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

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Europa Ludi 2012: There and back again

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Last weekend saw the culmination of this year’s Europa Ludi game design contest in Granollers, Spain. My game The Gnomes of Hawthorn Hall was one of the 10 games selected for the final round, and so I excitedly packed my bags on Friday evening, and set the alarm, as cheerfully as possible, for 4:30am the next morning. I was making the trip with fellow Cambridge-based game designer Matt Dunstan, an Australian PhD student, whose game Wandering Monk was also a finalist.

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The Gnomes of Hawthorn Hall: The dutiful gnomes do a little spot of gardening around one of the eponymous hawthorn trees. Those roses won’t plant themselves, after all!

The organizers had invited the authors of all 10 selected games to come to Granollers, and 9 out of 10 made the trip — including designers from as far away as Brazil and Canada! The weekend was a great opportunity for us all to meet the other designers and to play our games with each other and the public; and for me was a chance to meet again all my new friends that I had made when I visited the Fira Jugar X Jugar in Granollers in May.

To begin at the end, neither I nor Matt won a prize, but I certainly have no hesitation at all in offering my hearty congratulations to the four designers who did! Thanks and congratulations are also due to organisers Oriol Comas i Coma and Matthieu Nicolas, who successfully brought the Granollers and Boulogne-Billancourt contests together under one roof.

Things got underway on Saturday afternoon in the spartan interior of the Roca Umbert centre, a converted textile factory in the centre of Granollers. Below are photos of 8 of the finalist gamed designs, with apologies to designer Didier Masson whose abstract game Le Jeu des Colonnes Dégressives I failed to snap!

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Etienne Espreman (second right) takes Pol Cors of Homoludicus (second left) and friends through the intricacies of his prize-winning game Bruxelles 1893. I was able to try the game later and really liked the action grid on the left, which packed a lot of game into a tight set of interrelated choices.

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Jose Antonio Abascal Acebo (second right) holds court while explaining his neat little abstract game Damas Cantabras. I liked the way the game played like a sort of ‘parallel’ checkers, with one player on the white squares and the other on the black. The game was fast and offered lots of twisty and interesting positions

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The Gnomes of Hawthorn Hall got lots of attention and plays over the weekend, and it was really interesting to see how different groups approached it; some polite and collegiate, some rather more cutthroat! Here, game designer Fran (second left) and illustrator Bascu (second right) — of whom, more later — joined friends to try out some gardening, gnome-style!

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Fabien Chevillon (second left) oversees a play of his prize-winning game Les Diamantaires, a very clever, very lean design that I liked a lot. Fabien impressed everyone with the quality of his plastic chips(!) and the incredible simplicity and cunning of his bluffing and bidding game. Fabien is a financial trader, and said that the idea of the game was born of the banking crisis and the issue of ‘toxic assets’. Not just a game then, but a socio-political commentary, too!

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I never got a chance to try out Prohis by Marc Brunnenkant (first right), which is a shame because I really liked the look of it. The game appeared to be a nice mix of bluff and luck, that played quickly and had some neat twists.

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Fabiano Onça (first right) had travelled all the way from Brazil with his father (first left) to present his game The Raj. Fabiano was the first designer that I was introduced to, but I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to play his game, which was, like Les Diamantaires and Prohis, another bluffing game — definitely the most popular mechanism on show amongst the final 10!

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Val d’Or by David Gauthier (second right) was another of the prize-winning games, and got lots of ‘good press’ from other players over the weekend. Mixing worker placement, tile-laying and even some memory, the game looks like a solid family strategy game with a neat physical element: the two crossing lanes of sliding mine wagons. Bravo David!

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Haritz (Asmodee Spain), Perepau (designer of Sidibaba), and Stephane (from 5mpj) are joined by Stephane’s expert-gamer son in a game of Matt Dunstan’s Wandering Monk. I have been playtesting this game regularly with Matt since he began designed it, so know it well, I can also recognise most of the prototype’s components, donated from my abundant supply!

After a full afternoon and evening’s play on the Saturday, we all retired to the Hotel Granollers for a delicious and convivial dinner and some late-night gaming, this time mercifully uninterrupted by Moroccan dignitaries. I got a chance to introduce Gnomes to designer Josep M. Allué, who had brought along a copy of his newly published (and cheerfully silly) Baobab.

After a leisurely breakfast on Sunday, we all assembled for lots more games and gaming. A highlight was the alfresco ‘round table’ discussion about the designer-publisher relationship organised by Ludo and adjudicated by designer Toni Serradesanferm.

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The long, rectangular, ‘round’ table. Left to right: Haritz Solana (Asmodee), Josep M. Allué (designer), Pol Cors (Homoludicus), Chechu Nieto (illustrator), Xavi Garriga (Devir), Perepau Llistosella (designer). Photo: Fran F G.

A very special mention and exceptional gratitude must also go out to Toni Giménez who volunteered on behalf of the organizers to help Matt and I by providing an impressive live translation from Spanish to English, both during the round table and the ceremony later on Sunday. He was also excellent company at Sunday’s excellent lunch at Roca Umbert, where we also had the great pleasure of meeting Vanessa and Miguel, two members of Barcelona’s Club Kritik who helped playtest some of the 40 prototypes submitted in the second round of the contest.

And, this being Spain, we didn’t have too long to wait after lunch for the awards ceremony at 5:00pm…

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Tension mounts as designers, friends, local gamers, local dignitaries and local media await the big announcement (which I think was beamed live to a similar audience in Boulogne-Billancourt)!

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The jury, sequestered all weekend, are finally revealed and take to the stage while Oriol wrestles with the microphone. Left to right: Martin Vidberg, Fina Manich, Tom Werneck, Matthieu Nicolas, Nadine Bogner, Samuel Schöpfer & Natacha Deshayes.

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Etienne, Fabien and David receive their awards and pose for photos with Josep Mayoral, the Mayor of Granollers. Congratulations to you all!

Attentive readers will note that I previously mentioned four winners. The final, unseen awardee is Graeme Jahns of Canada, whose game Iron Horse Bandits got rave reviews. Graeme couldn’t be with us all in Granollers and I was told that the spare copy of his game had been held (for bizarre reasons, mostly to do with a paper cut-out gun) by Spanish customs. This meant that none of the designers had a chance to see or play the game, since the only copy in Granollers was with the jury for the whole weekend. Jury member Samuel Schöpfer explained the game to me at breakfast on Monday and I really, really liked the sound of it! Congratulations to you, Graeme!

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Bascu surprised me after the ceremony with a gift: a copy of Café Race, designed by Fran F G (left) and illustrated by none other than Bascu himself (right). The double-signed copy now takes pride of place on (one of) my game shelves!

Many of the jury members and designers had planes to catch on Sunday evening, but I enjoyed drinks and tapas with jurors Samuel and Martin, designer Etienne, organizer Matthieu and volunteer Ribo from 5mpj who had been doing a fantastic job all weekend looking after the finalists, and also doing plenty of French-Spanish-English translation, too.

Later, back at the hotel, I was able to introduce them to one of my newer prototypes, Fly Away, Cormorant!. In it, the players are cormorants fighting over the best fish on a row of fishing boats (how quaint!), and must regularly interject in each other’s plans by shooing the other bird away with a cheerful cry of “Fly away, cormorant!” However, it is worth noting that everyone was far more at home using the game’s original and — how shall I put this? — rather less family-friendly phraseology.

I was in no rush get home on Monday, so spent a leisurely day in Granollers and Barcelona with Samuel who was not flying back to Switzerland until the evening. I thoroughly enjoyed my return trip to Granollers, and very much hope to be able to visit again. Many thanks to everyone involved in Europa Ludi, both in Spain and France, and to all the designers and gamers who made the weekend such a fantastic and enjoyable success. To end, I would like to share the words of a fellow finalist who admirably summed up my own sentiment in an email to all the designers this week:

Joining the contest looked like a solo race: sending the rules, crossing the fingers to be selected, sending the prototypes. Finally, it turned into a real event and it was a pleasure to talk with the organizers, share experiences with the other authors, and watch ‘everyday gamers’ playing the games.

I had the feeling of meeting friends from my childhood that I had not seen for a couple of decades.

The whole contest was a game, and I enjoyed playing it!

Didier Masson

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Playtest Meetup: Divinare Dice, Nova & Venice

Sunday: To Pimlico, and the monthly Playtest Meetup. There was a good mix of the usual suspects and some keen new blood, and enough game designers to have 3 or 4 concurrent playtests — all very ably directed by Rob and his trusty clipboard!

Divinare Dice

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First things first: although I’ve audaciously named my prototype Divinare Dice, no official endorsement by the good people at Asmodee is implied! Second things second: this is a very young design and every part of it is still very much for grabs. Except for the dice, I guess. Can’t really have a dice game without those, now can you?

Chris and Chris (there were a lot of them about) joined me on what was anything but a straightforward playtest of my third-generation prototype. Fortunately I’d brought my second-generation board with me, since the new ones didn’t last very long. We didn’t get through a whole game, but we had a fantastic and insightful discussion, and tried out new ideas and twists as we went along — what wasn’t working? why had I made those choices? how can we get rid of this fiddliness? where was the interesting bit, and how can we get there quickly? why not turn the game on it’s head and see what happens?

So much good stuff, and a great exercise in the process of game design. So thank you Chris (both of you) for joining me on this particularly adventurous journey! Divinare Dice will never be the same again.

Nova

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This is a simple-as-you-like domino game that I designed and first playtested in March, and I thought that this would a good opportunity to try it out with a different crowd. Chris, Chris, Chris & Phil gave it a spin and I watched — mildly dumbstruck! — as they all spun it very differently from previous playtesters. This is hardly high strategy, but it can certainly be played rather more aggressively than was done at the weekend — they all just seemed to be being far too nice to each other! And it won’t do, I tell you! It won’t do at all!

Having said that, I am absolutely in favour of games that allow for different styles of play, so the fact that the four of them played Nova in such a collegiate, we’re-all-in-this-together, big-society kinda way was objectively encouraging and nice to see. I had expected a game designer crowd to be, well, a bit more ‘gamey’ with it — and maybe they would be next time around — but on Sunday, they were all seemingly content to do their bit for the greater good.

Venice: City of Trade

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This game is the fruit of a collaboration with game designer Matt Dunstan. We’ve been working on it since February, and so much about the game has changed in that time; however, recently I think we have homed in on the core of the game, polishing it while at the same time smoothing off any remaining rough edges. Sunday’s playtest, by my reckoning, went exceptionally well, and was very encouraging.

Mo and Phil, both new to the game, joined me for a 3-player game which I won by only a narrow Margin over Mo: 106 to 101. Phil was a little ways behind at 73, but didn’t seem at all aggrieved. I am by no means an expert, and Mo could very easily have beaten me — it was a close-run thing! Both Mo and Phil were complimentary about the intuitiveness of the game, which played smoothly and has a good arc: with a beginning, middle and very definitive end.

The collaboration with Matt has been a big success; two heads really are better than one. Our gaming and game design interests certainly overlap, but are far from a perfect match. I naturally steer towards smaller, simpler, tactical fare; Matt is more drawn to heavier, more strategic games. The now-near-final Venice design has become something neither of us would have designed alone: more complex than anything I would attempt, but lighter than Matt’s design instincts would naturally produce. And I think the design is all the better for becoming something that has, somehow, elegantly resolved that tension.

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“Stop fixing leaks before the ship is built.”

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There are two definitions of ‘game designer’. They are ‘creator’ and ‘developer’ or maybe ‘inventor’ and ‘refiner’. These are both important jobs and you don't usually find them both in the same person.

‘Refiners’ need their adult brains turned on. They need to be critical, ask questions, test, and fix broken games. As such, people who tend to live in their adult mode all the time make better refiners.

‘Inventors’ need their adult brains to shut up. When you’re making something new, everything needs to be awesome. You need to stop second-guessing every spark before you manage to light the fire. You need to stop fixing the leaks before the ship is built. So people who can think with their child brains make better Inventors.

I’d say the biggest obstacle to your becoming a well-rounded game designer is your natural tendency to spend all your waking life thinking with your adult brain.

James Ernest, Reddit AMA comment

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Europa Ludi 2012: Let the games begin!

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At the end of next week I shall be off — again! — to Granollers in sunny Catalonia, this time for the culmination of the inaugural Europa Ludi game design contest. In May I reported on my trip to the JugarXJugar games fair in Granollers, one year after my game Oracle Pathway won the 6th City of Granollers game design contest, and in time to see my winning design in published form as Divinare. It was a quite a trip!

This year, the organizers of the Granollers contest have joined forces with their colleagues at the long-established Boulogne-Billancourt contest in France to create Europa Ludi. My prototype is one of the 10 finalists announced by the Europa Ludi organisers in July. It is not, I think, within the spirit of the contest for me to tell you which of the prototypes is my design, although it may not be so very hard to guess if you take a look at the titles.

Fingers crossed! And I shall let you know how I get on…

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The Naming of Parts

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

It didn’t end well for the star-crossed lovers, but Juliet makes a good point: Does it matter what things are called? The game designer is constantly creating things — ideas, objects, actions — that immediately require naming, and it’s a tricky business.

One argument is that the specific name doesn’t matter; it’s only a cipher for the thing itself; a useful, practical abstraction that the designer and player can both use as a common handle for an unfamiliar concept. An opposing argument would be that the name matters a very great deal, because it isn’t just a code; rather, the name — in some sense — is the thing, or at least suggests very strongly what the thing is supposed to be and hence immediately creates a web of expectations for players.

I certainly think that designers need to take care — but then, that’s what I think designers should be doing all the time! The words we use have the potential to reveal our intent, or obfuscate it; to intuitively enable players, or hobble them with a dim, misleading picture of our game that can only impede their understanding. But the truth of it is that our words, however carefully chosen, will often be heeded and then ignored, replaced by individual players with their own idiosyncratic language — what linguists would call a ‘folk taxonomy’.

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