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

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Quotables #010

Every designer’s dirty little secret is that they copy other designers’ work. They see work they like, and they imitate it. Rather cheekily, they call this inspiration.

Aaron Russell

Every picture painted owes more to other pictures painted before than it does to nature.

E.H. Gombrich

Both these quotes offer a slightly different take on that hoary old maxim ‘all art is theft’. And my point in repeating them is to highlight the difference between creativity and originality. It’s tough enough for the game designer to be creative. It’s far, far harder to be truly original.

Which, as an old boss use to say — and he said this sort of thing so frequently that most of us ended up hating him for it — is ‘an observation not a criticism’.

I recently opined that Colonia, the sparkling new release from Queen Games, seemed a little too familiar at first sight. Gorgeous, yes, but familiar. Lavishly creative, certainly, but essentially a roll-call of mechanisms, each of which would elicit a quiet nod of recognition from any self-respecting Eurogamer.

And with this year’s SPIEL now a fast-fading memory in the minds of many a gaming maven, there seems little concensus on what ‘the game of the show’ was, or indeed whether there even was one. And if that’s true, then it certainly wasn’t because there was some sort of collective failure of creativity — far from it! — but rather, I would suggest, that there was simply nothing genuinely original on show for the gamers to get their teeth into.

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

Albert Einstein

And I guess I could take Albert’s advice and fail to mention my sources, but I’d much rather point you all at the excellent and inspirational Quotes on Design instead! All art is indeed theft, and so is most blogging.

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Hippodice Update

The Hippodice competition window remains open for a few more days (until November 1st) but I have, unusually, beaten the deadline by finally getting my act together over the past few days and submitting both of the games I mentioned earlier. To submit a game you need to provide two documents: a complete and workable set of rules, plus a short ‘primer’ that includes things like the number of players, the game duration, a list of components and an introduction to the gameplay itself.

On Saturday I sent off the documents for my first submission Archipelago. This is a true family strategy game for 2–4 players, aged 8 and up, that plays in around 30–45 minutes. I say ‘true’ since I think it geninely offers an experience that will keep both children and adults engaged, and a game concept that can be played and enjoyed on differing levels by young and old. The game has a nice mix of (admittedly light) strategy and tactics, but I think the appeal comes from the physicality of the game’s components and gameplay.

With a name like Archipelago, it is probably not completely surprising that it has a modular board made up of islands, but the game also uses a little boat, which you can see in the photograph, plus a nice big bag of 90 multi-coloured meeples! Yay! We love meeples!

I have been looking for a source of small wooden boats ever since I started designing the game back in February, but for now the prototype includes this cut-out origami version that I fashioned, quite successfully I have to say, from some thin card.

And yesterday evening — or rather very early this morning since it was past midnight when I was done! — I also mailed off the documents for my second submission. When I posted about Hippodice earlier this month I mentioned that I was still looking for a name for this second game. Well, I finally found one: the game is now called Jukers! (with an exclamation mark, if you please).

And what, you might ask with good reason, is a ‘Juker’? Well, the name is believed to be the original name of the Joker playing card, and a corruption of the German name for the game Euchre. Around 1860 a single highest trump card was introduced to games of that family, and by 1880 this card was already being represented as a clown or court jester. At least, that’s one theory. Carto-historians seem divided on the matter.

Anyway, my game is a small and quick bidding and card-collecting game for 3 or 4 players, aged 10 and up, that’s all over in just 30 minutes or so. The deck is mostly made up of low-value cards in the four classic suits, but also include a few unpredictable Jokers Jukers in the pack to mix things up.

And so now we wait. The Hippodice club will soon set about the not insubstantial task of reviewing all the submissions received by the November 1st deadline, and choose a certain number to go forward to the playtesting stage. Once notified the successful designers will have then until 1st December to get their prototype to Germany… by hook, crook or registered mail.

Last year I also submitted two games, Terraform and Mosaic Romanum, both of which were selected for playtesting. Who knows whether Archipelago and Jukers! will be received as kindly, but fingers crossed!

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SPIEL ’09: Now On!

The annual Internationalen Spieltage opens its doors on Thursday for four days of board game madness. Officially labelled ‘SPIEL’, but more commonly known by those in the know as ‘Essen’, the fair is the industry’s biggest get-together and is the cue for game publishers the world over to release a tidal wave of new games.

To get a taster of the gaming goodness on offer check out this GeekList over on BoardGameGeek, follow Frank Schulte-Kulkmann’s ongoing coverage on G@mebox, or check out the glitterati’s hashtag of choice #spiel09 on Twitter.

And, apropos of nothing imparticular, does anyone know the origin of SPIEL’s colourful tangram logo? For gamers it’s an instantly recognisable symbol that’s indivisible from its source, but if you give it a fresh look, it’s a rather funky and obscure device that on its own doesn’t instantly say ‘board games’ in any direct way. If anyone knows anything about its history do let me know!

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Quotables #009

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Albert Einstein

I wish I’d found this nugget of wisdom a while ago since it would have slotted nicely into the discussion in my last Game Design 101 article The Price of Magic.

Writing game rules is hard, and Mr Einstein has hit the proverbial nail on the head by highlighting that the only qualification needed to write a simple explanation of anything is a genuinely deep and meaningful understanding of the topic by the writer. Without that, the writer is on a hiding to nothing.

And I guess that goes for blog writers too.

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Game Preview: Colonia

Colonia, designed by Dirk Henn and to be released by Queen Games at the Essen games fair, appears to be the apotheosis of the ‘big’ Eurogame in every regard. Lavishly designed and with, no doubt, equally lavish production values (something for which Queen Games has a well-deserved reputation), the game pulls in many popular Eurogame memes: an abstracted market economy, a stylized medieval setting, and a layered gameplay consisting of multiple resource collection, management and conversion mechanisms.

See more: Game Reviews…

It also comes laden down with a mammoth collection of ‘bits’ guaranteed to pique the interest of the average Eurogamer: mulitlple decks of cards, stacks of cardboard components and over 200 multi-coloured wooden cubes. One can only speculate — with mild trepidation! — at the size and weight of the box that will contain all the game’s plunder.

The interested but otherwise uninformed reader can now read through the rules posted on BGG in English and German. Having done so, I can say that the flow of the game appears straightforward, with the board divided into seven numbered areas that represent the actions taken on each ‘day’ of the game’s six ‘weeks’. This is a nice conceit that helps to frame the cyclical nature of the gameplay.

Image: The innovative board is made up of eight die-cut cardboard panels, which lock together like a jigsaw to create a plan of the city of Colonia within which all the action takes place.

Merry-go-round

The fundamentals of the game are this: the players represent so-called patrician families in olde worlde Colonia and each has a stash of cubes representing their family members, and hence their available man-power (this is the players’ primary resource in the game, so let’s call it Resource A). These cubes are progressively commited to each area of the board by the players to take actions there and gain the available rewards. The ultimate goal is to earn victory points in the shape of ‘relic’ cards bought, appropriately enough, on the ‘Sunday’ of each week. However, the degree of abstraction between the player actions and eventual buying of the relics is alarming.

On ‘Monday’ the week is prepared: the flip of a card from a special deck determines the relative balance of the key resources available. This mechanism ensures that each week presents a slightly different challenge to the players.

On ‘Tuesday’ the players determine their relative influence on the week’s affairs (and hence the player order) at the city council by commiting differing numbers of men; this power is effectively a resource which players pay for in cubes/men, so let’s call this Resource B. The remainder of that week’s actions are taken in player order, so this is clearly an important factor.

On ‘Wednesday’ the players visit the market and place family members in exchange for differing quantities of the city’s five wares (leather, iron, wood, linen and fur) — let’s call these Resource C.

On ‘Thursday’ the game moves to the craftsmen’s quarter of the city, where specific combinations of wares can be exchanged, through the ‘payment’ of more men, for five different types of good (saddles, cartwheels, paintings, clothing and footwear); these then are Resource D.

On ‘Friday’ the players visit the docks where boats are waiting to take the city’s goods to far away lands. The players progressively fill up the boats’ cargo holds with the prerequisite goods before, on ‘Saturday’, the boats set sail and earn the players money — Resource E — although since the boats each sail to one of four different countries the money comes in four different flavours (Sterling, Grivna, Mark and Gulden).

And so we come to the end, and on ‘Sunday’ the players finally get their filthy mits on those precious religious relics — Resource F — although each one can only be bought using the correct currency. The players stash their relics behind their screens, a new week begins, and life in Colonia goes on.

Hoopla

After circling the board six times the game is over, and the players are awarded victory points for their remaining money and for the value of their relics. So, just to be clear, it is the relative values of Resources E and F owned by each player at the end of the game that determines the winner. I may be in the minority here, but to me the number of hoops through which players have to jump to generate any points at all seem to be two or three too many. This notion of the sequential conversion of resources into (eventually) victory points appears in many Eurogames — indeed is one of the genre’s defining characteristics — but Colonia seems to stretch the model to breaking point.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Colonia avoids one of the other core Eurogame mechanisms: that of so-called ‘engine building’. Each of Colonia’s weeks is, largely, a clean slate; little of what the player choose to do in one week influences what options they have in the next. Many Eurogames, by contrast, allow players to invest resources in game assets that enhance their individual ability to generate or convert resources in later rounds, and hence allow for some variation in genuine long-term strategy. Colonia, however, appears to be a ‘big’ Eurogame that is, for the most part, largely tactical, which is actually rather refreshing! But I do wonder if hardcore Eurogamers, always on the lookout for their next fix of strategic resource management and engine building will be disappointed, and similarly whether gamers who generally prefer lighter, more tactical fare will be put off by the game’s heavyweight looks.

Image: And just in case Queen’s lavish production values aren’t lavish enough, the game is also to be offered in a limited ‘Collector’s Edition’ with these jaunty-looking meeples in place of the cubes.

All the fun of the fair

There is much to like about Colonia. Its presentation appears faultless, the gameplay elegant and fun, and it’s worth pointing out that of the two groups of gamers I just mentioned, I am firmly in the latter (and hence prefer more tactical, less strategic games). In any case, I haven’t played it yet, so who am I to comment?

I wish Dirk Henn and Queen Games success — they have clearly invested a great deal in the game’s development and production — but the danger, in my opinion, is that the community’s familiarity with Colonia’s collection of mechanisms will indeed begin to breed a little contempt. The package may be elegant, attractive and compelling but there is no ‘shock of the new’ here to delight the gaming crowd; rather, it seems the emperor’s new clothes are getting yet another outing.

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Beau Lotto Speaks at TED

Here’s a great talk from this year’s TEDGlobal 2009 conference, which took place in Oxford, England in July. The theme of the conference was The Substance of Things Not Seen and this talk, given by the somewhat implausibly named Beau Lotto, explores some of the science of perception that lies behind optical illusions.

The talk isn’t actually about games, but every single TED talk has something to offer the inquiring mind so if you’ve never seen or heard of TED before then be sure to check out the ever-growing catalogue of talks on their website.

And when I found a link to this talk on Digg I couldn’t help but follow it; after all, isn’t Beau Lotto just the perfect name for a game designer!?

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Countdown to Hippodice

The Hippodice Games Club in Germany has opened the application window for its annual game author competition, so if you are a game designer and fancy your chances, then you have until November 1st to email your application.

The club then reviews all applications, and any authors selected for the next stage will have until December 1st to send their gleaming, newly minted prototypes to Germany to allow the games to be playtested. The club members will then certainly have their work cut out for them before announcing the results around the beginning of March (at least, that’s when news broke in this year’s competition).

I entered two games — Terraform and Mosaic Romanum — into the 2009 competition, both of which were selected for the playtest stage; Mosaic Romanum even made it into to the next and final round, although just missed out on a place in the winners’ circle, garnering a 'Recommended' badge instead. Given that this was my first shot entering the competition I was jolly pleased with the result.

This year I plan to follow suit and enter two games (and hopefully have as much success). The first is a brand new board game design that I have developed this year called Archipelago, the second is an older, smaller card game design called… well, that’s actually a good question… I still haven’t found a good name for it.

I guess I have until November 1st to make up my mind!

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Quotables #008

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle

I don’t think I really need to explain this one, but if you need advice on either creating better habits or kicking bad ones, then one imagines that the Zen Habits website is quite probably a good place to start. [Zen Habits via Lifehacker]

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