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

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Games, Interrupted: 100 Things

I’ve been keeping myself amused over at Games, Interrupted by collecting all sorts of bits and pieces found on my internet travels, some of which, I freely admit, have at best only a passing connection to board games. Anyway, I have now collected 100 things! One of the cool features of the Tumblr platform is its neat Archive feature that creates an on-the-fly mosaic, and this is what it looks like…

Games Interrupted: 100 Things

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The Puzzling Meeple: Odd One Out

Here’s a question: Which of these five meeples is the odd one out?

The puzzle is based on an original one by… ah, now, well… if I told you that then any reader with even a passing acquaintance with Google would be free to do the research and find out the answer without having to think about it (a procedure technically known as ‘cheating’) and I’d much rather hear your own answers.

I will publish a link to the original puzzle shortly, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think, so do please add your answer in a comment!

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Found Games: 42 Ancient Abstracts

Just spotted these great-looking, self-styled ‘ancient’ board games on that treasure trove of the unusual, Etsy. This impressive collection of 42 different abstract games comes from the workshop of Juan Carlos Salazar in Lima, Peru. Nice work!

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Brave New World! Ticket to Ride Map Design Contest: Thoughts & Advice

If you’ve been paying attention in the past week, you’ll probably have noticed that Days of Wonder have announced the Ticket to Ride Map Design Contest. The winner of the Grand Prize will see their map published in the forthcoming Ticket to Ride Map Collection (which is pretty neat, let’s face it) and pocket a not-insubstantial $10,000. Days of Wonder may also possibly award an unknown number of secondary prizes for worthy-enough maps, and these too may in time get officially endorsed or published. That’s the good news!

Ticket to Ride: Europe and North America Maps

The bad news is that designing a Ticket to Ride map is hard work. OK, so that’s not exactly bad news, but the small print of the application rules makes it clear that DoW are only interested in fully-formed and playtested designs, not cool-sounding but hand-wavingly vague design concepts. So my first piece of advice is this: If you are creating a new map, be prepared for the long-haul.

The company also seem likely to only be interested in genuinely original and creative maps. This is, of course, exactly as it should be, but the format of the application process means that DoW will primarily be judging each entry on the strength of its concept, not necessarily that of its execution. A successful execution — a playable map and a working set of tickets — is certainly a requirement, since the successful designer must be able to supply these if asked, but when DoW leaf through the doubtless large number of entries, yours will need to stand out through the strength of its concept alone.

What this means is that this isn’t a ‘graphic design’ contest, nor one about simply making a ‘pretty map’. It isn't really a ‘game design’ contest either, since the rules of Ticket to Ride are a given, and DoW are at pains to encourage entrants not to introduce rule changes that are a prerequisite adjunct to their map. (Second piece of advice: Do not overcomplicate!). This is, I think, a ‘world building’ contest in which every designer, though constrained by a ‘lower order’ can exercise their ‘higher power’ to construct the complete geography of a new game world.

Ticket to Ride: Character

My third piece of advice is simply to highlight how important it is that any new map respects these ‘lower order’ constraints: the need to follow the Ticket to Ride rules, and the need for the map’s scale, configuration and destination tickets to be appropriate for the number of players, correctly engender the familiar hand-management tensions, and create the familiar interplay of achievement and risk. The Ticket to Ride franchise has been successful precisely because of these constraints, not in spite of them, and it is my belief is that a new map that the ignores them is doomed.

There is another form of constraint too; the contest rules state: “Your submission will be judged by Days of Wonder for originality, appropriateness for the brand, playability, and other subjective criteria.” This suggests that the second-most important criteria — listed behind originality but ahead of playability — is ‘appropriateness for the brand’. My reading of this, which leads on to my next piece of advice, is to suggest that the Ticket to Ride brand is rather more than a dry reading of the concept that says that it’s a ‘route-building game’, it’s a ‘family strategy game’ or even that it’s just a ‘train game’; for me the brand is primarily about the game’s sense of history and location, of time and place.

The two flagship games, which feature North American and European maps, are both explicitly stated to take place at the very beginning of the 20th Century. The rules for Ticket to Ride Europe even include a footnote that states: “We strove to accurately represent the political boundaries of Europe in 1901 and preserve the cities’ common name in their local language at the time.” The game maker’s attention to this sort of detail is anything but accidental. Part of the brand — even if it goes largely unnoticed by some players — is a degree of historical accuracy. (The extent to which the existing maps are or could be geographically accurate is another matter!) My fourth piece of advice, then, is to do your research!

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

From ‘The Tempest’

So to my fellow designers I would simply end by saying that it seems to me that we will all need to rustle up rather more than just the workmanlike enthusiasm required to design and playtest a map; we need, above all else, a really good idea.

Good luck — and be brave!

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Game Prototype: Oracle Pathway

Board game prototype: Oracle Pathway

I have mentioned my game Oracle Pathway before, and here is a view of all the game elements just before I parcelled them up this afternoon to send to Spain. The game has been shortlisted to be playtested in this year’s City of Granollers Game Design Contest, so I wish Oriol Comas i Coma and the other organizers well, and (of course) hope that they enjoy my game.

I also entered Oracle Pathway, back in October, into the current Hippodice contest in Germany but was this time unsuccessful in getting a design into the second round. In 2009 one of my games got through, in 2010 both of my submitted games made the cut. To be honest, and without wishing to sound conceited, I was a little surprised that Oracle Pathway didn’t make it. I described one of my entries last year, Archipelago, as perhaps the ‘most German’ game I’ve created, and my success in the past two years gave me some confidence that Oracle Pathway might be well received by the Hippodice gamers, principally because it felt like a similarly pitched family strategy game, but sleeker and snappier. Indeed, I count it as one of my most successful and well-formed designs, although we shall have to wait and see whether anyone else agrees!

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Artist’s Corner: Click Clack, by Ben Langley, Age 5

Click Clack, by Ben Langley, Age 5

Just wanted to share this great picture of the game components from Click Clack, by Queen Games. This comes from the hand and eye of Ben Langley, age 5, who is already both an avid boardgamer and an accomplished artist. All four of the coloured squirrels are there — each with an enormous bushy tail! — plus the four types of ‘forest fruit’ tokens (blackberry, chestnut, pinecone and hazelnut) and even the wild boar! Bravo Ben!

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London Toy Fair 2011 Roundup: LEGO, Nanoblocks, Games & Puzzles

A couple of weeks ago I spent an excellent day at the London Toy Fair, this year meeting up with fellow game geek Michael Fox, creator and proprietor of The Little Metal Dog Show podcast.

Thanks to Michael, I got a lot more out of the fair than in previous years (including some neat free gear!) and thoroughly enjoyed my trip. So, what caught my eye?

London Toy Fair 2011

LEGO: Ninjago, board games, Heroica

Unmissable on the show floor was LEGO’s stand, which prominently featured the four ninjas of LEGO’s big new play theme Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. The theme represents a huge push by the company, since the characters and backstory are featuring not just in regular constructions sets and the collectible Ninjago Spinners game, but also in video games, an animated TV series (with a rather catchy indie-rock theme song!) and their very own LEGO board game.

LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu - Starter Set

My work with the LEGO Ninjago and LEGO Games design teams means I already had the inside track on some of these products, but it was still exciting to see the brands formally ‘going live’. The Ninjago Spinners game is a neat concept which, though an extremely simple, quick and physical battle game, has been designed to have a little more depth ‘baked in’ so that kids can explore more tactical play using the collectible cards.

The associated board game, helpfully titled Ninjago: The Board Game, is also a really nice product, that stands apart from the other LEGO board games by offering cooperative play. The players become the four Ninjago ninjas, and have to battle the pesky Skeletons and search the fortress together to find the fabled golden weapons, all the while being threatened by the Skeleton General — Boo! Hiss! — which is no easy task. It’s definitely possible for ‘the game’ to win if the players don’t work together, and even if they do and then go on to find weapons quickly enough to stop the General claiming an early victory, there is still a final battle where the General himself must be defeated.

LEGO Games - Ninjago: The Board Game

Elsewhere on the LEGO stand there were also the four new small-box games already on sale: Sunblock, Banana Balance, Frog Rush and Ramses Return. Together these offer a neat mix of roll-and-move, dexterity, tactical and memory-based gameplay, although if I were to play favourites (no offence to the other team members!) I’d have to mark out Nico Assenbrunner’s Sunblock as the first among equals here: it’s charmingly original, has great components and is a game that actually requires to be made out of LEGO to work.

LEGO Games - Sunblock

And lastly, the toy fair offered the world the first glimpse of the oncoming storm that is LEGO Games Heroica, which will be available in the second half of 2011. I’ll talk more about Heroica in future, but suffice it to say: it’s super cool and I love it!

Nanoblocks

Staying with building blocks I also got my first hands-on opportunity with Nanoblocks, a new Japanese construction toy which might be best described as a sort of ‘pro LEGO’. The two guys on the stand were very friendly and happy to chat, and both Michael and I were excited to walk away with a free Nanoblocks set each! Michael got the International Space Station; I got the Space Shuttle. Thank you, Nanoblock guys!

Nanoblocks - Space Shuttle

Above: The Shuttle is ready for launch! Below: Small, aren’t they? (Note the 10 pence piece!)

Nanoblocks - Examples Bricks

The smallness of the unit blocks create a ‘3D pixel art’ effect, and I’m sure the brand will be a hit amongst the geek crowd. The bricks do not (quite) have the satisfyingly precise ‘clutch’ (as it is referred to) of LEGO, so the models are rather fragile, but that may well prove to be part of their charm. And if LEGO is often a child’s toy for grown-ups, then Nanoblocks is genuinely a grown-up toy for grown-ups, albeit one designed for grown-ups with both abundant patience and, ideally, very small hands.

Cheatwell Games: App-Player

A quick shout out to the guys on the Cheatwell Games stand: thanks for giving us a tour! The new product that most caught my and Michael’s eye here was the App-Player, which is ‘just’ a large six-pronged scoreboard with colourful scoring pegs (for more photos check out Pocket-lint). Sounds trivial perhaps, but Cheatwell will also be releasing, for free, a series of iPhone apps that repurpose the content of some of their back-catalogue of trivia quiz games and the App-Player scoreboard is designed to work in tandem with these.

It’s a risky move: giving away games in the hope of driving sales of a scoreboard; but I think it’s a rather clever way to physicalise the playing of trivia games on handheld devices, and adds an engaging dimension that will make sense to consumers and add value. And the number of new customers that Cheatwell can access via the App Store is enormous, so even if only a tiny percentage of that consumer base are driven by the free apps to find the App-Player or other Cheatwell games, then the idea could prove to be a real money-spinner. I must also say that Cheatwell have also done a really nice job with the design of the apps, which looked very classy on-screen.

Professor Puzzle

The final port of call on this whistle-stop tour of my Toy Fair highlights are Professor Puzzle. If you are in the UK you may recognise some of their wood and metal puzzles, but perhaps not the name. I didn’t, and I consider myself an interested party in puzzle matters, so I was somewhat shame-faced to discover that the company have been around for over 10 years!

I had a really nice chat with Ben and Adam — thanks for taking the time to talk, guys! — who showed me some of their excellent product range while we discussed the puzzle industry. There’s lots more pictures on the Professor Puzzle website.

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