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

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Christmas Conundrum 2009

In which I begin a new tradition by publishing the 2009 BrettSpiel Christmas Conundrum, which this year takes the form of a special seasonal sudoku. Can you complete the grid of letters and reveal my yuletide message?

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Customized Catan

Great work from Canadian BoardGameGeek user J.S. McAnnos who, in this very smart 3D version of the über-classic Eurogame Settlers of Catan, has given the part of Catan’s infamous robber to a LEGO minifig Indiana Jones! And there I was thinking that Indy was one of the good guys… perhaps in this interpretation he is intended to be rather more Robin Hood than robber?

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LEGO Board Games: What’s New?

Not much gets past the devotees of LEGO forum Eurobricks, so I’m happy to be able to pass on the following collected nuggets of information about new LEGO Games coming our way next year, dug up by Eurobricks user legomilk.

These official-looking images show four more ‘small box’ games: Shave a Sheep, UFO Attack, Magma Monster and Pirate Plank. The thread on Eurobricks suggests these games will be available in March 2010 and retail in the €10–15 range.

If you are new here (or to LEGO Games) then you might like to check out my interview with LEGO’s lead game designer Cephas Howard.

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If Music Be The Love of Play…

Something of a curio this, but here is Muzundrum, a new ‘music theory crossword game’ which uses some rather funky 12-sided dice with which the players form scales and triads to create, and I quote, ‘unique tonal weaves’.

The game has been designed and published by J.S. Kingfisher, an American composer, instrumentalist and self-styled ‘innovator’. Muzundrum makes use of the designer’s own Musician’s Dice, which are sold separately as a randomizing tool for composers.

The dice are pretty cute on their own, and the whole game has a quirky aesthetic that I rather like. The players score points by build musically valid scales and triads, so in the same way that you can only play Scrabble if you know how to spell, you can only play Muzundrum if you know your major and minor thirds.

Plus, the designer is also promising some of his profits to help save the bees!

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Actions Without Adventure

In which I discover several things of interest in someone else’s bathroom… specifically copies of The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly and, more surprisingly, Roland Barthe’s 1950’s treatise on semiotics Mythologies.

And before I am accused of straying too far from this blog’s notional focus, let me say that I am not here to write about either The New Yorker or Entertainment Weekly, although both are doubtless publications perfectly deserving of discourse.

If, like me, you know little of Roland Barthes and his collected works then it’s probably easiest to get a flavour of the man by reading his Wikipedia entry. What I can say is that the book in question, Mythologies, is a collection of essays in which he explored the myths and symbols present in everyday objects, and expounded his thesis of how France’s bourgeois society of the time had manipulated these objects to impose its values on the rest of populace.

In one short but damning essay — simply entitled ‘Toys’ — Barthes wrote about how French toys were designed as if “the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size,” and that toys of the period “always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialised, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life.”

Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness…

It’s a great essay, and all the more remarkable for having been written 50 years ago; the author’s disdain for the apparently lazy conditioning and entirely preternatural development of children seems thoroughly modern.

But I am writing about the essay not to espouse some particular parenting technique, nor necessarily to agree with his rather one-sided position, but to highlight a couple of fantastic quotes that struck me as wise counsel for the game designer. Games are a form of play, and the notion of ‘play’ is universal, no matter how young or old you are. As someone else once said “We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”

The first quote comes as a warning:

‘However, faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator… there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy.’

Roland Barthes

Surely the greatest failure of a game designer would be to create, as Barthes so eloquently puts it, “actions without adventure” — surely that would be the worst of all possible worlds! Now, admittedly, designing games to deliver not only adventure, but also a genuine sense of wonder and joy, is going to be a tall order, but that’s no reason not to try.

The second quote comes later in the essay, after Barthes opines that “The bourgeois status of toys can be recognised not only in their forms, which are all functional, but also in their substances.” What followed was, for me, an entirely unexpected, delightful and lyrical defense of one the things closest to the hearts of many Eurogamers: wooden components.

Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch. A sign which fills one with consternation is the gradual disappearance of wood, in spite of its being an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal. When the child handles it and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has a sound at once muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. If it dies, it is in dwindling, not in swelling out like those mechanical toys which disappear behind the hernia of a broken spring. Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time.

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God Does Not Play Dice (Although Sometimes the d4s Come in Handy)

This colourful pattern is the first evidence of non-spherical particles coalescing into a “quasicrystal”. Researchers reporting in Nature used computer simulations to show how four-sided pyramids organise themselves into different motifs (as shown by the dice) and then into the dense 3D pattern.

This comes from BBC News, having been reported in the latest edition of Nature.

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An Englishman in New York

In which I am introduced to the delights of the Upper West Side by game designer and publisher Mark Salzwedel of Strategic Space.

When the cheery but often rather stern-faced immigration officials at JFK ask “Business of pleasure?” I always reply the latter. And it was indeed a pleasure to meet Mark Salzwedel — the man behind the growing stable of games at Strategic Space — for lunch on Wednesday, in New York’s salubrious Upper West Side.

Since I was going to be in town for a while I contacted Mark, whose tweets about some of his exploits as @ssgames, to see if he would be happy to meet. As a game designer and aspirational game publisher I thought it would be educational to get Mark’s take on game design and the business of selling games.

Mark started Strategic Space three years ago and now offers seven games, including a new US edition of Chili Games’ intriguing 3D Eurogame Die Aufsteige, which will be published this year by Mark as The Climbers.

After lunch we took a post-prandial stroll through Riverside Park and chatted about many aspects of game design and publishing: the state of the hobby game market in the US and UK, the vital importance and possible frustrations of playtesting, the way in which the packaging, presentation and pricing of a game affects its sales potential, and the mystery of exactly how a game designer actually designs a game in the first place.

Back at his small studio on West 73rd Street Mark also gave me a quick ‘show and tell’ of some of his recent protoypes, including a production model of Samsara, an abstract negotiation board game for 3–8 players. Indeed, when I arrived Mark had been hard at work designing the components for a new tile game prototype. The mind of a game designer is never at rest!

So, I must thank Mark for taking the time to meet and show me around a slice of New York which I had never visited before. I must also thank him for his parting gift: a copy of 4th Corner, one of Strategic Space’s most successful games. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to try the game out, but very much enjoy tile games — Mark himself described it as a cross between two modern classics: Carcassonne and Labyrinth — so will report back when I have a chance!

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