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

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Game Design 101: Simplicity

In which I consider (some of) John Maeda’s so-called ‘Laws of Simplicity’: what they are, what they mean, and how we might apply them to board game design.

I recently stumbled across the website of John Maeda, an American designer, artist and technologist who has written, amongst other things, a book called ‘The Laws of Simplicity’. The book’s subtitle is ‘Design, Technology, Business, Life’ and helps to explain the book’s focus. He is not primarily concerned with the inherent simplicity of the thing itself — be it a product, service or piece of technology — rather with the simplicity of the way in which we, as users, are permitted to interact with it.

In the book he enumerates 10 laws which should govern the process of ‘interaction’ or ‘experience’ design. The website lists these laws and explains a little about some of the concepts, although anyone interested in a full exposition is (reasonably enough) required to buy the book.

Board game design may not get a mention in Maeda’s book (I don’t know; I haven’t read it) but it seems to me that at least some of his laws apply just as well to game design as they do to other fields. After all, is not ‘interaction design’ an ideal description of what a game designer actually does?

Before we start the discussion of the laws themselves, I think it’s important to reiterate Maeda’s thesis, principally by stating what it is not: what he is not saying is that the objective of all design is somehow to create a ‘simple thing’. Instead he is saying that the ‘system’ being designed — the product, service, technology or indeed board game — may indeed be complex, and necessarily so, but that the ‘user’ — the game player in our case — will always benefit if the interaction with the system can be made as simple as possible.

And I personally think this must be true in all cases: for all ‘systems’ and all ‘users’. Anything less deliberately devalues the system in question, and is something of a slap in the face to the user! Anything less is (simply) bad design.

In Maeda’s scheme, each law is given a short title and a one-sentence description. (Maeda also created simple graphic representations of each law, which I include in this article.) I said I was only going to consider some of Maeda’s laws, and it is his first four that seem to me to have the most to tell us about game design:

  • Law 1: Reduce
    The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
  • Law 2: Organize
    Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
  • Law 3: Time
    Savings in time feel like simplicity.
  • Law 4: Learn
    Knowledge makes everything simpler.

Some of the laws might be criticised as mere restatements of ‘common sense’. I personally think that even a restatement of the blindingly obvious can be useful, not least because so-called common sense isn't perhaps as common as it sounds!

Law 1: Reduce

Law 1 states that ‘the simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction’, which is essentially a restatement of the ‘less is more’ principle albeit with the important corollary that any reduction must be ‘thoughtful’. Creating something that is less than it otherwise might be just for the sake of it is most definitely not the point.

How might this principle be applied to game design? First, remember that Maeda’s brand of simplicity refers to the user’s interaction with the system — the player’s interaction with the game — and not directly to the game itself. So one interpretation of the law is to consider the simplicity of the game rules and their presentation to the players (usually as a printed ruleset).

Any gamer knows that overly complex printed rules can be a massive stumbling block to new players of a game. And I think it’s clear that necessarily complex rulesets are intrinsically better, precisely because they are ‘simpler’. By ‘necessarily complex’ I mean rules that are as complex as they need to be but no more. Incomplete rules are just as bad, if not worse, than complete but badly written ones.

Writing a good ruleset is tough, and judging it ‘goodness’ is subjective (different readers will of course have different reactions and opinions), but I think adopting a principle of ‘thoughtful reduction’ is an excellent place to start!

Are the rules the only place that the game player interacts with the game? Not at all; every game component — the board, pawns, cards, dice, scorepads, etc. (the list is endless!) — each represent a point at which the player ‘meets’ the game. Hence they too are at their best if they are only ‘necessarily’ complex, and the intent behind the design of all these elements should be to make the game appear as simple and straightforward as possible. This statement doesn’t mean we should ‘dumb down’, by the way, or that all illustrative or whimsical design elements should be ruthlessly removed, only that features that may trip up or confuse the player should be removed or reconsidered through a process of (you guessed it!) ‘thoughtful reduction’.

What else can the game designer do? Well, if all else fails, he can simplify the game itself. Here we deviate a little from Maeda’s thesis, I think, since as I said he does not concern himself primarily with the simplicity of the thing itself, rather with the simplicity of the way in which people use it. However, the game designer, privileged and god-like, can do more, since he designs not only the solution but also the problem. He designs not only the presentation of the game (through its rules and components) but the essence of the game itself.

And my own experience has been that both evolve at the same time, and hence that there is a genuine opportunity to apply ‘thoughtful reduction’ at every step. Indeed, my own experience is that part of the fun is doing exactly that! For me the game design process can be a wonderful, surprising, alchemical distillation of a collection of problems and solutions into a game ‘system’ whose eventual ‘simplicity’ appeals personally and directly to me.

I constantly wonder if other designers see the process in the same terms, and even if they do I am once again at pains to point out that the need for ‘simplicity’ that Maeda espouses and I find so appealing does not mean that all games must be inherently ‘simple’. The goal of game design is to create a ‘good’ game (an obviously subjective qualification); an ancillary goal of mine is the ‘simplicity’ we have at length been discussing, and which is no less a subjective judgement. Your mileage, as the Americans say, may vary.

Law 2: Organize

Law 2 states that ‘organization makes a system of many appear fewer’, a maxim which allows us to make a direct observation about our ‘necessarily complex’ ruleset: that is, that complexity and structure are not the same thing. A complete, necessarily complex, yet badly structured ruleset can present as big a hurdle to players as an incomplete or needlessly complex one. Again, writing a well organized ruleset is difficult, and writing a perfectly organized one is often impossible! However, the designer must try if they wish to present their game in its best light.

This organization applies equally to the games components too, of course, just as the idea of ‘thoughtful reduction’ did. More specifically it applies to any game elements which contain information important to the gameplay. Components such as game boards, cards and player aids can all be ‘information rich’ and may bewilder the novice. Just because regular players will in time get used to the organization of your game’s information and learn how to adequately ‘read’ the game does not mean you should be careless in its organization and presentation to start with.

Law 3: Time

Law 3 states that ‘savings in time feel like simplicity’. This is a subtle point and makes most sense when applied to the sort of everyday products and services that we interact with, and that can often seem complex purely because they take a long time.

In board game terms, there are a couple of ways to interpret this law. Some games, for example, may take a long time to set up before play can start, a long time to ‘reset’ at certain points during play or perhaps simply a long time to understand. These steps may all be necessary, but it is the responsibility of the designer (or possibly the game developers working to publish a game) to design a game’s components and ruleset in a way that mitigates (as far as is practicable) the effort and time required by the players to undertake these steps.

It is also worth observing that the time taken to play a game is a metric often mapped directly to a game’s complexity and is sometimes used as a sort of shorthand when talking about a game’s strategic depth. So, in the same way that a long game is assumed to be ‘complicated’ by prospective players, a short game is usually assumed to ‘simple’ — this truth is, of course, precisely what Law 3 codifies.

A problem however may arise for the game designer if he creates a game that does not fit these assumptions. It is probably a good thing if you can create a short game that has strategic depth — the gaming community will likely congratulate you on the elegance and power of your design! — but it is conversely probably a bad thing to do the opposite, and create a long game that is strategically weak. At the very least your game is going to be a hard sell: casual gamers will be unlikely to want a game that takes so long to play, while hardcore gamers, more accustomed to longer playing times, may be left dissatisfied by your game’s lack of depth.

Law 4: Learn

Law 4 states that ‘knowledge makes everything simpler’. Maeda’s point is to suggest that a user’s experience of a system (a product or service) will appear simpler (and hence empirically better) the more knowledge the user possesses about the system. It is therefore a plea for the providers and designers of those systems to pay attention to the need to educate their users, possibly subtly and incrementally, about the products and services they create.

Which is all well and good, and fine and dandy, but what help is this possibly obvious observation to the game designer? My own view is that, rather like Law 3, by highlighting a natural assumption this law can offer its own warning to the game designer. It is of course true that knowledge of your game system will help your players experience it more ‘simply’; however, knowledge of other game systems that players bring with them and assume applies to yours may do precisely the opposite!

Your ruleset may indeed be both well structured and necessarily complex, but it is likely that the approach of most of your readers will be neither! New players are usually keen to get going with a game, and may skim through sections of the rules, all the time filling in the bits they haven't read word-for-word with assumptions, however small, about the game’s workings. Only the most diligent and careful readers will both read and take in every sentence. This slightly slapdash approach is simply human nature, and something that I am as guilty of as the next man.

So, as game designers, what can we do to prevent this? What can we do to make a new player’s experience of our game as correct (and therefore as simple) as possible? We can’t prevent people skipping ahead, nor can we know their personal assumptions, but we can do our best to mitigate this problem by putting ourselves firmly in the shoes of the new player. Are there any points in the game where something novel or counter-intuitive occurs? What are the game’s core rules and where are the exceptions to these rules? We must be prepared to think as carefully and as dispassionately about these issues as possible, and to take on board any and all criticism made by playtesters when they come up against these hurdles.

You can’t control whether players will actually like your game; but you can and must do your best to make damn sure they understand it!

The lessons of the laws

Hopefully I have highlighted how Maeda’s first four laws can be applied, usefully, to the process of board game design. As I said earlier, some of these conclusions may seem like nothing more than common sense, but if their analysis can help me (and hopefully you, dear reader) to think with greater clarity and purpose when designing a game then this has to be a good thing.

Of Maeda’s remaining laws, I shall mention only the last two. Law 9 states that ‘some things can never be made simple’, which seems sensible and even-handed advice. There is a lot to be said for these laws, but to follow any code slavishly, or not be prepared to fail when trying to match your design to these specific criteria, is unwise. And if your brilliant idea is somehow irreducibly complex, please do not let these so-called laws stop you from pursuing it!

Maeda presents a tenth and final law that he calls ‘The One’, which attempts to sum up his entire thesis. In a way it is a retelling of his first law, which established the principle of ‘thoughtful reduction’, although this time he points out that what you put in needs to be just as carefully considered as what you take out.

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

John Maeda

A corollary to all these laws is to point out that a thorough process of ‘thoughtful reduction’ will almost always reveal a tension between what you, the designer, wants the thing to be, and what the thing itself needs to be. And the greatest lesson a designer can learn is how not to be driven completely mad by the inability to reconcile these two ideals. Good luck and fair winds!

This article is part of a series examining various aspects of board game design. The story so far can be found at the following locations:

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The Ultimate Dice Tower

I know that computational so-called random number generators aren’t, well, you know, actually random in the truest and most statistically accurate sense of the word, but building a machine capable of rolling over 1.3 million dice a day just to keep GamesByEmail ticking over as unpredictably as possible seems excessive.

However, the machine does have a slightly pointless Heath Robinsonian ‘mad scientist’ charm about it, and for the interested the inventor has posted more details about how the machine came into being. [GamesByEmail via Gizmodo]

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Quotables #001

Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered pot holder.

Raymond Chandler

It would be impolite of me to list all the games which I consider to be the board game equivalent of embroidered pot holders, but Mr Chandler’s point is well made.

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Gallimaufry 22/05/09

In which I catch up on my reporting of recently discovered links of interest.

  • ProFantasy map-building software
    Although principally aimed at a different section of the tabletop gaming community, this software house (which is based in the UK) produces an array of map-building gaming tools. Some of the sample graphics and maps would not look out of place in a eurogame and might provide some inspiration for the hobbyist designers out there.
  • Shapeways 3D printing
    The wonderful world of 3D printing is brought to the masses by Shapeways in the Netherlands. I have seen a few examples of 3D-printed objects, and the technology really is remarkable; and with the coming of companies such as Shapeways, is now also remarkably accessible and affordable. The process can ‘print’ almost any object that can be modelled in 3D with a computer; the technology builds the object as hundreds or thousands of precise layers of a special plastic- or metal-based material laid onto each other. Amazing!
  • Microcubology: YouTube channel / Shapeways store
    And here’s a great example of 3D printing technology in action! Richard Gain is a British puzzle designer who has used Shapeways to produce his concepts as physical prototypes (including some exceptionally small ones!). His YouTube videos explain and demonstrate some of his designs, which you can order direct form Shapeways, if you fancy your own copy.
  • Interactive Carcassonne ruleset
    This isn’t new, but BGG user Aldaron has put together an elaborate webpage which attempts to incorporate all of the many rules and scoring possibilities of Carcassonne and its many expansions. Expand the Settings panel, toggle the expansions in play, and the rest of the page magically updates its summary of the labyrinthine rules and scoring. Possibly not designed for the novice, but a useful aide memoire for more experienced, if forgetful, players. Mind you, I’m a huge Carcassonne fan and even I was befuddled by the odd way in which in-game and game-end scoring is presented in some cases. But overall an impressively obsessive achievement!
  • A Puzzle for Pirates / Scientific American
    An old article from that venerable purveyor of interesting things Scientific American (here preserved for posterity as a PDF) in which the author Ian Stewart introduces and expands upon one of those fiendishly counter-intuitive logic puzzles, which is the sort of thing you either love or hate. I’d never heard the puzzle before, but its a real doozy!
  • UK Games Expo
    And finally a name-check and shout-out for the forthcoming UK Games Expo, which is taking place in Birmingham on the 5th, 6th and 7th June. Good luck and fair winds to Sumeria which I reported on a little while ago, and which is in the running for the UK Game of the Year award!

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Game Review #005: Ingenious

Ingenious, also known as Genius or Mensa Connections, is one of Reiner Knizia’s most successful and well-known designs, and is something of a modern classic. The elegant gameplay and clean, colourful visuals makes this abstract tile-laying game ideal for both children and adults. But don’t let the apparent simplicity fool you! Dr Knizia has once again employed his trademark sparseness of rules to great effect, crafting a game that is light, quick and tactical, but with enough depth to make it a satisfying experience for the more dedicated gamer.

I bought my copy several years ago, but recently played a ‘best of three’ match with Peter which has only served to remind me of why the game deserves its success.

See more: Game Reviews…

In the box you get a large folding board, a bag of tiles, four tile racks, four cardboard scoring tracks (with coloured markers) and the single, double-sided rulesheet. There’s no fiddly set-up or sorting of components, and even a cold reading of the rules will allow most groups to be up and running quickly. Having said that, new players unfamiliar with the typical nuance of Dr Knizia’s design sensibilities are likely to take a few missteps if they are not diligent in checking over each rule carefully. The ruleset is short, but Knizia generally does familiar things a little differently, and it is because of those differences that this game shines.

The players take turns placing a tile from their racks onto the board, drawing a replacement tile at the end of their turn. Points are scored by creating connected lines of similarly coloured symbols (there are six colours in the game). Each tile is a double hexagon, with two symbols, and each symbol on their tile will score if the player can place it adjacent to one or more matching hexagons. There is something very straightforward and familiar about this, and once players get used to counting the connected hexagons (only those in straight lines radiating out from each tile symbol are scored) then the gameplay is smooth and quick.

The players record their individual scores for each of the six colours on their own score track, moving the little coloured cubes along their respective rows. And so it goes, and so it goes, until the board is filled and no more tiles may be laid.

The devil in the details

So where’s the trick? Where, exactly, is the ‘nuance of Dr Knizia’s design sensibilities’? Well, the thing is, the player with the highest overall number of points recorded on his six coloured score tracks doesn’t necessarily win. Knizia’s genius is to force the players to play a much smarter game. The winner (and pay attention here!) is the player with the highest lowest score. That is, each player’s final score is simply the single value represented by their lowest scored colour, and the player whose score (this single value) is the highest wins. This means a player who, let’s say, scores 8 across the board (in each of the six colours) will win against a competitor who manages to score 18 in five of the colours and only 7 in the other.

This one rule turns the entire game on its head. Now a simple landgrab is not enough, and just going for big points in one or two colours isn’t going to help. Somehow players must balance the points they score in each of the six colours, while at the same time attmepting to stop everyone else doing the same thing.

An important feature of the game is that it allows the differing competitive sensibilities of different groups of players to be expressed; it doesn’t force a particular style of play. Specifically, although it can be played aggressively (deliberately blocking scoring opportunities for your opponents, even if these plays score nothing for yourself) it can also be taken rather less seriously and played in a distinctly more friendly, open way. This is what makes it great for kids (and more sensitive adults!); each group can play their way and the game doesn’t demand the complicity of its players (forcing them all to play in some necessarily scripted way) to create a satisfying experience.

And having said that, I think you can guess how Peter and I played! All three of our games were close (just 1 or 2 points decided each) and after roughly the half-way point in each things started to get nasty. At that point in the game you can see in which colours your opponent is weak, and if you can close-down scoring opportunities in those colours (while, of course, maintaining your own scores) then victory is assured. More or less. Things are not that easy, of course, but the theory is sound!

There are a couple of extra wrinkles in the rules put in just to keep things moving. If, after you have laid a tile your rack contains no tiles showing symbols matching your weakest score (which means you would have no immediate opportunity to score that symbol in your next turn) then you may swap all your tiles. This is a pretty important rules that stops the game stagnating and mitigates some of the inevitable ‘luck of the draw’. (And unlike certain other tile-based games the player is not penalized for swapping tiles by being forced to miss a turn to do so.)

The other wrinkle is that if a player reaches the maximum 18 points in any colour he must (a) exclaim ‘Ingenious!’ (or ‘Mensa!’ in my British ruleset) and (b) immediately play an extra tile. (To be honest, part (a) isn’t strictly necessary!) So with this rule the game is pulling players in two different directions: there are benefits to getting high scores, but actually winning is not necessarily one of them.

The god of small things

And so, in conclusion, it’s worth noting how the slim collection of simple ideas presented in Ingenious manifest themselves when played as something that is rather more than the sum of their parts.

Such ascetic parsimony is not the objective of all games or game designers — and nor am I suggesting it should be! — but Knizia’s brand of elegant brevity is something I personally both applaud and aspire to.

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Reflect Tac Toe

Continuing today’s ambigram theme we have ‘XO’. The designer also does a nice line in reflect-o-matic bookends. [Peleg Design via Purple Pawn]

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Ambigrams & Demons

I imagine that you probably already know what an ambigram is, even if you’d never heard of them until Tom Hanks did his brisk walk-and-talk exposition at the beginning of Angels & Demons. Not that I would recommend going to see the film to find out (or, having seen it, for any other reason) — far better that you go to the horse’s mouth, as it were, and visit John Langdon’s site instead.

Or (and I mention this merely in passing) you could always go visit my ambigram site instead! I have very recently spruced up my gallery at www.55cards.com/ambigrams, and so thought I’d give it a plug on BrettSpiel. So go visit! (If the notion of lots of upside-down typographical what-nots and gee-gaws excites you, that is.)

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Report: Premio Archimede 2008 / 2

In which I complete the story of my trip to Venice to attend the Premio Archimede 2008 prize-giving, where the winner is revealed, dinner is eaten, and I meet Leo Colovini at the offices of studiogiochi.

In part 1 I travelled to Venice to discover how my game Amongst Thieves would fare in the final round of the Premio Archimede game design competition. There were plenty of classy looking prototypes in the running, including Euphrates by Edward Volkert, an American designer. He and I shared lunch, a game of Euphrates, and the wait until the main event later in the afternoon…

The moment of truth

Soon everything was in place and the Big Reveal seemed ready, at last, to be revealed! Although most of the presentation was in Italian (of course), both Leo Colovini and Niek Neuwahl (the jury president) were mindful of the few English speakers in the audience and provided translation at key moments.

Image: The competition organizers and jury members gather in front of the expectant crowd. Seated behind the trophies in the middle is Niek Neuwahl, noted game designer and jury president. The gloriously multi-coloured ballot boxes can be seen on the right.

After an introduction, and a dedication of this year’s prize to Alex Randolph, a leading light of game design who was president of the Premio Archimede competition for many years before his death in 2004, Niek announced the top 15 games that would go through to the live voting. At each announcement he introduced the game and then its designer, asking him to stand (if he was present in the audience) and receive polite applause.

And when I heard Niek, in English, announce Amongst Thieves as one of the top 15 I was a little dumb-founded! I duly stood up and was acknowledged by the audience; but after I sat down Niek said something in Italian that elicited a second round of applause. I looked around slightly bemused and embarrassed; but Niek explained (in English this time) that I was being congratulated as being the only overseas designer in the top 15 who had made the trip to Italy!

As each game was announced, the name was stuck onto the large red scoreboard, and the voting procedure for choosing the winner started to become clear. Once the 15 games had been named, the jurors each placed seven ballots into the boxes. Each juror was awarded points to their top seven, awarding 7 points to their top pick, 6 points to their second favourite, etc. Once this was done the votes were counted, in a procedure reminiscent of the Eurovision song contest!

First all the 1-point votes were counted, each one represented by a small cube placed into columns on the towering scoreboard. Then all the 2-point votes, and so on, meaning that it wasn’t until the final rounds that the likely winners began to emerge.

Amongst Thieves received several votes in the early rounds, and my heart was in my mouth whenever my game was named. I think the experience of waiting for the votes to be announced was one of the the most alarmingly exciting things to happen to me in a very long time! My game started well, but in the later rounds I fell rapidly behind the leaders. As you can see in the photo, in the end the winner received so many points that its score was, quite literally, off the chart!

The two games vying for the top spot were Lorenzo il Magnifico by Paolo Mori, and Strada Romana by Walter Obert; only when the final few votes were announced was Paolo’s entry revealed as the jury’s favourite.

My final position was what I consider to be a very creditable 9th place. There was a special award for the best card game, and in these terms I did even better — Amongst Thieves was considered the second best card game in the competition, missing out to Portobello Road by Simone Luciani, which was placed 7th overall.

There was much congratulatory handshaking and awarding of trophies; I went away with my pick of a board game and puzzle provided by two of the event’s sponsors (an Italian edition of Knizia’s Beowulf: The Movie Game and a jigsaw of, randomly, Prague). These prizes presented their own logisitical challenges however, since I had travelled light and had no room for them in my luggage! (This meant a trip to the post office on Monday where an exceptionally helpful and forgiving post-mistress parcelled my two boxes up for me. Thank you nice lady!)

Dinner is served

In the evening there was a celebratory dinner arranged at a Venetian eatery and both Edward and I had signed up. I met him in his hotel for a pre-dinner whiskey (how very colonial) and then convened once again at the IAUV before being led through the dark backstreets of Venice to the restaurant.

There were several members of the international jury in attendance, including Phillip Sprick of Ravensburger. He chatted with us about his work discovering new games and developing them for publication (I think he constantly tours Europe and the world on the lookout for good ideas!), and he was very complementary about Amongst Thieves (he must, I believe, have given it the largest single number of points it received since he said he had rated it in 4th place).

The dinner was a pretty hectic affair, with the small restaurant rather swamped by the turnout, but everyone was very friendly, even if most conversation relied rather more heavily on other people’s English than it did on my Italian (or German)!

And halfway through dinner Leo Colovini invited me to come meet him again the next day at the studiogiochi offices in Venice to discuss Amongst Thieves. Part of studiogiochi’s business is to develop and market not only ideas originated by Leo and his colleagues, but also those from other designers. Leo wanted studiogiochi to be an agent for Amongst Thieves!

Edward and I said our goodbyes after the dinner; he was leaving Venice the next day and flying home to San Francisco soon after. It had been good meet him and share the day’s adventures. Bon voyage, Edward!

The business of games

On Sunday morning I made my way through Venice’s labyrinthine streets to the studiogiochi offices. (Fortunately Leo had drawn a map; I had their address, of course, but Leo had said it would be ‘useless’ given Venice’s arcane geography.)

Leo explained a bit of studiogiochi’s history: it had started out as the publisher Venice Connection (publishing several of Leo’s designs) but the logistical demands of manufacture and publication meant that not enough of their collective efforts were being dedicated to bit of the business they most enjoyed: game design and development. So they sold the Venice Connection brand and set-up studiogiochi to continue their work, now without the worry of the actual making and selling of their games; instead they could focus on being an ‘ideas factory’.

Leo also gave me the exciting news that Phillip Sprick (the jury member who had been so complmentary the night before) had already taken my Amongst Thieves prototype away with him so that he could review and playtest it in more depth back at Ravensburger HQ. Plus, Leo wanted four more copies of the prototypes to take with him to the forthcoming games fair in Essen, the single biggest annual industry event of the gaming world, which was taking place in just a few weeks’ time.

I wished Leo and everyone at studiogiochi well in their endeavours (particularly those on my behalf!) and bid them farewell. My Premio Archimede adventure had come to an end, although I still had two days left in Venice before I flew home. Onward!

A little bit of homework

When I got home, then, there was some work to be done. Since I had to make four copies I couldn’t rely on repurposing the odd cardboard game box picked up in a charity shop, since I didn’t have four matching ones. However, I found a wonderful commercially produced alternative: it seems the Really Useful Box company does indeed live up to its name! Each deck requires 78 cards, so that’s 312 that needed printing in total. All of them double-sided. That’s quite a lot of work — and stationery supplies! and printer ink! — but once I’d gotten into the swing of it things went along very smoothly.

The cards were a millimetre-perfect fit when oriented vertically within the boxes, but the rules needed a little bit of reformatting and general jiggery-pokery to make it simple to print A4 sheets that could be cut down and then folded neatly to slot in beside them. The box inserts are made from strips of cardboard that I printed, cut, folded and glued. All-in-all a job well done, I think!

The four prototypes were parcelled up and sent off to Italy, and I know they were then taken to Essen, where Leo and friends introduced the game (and dispensed the prototypes) to four European games publishers. As of the date of this post there are no major developments to report, but I know the game is still being actively considered. Fingers are, needless to say, very much crossed!

They say patience is a virtue; but why does it have to involve so much waiting?

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Roundup: LEGO Board Games

In which I trawl the internet for everything I can find relating to the forthcoming collection of LEGO board games, due out in August 2009.

When LEGO introduced to the waiting world their new line of ‘buildable’ board games (and the signature bouncing die) at the London and Nuremberg toy fairs there was a flurry of reporting on the gaming newswires. However, the Danes have been rather light-lipped about the whole affair which has meant that much of that reporting has been either incomplete or contradictory. I can’t say for sure that I’ll be any more successful, but hopefully I can do the gaming world a service by at least collecting all the speculation in one place!

Something we do know for certain is that the games will be released in the UK and Europe in August 2009; there seems to be no word of when or if a wider international release is planned (sorry about that North America/rest of the world).

I had seen quite a few photos of the flagship game Ramses Pyramid, which piqued the gamerati’s interest by featuring Reiner Knizia’s name on the cover, but precious little about the other games in the collection. Indeed, how many other games were in the collection? (Some reported 6, some 8; it turns out there’s actually 10!) What were they called? What were they about? What did they look like?

Since the news originally broke there has been scant follow-up so I decided to go hunting on the internet for all the information I could find.

First of all, here are all the games in the collection, together with their sequential LEGO part numbers, and including the number of players supported by each and an indicative game length. The only official-looking pricing I can find is in Euros:

  • Robo Champ (3835) / 2–3 players / 10–15 min. / €9.99
  • Magikus (3836) / 2–4 players / 10–15 min. / €9.99
  • Monsters 4 (3837) / 2–4 players / 10–20 min. €12.99
  • Lava Dragon (3838) / 2–4 players / 15–25 min. / €12.99
  • Race 3000 (3839) / 2–4 players / 20–30 min. / €19.99
  • Pirate Code (3840) / 2–4 players / 20–30 min. / €19.99
  • Minotaurus (3841) / 2–4 players / 20–30 min. / €24.99
  • Lunar Command (3842) / 2 players / 15–25 min. / €24.99
  • Ramses Pyramid (3843) / 2–4 players / 20–40 min. / €29.99
  • Creationary (3844) / 3+ players / 30–60 min. / €34.99

The amount and quality of additional information and images available for each title varies enormously. However two German online retailers (Kidoh and Buecher) both have (incomplete) listings of the games and feature some official box artwork.

Elsewhere on the web I tracked down some ‘spy shot’ photos of a few game boxes, which gives us our first glimpse of Minotaurus and makes it possible to see some more details of Pirate Code, Lunar Command and Creationary.

Official written information about the games is not easy to find. LEGO put out a press release during the Nuremberg toy fair (read it in German or Googlized English) which introduces the tagline of ‘Build – Play – Change’ and makes a point of highlighting Reiner Knizia’s involvement in the development process.

I think it’s clear from the information that is available that the only game that will have Knizia’s name on the box is Ramses Pyramid (elsewhere it has been reported that he designed all the games) but who knows? Perhaps the master’s hand has indeed been more extensively at work behind the scenes (making him a sort of éminence grise of the gaming world!). If LEGO had set out to choose one man to mastermind their expedition into board gaming who better than the Good Doctor?

All the remaining images I’ve found appear to be photos taken at the toy fairs (most likely in Nuremberg) and are of varying size and quality. However each additional detail offers up new clues to the gameplay of each title, and adds to the picture of the collection as a whole. The one game that remains the most mysterious (with no artwork or photos of the box or board) is Lava Dragon.

So, putting it all together, what can we know (or guess) about the gameplay? Let’s start by observing that the games appear to break down into three groups:

  • Creationary seems to stand apart: it is the most expensive (I assume simply because it has the most bricks in it!), comes in the biggest box (for the same reason) and is not played on a board of any sort.
  • Minotaurus, Lunar Command and Ramses Pyramid are the next-most expensive, all come in a big square box, and are all played on a board built on a standard ‘32×32 stud’ LEGO baseplate. These games all look as if they offer the greatest complexity (and the best chance for genuinely strategic gameplay) and are aimed at a slightly older age group (including grown-ups!).
  • The remaining six games (and the six cheapest) are Robo Champ, Magikus, Monsters 4, Lava Dragon, Race 3000 and Pirate Code. These all appear to be played on smaller, possibly modular boards (rather than a single square baseplate), have a lower average game length, and and are all presented in a smaller box.

All the games accommodate 2–4 players, except for Creationary (3+, and given its nature, possibly supporting team play too), Robo Champ (curiously listed as 2–3 players only) and Lunar Command (the only 2-player game in the collection).

  • Creationary’s gameplay (as suggested by the name) appears to be share some DNA with ‘Pictionary’. It looks as though players must create small models of different things (or people, places, etc.) and the other players must guess what those things are. The best model builders and best guessers will, one supposes, gain the most points.
  • Minotaurus looks like a fairly standard roll-and-move race within a maze, with the winner being the first player to get all his men safely from his home corner to the centre of the maze. We can guess that the minotaur menaces the players (capturing them and returning them home to start again) and is either moved automatically (based on a die roll) or by the players themselves. The brick-based twist is that some of the walls are clearly moveable, creating obstacles for the players’ men and the minotaur.
  • Lunar Command looks perhaps the most interesting game to me. It appears to be a head-to-head battle for 2 players, each racing to get their men to the rocket before it leaves. I’m guessing wildly here, but two sides of the board have tracks that converge on a rocket in one corner, with the rest of the board apparently representing the layout of a moonbase. And perhaps there are objects to collect and alien UFOs to avoid? Anyway, it looks like a lot of fun!
  • Ramses Pyramid looks like another race game — grab the little multi-coloured crystals! climb the pyramid! avoid the mummies! — and one can speculate on all sorts of possible gameplay mechanisms. The reason to be interested? Dr Knizia, of course, whose name on the box means that we can be confident that whatever the game is, it’s not just another race game!
  • Magikus (with its Harry Potter-inspired typography!) looks like a simple set-collecting game. If the players are indeed wizards, then it looks as though they are all trying to collect the correct potion ingredients from the multi-coloured shelves. Roll a (coloured) die, grab an ingredient, luckiest player wins? There’s probably more to it than that, but probably not much more.
  • Race 3000 is (obviously!) a race game, with player speeding their mini LEGO cars along the twisty-turny racetrack, possibly using the shortcuts to get ahead. Of all the games this looks like the one that can most easily be customized simply by adding a few more bricks and extending the racetrack. First car past the chequered LEGO flag wins!
  • Pirate Code looks like a sort of multi-player ‘Mastermind’, with each player concealing a ‘code’ of coloured ‘treasure’ in their own treasure chest. I’m not sure exactly how that’s likely to work, but perhaps the game is a ‘last man standing’ battle of logic and deduction… or something.
  • Robo Champ, Monsters 4 and Lava Dragon are complete unknowns in terms of gameplay, so your guess is going to be as good as mine!

So, it seems there is much to enjoy about the whole enterprise, but for me the central conceit of that buildable, bouncing die is the most delightful. Apart from being a great brand image, instantly communicating the entire concept to anyone who has ever seen a LEGO set, it’s also a brilliantly simple, simply brilliant idea.

As some of the images in the gallery above demonstrate the player (and game designer!) can make the die into a perfectly regular one if they want, but the possibilities are endless. By swapping in different faces you can ‘load’ the die to create a range of different probabilities, or introduce coloured faces (in whole or part) or special faces with icons to make the die a trigger for all sorts of gameplay.

As McCoy might have put it: It’s ‘roll and move’ Jim, but not as we know it!

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