Should your game be expandable?

Great question! A not so great answer to that question is “any game can be expandable.” It’s tempting to make that your answer, but the truth is a bit trickier than that.

The first question to ask yourself is why do you want to make it expandable? The obvious answer is that it’s easier to catch a publisher’s eye if you have sequel potential baked into your game design. All things being equal the expansion route offers more money for publishers. That’s a hard thing to overlook. Putting that aside, for me personally, I love making a game with expandability baked into it because I can spend days (sometimes much longer) after I build the core mechanics designing additional cards, and expansions. It’s a creativity free for all full of experiments, and “what ifs?” It’s probably my favorite part of game design to be honest. I’m not saying I always build games that are expandable, but I find myself having more fun when I do.

So the motivations for building an expandable game are actually good for everyone all around. You get to have more fun designing, publishers have more fun making money, and your players have more ways to enjoy your game. However, there is one important thing to keep in mind. As I’ve talked about before not all games should have expansions. This is especially true if the mechanics of the game inherently don’t feel expandable up front. Trying to shoe horn an expansion in is the worst thing you can do. Developers have tried to get around this problem in a couple of ways, and sometimes they are successful, but sometimes they hit a couple of key pitfalls. The first is they make the game not as good by adding the possibility for an expansion. That is to say, the game would have been better if they had left it as a stand alone product. The second is they end up creating an unneeded expansion that actually hurts the game. (I still enjoy saying New Caprica at board game meetups, and watching people flinch.)

So lets frame the question slightly differently. Instead of trying retool a game to be expanded. How can you tell if your existing game is naturally expandable? There are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to help see this.

I’ll put the most obvious one at the top of the list. How many rules for the game are in the manual vs. printed on the pieces. If your game has a lot of rule changing pieces, such as cards, then there is a good chance your game can be expanded. Next you should ask yourself will an expansion add time or complexity to the game? Most expansions I’ve seen that are rejected by players, or never used are ones that add 10 or minutes to the game play (it doesn’t take much time to tip the game away from being fun), or they add an extra layer complexity that does scale with the fun added by the extra rules. The basic idea is if your only expansion ideas add to the time and complexity, then your game isn’t likely designed to support expansions.

Another thing to look for is do your pieces carry unique information which can easily be changed. This is very similar to the first question, as rules on cards for example can be easily changed, but this focuses on a different kinds of pieces that don’t have rules. For example, you could have a military game with units that don’t have special rules, but variable stats, or even games like Dixit where the unique art on each card gives variety of play, and an expansion is simply new art on new cards. Just like new art on cards, new maps can be an easy way to expand a game without adding too much complexity to the rules. It should be noted that designers are often tempted to add new rules to go along with the new maps. This is OK as long as it doesn’t violate the time/complexity thing I’ve mentioned before. I’ve seen it go both ways.

Finally, you can ask yourself how tightly woven together are the base pieces, and rules for the game. With my own game Addictive Alchemy I’m finding that I have to be very careful with expansions. The game is designed to be expanded, but the core cards all do such interesting, and tightly balanced things that I can’t simply create 100 new cards, and call it a day. Instead, I can only implement one out of every ten ideas I have for new cards. (I’m talking about potion cards. The side effect cards are a lot easier to make expansions for. So the game is a great example of both sides of this expansion coin.)

To recap I’ve asked why are you looking to expand it, how would you expand it, and what parts should be expanded. If you find yourself stalling on answering any of these questions, then your game probably isn’t meant to have expansions. It’s OK, not all games should have them, and like I said before it’s better to have a really great game that doesn’t have any expansions, then to build an OK game with a bunch of expansions. Because whose going to buy a bunch of expansions for a middling game anyway?

“They say the greatest illusion is hiding your true power, but the weak do that too… Here a pony!”

That’s an odd title for a post. True.

I’m really tempted to put a “more” tag in there, so you have to click a link to see the reason for the title, or even, for a few of you to be confused, and walk away. Instead I’ll explain myself.

You see, in Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan the Illusionist is an epic hero who believes it’s OK to show off that power from time to time. That is to say she thinks “If you’re strong, sure sandbag to throw your opponent off, but if you’re stronger you don’t need to.” Also, she likes making illusions of things like ponies. I’m not sure why. Perhaps a part of her never grew up.

Speaking of here is the sketch for the Illusionist. It’s not the final art, not by a long shot, but it’s an approved concept piece, so it will be a good indicator of the final work. If you’d like to see what a final piece of art for Prophecies looks like, then check back later. I’ve got the final art for the Rogue, and it’s incredible! I just haven’t posted it yet. Still you can see a pretty nice picture of the Rogue here, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t.

Illusionist:

Illusionist

In addition to the Illusionist I thought I’d shared the cleaned up approved version of the Druidess. That you kindly helped us select. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, based on the previous submission, but with some cleaned up lines, and the winning footwear.

Druidess:

Druidess

Back to the title of this post. In the game each of the character tableaux have a quote from the character that helps give a sense of the personality. The title of this post is that quote for the Illusionist. Meanwhile, the Druidess is, as you might expect, a bit more concerned about the land when she says “Do not take the serenity of the forest for weakness. To threaten the land is to tempt fate.”

I’ll talk about the story of the game, and the world that we are creating around it in a future post.

How you tricked youself into making a game you don’t like

Here is some pretty straight forward advice when it comes to game design. Make the game something you want to play.

It’s easy enough to just stop there with the advice, but the truth is there are several things that can sneakily get in the way of you doing that. The first is if you’re designing a game after a theme that theme may encourage, at least in your mind, certain mechanics. This might be because those mechanics are common for the theme, or because those mechanics just plain work well with the theme. For example, lets say you’re making a castle building game. Immediately you’ve put yourself in a Euro mechanics mindset. This means you’re likely going to include some kind of resource management involving cubes, and dice might not appear at all in your game. At the same time if you’re thinking about making a game about hunting zombies you’ll start to make characters, maps, probably custom dice with little star bursts on them to show hits vs. misses. Now, the saying tropes are a trope for a reason, is a trope, but like the tropes it’s talking about it’s there for a good reason, so I’ll say it. Giving your zombie game a maps, character sheets, and a shotgun card all makes sense. However, if you want a zombie game, but you prefer Euro mechanics, then you’re already starting to build a game that you won’t enjoy.

OK, so lets say that you’ve avoided that first pitfall, and as a Euro gamer who likes zombies you’ve decided to go mapless, and instead have a board that contains abstract areas throughout the medieval castle, and court yard where zombies are, and those zombies are represented by cubes. (Also, you’re trading goods, and growing gardens (and trains for some reason.)) You don’t have a specific character you’re controlling, but instead you’re just trying to stop the peasants, and the nobles from getting turned into zombies. You’ve also decided the game should run no shorter than 60-90 minutes. With these ingredients (ignoring my sarcastic parenthetical comments) You’re well on your way to making a Euro zombie game. (Well OK, the parenthetical comments actually could work in a Euro zombie game as well.)

After making the prototype, and writing up some quick starter rules you take the game to the public for play testing. You play a game or two, and because it’s a board game you designed some things need to be changed. (It’s not you, it’s the nature of game design.) It takes some magic, but you’re able to find out what people are thinking, and feeling about the game, and it’s not easy to hear, even if they mostly love it, but you’ve got some good feedback. Now you’re coming across the second big thing that can cause you to build a game you won’t want to play. The play testers say “I love the theme, but I really want to have a character on the board who is me, and can we have zombie minis instead of cubes, and can we have a grid map.” Part of you say “No, this is my game go away, I can’t see how you’re not seeing how awesome this is!” Part of you says “Oh crisp! They are right, I didn’t want those things, but I can see now how I was foolish to try to make a zombie game without them.” Both of those reactions are wrong by the way. Your play tester has just told you what game he wants to play, and it’s good to make a game that appeals to as many people as possible, but, and here is the good news, many people love Euro type games (Side note: I’m not one of them. I love fusion games.) just make sure you make a good game of whatever type you’re going for. Now lets go back to our play tester, ask him what kind of games he tends to like. It’s OK to do this before you start playing. If he says “Le Harve, and Puerto Rico” there is a chance you missed something important in your game. If he says “Smash Up, and Legendary”, then his advice, and experience on the table is valuable, really valuable actually, but he is going to want it to be a more Fusion type game, or a more American type. Even if your play tester loves Euros make sure that you make it a game you both will love.

Now you’ve taken your testers advice into account, and you’ve refined the game. You’ve added a few minor American type traits to the game while holding true to its Euro roots, and the game is really fun for you. This is good because you’ll play test it at least 50, or 100 times, and you’ll probably watch it get played at least that much more. Here is the tricky part. Now you’ll start to get bored of your own game a little. That’s OK. How many other games do you play 50+ times? Most of them, even really great ones, you don’t. I’ve played Dominion 400+ plus times, but that’s an extreme exception. I’d say the next highest play count for me, not including play testing, is around maybe 30 times. When you hit this point in your play test you may be tempted to mix things up, make a major rule change, or something to breath life into it for yourself. By doing that you also risk making the game lose what appealed to you when you first played it, and invalidating some or all of your previous play tests. I’m not saying you should never make a change late in play testing, but what I am saying is make sure it’s for the right reasons. If you find yourself wanting to make a change, and it turns out it’s to spice things up a bit, then you’re better off taking a break from the game. This break could just be for few weeks, but it could also be longer if needed. Give yourself some time to miss the game. When you come back you may find the change isn’t needed, or you might find some perspective on a problem mechanic that you’ve had a hard time cleaning up. Either way that time away will almost always give you some good insights.

There are other ways you can find yourself accidentally making your game into something other than what you wanted it to be. These are the big common ones I’ve seen. For the rest, and even these, it’s a good idea to just be aware of the possible pitfalls. Just shining a bit of light on them is often all you need to avoid them.

The golden age of games is over.

Roughly 3 years ago I was in the biggest game lull I’d ever seen. I wasn’t finding any new or innovative video games. I’d long worn out the few good board games I knew of, and my RPG groups preferred maps and minis to, what was for me, more classic narrative based story telling. (Don’t get me wrong maps and minis are fine, but it’s not my go to.) Things had gotten so bad I was mountain biking almost every night. Gasp! I was in great shape. I was about to lose my geek cred, when after a day long trail ride with a buddy, he got a text inviting him to play games with some of his friends. I didn’t know the guys, but I tagged along. So by random chance, once we got there, a non-gamer in the group looked at the collection of games in front of him (roughly 200 at the time) and picked Dominion. I was dubious it didn’t appear to have wizards, robots, or lasers. I was afraid I was in for a classic euro fest of building castles, and growing gardens.

With quiet desperation I asked “What is the game like?”
My host responded “Have any of you played Magic: The Gathering?”
With hope I asked “Is there drafting?”
He paused, smiled, and said “That’s all it is.”
The next day, Sunday morning, I was at the local game shop as the doors opened, and I gladly overpaid for their only copy of the game. That was roughly 400+ games of Dominion ago.

Living in a post Dominion world has taught me a few things about the current state of games. First, the tragedy that is Monopoly has set board gaming back roughly 50 years, at least in this country. Another thing it taught me is that the golden age of games is over. In fact I missed it for the most part. When those brave first games immigrated to our shores from Europe they were gladly embraced by few, very few sadly, gamers. This brought us classics like Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, and other games I just can’t bring myself to play. Partly, because I found out about them too late.

And so they stormed the beachhead (Am I confusing my metaphors), and showed us that board games aren’t Life, Risk, and Stratego, but a different much better thing entirely. Those Euros are in fact golden age classics, but the golden age of gaming is dead.

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Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan Art Update

Some of my regular play testers have already been brought up to date on the latest art for Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan, but I wanted to make some official posts to share with those of you that can’t play test with me regularly.

For starters I wanted to share with you an early sketch of the Exotic Necromancer:

Exotic Necromancer

Next I’d like to share a sketch of the Enchanting Valkyrie who has been kindly modeled by a friend of mine:

valkyre resketch rev2 comp

It’s really a shame I don’t know more models to help with my game designs.

It’s a Secret to Everybody! Being a Guest at SecretsCon 2014

If you haven’t preordered your pass for SecretsCon 2014 you should.

Honestly, I’m tempted to put a bullet list in here to tell you why, because everyone knows everything is better in list form, but I’ll resist that urge.

Instead, I’ll just say that SecretsCon is not your ordinary convention. In fact it’s not likely like any convention you’ve ever been to. This will be a weekend event, for one weekend in Atlanta, where gamers can gather, and commune. So what’s different between that any the other conventions you’ve likely attended? The good news is, nothing, and well, everything. The nothing part is simple it’s a gathering of like minded people. If you like games, pop culture geekery, and a good time, then you’ll enjoy SecretsCon. If you wish your sci-fi/anime conventions, that Atlanta is known for, had a way to bring home the fun, then SecretsCon is the con you’ve been waiting for, or that you didn’t know you were waiting for.

Let me explain. For me, the best part of a convention is going with a friend. Walking around, people watching, shopping, attending events, but most importantly having that friend to share it with. It’s like a perfect chocolate and peanut butter mix. The con would be great if you went alone, and your friend is still pretty great without the con, but there is something incredible when you have them together. In fact so much so, that I’ve observed in myself, and others a post con blues that you only get if you attended with your friends. Your friend, if out of town, isn’t around, the con only exists in a limited time at a specific place. You can’t recreate it, you may drive past the con’s hotel off season, and sigh wistfully. All that sighing isn’t going to bring the con back.

SecretsCon found a loophole. They will offer your normal con levels of fun, while also creating an environment to experience it with your friends, and quite easily make new ones. That is to say, you will be sitting down at table after table meeting new people, and sharing in some great/fun experiences.

That’s great and all, but how does that get you past the post con/friend blues? I’d ask you to wait, but I’m about to tell you.

So when the con is over, you won’t say to yourself “I have to wait a year.” You can simply setup a game night with your new found friends, and you’ve got a mini SecretsCon at your home. Better still, SecretsCon is the offshoot of the already popular local meetup, Secrets Factory which meets one to three times a week at various locations around Atlanta. It’s a methadone to your post con high.

Also, I’ll be a guest of the con. Just click the link and, scroll down, keep scrolling, I’m almost there, see me? Yep, I’m there, and I’m rambling about newworldalchemy.com in my little bio. So check out SecretsCon, and my public con experience, and if you have time play test one of my games. I promise you’ll have a great time!

You picked the Druidess!

The polls are closed, and the results, and in, boy was it close!

First I want to thank everyone who participated, it’s great to see a small community forming here, and it’s encouraging to hear your various comments. All of them really added to the discussion, so I thought I’d share a few here real quick:

Kotatsumuri said “I would like barefoot, considering in another common concept of the druid able to walk throughout the forest without any hindrance.”

Pozix said “This is not some meek little wood nymph shyly emerging to defend her tree. This is a powerful woman stomping forth to exert her reign over a sizable chunk of mother nature. (“Supreme Druidess”) In order to stomp, one needs something to stomp with.”

Ennui said “If she’s not going to have rocket boots or knives for toes then she doesn’t need heels.”

Even though we didn’t hit our mark of 25 votes, I will say that we covered some distance. It looks like 3 of the voters are from Hawaii, and 1 from Ohio.

Now to see the winning picture, and the winner of the contest…

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