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

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My Games: The Story So Far / Part 1

In which I finally get round to discussing and making notes on all my board and card game designs, principally to stop me forgetting about them.

And, rather like the producers of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, I have decided to split what would otherwise have been an overly long and plot-heavy broadcast into two parts. Part 2 will be along shortly!

I have been meaning to write this post since the moment of BrettSpiel’s inception at the beginning of the year. The blog is intended, after all, to be an examination and discussion of board game design, and since I am a board game designer then the ‘elephant in the room’ has always been my own designs.

In a manner similar, I feel sure, to many hobbyist designers I have a growing ‘back catalogue’ of game prototypes; some, all or none of which would benefit from some significant and dedicated development efforts. Unfortunately I struggle sometimes to even remember them, let alone give them the attention they deserve; hopefully this list will help in these endeavours!

To begin at the beginning

The prototypes are presented here in chronological order (based on when I first had the idea for each game) and for each design I give the intended number of players, an estimate of the typical length of each game and the relative complexity of its gameplay (compared to my other games, not the universe of published games).

In addition I indicate the current design stage of each game: that is, how far I consider the development process to have progressed. Some games are, as far as it is ever practicable, finished; others are little more than scribbles in my notebook. Most are somewhere in between: prototypes that have been tested and found wanting, but that still contain within them the promise of a better game — perhaps even a good one! — and are waiting for me to revisit and revise them… one day…

Loop

Players

2–6

Length

15–30 minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Refined prototype deck and rules

This was my first design, and its conception lead in some sense to all the others. Had I never been inspired to design Loop then I may never have been inspired to discover modern eurogames, nor to persist in trying to design them myself. The game is actually rather elegant and innovative (I think): a card game that plays like a more traditional board game, albeit a board game without dice. Of all my games this remains the one that is dearest to my heart; one day, Loop will rise!

Fun fact! Although there is no way to discern the connection in the final design Loop was born out an attempt to reimagine the Sherlock Holmes Card Game, which always had wonderfully produced cards but unsatisfactory gameplay.

Stack

Players

2–5

Length

10–? minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but critically flawed!

Flushed with the success of Loop I probably imagined that game design was easy. Stack was my next design and ably demonstrated the folly of that intensely naive opinion. Interestingly it remains my only prototype to feature player elimination, but unfortunately doesn’t do that anything like as efficiently as it needs to. Although it went through several playtested iterations I never addressed the central flaw: that the game can, both in theory and practice, go on forever.

Jump / Balance / Switchback

Players

2–4

Length

15–30 minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but deck needs ‘balancing’

As you can see, this next game has had something of an identity crisis, although I am now happy with its latest (and last?) moniker: Switchback. There is definitely a game here and I really like the core mechanism which makes use of both sides of the cards in (as far as I know) a unique manner.

However, the card values and their distribution need to be rethought to create the right level of tension in the game, and to ensure the game’s ‘direction’ takes the players where I want them to go. My most recent iteration somehow managed to illuminate more clearly than any before it the true core of the game, although my reach is still slightly exceeding my grasp. Close, but no cigar.

Loop, Stack and Switchback were a sequence of game designs that seemed to flow from one to the other, although they have nothing in common mechanistically. They are all abstract family card games of a very similar level of complexity, a complexity that is just a little above that of many popular family card games (think Uno but with a bit more tactical decision-making). That style of game just seemed to be hard-wired into my brain at the time.

In developing Loop I had gone through numerous deck distributions and card designs, and the process had allowed me to hone the practical skills needed to produce playable prototype card decks (eventually discovering the best stationery product ever for doing this). And since I had now acquired this skill, and since there was tremendous fun to be had just designing and printing cards, I stuck with card games for my next few designs, although stylistically these designs clearly stand apart from what came before.

Amongst Thieves

Players

2–6

Length

20–40 minutes

Complexity

‘Grown-up’ card game

Design stage

Refined prototype deck and rules

This game had a very long gestation period, starting out as an entirely abstract and relatively simple card game before slowly acquiring a wider array of card types and the trappings of a richer and recognisably ‘eurogame’ theme.

Although in no sense an auction game (a genre of games that I have never particularly enjoyed), it does have an element of bidding, with some set collecting, hand management, light bluffing and guesswork thrown in, all run through with a wide seam of direct player interaction. In other words, I always thought it would have wide appeal and genuine commercial potential.

And with a little luck that potential could — just maybe — be realised. I entered Amongst Thieves into the 2008 Premio Archimede game design competion in Venice and, has already been reported in these pages, it was placed 9th by the competition jury. Since then the game has been seen by a cadre of European publishers and I remain hopeful that one of them will have the faith to bring Amongst Thieves to market… eventually. Cross fingers!

The Other Hat Trick

Players

3

Length

30 minutes

Complexity

‘Grown-up’ card game

Design stage

Refined prototype deck and rules

This is another design for which I have always had a soft spot. As a card game it is notable: it is for three players only, and uses a deck of just 17 cards. Part of my original aim was to design a game with a minimal deck; the fact that it is three-player only and has such a whimsical theme (and name) both came later, growing out of that primary design constraint.

The Other Hat Trick’s higher complexity and ‘grown-up’ rating is a function of its slightly tricky deduction-based gameplay. It started out as another thing entirely — albeit a design that did indeed involve rabbits — but somehow completely transformed itself during the design process into something quite, quite different.

How Many Beans Make Five? / Run For It!

Players

2–4

Length

15 minutes

Complexity

Children’s card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but needs to be more fun!

The design constraint that provided inspiration for How Many Beans Make Five? (which has only recently acquired a new focus and name) was that this would be a card game in which the players had no ‘hands’; all the cards would be on the table at all times. The beans in question were coffee beans, and I imagined a game that could be played on a coffee shop table, but would, in both senses, be ‘hands free’ for most of the time . Good idea (I think); poor initial execution (I’m certain).

The new name Run For It! reflects a recent reworking of the game, although the ‘hands free’ concept survives. The game was always intended to be a relatively simple set collecting game, but it needs an extra ‘push your luck’ dimension to make it interesting enough; only time will tell if I can figure out a way to make that work as I would like. Until then this one remains half-cooked.

And how many beans do make five? Well, that would be one bean, two bean, one-and-a-half and half a bean, of course!

Treasure Fleets

Players

2–4

Length

30 minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but values need tweaking

Treasure Fleets is very nearly done. I am happy with the overall narrative of the game, and in playtests everything has played out largely as I intended, but not quite. In essence it is a blind bidding game, although if that really was all there was to it I would probably hate it… perhaps ‘half-blind’ is a better description?

As far as I am concerned, players needs to have just enough knowledge about the game to be able to make positive choices, but not so much that it degrades into something closer to a perfect-information puzzler. It is a balance I think I am close to striking, but the values of the players’ bidding resources, and indeed the values of the rewards for which they are bidding, both need tweaking.

Overall Treasure Fleets is a fairly light, fairly quick game with some fun ancillary components and the promise of a surprise ending. And if my game design heart lies anywhere, then it is, I think, mostly likely to be found in that territory!

This seems like a very good place to pause on the jaunt through the byways of my game design career and reflect on how far we've come.

So far, the story has been one of a mild obsession with card games, although for a novice designer I would argue that card games are an excellent place to start. They are portable and hence easily playtested, and they can be trivially easy to prototype. Do you have a few spare packs of regular playing cards lying around? And a marker pen? What about a pencil, some sheets of paper or card, and a pair of scissors? If so, what’s stopping you?

There is also a sense in which the medium itself limits the complexity of your designs; and limits are good, particularly for the novice. Don’t start by imagining how easy it will be to design a board game with hundreds of pieces, buckets of dice, a small mountain of cardboard chits and multiple card decks. Or rather, don’t start imagining how easy that is without first realizing how hard it is to design a game with just a single deck of cards.

I don’t mean to sound preachy, or to discourage ambition, only to pass on the benefit of my experience and hard-won wisdom. Here’s the thing: I started out thinking it was going to be ‘easy’; I was wrong. Big time.

Part 2 will bring this journey up to date, and showcase some games that throw off the shackles of my original card-based mindset. This means, amongst other things, board games with (sharp intake of breath!) actual boards. Whatever next!?

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Higgledy Piggledy Reiner Knizia!

‘Dactyl’ is a term used in formal English poetry to describe a trisyllabic metrical foot made up of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones; which means that, for example, the word ‘met-ri-cal’ is in fact a dactyl.

And no, I didn’t know that either, at least not until a couple of days ago.

Any name, word or phrase that is comprised of two dactyls is, unsurprisingly, referred to as a ‘double dactyl’; furthermore, ‘double dactyl’ is also the name of a very rigid (and ideally humourous) verse form. Which is all hopefully thoroughly enlightening; more interesting is the fact that the name ‘Reiner Knizia’ is a double dactyl. This fact explains the following:

Higgledy piggledy
Reiner Knizia,
Board game designer and
Weaver of dreams,

Often incorporates
Quite analytical
Counterintuitive
Scoring regimes.

Henceforth I shall be on the lookout for other board game personalities with suitable names. Any ideas?

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Quotables #007

The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

Oscar Wilde

This line is taken from Wilde’s preface to his classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde added the preface to later editions of the book to address initial criticism of the novel, and to explicitly spell out his view of the role of the artist and the value of art.

I’m not smart enough to engage in an epistemological discussion of Wilde’s philosophy of art, but I guess my point in presenting the quote is to make a connection between Wilde’s view that ‘all art is useless’ and the lot of the game designer. It is of course valid to ask of a designer: ‘Why do you design games?’ But it is important to point out that there is no validity in the answer: ‘To make games.’

The designer, like the artist, must be able to see in his ‘useless thing’ something other than the thing itself. For my part I’m not sure that I know what I see in my games, at least not yet. If I ever come up with a convincing answer I’ll let you know!

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LEGO Board Games: Interview with Cephas Howard

In which I am lucky enough to get the scoop on the new LEGO board games from Cephas Howard, the lead designer of all 10 games, and discover more about the games’ genesis and his own game design philosophy.

When I requested (in a fit of rhetorical whimsy!) that ‘the real Cephas Howard stand up and make himself known’ I did not for one moment expect him to do so. I am therefore profoundly grateful to Cephas for getting in touch with me after reading my earlier posts, and for subsequently being so open and generous in sharing his experiences and insights, thereby allowing us all a glimpse of the remarkable development program undertaken at LEGO.

Cephas is a British game designer who, for the past three years, has been leading a mammoth design effort at LEGO. The initial tranche of 10 games are available online now in the UK LEGO shop; they will soon be available more widely in UK and Europe, and will see a widespread international release in 2010. LEGO is a global toy brand and their bold move into the board game market is notable for many reasons. But who is Cephas, and how did he come to be spearheading such a remarkable endeavour?

Cephas describes a childhood experience of designing games to play with family and friends that I think will be familiar to many adult game designers, although even at that age his approach seems preternaturally rigourous: repeatedly playing and evolving the games with his two brothers before sharing them with their friends. However, few children grow up actively wanting to be game designers, even if the ‘bug’ is never lost, and though he continued to maintain notebooks of game ideas (a practice I would definitely recommend!) he otherwise pursued a professional design career within the publishing industry.

The roll of the die

The opportunity at LEGO arose at a time when Cephas was actively looking to self-publish two of his own games. He had quotes from manufacturers, he had a website, he had business cards; and then he saw an advertisement for the job at LEGO and events took an entirely unexpected turn. He says that he had always dreamed of working for LEGO as a boy and, as an adult, continued to admire the brand and the toys. Here, then, was his chance. He applied for the position and — to quote Cephas — ‘lo and behold’ landed the job based on his past portfolio, his enthusiasm and ideas, and what was perhaps a true meeting of minds with his future bosses.

And then the real work began, and for Cephas the ‘real battle’ was to convince LEGO to launch with many games, not just one. This is clearly a battle he convincingly won, and now, three years after Cephas designed his first LEGO game, the trademark ‘buildable’ dice and the entire range of 10 games is finally available for the public to play.

One of the aspects I believe is necessary for getting your games launched is to have a belief in yourself and your ideas, and the ability to convince others and make believers of them also.

Cephas Howard

Many designers might have been humbled by both the scale of the project and the fact that the envisioned product range was something genuinely new to LEGO and therefore not without significant commercial risk. Cephas, however, gives the impression of a man both utterly undaunted by such concerns and incredibly eager to get going. In his first year alone he developed around 30 game ideas.

The deliberate focus of the launch range of games were children in the age range 6–10 years old, and from the outset the games were constantly being evolved and playtested with groups of children from Germany, the UK and the US. Cephas’ express hope is to encourage children familiar with LEGO but who do not have the ‘game bug’ to play, and that within the first 10 games there is a range of experiences that contains ‘something for everyone’, including the grown-ups.

Cephas describes LEGO itself as a great prototyping tool: fast, flexible and endlessly rebuildable. Most of his game ideas came to him without a preconceived ‘theme’, and were the result of exercises in investigating possible game mechanisms and different uses of LEGO bricks. These ideas could be quickly playtested in-house before being presented to the playtest groups. Only later in the process did he begin to try out possible ‘stories’ that could be applied to the games to create a sense of narrative play for the children.

Although Cephas has been the lead designer on the games it is clear that a large team of developers and designers within LEGO have been at his side, and that he and his team have wisely sought counsel from some carefully chosen experts. Of all the games, the flagship title Ramses Pyramid is alone in featuring a well-known designer’s name on the box: that of Reiner Knizia, who is very possibly the best known game designer at work today.

It was great getting to playtest my game ideas with Reiner and just tap into his huge vault of experience. He is a great character and a fantastic games designer.

Cephas Howard

Cephas worked with Knizia on both Ramses Pyramid and Lunar Command specifically, but Knizia also acted as a consultant on the project as a whole and continues to work with LEGO on future games.

Cephas also has praise for Bernie DeKoven’s book ‘The Well-Played Game’. “I have also been inspired by the thinking of DeKoven, and his idea of the ‘well-played game’. He suggests you should be able to break or change the rules of a game if this is necessary to play it well together.”

Build – Play – Change

The concept of a breakable, changeable, rebuildable game is the central conceit of the entire range. LEGO’s tagline for the games is ‘Build - Play - Change’ and the game rules themselves contain an explicit challenge to players to do just that. The players are actively encouraged to change the board or the dice, to break the rules; to not just play the game, but to play with the game.

We give you the express permission to change the game we have designed.

Cephas Howard

“First you build your game,” says Cephas. “This creates a bond and a greater sense of ownership, immersion and understanding of the game for the kids. It also gives them the confidence to change it later on.”

“Next you play. The games all have good, solid game experiences that can be played over and over, and allow kids to have fun with their friends and family while doing so.” Cephas points out that truly social play is something that LEGO has not always offered, but that these games allow parents to be genuinely involved in LEGO play with their children.

“Then you change. Now if gets interesting!” Cephas explains that each game provides new ideas for gameplay, including not just advanced rules but also the challenge to children to get creative, albeit with the wise suggestion to try out one idea at a time so that they can see what works and hopefully learn why.

“The dice we designed sums all of this up in itself,” says Cephas. “You build it, play with it, and can change it. And it creates the element of chance in all our games which means that any player has a chance of winning a strategic game.”

The dice is the one physical element common to all the games and its image is used across their packaging and as an icon for LEGO’s marketing of the new products. The notion of designing a ‘buildable’ dice for a line of new LEGO games may seem obvious, but the project began with the assumption that any dice used would be wooden. It was Cephas’ suggestion that just such a buildable dice was needed, although he freely admits that many people were involved in creating the final design, which took the company 16 months to perfect.

Image: Cephas built the first prototype from existing LEGO pieces, but it had no weight and often landed on its edge. The very next day the team used ‘rapid prototyping’ technology to produce the second prototype, and then spent 16 months perfecting the design. The final dice design is a two-part mould, with an ABS core and a rubber outer that creates a near-silent roll. The design also allows players to easily change the panels on the side of the dice, while at the same time ensuring that they never come off during play.

In addition the games demanded the design of a completely new LEGO ‘microfig’ that would occupy a single LEGO ‘stud’ when placed onto a gameboard. Given the importance of this component, its design, like that of the dice, was iterated extensively before the final production microfig was born.

Image: The Ascent of Man Microfig.

Climbing the mountain

There is a story to be told about the genesis and evolution of each of the games, but to illustrate some of the ways in which individual games changed Cephas chose the example of Lava Dragon. The game is a ‘simple’ race game: the first player to reach the top of the mountain and command the dragon wins; along the way players try to block their opponents or even push them off the mountain with the special ‘lava stick’.

The game began as an Alpine adventure (photos 1 and 2). The very first prototype was not even a game, rather just a model used to illustrate the concept to the first group of kids the team showed it to.

“When I first test games they are very basic looking,” says Cephas. “Just a few bricks and a dice. The principle is to test the game idea; if that works then we start to dress and theme the game in stages, testing as we go, evolving the built set and the rules at the same time.”

Unseen in the photos, but part of the game from the beginning, is the dice. The game’s innovative core mechanism is that the coloured panels on the dice (which correspond to the player colours) are added to the dice during the game and so the dice configures differently each time. Players roll the dice in turn, but all of the players can move on any roll if their colour comes up. “You might end up moving with every roll,” expains Cephas. “No more waiting for your turn to be engaged in the game.”

As the game developed the setting was changed from an Alpine setting to a volcanic one (photo 3), and the game’s ‘trophy’ became a dragon (photo 4). Cephas explains that the so-called ‘lava stick’ both inspired and arose from this transition: “It gave the possibity to eject a player from the mountain back to the bottom in a very physical and rewarding manner. The players’ men really pop off nicely!”

Image: Prototypes illustrating four stages in the development of Lava Dragon.

The wisdom of children

Cephas describes an exhaustive program of playtesting the entire range of games. The team held weekly playtest sessions with groups of children, introducing new ideas to them at very early stages, often before any formal rules had been written. These groups included new children each week, so that each time even the experience of playing a board game using LEGO would be new.

“Playtesting with your friends is never enough,” observes Cephas. “You must have total strangers play your games and be brutally honest about them. Kids are good like that. They tell it like it is. Then listen to what they say and make changes. I don’t mean do exactly what they say, merely listen to what they are saying and why they are saying it. Usually you, the designer, will be able to fix any problems much better than they will, but you might never spot those problems if they didn’t point them out.”

Accept that some games just don’t work and can’t be saved; be prepared to let them go and move on.

Cephas Howard

Cephas suggests that most game designs are unpublishable, principally because, in his opinion, the game designer designed the game that he wanted to play and did not give enough thought to what others would enjoy. “Don’t design it for yourself, design it for others to enjoy. This might actually mean you no longer really enjoy playing the game you designed, but as long as everyone else does then you have succeeded. Remember, if you are publishing it then it is work, it is a business; it is no longer about you nor about trying to design the perfect game for you.”

From the second you decide to publish a game it is no longer truly yours.

Cephas Howard

Cephas highlights that the purpose of the playtesting sessions was never to simply ‘rubber stamp’ an already established game idea but to allow those ideas to evolve and improve as much as possible before they were made available to the public. Which, of course, is not intended to be the end of a process, but just the beginning.

“We believe it is truly bringing the LEGO experience to games in a way we’ve never done before,” says Cephas, whose personal wish is to see the games continue to evolve in the hands of everyone who buys them. “I am just trying to give them a solid starting point. Designing, refining and experimenting with games should be every bit as much fun as playing them.” And from everything Cephas has told me, it sounds as if he has indeed had a great deal of fun. Lucky him!

As for LEGO the die may now be well and truly cast, but given the care and creativity with which these games have been designed success seems assured; luck, I think, won’t come into it.

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Quotables #006

I am mindful that this blog is billed as being about board game design, so any quotes that are not at least tangentially related to that subject, or at the very least to design in general, are probably best kept to a minimum. And so I want to reassure you, dear reader, that it is not my intention to slowly create something that is by degrees a little less Agricola and a little more Oprah.

Having said that, I recently found both of quotes and rather liked them, and frankly I can pretty much do what I like.

If we did everything we were capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.

Thomas Edison

How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Anne Frank

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Game Preview: Carcassonne: The Wheel of Fate

Now, I am as big a Carcassonne fan as the next guy, but it’s just possible that the game has already seen its fill of useful and attractive expansions (there have been around 15 separate expansions of one sort or another).

See more: Game Reviews…

However, it appears that if something ain’t broke then there is no reason to fix it, and the expansions just keep coming. And now we have Carcassonne: Das Schicksalsrad (which translates as ‘Wheel of Fate’) which looks like fun, and is hopefully more entertaining than the faintly ludicrous and relatively poorly received Carcassonne: Catapult which was published last year. I am something of a Carcassonne completist, but even I baulked at forking out my hard-earned cash for the springy wooden tongs and few extra tiles in the Catapult box.

Image: The so-called ‘wheel of fate’ sits somewhat awkwardly amid the Carcassonne landscape as the ‘pink pig of destiny’ trots around, delivering the good and bad in roughly equal measure.

Without having sight of the rules it’s impossible to know for sure how this expansion plays out, but it looks as though a new 4×4 board is placed in the middle of the layout and creates a new starting block for the tile laying. It seems likely that in certain circumstances during the game players will have the opportunity to commit a meeple to a position on the wheel rather than place one into the layout. A selection of new tiles is mixed in with the existing stock, including some with new wheel symbols showing a numeral (1, 2 or 3 by the looks of it) which presumably, when drawn, trigger the movement of the pink pig around the central wheel.

As with other expansions, these new elements will doubtless require a complex set of corollaries to existing rules to allow all the different expansions to be integrated successfully, but that’s all just part of the fun. Given the array of different game mechanisms and scoring opportunities introduced with each new expansion there is the possibility of mild hysteria setting in when trying to play with all of them, and that’s all part of the fun too.

You don’t have to be mad to play ‘mega-Carcassonne’, but it helps.

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