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

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The Unfinished Designs

Yesterday On Saturday I vowed to complete a list of my game design ideas, and here is that list. As stated yesterday on Saturday, they should all be considered unfinished; in the sense that even a complete, playable prototype with a complete, written ruleset should not be considered untouchable or somehow impervious to improvement. So perhaps it is enough to observe that they are indeed all unfinished, but that some are more unfinished than others.

My original list attempted to place the ideas in chronological order of their first inception, at least to the best of my recollection. My aforementioned notebooks are a help here, although it is only recently that I have started adding dates to the pages. Looking back on that first list my ordering feels right, but several games which I now know (following forensic study of my notebooks last night two nights ago) started life in amongst that initial burst of card games were missed, and I include those here. Note also that where two distinct incarnations of the same game have emerged over time, then I will list them together. In instances where only the name has changed I include the game under only the most recent one.

Sidebar: It turns out to be quite a long list — 23 designs in all — which is rather daunting now I sit down to write about each one, but I shall presevere! And I shan’t do what I am naturally tempted to do (again!) and split the list over two posts. If there is one thing I must learn then it is to learn from my mistakes!

Loop

Card game for 2–6 players

This is my oldest and ‘favouritest’ design, and one that I, rather hastily it turns out, announced in February that I would be publishing this year. What folly! That project remains not only unfinished but largely unstarted, but the game itself has been complete for a long time.

I describe it as playing like a board game, but with the speed and portability of a card game, which I think is a pretty good sell. I’ll get on to the whole publishing malarky soon. Promise.

In three words: Watch this space!

Stack

Card game for 2–5 players

Stack in it’s current form is broken, since it’s a ‘last man standing’ card game that only very inefficiently removes the players. The players play cards from their current hand to claim or manipulate cards on the table to constantly rebuild new hands so that they can stay in the game. Run out of cards and you’re out of the game. I still like the idea, but to make it work the game needs to be stripped down and rebuilt completely.

In three words: Neat but endless.

Pirate Islands

Board game for 2–6 players

This was missed last time round, and is one of those designs I keep forgetting about. It was conceived as a ‘print and play’ board game that would need the players to supply a few pawns and a handful of dice. The simple board was made up of a layout of cards that created a small network of islands where the dice were rolled and placed as ‘treasure’ of different values. The players moved around, competing for the treasure and altering the configuration of the board by overlaying new cards.

I least, I think that’s right; this is one of those forgotten games and is going to need some significant reconstructive surgery. I don’t remember ever formally writing down any rules, but hopefully there are enough details scribbled in my old notebooks or recoverable from old memories to bring this one back, since I think I was on to something.

In three words: Not bad. Probably.

Switchback

Card game for 2–4 players

This was an early design that went through many, many incarnations, but did eventually reach a point where the game had begun to properly reveal itself. In essence it was a twist on the familiar ‘empty your hand’ card game, but with some tricky scoring and a neat idea (I thought) that used both the front and back of the cards to liven things up and control how cards were discarded.

In three words: Close. No cigar.

Amongst Thieves

Card game for 3–6 players

This was one of the first designs that I felt (and still feel!) had genuine commercial potential and which, rather like Switchback, made clever use of both sides of the cards. It’s a relatively straightforward set-collecting card game, with an attractive theme, that scaled well for 3, 4, 5 or 6 players (I originally squeezed it down for 2 players, but I now recognise that as a mistake).

And, on it’s initial outing at the Premio Archimede 2008, it came a creditable 9th overall and 2nd in the poll of card games. Leo Colovini, of studiogiochi and world-wide game-design fame, was personally enthused enough to offer to become an agent for the game, and in the intervening time has shown it to a large number of European publishers. The feedback has been disappointedly cool, but that’s no reason not to think it could yet find a publisher if the circumstances were right. Perhaps it is, oddly, not quite ‘Euro’ enough?

In three words: It could sell!

The Other Hat Trick

Card game for 3 players

This one is a personal favourite, but a real curio; the circumstances that lead to its genesis are almost impossible to fathom. It’s for 3 players only, uses just 17 cards, includes a little bluff and deduction, and has scoring cards with titles like ‘The Rabbit That Didn’t Like Carrots’. Make of that what you will.

In three words: Rabbits are cute.

How Many Beans Make Five? / Run For It!

Card game for 2–4 players

This one was designed as a simple set-collecting game with the self-imposed design constraint that all cards would be laid out on the table, with none held in the players’ hands. Which was good as far it went. However, it was never simple enough to be intuitive, and at the same time was always a little too simple to be genuinely entertaining. In its second incarnation I played around with the scoring to see if I could create a little more tension, but couldn’t pull it off.

In three words: Better best forgotten?

Countdown

Card game for 2–4 players

This is another design I had completely forgotten about, although I did produce and playtest a prototype deck. There was one mechanism that in the game that I thought had potential, which was the concept of revealing cards from your hand in advance of your next turn so that the other players could see what was coming. I’m not sure that this game, which was all just a bit too procedural, is the best place for it, but it’s one I should keep in mind.

In three words: Underdeveloped. Also underwhelming.

Gods & Monsters

Card game for 2 players

Now this idea, I’m certain, has legs. It also has a cool name and a central gameplay that could be the basis for a larger system, if only I put the hours in to develop it. It’s a 2-player card game which would involve both competition and cooperation: the players (the gods) have to battle each other for the win, but if they together fail to effectively battle the game itself (the monsters) they both lose.

Looking through my notebooks, I found a lot of detail about the game system already figured out, but it would still need a lot of work to get up and running into a workable prototype. The game features a neat way to dynamically play around with the ‘power balance’ between the gods and the monsters, which essentially would allow me to fix that after the event, and for players to adjust it themselves on a game-by-game basis.

In three words: Must try harder.

The Last One

Card game for 2–4 players

This game grew from one of the ideas within Gods & Monsters, and seemed to be a good idea, for a while. The players were competing, via cardplay, to be the ‘last one’ to a take a token from the pile but the process was a little bit too obvious and repetitive to be much fun. I know I tried to add additional scoring rounds that would ratchet up the tension as the game progressed and make (at least some of) the decisions trickier, but something just wasn’t working. There is a viable seed at the core of this one, but it has so far refused to bear viable fruit.

In three words: Seedy, not fruity.

Treasure Fleets

Board game for 2–4 players

This design is one that I have continued to enthusiastically, if periodically, develop since its inception, and right now it’s looking pretty good. Through each iteration it has become more focused and less fiddly, and, following its last evolutionary jump, has lost all the chaos of the scoring phase that largely undid the value of any tactical decisions the players had made earlier.

It had always been a game of two disparate halves: that is, the good first half and the annoying second half; somehow I had settled for this compromise, but the last group of playtesters, all game designers themselves, astutely noticed how absurd this was and rightly berated me for it. Something had to be done, the obvious could be ignored no longer, and I was spurred into action to finally fix that which was broken.

The game uses what might be called a ‘half-blind’ bidding mechanism, in which the players simultaneously build the semi-public ‘pots’ being bid on, while incrementally bidding on those growing pots themselves. If that makes any sense at all. Oh yes, and there are sea monsters too!

In three words: Here be dragons!

Terraform / Mēxihco

Board game for 2–4 players

Terraform is another old favourite, and another design that definitely has commercial potential. It’s a neat, if essentially abstract, tactical tile-laying game with direct competition for territory and some card-drafting brinkmanship.

I remain very grateful to Jackson Pope of the erstwhile publisher Reiver Games for his input and feedback during the period in which he was seriously considering Terraform for publication. One of his first acts was to completely misinterpret one of my more arcane rules, and in doing so highlight how unnecessary it was! Based on his playtesting we also tweaked some of the scoring and the composition of the card deck. It was a very valuable and rewarding collaboration even if, in the final analysis, Jackson wasn’t in a position to go ahead with publication.

Terraform stands up on its own, but I have since considered a different implementation of the same basic game system in the form of Mēxihco. All of the original tile-based shenanigans remain, but I have attempted to streamline the card play and introduce a new mechanism that brings a little unpredictability to the endgame. I’m not sure that this version is better, but it is different, and might suit a different commercial niche.

In three words: Tile games FTW!

Circus Stars

Board game for 2–5 players

I really like this design, which is a simple card collecting game (albeit a card game with a small board, dice and other components) that is intended to be suitable for children. The players collect and lay out cards representing different circus acts which are claimed from the ‘circus ring’ in the middle of the table. When someone has a complete ‘troupe’ all the players’ troupes are scored and the winner revealed.

My nagging doubt is about the endgame, which lacks any sparkle, although since the game is so quick perhaps that really shouldn’t be too much of a worry. I just feel that there is that small, special something missing and that in trying to engineer it I risk over-complicating the game and losing what I like about it.

In three words: Nearly, nearly, nearly.

Angkor Thom

Board game for 2–4 players

This game is a complete departure for me, and is my shot at a large, collaborative city-building game. Angkor Thom is also one of the games for which no prototype yet exists, even though a great deal of detail, including a large part of a draft ruleset, do exist on paper. The game has a currency and a moderated form of resource collection and usage, so there are quite a few major balancing issues to tackle if its to work as intended (or, indeed, at all).

What the game is not is some sprawling engine-building, market-manipulating, cube-pushing eurogame. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against those sort of games, but I am neither inspired nor enthused to design one. I want Angkor Thom to be a city-building game that actually involves building a physical ‘city’ (or at least a model of one!), and to be a game that is as much about that practical, tactile experience as it is about the intellectual process of managing the resources required to do so.

But, there is much work to be done, not least to meet head-on one of the unavoidable demands of developing a so-called ‘big box’ game: creating a workable, complete prototype. There are quite a few (although not an overwhelming number) of ‘bits’, including player pawns, buildings, cards and the board itself. It is doable, but this one is hardly at the top of the list entitled ‘Prototypes That Don’t Really Require Very Much Effort to Actually Develop’.

In three works: Rome wasn’t built…

Stepping Stones

Board game for 2–4 players

This is another personal favourite, and one that has played very well with my family and friends. And I thought it was done until the last time it we played and I realised I could do more to streamline the way the game was timed and at the same time make everyone’s chances more balanced and less dependent on the whims of the card deck. Nothing major, but a worthwhile realisation, and a reminder to always apply genuine critical thought to every part of a design at every step, even to parts which seem somehow utterly complete and inviolate.

The game itself could work very well as a bold, colourful family game: it has simple rules and a clear, literal ‘flow’ to the gameplay that still has the ability to deliver surprising reversals of fortune. And other than the distribution of the cards, there’s no chance. In every turn players can always make a positive choice with the cards they hold, to either advance their own goals or to diminish the likely success of their opponents. After the last play I also realised a neat and fun way to make the board itself modular and hence reconfigurable to adjust the game’s complexity for younger age groups.

In three words: Definitely a winner.

None Shall Sleep

Card game for 2–4 players

I didn’t know that the title of the famous aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ meant ‘none shall sleep’ until the Lucca Games convention in Italy chose the title as the theme of it’s annual game design contest in 2008. A quick trip to Wikipedia revealed that the story of the aria follows from the demand by Princess Turandot that none of her subjects shall sleep that night until the challenge set by her unwanted suitor has been met. (If she can discover his name she can execute him. Otherwise they must marry. Nice.)

Anyway, the challenge for the annual contest is always to create a pure card game (no other components are allowed) that mirrors the theme, and in a burst of enthusiasm after reading about the contest I came up with the skeleton of what I still think is a good idea. The players would be peasants searching the imperial city for characters from the royal court, hoping to find the elusive (for the purposes of the game) Prince Calaf and, one imagines, pin him down on the whole thorny issue of his apparently unknowable name.

The game has a nice story and I think could be a fun, light filler. But with, as yet, no prototype and no rules, I can understand the reader’s healthy scepticism!

In three words: And you are?

Mosaic Romanum / Subway City

Board game for 2–4 players

This one seemed such a good idea for a long time, and did moderately well in both the 2009 Boulogne-Billancourt and Hippodice contests, but it has lost its shine for me since. My prototype for Mosaic Romanum looked the part, but the problem was that it took too long and delivered too little strategic clout; I tried earlier this year to engineer more semblance of strategy into the game, but to do so was, I realised after the fact, the reverse of what was necessary. Far better to see the game for what it was – a largely tactical and short tile game — and then condense it to concentrate the existing idea, than try to expand the game to make it into something grander; something, indeed, that it could never be.

And so the idea for Subway City was born, but I am now uncertain that I have gone far enough to reduce the game to its tactical core. Thinking about the new version has crystallised out a neat tile-selection mechanism, which I now think may be only thing to survive as the game continues to evolve. However, if that mechanism is a good one then the entire process has been worthwhile.

In three words: Rise and fall.

Jukers!

Card game for 3 or 4 players

This is a neat little puzzle of a game, which like Mosaic Romanum has performed well in a couple of European game design contests, specifically at both Hippodice and Ciutat de Granollers earlier this year. The design is a lean, simple and rather devious little bidding and set-collecting card game, but I wonder if the design in some sense flatters to deceive. I think, perhaps, that it looks rather more intriguing than it is — I am, truthfully, uncertain of whether it’s as smart as it seems!

Could it be improved? There is almost nothing to take out, which suggests it needs a small but significant extra twist to be added to become genuinely good. The question is: Do I have that ingredient on my game designer shelves? The answer: If I do, it must be behind the Corn Flakes or down the back of the sofa because I’ve not seen it!

In three words: I’ll keep looking…

Venice: City of Trade

Board game for 2–4 players

There’s a really nice idea here struggling to get out, the seed of which came to me, appropriately enough, during my trip to Venice in 2008 to attend the Premio Archimede award ceremony. Venice is a city redolent with history and with a beguiling, labyrinthine geography, so creating a game that might capture even a little of that atmosphere seemed like a good idea.

This is, however, a largely undeveloped game, less clear to me than most on this list, but I do have an intriguing picture of a tile-based game environment along with an inkling for a possible market mechanism that could drive the players’ actions. With luck, a following wind and a rising tide, the game I would like to play may yet manifest itself!

In three words: Bridge too far?

Archipelago

Board game for 2–4 players

This design is my most successful to date, given that it was one of the nine finalists in this year’s Hippodice contest, although it didn’t make it into the top three. Two of the Hippodice jurors, all from leading game publishers, expressed interest and it has been very interesting to get their feedback. And my prototype is still ‘out there’, so never say never. Not yet, anyway.

Archipelago always felt to me to be the ‘most German’ family game design I’d come up with, and the fact that it did well at Hippodice confirmed this. But I’m sure it could yet be made a little tighter and more focused, although I have not revisited the design since its submission. It certainly has all the right ingredients — and plenty of lovely meeples! — but it is perhaps just a little too small, too polite and too considered, and needs just a little more bite to truly shine.

In three words: Politic, cautious, meticulous.

Oracle

Board game for 2–4 players

This design sprung from the desire to create a tile game that was only tiles, with no other components, but for a bag to put them in. Curiously, I have the beginning and the end of the game mapped out, in the sense that I have a clear view of how the tiles might look, feel and be distributed at the start, and have a really interesting scoring mechanism ready and waiting for the endgame, but the bit in the middle — which is, after all, the real meat of any game sandwich — is elusive.

Oracle has only been brewing since last Christmas, and I have returned to it regularly in the hope that by catching sight of it out of the corner of my eye I might see something new, something I hadn’t spotted before. So far I’ve had no luck with this strategy, but I remain upbeat — confident, even — that sooner or later I’ll find the perfect go-between for my beginning and my end!

In three words: Where’s the beef?

The Royal Library of Alexandria

Board game for 2–4 players

Rather like Ankgor Thom, with this design I am deliberately attempting something out of my comfort zone. The hope is to create a game genuinely driven by a historical narrative, albeit a somewhat bastardised version of actual events. The real Library of Alexandria was the greatest in the ancient world, but hardly had a charmed life, since it was partially or (eventually) completely destroyed four times. Earlier this year, when I chanced to read about its history, a little lightbulb went on and the outline for a game started to form.

Several of the key mechanisms in the game have already developed (on paper, at least) but there is a lot of heavy lifting to do to get to the bottom of how the different parts of the game will fit together. There is, as it is currently imagined, a cunning card-drafting, set-collecting element to be tied neatly to a worker-placement, tile-laying element and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the union is an unhappy one. But if I can make it work I think The Royal Library of Alexandria could be an extremely attractive proposition.

In three words: It’s all Greek…

Oracle: Pathway

Board game for 2–4 players

And so we come to the end, and to the final and most recent design. This is a good example of how valuable my notebooks are, since the genesis for Oracle: Pathway was sketched out late at night, and I woke with no recollection of it and spent the next day blissfully unaware of the idea. But, when I reopened my notebook the next night I found the sketch and was, quite genuinely, surprised! Playtests went well, although there was a nice bit of probabilistic maths to be done to properly explore the balance and scoring regime, and the game has evolved quickly.

This design has an elegance and simplicity to it that I really like. A friend described it — and I think this was meant as a compliment — as having the same vibe as Lost Cities, although from a point of view of gameplay there are no direct parallels. Having said that, it is card-based and does require the players to try to predict the outcome of each round, hence the adoption of the Oracle moniker from my eariler concept. The two games share little in terms of mechanics, but I liked the name, and for the time being I see the two as connected ideas.

I am, as I said, really pleased with this design, perhaps more pleased than with any other I have so far devised. It is, I think, novel, engaging, simple to learn and family friendly, while still offering a real challenge for us grown-ups.

In three words: Portents are good.

Phew! That was a bit of a long haul, and felt at times rather like an unwelcome piece of homework. However, I have no-one to blame to myself and I am jolly pleased to have got to the end! The list represent the last 9 years — Loop, I recall, began life in late 2001— and charts my own voyage of discovery into the dark and murky world of card and board game design; although it must be said that I started slow, and that a sizeable majority of the designs on the list stretch back over 4 or 5 years at most.

If you’ve made it this far then all I can say is “Congratulations!” and also that I would love to hear what you made of my ideas, and my ideas about my ideas, if you see what I mean. For me, the interesting part of the game design process isn’t just the resulting game — although of course that is incredibly important to me — it is also the arcane and seemingly unknowable machinations of the design process itself. Do feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment below!

But to return to the beginning, and with thanks to Irith (all the way from sunny Australia!) for her comment on Saturday’s post, I have a sage and wholly appropriate piece of advice to offer the game designer in myself and in others struggling to get things finished:

Discipline is remembering what you want.

David Campbell

Well, it’s a start, at least; and where better to begin?

Congratulations!
It seems you listened to Mr. Campbell to finish this list :-)
Now I'll try to do so and finish my most "developed" design so far. This way maybe I'll have a, ehm, not finished, but say 100% playable game.
Thank you for the inspiration!

Having been following your blog for a while I'd possibly be interested in themeing and/or illustrating abstract games such as Loop, it being something I've been interested in trying since discovering Eurogames – or, at least, I realised after trying to design some myself that I was really more interested in illustrating them, and got bored of not reaching that point with my designs… (The games were also more strange non-games, activities that had systems but possibly no end and could be taken up by different people throughout a day, which I would be interested in what they caused people to think but perhaps not so much in playing them myself like the Euro-s I love.) That, and I'm also tired of finding games that I'd be interested in if it weren't for them having illustration I feel I could have done better at myself (an example would be Queen's new edition of Showmanager; I was hoping they'd employ someone like Shag, Norn Cutson or Megan Brain, even my own work I wouldn't have minded, but the cover has now been unveiled and it's truly horrid). On the other hand, I'm also tired of finding games I would like, so maybe the former is not so much of problem in slightly alleviating the latter.

I wouldn't be able to start on anything new for at least a few weeks with all I've already got lined up but maybe then, if even more hasn't lined itself up in-between.

I love lists like this, and every time I see one I'm inspired. I try to maintain a similar list, revisiting it once in a while on my blog. I guess your post could serve as a reminder to revisit my own list now!

Reading through your designs I noticed one common theme in particular... "bidding and set collection" seem to be at the core of most of your games.

One potentially interesting idea did come to mind when reading through your Library of Alexandria entry. You said the actual Library was destroyed 4 times... I don't know what your game is actually like, but it seems natural to make it a 4 epoch game, with each epoch ending with the destruction of the Library. This may not be helpful at all I guess, but it sounded interesting at the time.

Good luck with your designs, and congrats on those that have performed well at Hippodice and other contests! I have never enjoyed such success at Hippodice - the best I've done has been 2nd place in the Kublacontest (game design contest at KublaCon).

- Seth

I'm sure I could find an answer to this by doing some research through all your postings, but how long have you been brainstorming these designs? Or, when did you begin to design games?

And, have you submitted any of these to publishers (again I could probably find the answer to this question, but I am in a bind for time at this time).

Cheers,

Dennis

Mohd Fairuz said...

November 24, 2010 5:39 am

Hello Brett, I'm very interested in your ideas (its fresh) when I came across to your blog. BTW, I'm planning on my assignment (card games) & I was thinking if I can develop your "Amongst Thieves" idea....or maybe combining a few of your ideas.

Regards from Malaysia,
- Fairuz

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