier game and pitch it
More recently, I've tried to beef up my old light games to be a little more meaty, but then now I'm having the opposite problem. The games are feeling a little too cumbersome in their procedures or upkeep. That's probably just me still grappling with this sphere of game design, but more than one bit of advice has told me that I need to go in this direction if my career is going to develop any further.

So yeah, I'm trying to figure out where to go next. No verdict just yet. All of these options have pros and cons. What do you think?

Watch: How to Automatically Highlight Keywords in Game Text [InDesign DataMerge]

A couple days ago Matthew G. asked me how to use InDesign to automatically highlight certain text without having to manually do it. He was generous enough to let me record my demonstration of two methods I've practiced over the years.

Check out the video above for details! Hope it helps!

He ain't heavy, He's a Euro

I had the great pleasure of attending Whose Turn Is It Anyway? this weekend. It was a lovely experience and a great opportunity to stretch my muscles on some heavier games.

Ever since publishers asked me to design more "middleweight" games, I've struggled to find a definition for that category. Certainly my existing catalog favors helium-light gameplay. My experience is very limited in this sphere so I'm actively trying to sample more heavier games this year. If I want me to design "middleweight" games, I better try out some heavy games so I can properly calibrate my perspective.

From Japan to France

Back to Whose Turn! I tried out Iki: the Edo Artisans, designed by Koota Yamada, and OrlĂ©ans, designed by Reiner Stockhausen. I had very good teachers for both games so I picked up the nuances pretty quickly.  Neither had the hefty ponderous atmosphere that I had expected "heavy" games to have. They were both certainly long games, clocking in at about two hours each with a tutorial.

Simple Actions on Loop
Still, the actual actions of play were very easy to learn and simply iterated themselves.

In Iki, you move you choose your turn order for the round, then on your turn move your pawn a fixed number of spaces around a board, then take whatever actions are available to that space. Those actions may result in earning various types of income at the end of each month or change the turn order in the subsequent turn.

In Orleans, you draw workers from a bag, assign certain combinations of workers to specific actions, then go around the table resolving one of each player's actions at a time, discarding the requisite workers back into your bag as you do so. The result is similar to a deckbuilding game, except it's a bag of chips instead of cards.

A Timer of Random Events
Over and over again, those simple actions would repeat themselves until the endgame was triggered at a pre-determined moment:

In Iki, that was determined by a pre-set calendar of 12 months, with periodic fires breaking out every few months. The monthly intervals were at a different rate than the fires, so you couldn't get complacent about having everything happening at once. Also the fires break out at random quadrants of the board, so you're never sure whether your artisans are safe for the next round.

In Orleans, it was determined by a stack of random event tiles that gradually empties out. Some of these events cause you to pay extra for resources you've acquired, but others allow you to earn income based on your progress on several different tracks.

So in essence, both games were fun challenges of efficiency to earn as many points as possible before the deadline. That seems very easy to understand. Why do I have this impression that "heavy games" are more difficult than this?

What is Heavy?

I asked folks nearby whether these games would be considered "heavy" and it was hard to get a solid answer. One attendee said he usually likes "lighter" games, by which he meant something like 45 minutes to an hour. I asked my followers in this tweet for their take, which revealed a few leading indicators:
  • Number of options per turn
  • Downtime between turns
  • How much skill or chance can affect final results
  • Overall play length
  • Actual physical weight of the box(!)
Now I at least have a better sense of direction for where I should take my own games.

Watch: Rulebook layout for the Great Dinosaur Rush

I just wrapped up the rulebook layout for The Great Dinosaur Rush, by Scott Almes and APE Games. Kevin Brusky at APE Games was generous enough to let me stream the layout process on Twitch. Now that it's complete, I made a sped up video overview covering the bulk of that whole process. There are still small tweaks to be made to a few words here and there, but the layout is pretty much settled down. Hope you enjoy this peek behind the curtain!

"Grid Bidding" Mechanism in the Lab

Here's a grid-bidding mechanism that I've had in the lab for some time and finally set down on paper earlier this week. Assume a two-player game for now: red and blue. Also assume each player has tiles numbered 1-7.

Set Up
To set up, each player takes turns setting one tile face-down along the top or side of the grid shown above.

Each player takes turns placing one of their remaining tiles face-up in the 3x3 grid as shown below.

Then it's time to score points! Reveal the hidden tiles now. Whoever has the highest total sum in a row or column in that 3x3 grid will win a number of points equal to the formerly face-down tile atop that column or beside that row. For example, in the top row, red has a total of 11 compared to blue's 4, thus winning 7 points.

As players take their turns, they can infer a little about the value of each column or row based on the other tiles that their opponent is playing.

 Multiplayer Scaling

You can expand the board to include one more row and column for a three-player game. Each player still has seven tiles, but only takes two turns during the setup.

Again, you can expand one more row and column for a four player game, but still only giving each player two turns during the setup phase.

Where could this go?
I'm thinking about a short series of 2-player microgames composed of 14 cards, 7 for each player. Each player's cards have unique abilities that trigger as soon as they're played face-up. The "1" have more powerful abilities, followed by 2-6. 7 is powerful enough on its own without an extra boost. :P
  • Tiles above and below this tile are doubled.
  • Tiles to the left and right of this tile are doubled.
  • Shift a face-up tile to an adjacent empty space.
  • Swap two face-down tiles.
  • Look a face-down tile.
  • Discard one of your tiles from the board then discard another tile of equal value.
  • Use the upgrade of an adjacent tile.
  • Place a token of your color on this space. It counts as +1 for you in this row and column. It remains on the board in subsequent rounds.
And that's all just assuming this little mechanism is the entirety of the game. It may very well be just a mini-game as part of a larger middle-weight euro game where instead of points, this grid merely builds up currency for you to spend in the other parts of the game.

Similar Games
I tweeted about this earlier this week to see if it had been done before. There were similar ideas in Grave Business, but I think this is going in a different direction. Others pointed out superficial similarities to Cordial Minuet, but aside from being numbers on a grid, I don't think there's much overlap there. If anything, I'm more inspired by the gameplay of recently released Hocus, where you can work towards winning a pot or towards making the pot more valuable.

Dreamwell from Action Phase Games on Kickstarter

Oh wow, check out Dreamwell, a gorgeous game with art from Tara McPherson. I really love it when tabletop publishers give new and interesting art styles a stage to shine. Action Phase brought in Kwanchai Moriya for Kodama: the Tree Spirits, which was a really great call. Looks like they're keeping up that track record with Dreamwell. The gorgeous blend of theme and presentation that makes my inner art director so, so happy. Check out the quick tutorial below:

And pledge here!

Deboxing #2: Codenames

It was a snowy weekend indoors, so I decided to give deboxing another try with Codenames. My last attempt was with For Sale, in which I foolishly cut across the logo instead of along it. Doh! I didn't make that same mistake this time thankfully. I should've V-cut the corners to they're flush with each other. However, I ran out of packing tape at the last minute so I made do with tabs and double-stick tape. I hope I can do this more often with some of my other airy game boxes!

Majority Negation Mechanics in Game Design

There's been a distinct trend in my recent game design, perhaps a crutch. I like designing mechanisms for players to collect a variety of resources, but negating whichever resource in which they have a majority.

So far, I've only explored "majority" in the sense of an "inter-majority." In other words, having more Wheat than any other player would be considered an inter-majority.

Inter-Majority Negation as a Reward
In Trickster, players are trying to avoid the attention of heroes, which is represented by scoring points. Lowest score is the winner. Cards come in seven different suits, each typically scoring one point for you if they're in your possession. At the end of the game, if you have more cards in a suit than any other player, you ignore those cards in your score. As a result, players either try to have as few cards as possible or, if unable to accomplish that goal, try to get as many cards of the suits they already possess in order to "shoot the moon."

Inter-Majority Negation as a Penalty
In Curse You, Robin Hood, players are merchants in Sherwood Forest trying to become rich, but not so rich that they draw Robin Hood's thieves. Here, highest score is the winner. Cards feature a number of "target" icons on them representing how high profile those goods are. At the end of the game, whoever has the most targets in a particular category of good must remove all of those goods from their stockpile before scoring.

That leaves open two other possible types of mechanisms that I haven't quite explored yet. These are "intra-majority" mechanisms which only look at whatever you personally possess. In other words, if you have more Wheat than anything else in your possession, you'd have an intra-majority in Wheat.

Intra-Majority as a Reward
The first example that comes to mind is Coloretto, wherein you score positive points for whichever suits you have the most of within your collection. In this case, it doesn't matter whatever else anyone else has collected. It strikes me that a game with this mechanism would have to be one where players have only partial control of what they can collect. Are there other games in this category? How do they resolve this design challenge?

Intra-Majority as a Penalty
This is a tougher one to find an example of, but I think Reiner Knizia's scoring mechanisms in Tigris & Euphrates and Ingenious fit this description. In both games, your score is based on whichever resource you have the least of, thereby effectively discouraging majorities in any one category. However, these examples are a little muddy since you do get some tactical rewards for pursuing high quantities of a particular resource, particularly if it's a zero-sum situation preventing anyone else from acquiring that limited resource. Can you think of any purer examples?

So anyhoo, these are just idle thoughts I had this morning. It occurs to me now that these mechanisms don't need to exist in isolation. There could easily be games that include all four of these goals. Assume this is a game like Coloretto where players only have limited control of how they acquire cardds and each of four suits represents one quadrant of the chart above.

♠️: Score one point for each card of this suit in your possession. Discard all cards of this suit if you have more of it than any other player.

♣️: Lose one point for each card of this suit in your possession. Discard all cards of this suit if you have more of it than any other player.

♥️: Score one point for each of this suit in your possession. Discard all cards of this suit if you have more of it than any other suit.

♦️: Lose one point for each card of this suit in your possession. Discard all cards of this suit if you have more of it than any other suit.

What would a game like that look like? What would be the theme for each of these suits? I'm curious to see where this might lead.

Sidekick Quests: the Card Game – Public Beta Now Live!

Long-time readers may recall a few years ago when I first started tinkering with a card game inspired by James Stowe's webcomic Sidekick Quests. It's been off and on the back burner several times since then, but I think I've finally struck the right balance of thinky game and accessible family fun. Check out the one-page rules doc along with the print-and-play files below.

» Rules Doc
» Print and Play PDF

In the game, you're adventurers-in-training sent on a variety of quests to earn the esteem of your mentors. The better you do on your adventures, the more points you'll earn!

I'm eager to hear from game-loving families how this game does with players ages 8+. I tried to keep the basic actions very simple and the teaching time very short, but there is still a fair bit of reading involved with this beta prototype. Hopefully that doesn't get in the way too much! Have fun!

Testing New Cats, Cranes, and Turtles for Koi Pond

As part of my ongoing development of Koi Pond into a more retail-friendly product, I'm re-evaluating some of the long-standing comments about the Cats, Cranes, and Turtles. Over the years, players have said one of these animals are overpowered relative to the value of the Koi scoring baseline.

The funny thing is that no one could agree on which animals were the ones that were overpowered. Was it the crane, which let players know precisely how well they'd score? Was it the Turtle, which fed off of competition for the ribbons? Was it the cat, which though unpredictable, was still strengthened by having a secretive opponent? No one could come to a consensus.

That being the case, I let the issue rest on its own and the game has done very well regardless of this possible balance issue. At the time, I observed that games that have some wrinkles draw more of a community than games that are perfectly smooth. "This will just be Koi Pond's wrinkle," I thought.

But now I've had many more years to consider the issue and I have learned a lot more about basic game design. I think I've got a rules tweak that may make the animals more balanced and easier to play.

  • New Cat: A cat in your pond scores you one point for each koi card of the cat's suit in both neighbors' houses.
  • New Crane: A crane in your pond scores you one point for each koi card of the crane's suit in both neighbors' houses.
  • New Turtle: A turtle in your pond scores you one point for each koi card of the turtle's suit in both neighbors' rivers.

This removes the odd alternating target system from the current edition of the game, yet expands it to two targets. It scales back the value to one point per card rather than based on total koi. That combined with the 4-rank and 5-rank koi cards from Moon Temple also means the baseline koi scores will be much more valuable without further destabilizing the values of cats, cranes, and turtles.

Even without those high-rank koi, the current POD edition should be just as viable with this change. Give this a shot with your home games and tell me how it turns out!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.