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

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Game Design Contests: What’s New?

In which I do a quick sprint around the latest developments of some of the European boardgame design contests. So if that’s not your sort of thing, then you may prefer to stop reading… now.

Cuitat de Granollers

I missed a trick earlier this month by failing to mention that the shortlisted games for the Ciutat de Granollers design contest in Spain were announced on the Fira Jugar x Jugar blog (site in Catalan and Spanish). I first reported on this year’s competition in March and subsequently (and rather hastily!) entered my card game Jukers! into the contest. I had entered the same game into this year’s Hippodice contest in Germany, where I was excited that it made it through to the final round.

And, I am happy to (belatedly) report, Jukers! also made it through to the shortlist of the Granollers contest, along with 12 others games by designers from Spain, France and Luxembourg, selected from 185 submissions. The winner and runner-up were BZZZ by Juan Carlos Pérez and Curia by Toni Giménez, and many hearty congrats to both of them!

Image: The impressive prototype of BZZZ being played at the Jugar x Jugar game fair in Granollers.

Premio Archimede

In other news, the deadline for the Premio Archimede 2010 contest in Italy is now only a month away. As I reported back in January, this contest is a biennial affair organised by studiogiochi in Venice. In 2008 I entered my game Amongst Thieves and actually went to Venice to see the finalists announced and voted on — live! It was quite an exciting trip.

Details of this year’s submission process are on the studiogiochi website, but everything you need to know has been distilled into a handy PDF (available in English and Italian) which has details of the prizes, past entrants and winners, and the many published designs that have come through the competition.

The deadline for receipt of the prototypes is 30th June and the contest has a modest entry fee of €25 per game. The scope of the contest encompasses all styles of game design, and the pedigree of the jurors is impressive. Given that there are — in addition to prizes for the main winner and runners-up — separate awards for both the best card game and best family strategy game the contest offers more opportunities than most, and is definitely worth entering.

So, if you have a design ready or nearing completion then now is the time!

Hippodice

The winners in this year’s Hippodice contest were announced back in March, at which time I took time to blow my own trumpet a little since both of my designs, Jukers! and my boardgame Archipelago, had made it into the final round.

The recently published English edition of the April/May spielbox magazine included an article that provides some more details about this year’s contest. There were 175 initial submissions, from which 35 prototypes were selected, and of which, interestingly, only 5 were in English (the article suggests that this proportion was lower than usual). The article also reports that Frank Deutschendorf, the Hippodice chairman, was very satisfied with this year’s contest, since there was “a great mixture of complex and simple quick games, in contrast to last year when only six rather demanding ideas could be nominated.”

The second thing to report is that my prototype for Archipelago attracted the interest of two of the jury members, and is currently in the hands of one of them and is being actively being playtested in-house. Obviously there is a many a slip, etc., but the fact that two of the jurors looked at the game and saw the spark of something genuinely commercial is obviously encouraging.

Should anything more develop I shall of course report what I can on these pages.

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How Many Game Designers Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?

Last weekend I had the very great pleasure to get together with a coterie of other UK game designers at a meet-up hosted by Alan and Charlie Paull of Surprised Stare Games, publishers of Confucius and Fzzzt! amongst others.

This was the third time I had been able to attend, and with five other published and unpublished designers coming for the day we were able to split into a variety of groups to playtest the 15 or so prototypes that between us we’d brought along.

To be able to playtest your designs — anything from already refined prototypes to hastily constructed mash-ups — with other designers is a fantastically powerful and rewarding opportunity, that can facilitate both subtle refinements and speedy on-the-go redevelopment.

I took along one brand new prototype, so new indeed that I had to sketch out the board on a sheet of A4 at the start of the first game, and was very pleased to get two full playtests. The results were very encouraging, and the fertile discussion allowed for some quick-fixing and definite improvement.

But the one thing I took away with me after the event was a renewed appreciation of the remarkable and abundant diversity present within our design community. Every prototype I playtested or witnessed being playtested, every designer’s philosophy about their own designs, every player’s interpretation of the designs of others — all were utterly different and brilliantly distinct.

So what’s the punchline?

How many game designers does it take to change a lightbulb? All of them. One to fix the light, and the rest to say that they wouldn’t have fixed it like that.

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City Slackers: An Afternoon with the NYC Boardgame Designers

In which I report back on my trip uptown to meet some of the good folks of the NYC Boardgame Designers Playtest Group. So, what did I think of their games, and what did they think of mine? Read on!

Two weekends ago I had the opportunity to drop in on the regular meet-up of some boardgame designers in New York. Thanks guys for a very warm welcome! The group meet every month in New York, and this month the meeting was hosted by Mark Salzwedel of Strategic Space, whom I had met when last in town.

Municipality

The first game on the table was Mike Keller’s Municipality, the development of which Mike has been discussing for a while on his blog, Game Designer Wannabe. It’s a tile-based, role-selection, city development game, with some interesting twists on some familiar mechanisms. Throughout the game you have to keep tight control two resources — money and political capital — and develop plots of land in the city to boost your own political popularity and population growth. The majority of each player’s final score is the multiple of these two metrics, so there is always an interesting tension between the two.

The game flowed and worked well, clearly having benefitted from many playlists and revisions. There was, for me, slightly too much bookwork to be done, especially when it came to calculating and managing the ‘star rating’ of each individual plot. The city is built from houses, offices, factories and parks, and the adjacency and connectivity of these features determine the rating of each plot. Mike had produced a perfectly workmanlike reference table, but I found it difficult to either decipher or intuit. I never managed to build my own rationale for how the locations of different features interplayed to produce each plot’s rating, and the layout and presentation of the reference table was something we all discussed after the game.

Plus — and I mention this purely in passing — I won: a victory mainly attributable to a single lucky building permit and a late surge in my population, which outweighed, in the final analysis, my below-average popularity. Overall, I congratulate Mike on crafting an elegant game system in which there was interest and interaction all the way through. Municipality has a good mix of mechanisms, and tempers its strategy with chance, and its tactics with choice. But did I feel I had truly done enough to earn my win? I’m not so sure. My opponents really did seem to have a better grip of how and when they needed to act to boost their standing — which is not so surprising since they had played the game before! — and yet I bested them by a comfortable margin.

As they say, it’s always better to be lucky than smart.

Mosaic Romanum

Next up was my own prototype, a reworking of my game Mosaic Romanum that I entered into the 2009 Hippodice competition, and which received an ‘honourable mention’ from the jury. This was the first time that this Mk II edition had been played, and although the core of the game functioned as expected, the extra bells and whistles I had added were a definite misfire.

Mike’s analysis in his own blog post about the playtest session is spot on. Giving players information about the future which is impossible to interpret is pointless and confusing. It is, to quote Shakespeare, “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The game is and should be only one of tactical decisions, and layering on notionally strategic elements doesn’t change that, other than it obfuscate the game’s heart.

Essentially, I had solved the wrong problem, which is a fundamental error of any design process. You must be able to see the problems as they are, not as you would wish them to be, and then implement the solutions you need, not the ones you want.

In this regard the playtest was most illuminating and valuable. If the design was broken, it was principally because I had broken it, and done so quite deliberately. Since the playtest I have been rationalising the game in the hope of revealing something simpler, leaner and entirely tactical. And that quaint, Romanesque and really rather craven Eurogame theme is also being jettisoned. I think a more literal, practical and readable theme will help the game, although in truth it is barely deserving a theme at all.

I like the game, because I like tactical tile games, but is perhaps true that I have not yet fully understood exactly what the game is or should be about. With a luck (rather than smarts!) I may yet succeed.

MacGuffin Market

Next up was Gil Hova’s MacGuffin Market, a curious little beast of an auction game. You can read some of Gil’s own game development thoughts on this and other games over at his blog Fail Better.

Gil set the game up and, after barely a glance it seemed, Mike declared the game effectively ‘broken’ because of the maths involved in the auction, and the relative values of the game’s two currencies. And he may very well have been correct — he certainly went on to win very confidently! — but I was too bewildered by the game to tell.

Auctions are, without question, my least favourite game mechanic, principally because to play effectively you must be able to judge not only an item’s worth to you, but also to other players, and then be able to make an intelligent judgement based on those relative worths. This, in short, I cannot do, and hence I generally find auction games bewilderingly frustrating; and I’m a smart guy, you understand, with two maths A Levels and a science degree from one of the world’s top universities. It seems a decent education is neither necessary nor sufficient in these circumstances.

My problem with Gil’s game, and this was echoed by some of the other competitors, was that the game, rather like my own prototype, presented the players with information that was impossible to interpret. There is, however, an important difference: in my own game the information, though readable, could simply not be used to predict future outcomes, so may as well have been missing entirely. Strip it away and the game survives, reduced to it’s tactical core (whether or not that core is a successful game is another matter). In MacGuffin Market, by contrast, the information is the game; remove it and there is nothing left. Since I couldn’t interpret the information, I simply could’t interpret the game at all.

This may sound like harsh criticism, but I think the game is fixable, and so did everyone else round the table. Even though I don’t like auction games, I can see that Gil’s neat auction mechanic has potential. I think there is a tight, innovative auction game in there somewhere, trying to make itself seen and heard. Hopefully Gil can work to reveal it! MacGuffin Market may never become a game I would enjoy, but I’m sure there is an army of gamers out there who would.

Arboretum

Last up was Dan Cassar’s Arboretum, a very young prototype that Dan had simply and cleverly crafted from an unadulterated pack of regular playing cards. Although the prototype used cards, the game was essentially a tactical tile game which, as I have said, is a class of games I naturally enjoy.

For me this was perhaps the most successful game of the afternoon. There was something distinctly Knizia-esque in the simplicity of the idea, and the way in which the hand-management created some agonising choices. (And, in case there is any doubt, I am using ‘Knizia-esque’ as a definite compliment!)

We playtesters voiced a few relatively minor mechanistic concerns, and I was particularly exercised by the seemingly counter-intuitive way in which scores were accounted for. It seemed to me that there was a mental disconnect between Dan’s proposed scoring procedure and the procedure most players might naturally expect. Note that I cannot truly speak for ‘most players’, even though I can freely speculate about them!

I had a couple more concerns after the event (and admittedly only after one play). First, that the winning strategy might be too scripted (Mark’s approach seemed a far better bet than mine); and second, that the game was too limited by the size of the deck for the more interesting situations and choices to develop fully.

Clearly the second concern, if accurate, is easy to fix, but I am less sure about the first. Only time — and plenty more playtests! — will tell, and I wish Dan well with his elegant and pleasing design.

Thanks again!

I had a great time with Mark, Mike, Gil and Dan, and am extremely grateful for their hospitality and welcome, and their openness in discussing all the designs. The opinions and reactions of other designers are incredibly valuable and revealing and I came away from the meet, and from New York itself, with new insight about both my own designs and game design in general. Great stuff!

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Midtown Traffic

The city screams —
 mad-dash-yellow taxicabs crash the stoplight’s glare
 to bring the bankers, workmen, soldiers, thieves who share
 the single shaking sidewalk rattling with the subway’s roar,
 each a willing captive of the island shore.

The city speaks —
 numberless voices of its denizens, each broken-backed,
 each lost to this sky-stretched metropolis, canyon-cracked,
 firing speech-bubble bullets back and forth and back again,
 snipers who find their targets every time in vain.

But from the detail to the whole, from fingertips to highest things,
 rising and rising above the sin, lifted on its bleach-blue wings —

The city sings.

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