BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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SPIEL 2013: [Amusing pun goes here!]

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It’s a little over a week since I returned, bleary eyed, from Essen in Germany and the annual SPIEL games fair. Just like last year I made the trip from Cambridge with fellow designer Matt Dunstan, and after a 4:30am start, we made landfall at the Messe around lunchtime. SPIEL was, as ever, a fantastic event, and here are the severely edited highlights…

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The very first item on the bulging agenda after reaching the halls was to head straight to the Lookout Games stand and grab a copy of my new game Karnickel. I’d seen pictures, of course, but this was the first time I could get my hands on a box. Fortunately, Matt was on hand to record the event! It remains to be seen what the gaming public will make of Karnickel, which is hardly the sort of thing said public have come to expect from Lookout. Someone on BGG has described it as “like a kid’s first 18xx”, which is cute, if completely inaccurate.

Matt, it must be said, was toasting his own success with the recent publication of Relic Runners by Days of Wonder: a brilliant game with brilliant production values (but of course: this is DoW!).

This year the SPIEL gods had picked up all of the pieces, given them a good shake, and dropped everything from a great height, in a different part of the Messe, and in an entirely different order. Hence we and everyone else spent a lot of time wandering around a little lost. The move to three enormous halls has certainly simplified the geography, but the loss of familiar landmarks (and the lack of readily available maps!) meant getting from A to B was something of an adventure. Nothing wrong with adventure, in principle, but when you’ve got meetings to attend, the adventure can become rather less welcome.

And boy, did Matt and I have meetings! We’d set up lots of appointments before the event — 16 in total — and had a fantastic welcome from everyone we met. We’ve been working on a series of co-designs, and had a slew of our own designs, and it was exciting and a little nerve-wracking to finally get them onto tables in front of publishers. Fortunately, we had some really positive reactions, and had a great time running from meeting to meeting. It remains to be seen just how many of these particular chickens come home to roost, but fingers crossed!

A big part of the SPIEL experience is seeing old friends and making new ones. Stand on a deserted U-Bahn platform, in a hotel lobby, or in a queue for train tickets for long enough — to pick three examples at random — and you will discover that gamers and game designers have a habit of spotting each other! There is also a large and growing British contingent at the fair, and it’s always a pleasure to spend a little time in their company.

Mark your calendars: After all, it’s just a little over 50 weeks before it all happens again!

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What is the collective noun for game designers, I wonder? A tableau, perhaps? A mechanism? A shuffle? Whatever it is, that’s what we have here! (left to right): Me, Tony Boydell, Gavin Birnbaum, Sebastian Bleasdale (who is taller in real life than this picture might suggest), Alan Paull and Matt Dunstan. (And, hiding in the background, you might just be able to spot Richard Breese, too!)

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Matt, Henry, Dean and Gavin in the lobby of the Ibis, trying their hand at a spot of String Safari. This game had the advantage of not requiring a great deal of thinking to play, which, after a hard day at the Messe, was just as well.

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A couple of passing trombonists try their luck at Karnickel.

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Out of the Hat: A first look at Karnickel

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The wraps are off — and the rabbits have emerged from their proverbial hideaway! — on my new game from Lookout Spiele. Karnickel will be available at SPIEL in Essen in just a few short weeks, and here’s the low-down!

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Every bunny knows that rabbits love the countryside — and carrots, of course! The best carrots of all grow between the train tracks — but you have to keep an eye out for trains! Roll the dice and hop your rabbit to the best carrot patch; as long as you don’t need to flee out of the path of the train, you can happily nibble away.

Karnickel is a fast-playing, devious little family game for 2–4 players, ages 6+, that plays in a snappy 15 minutes and has always been (although I would say this, wouldn’t I?) one of my favourite designs. I am absolutely thrilled that Hanno, Klemens and the crew at Lookout loved the game as much as I did — and specifically loved it enough to publish!

The game first appeared on these pages almost 3 years ago when I posted photos of the very first prototype. In truth, 90% of the game was already there — the trickiest part was working out exactly how the dice play that drives the heart of the game should work. That only emerged through plenty of playtesting with my family over the following Christmas.

The game travelled around in my metaphorical back pocket for the next year or so, and in 2012 went with me to Granollers for the Fira Jugar X Jugar, and to the UK Games Expo in Birmingham.

It was in Birmingham that Hanno Girke of Lookout just happened to be passing through the Playtest Zone during a particularly riotous playtest of the game with four young gamers. He came over, intrigued by the ruckus, and introduced himself. The rest, as they say, is history!

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The game in full flow in Birmingham. Do you know these boys? If so, I would love to send them a copy!

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Go, Go, Good Little Games!

Good Little Games

It may have taken a little long than originally planned, but the Good Little Games website is now live, so go take a look to find out more about what’s been slowly cooking these past few months.

I have been joined by fellow designers and microgaming pioneers Tony Boydell, Todd Sanders, Adam Taylor, Michael Fox and Mo Holkar, who have all contributed to the initial harvest of seven games.

Hopefully there will be many more designers and many more games joining us over the coming weeks and months — do follow the dedicated Twitter account for irregular updates!

Any questions: Just ask!

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Balancing Act: On Fun and Fairness

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If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.

Rudyard Kipling, If…

I hear a lot about ‘balance’ in board games. And it pisses me off.

Of course, not everyone uses the term in the same way, but there is certainly a large, vocal subset of commentators who directly equate the virtue of balance with a close finish. More accurately, perhaps, said commentators look at any Eurogame that delivers a close finish and happily declare “it’s balanced”: the twin implications being that this is empirically, unquestionably a Good Thing — and that if it didn’t then that would be quite the reverse.

This thinking is very much a byproduct of modern Eurogames, which, by their commonly understood definition, are neither simple race games nor games of survival. The winner is neither the ‘first past the post’ nor the ‘last man standing’. No-one would label Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly as Eurogames.*

In both those games, victory is clear-cut and absolute. And a miss is as good as a mile. The mistake, I think, is to read Eurogames the same way.

Here’s an example: I played a 4-player game of Egizia a little while ago. When the game ended, after an hour’s play, all four of us had scored exactly 100 points. This, in my book, is not a ‘success’. This is not a ‘Good Thing’. This is not the triumphant result — and hardly the ideal metric — of the designers’ expert understanding of the art and craft of game design.

The directionality of my argument is important. I am not arguing that a game that contains the potential for a close finish is bad — and all my example has to say about Egizia is that it contains just such a potential. I am simply arguing that a close finish is no definition of quality, and should not be seen as some Platonic ideal. ‘Balance’ is no virtue if it’s been carefully engineered to be inevitable.

Games should be fun and they should be fair — and it’s reasonable to surmise that the latter is necessary for the former. But a four-way tie is neither. Fairness — and this is just as true in games as it is in everything else — isn’t about equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity.

So my plea to the game designer is a simple one: Don’t rob the victor of his victory, nor the loser of his loss. Where, after all, would be the fun in that?

* Interestingly, the game that defined the Eurogame genre, The Settlers of Catan, actually does have a ‘first past the post’ winning condition. It may have given the world the ‘victory point’, but it also gave its players a specific target. In this sense, you could argue that it no longer properly inhabits the genre it originally created.

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UK Games Expo 2013: Playtesting & cockroaches!

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It was all the fun (and games) of the fair last weekend in Birmingham. I was helping out in the bigger-and-better Playtest Zone which, like the Expo itself, goes from strength to strength. Congrats to Rob for organizing everything and everyone in the Zone, and greets to my fellow redshirts Katarina, Matt, Dave & Lawrence!

As always, I was surprised as the sheer number of regular Expo-goers who were so keen to become playtesters — without knowing what they might be letting themselves in for. On Saturday, the Zone was heaving, and unfortunately we even had to turn some eager gamers away. Things were a little quieter on Sunday, but we still had plenty of interest and most of the time all 10 tables were occupied, which was brilliant to see. If you visited the Playtest Zone, sat down for a game and are reading this, then many, many thanks to you. Yes, you!

It was great to meet and chat about games with so many different people, and a real pleasure to have the company of so many while playtesting my own prototypes. On Saturday I ran four playtests of Angkor Thom with both children and grown-ups, and followed these up with three playtests of Sparkle on Sunday. In between, I was able to join in with lots of other games and did my best to make sure everyone who came along had a chance to try out a game or two.

Both Angkor Thom and Sparkle are relatively late-stage prototypes, which is not to say they are finished — is any game, ever? — but simply that they both have a solid ruleset that I know can run smoothly. Fortunately, both are also fairly quick to explain and play, and are designed to be firmly family friendly, so make ideal candidates for playtesting in the lively Expo environment.

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Things start to get tricky for me, Kai, Max and Adam in the middle of our game of Angkor Thom. I don’t now recall who won. This suggests it wasn’t me. Many thank, lads!

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It’s eyes-down for Paul and Phil Taylor as they fill in the playtest feedback forms after our excellent game of Sparkle. Thanks again, boys, for a well-played game and fun chat!

Away from the Playtest Zone, the Expo seemed to have bedded in well in its new digs: the expansive, expensive and ever-so-slightly Stalinist, Hilton Metropole. In truth, the new venue represents a big and positive statement about the future aspirations of the Expo, and for a first-run, everything seemed to be going pretty smoothly, which is a tremendous achievement. Hats off to the organizers!

In the main halls, there was the usual roll call of ne’er-do-wells and reprobates: Tony, Charlie and Alan from Surprised Stare, John Yianni of Gen42, Jeremy from Arctic Fox, Adam from Angels Inferno, the irrepressible Andy Hopwood of Hopwood Games, Gavin Birnbaum of Cubiko, Pete Burley and sons, Dave Cousins of North & South Games… the list goes on.*

And what about the cockroaches? Should future Expo-goers considering staying at the Metropole be worried? Not a bit of a it! But you should watch out for Kakerlakenpoker, which, it turns out, is absolute genius!

Here’s to the next time!

* Was it me, or did Tony seem even more of a malcontent than usual? And a word to the wise: never ask Gavin about the incident with the bandsaw.

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Divinare: Auf der Empfehlungsliste „Spiel des Jahres“ 2013!

BrettSpiel: Divinare, Spiel des Jahres

I thought I’d stick with the original German for this particular announcement!

News of Divinare’s place on the recommended list for the Spiel des Jahres reached me early yesterday morning — via the wonders of Twitter. As Tony Boydell put it:

Not sure I can add much to that sentiment, other than to heartily congratulate all of the nominees — and the other recomendees, of course, assuming that’s a word.

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Playtesting: The importance of getting to the end

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Earlier this week I got the prototype for new territorial city-building game Angkor Thom to the table for the third time. On the first and second outings, we’d played the game for maybe as long as 45 minutes, but had then all agreed, politely, to abort.

Those first playtest revealed several key shortcoming, and was rightly ended prematurely. The second, which made some big changes, would simply have taken far too long to reach its conclusion: there was far too much for the players to do before they game could reward them. If we’d had the patience to finish either of them, it would have been a very hard slog.

Third time lucky, you might say: I’d made some more big changes to the game: streamlining the player actions and speeding up the choice. I still didn’t have much comprehension for how the game would feel if we ever got to the end, and I fully expected at the start of the playtest that we probably wouldn’t find out.

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Although we all fumbled around at the beginning, forgetting and remembering rules and not quite being able to see where the game was headed, the pieces started to fit. And it was simply good fortune that when the time came for us to agree either to stop mid-game — to abort, discuss, and then move on to other prototypes — that we had actually made it to a point that felt like a mid-game, a second act. This meant we had begun to see further ahead, and that we all wanted to discover what the third act would deliver. We girded our gamer loins, and played on.

And we made it! And far from losing steam towards the end, the game picked up, pulling us towards a conclusion in which we were all very invested.

What’s interesting to reflect upon is this: that if we’d stopped in the middle, which is so often the fate for young prototypes, my conclusions about what was worked and what didn’t would have been very different.

All games impose restrictions on their players, and although I may not be the most doctrinaire of designers — favouring freedoms over limitations — the early game seemed to be telling me to be even more free than I had been.

Player freedoms are attractive, but they will amplify choice, and more choice means more time. And Angkor Thom is still too long. It seems obvious that you won’t be able to tell how long a game takes unless you get to the end, but I think it bares repeating.

And there’s also value in observing that, unless you push through with a playtest, and begin to interrogate the further reaches of your game, you won’t know how early decisions can impact the game later on. This, dear reader, is what people call strategy.

All my design instincts tend towards the tactical, so I was more surprised than anyone to discover that, in the third act, my early choices were coming back to bite me. Every turn and every action is deliberately discrete, and yet the sum of these simple, singular actions turned out to be something greater. The game had, much to my delight, some genuinely emergent characteristics.

So the playtest represented several big successes, the biggest of which was simply that it actually managed to stop at the right time.

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Prototype Diaries: Aegea & Sparkle

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If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about game design it’s that nothing’s ever wasted. The only problem is that it’s sometimes hard to tell the wheat from the chaff.

Recently I have been playtesting two new prototypes, and I think it’s interesting to reflect on my experiences nursing them through their respective infancies. Something common to both is that they are the product of old ideas, which have either been brought back from the grave or reconstituted from the scattered limbs of several other games.

Aegea

This one is a true resurrection. A long time ago, I created a prototype called Archipelago. It seemed to have a lot going for it. It looked the part. It had a little boat.

I entered it into the 2009–2010 Hippodice contest where it caught the attention of a couple of well-known German publishers on the contest jury. At the time I was very excited. I believed I’d created a game that felt like the real deal.

I was very grateful to Hippodice and to the interested parties in Germany, but I can clearly see now how the game flattered to deceive. Yes, it looked the part, but there was far too much work still to do. It was very attractive, but it was just very attractive chaff.

Roll on three years and things look very different. I dug up the game after its long slumber in November, and re-imagined the game completely. I jettisoned almost everything, and have wrestled the game through repeated and sometimes faltering playtests over the past four months into its current form.

And it’s very close. It’s nearly there. I had an excellent playtest at the weekend in the rarified company of Alan Paull and David Brain and it was interesting and gratifying to see how these two hardcore strategists tackled the game’s tactical core. I like it; they liked it. But I’m not sure I’ve quite excised all the chaff just yet, so there is still a bit of work.

And there’s still a little boat, too. Everyone loves the little boat.

Sparkle

Other than some low-grade sniggering from my game designer chums about my choice of name, this one has gone from start to finish (well, nearly) in just a few weeks, and with very little resistance. Or at least, that’s how it seems. But I think the reason it’s become so solid so fast is because its ingredients have all been stewing in my head for a good long while.

Sparkle is a tile game; and if you want to know what kind of tile game, Pete Burley’s classic Take It Easy! springs immediately to mind as a suitable exemplar. It’s got hexes, colours and connections, and each player builds their own layout of tiles. It’s very different in execution, but is very much (and quite deliberately) aimed in the same direction.

It is the specifics of all those elements — the nature of the hexes, colours, connections and layout — that have all been harvested from distinctly different game ideas and somehow crystallised into a coherent whole. Somewhat miraculously, the pieces fit; and where they failed in isolation they have flourished in combination.

Which means that the journey really isn’t nearly as short as it appears.

I do have high hopes for Sparkle. It plays 2–6; it’s colourful and engaging; it’s permissive — by which I mean that it never tells the player “Don’t do that!” — and has a very short ruleset. In short, it already does everything I want it to do.

And it’s pleasingly light on chaff, I’d say.

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Systematic Wonder

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Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world. In its mundane form, the methodical instinct prevails and the result, an orderly procession of papers, advances the perimeter of knowledge, step by laborious step. Great scientific minds partake of that daily discipline and can also suspend it, yielding to the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free. And then Einstein imagines himself riding a light beam, Kekule formulates the structure of benzene in a dream, and Fleming’s eye travels past the annoying mold on his glassware to the clear ring surrounding it — a lucid halo in a dish otherwise opaque with bacteria — and penicillin is born. Who knows how many scientific revolutions have been missed because their potential inaugurators disregarded the whimsical, the incidental, the inconvenient inside the laboratory?

Lewis, Amini & Lannon
A General Theory of Love

Science produces ignorance, and ignorance fuels science. We have a quality scale for ignorance. We judge the value of science by the ignorance it defines. Ignorance can be big or small, tractable or challenging. Ignorance can be thought about in detail. Success in science, either doing it or understanding it, depends on developing comfort with the ignorance, something akin to Keats’ negative capability.

Stuart Firestein
Ignorance: How It Drives Science

[S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

John Keats
Letters of John Keats to his Family and Friends

All these quotes come straight from Brain Pickings (one, two, three), Maria Popova’s endlessly fascinating parade of wise observations and quotes, which she carefully curates and places into context from an impressively large and varied collection of sources. Read one post, follow the links, and you’re off down the rabbit hole, something new and unexpected at every turn.

Maria’s mission is to find the unregarded — in art, science, philosophy, design, technology, history, technology — and to reveal it, with the express intention of finding new connections. Bravo!

Creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force.

Maria Popova

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Gaming with Designers: Trust no one

In which I report on last weekend’s session, during which six game designers played games old and new, although not necessarily all at the same time.

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Kill Doctor Lucky — James Ernest (Cheapass Games, 1996)

It is always a problem finding games that play up to 6, if not beyond, and first to the table was my now positively antique copy of the original Cheapass edition of this title. It’s a curious and amusing twist on the familiar Cluedo country-house murder trope: The players are all would-be killers, desperately trying to catch the eponymous Doctor Lucky alone in one of the rooms of the sprawling family manse long enough to kill him. Each attempt — for example, I actually managed to dispatch him rather quickly in the first game by the judicious use of a ‘tight hat’ — can be foiled by the other players, but the trick is try to get the other players to empty their hands of ‘failure’ cards before you do, so increasing the chance that your next murder attempt will succeed.

It’s cute, and played with the right degree of complicity, funny, but it’s not without its flaws. The turn order is annoyingly jumpy, and can mean that some players can sit for a long time waiting for a chance to do anything at all. The card draw is very choppy, so can land you with a uselessly powerful hand, and the game is, usually — unless you have a tight hat, it seems! — brought to an end through collective and lengthy attrition, and firmly outstayed it welcome second time around.

Again, it is a cute idea, and there are plenty of games out there which get by on less even than that. But perhaps it is simply showing its age. Games and gamers have moved on since 1996. I think I have.

Escape — Kristian Amundsen Østby (Queen Games, 2012)

I tried this first at Essen last year, when its name was on everyone’s lips. And this one really is a clever piece of design; the cleverest part of all being it can only ever take 10 minutes. We played with and without the curses and treasures expansion, and were not, as a group, that sure about what it added, other than complexity; possibly necessary complexity, once you’ve explored the regular game enough, but complexity nonetheless.

My question would be, as much fun as it is, is there something inherent in its form that will limit its ability to claim the holy grail of game design: replayability. I think I would tire of it quickly, and I think I know why: Games are, for me, about the journey, and my issue with Escape’s journey is not that it is merely short, but rather that it is, in a different sense, fleeting. The moments of the game come and go so quickly that they cannot be properly appreciated. It’s like skim-reading great literature or skipping to the last page of the mystery novel. It’s just the punchline, and not the joke.

Heimlich & Co. — Wolfgang Kramer (Ravensburger, 1984)

This was another game from my personal collection, this one collected for next-to-nothing from a charity shop, back in the day when you could actually find decent stuff like classic Ravensburger games in charity shops. I had always wanted to give it a try, but never got the chance; and it was useful that I brought it since the chunky wooden pieces were excellent avatars for our games of Kill Doctor Lucky!

For me, this narrowly edged out the next game as the best of the afternoon. And you really can’t knock it. I mean, it won the Spiel des Jahres! In 1986!

To be honest I sensed a certain chill amongst my gaming colleagues when I laid it out in front of them. It’s such a simple, simplistic even, proposition: secret identities and ‘roll and move’. That’s it? Yes! That’s it. And what it demonstrates is how much game there can be in such a small set of precepts (which is another thing that can definitely be said about the next game, too!). And where Kill Doctor Lucky was cute, this is actually smart.

I am — God knows! — a ‘less is more’ man, but I know that less is more difficult than it looks — and Heimlich & Co. makes it look oh so easy.

The Resistance — Don Eskridge (Indie Boards and Cards, 2009)

I was a Resistance newbie, and I am certainly a convert. It takes the well-known Werewolf setup of unknown assailants and group deception, and boils it down to the purest, strongest, but most drinkable of liquors. It provides just enough structure to make the game run, and then stands back and let’s the players get on with it. And by ‘get on with it’ I mean lie and argue and bluster and accuse and generally get in each other’s faces. Saint Francis of Assisi famously sought to bring harmony where there was discord: The Resistance does precisely the opposite. And with the absolute minimum of fuss.

So my advice is: Go play this game! But I have a proviso: Don’t play it with other game designers. As a breed, I can’t help feeling we’re all just a little too skilled in the art of bare-faced lying to ever be trusted.

Coup — Rikki Tahta (La Mame Games, 2012)

Last up was this tiny little morsel which, like Escape, won a lot of mindshare at last year’s Essen, although this one did it with appreciably fewer resources at its disposal. I very much liked the concept — after all, microgames are close to my heart — but not all microgames are born equal. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s not always a guarantee. For the brand new player, parsing the actions and interactions of the money and the different cards is harder than it should be, and I have to believe there is a better way to represent them than the over-sized spreadsheet-like player aid.

The game does begin to run more smoothly once players are up to speed (which is of course an unremarkable observation about almost every game), but once they have, I sensed a sort of procedural nature to our play. To be fair, and this is true of all the games we played, the way a particular group chooses to play could definitely make all the difference, but I don’t think Coup is nearly as generous and as open as The Resistance is, in this sense: that the game feels as though it requires significantly more complicity on the part of the group to be played with the texture and interest that appear to be the designer’s intent.

Which, perhaps, is a rather too self-consciously analytical way of saying something simpler: That, all things considered, I think I’d rather play something else.

Or maybe it was just all the other game designers I had foolishly chosen to play with. Yes, that was it: They ruined it for me!

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