The Gathering of Friends: Part 1 – Overview

I just got back from the Gathering of Friends and have a lot of things to share with you! This is the first of many posts reviewing my experience at the Gathering of Friends.

First of all, what the heck is the Gathering of Friends, you ask? Well, Alan Moon – the prolific designer of such hit games like Ticket to Ride and Elfenland – decided 23 years ago to get some friends together to play games over the course of a week. Every year since then it has grown in attendance. For the first few years, only an invite directly from Alan himself could get you to the Gathering. Eventually, he noticed that there was clearly a desire of many others who would love to attend, but Alan still wanted to ensure only the right kind of people attended.

The new policy is that anyone who has been to the Gathering at least 2 years can nominate someone to attend, and then that person needs to be seconded by two other people who have also attended the Gathering for at least 2 years. So it’s a pretty exclusive club. This year, and for the next three years, it takes place at the Sheraton on the US side of Niagara Falls.

Thanks to the Game Artisans of Canada, I found myself with an invite! Whaaa? Me? Yeah! Another member of the Game Artisans of Canada, Mike Kolross has been attending for about 5 years now – thanks to his ability to make components for the game, Descent that Alan greatly enjoyed. Last year, he and Rob Bartel, another member of GAC, made a portable/travel edition of Alan’s Ticket to Ride out of wood (kind of like a fold up cribbage board) and it was a huge hit. Mike then made another one for Christian Hildenbrand from Amigo Games (for his wife actually) and through Christian and Mike I got my invite to the Gathering!

I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I heard that Alan doesn’t mind that designers are pitching games to publishers, but that he preferred to make the Gathering more about playing games with friends. So I didn’t follow Step 20 and set up any meetings in advance with any publisher. That said, we did know which publishers were going to be there, thanks to email updates from Alan himself. This allowed Sen and I to prepare by assessing which games of ours would fit best with each publisher (Step 17). We could have done better at this – by making some solid notes about each.

Following Step 21, I packed up one bag full of prototypes. With so many prototypes to carry around, I’ve decided that the best way to do this is the large baggie system. I take all the components of a game and put them into one large baggie. Of course I put some components in smaller baggies and then into the larger baggie to make it easy to set up and play. Then I labeled each baggie with a sticker that had the logo of the game as well as my contact information. I heard a story from Frank DiLorenzo from R&R games where he had a prototype of a pretty good game, but it had no contact information on it whatsoever! Ouch! Sen and I pretty much like to have our contact information in as many places as possible – on the baggie, on the Sales Sheet (Step 14), on each page of the rules in the header, and even on some other component of the game – if it makes sense.

I print out the rules for all my games and put them all into one folder as they’d get wrinkled up if I put them into the baggie. If a publisher wanted a prototype, then I’d fish out the rules, fold them in half and stick it in the large baggie with the rest of the game. Prior to this trip we had many other Game Artisans who wanted me (and Rob Bartel, who also attended) to pitch their games to publishers on their behalf, since they were not invited. I didn’t mind doing this for other Game Artisans, but the game had to be something I enjoyed and something I would feel comfortable pitching. So for the weeks leading up to the Gathering I was getting prototypes mailed to me from other chapters in hopes that I’d like their game and could pitch it to publishers. I liked three games of the ones I was sent and agreed to pitch them. This just meant that my backpack full of prototypes now had three more games stuffed in it! In my backpack I was carrying these prototypes:

  1. Junkyard – even though this game has exclusivity with Wiggles 3D until June 1st, we wanted to show some other publishers, in case Wiggles ultimately decided to pass on it
  2. Clunatics – this one is being assessed by Pegasus Spiele, but we wanted to bring it to show other publishers (and we were clear with new publishers that the game was currently being assessed by Pegasus)
  3. Hog the Remote
  4. But Wait, There’s More!
  5. Akrotiri
  6. Eat at Joe’s
  7. EIEI-O!
  8. Swashbucklers – currently being signed by a publisher, but we wanted to test one last thing with the game
  9. Belfort – plus the expansion prototype
  10. An untitled prototype that is Alpha stage, currently called Box Office
  11. Captionary
  12. Bordeaux – prototype from GAC member, Matt Musselman
  13. A Game of Cat and Mouse – prototype from GAC member, Al Leduc
  14. Iron Horse Bandits – prototype from GAC member, Graeme Jahns

Yowza! That’s a lot of prototypes! In the next post I’ll review how the Gathering is laid out and then get into what it was like pitching to publishers at the Gathering, and finally share which of our games garnered interest from them as well.

-Jay Cormier

Adventures in Essen, Part 4: The Publishers

While Sen shared with you the overview of which publishers expressed interest in which games – I thought I’d expand on it a bit and give you some more details about what exactly went down!

We pitched to many publishers and while no contracts were signed and no promises made, we have a lot of exciting prospects that we’re looking forward to in the next few months.

Kosmos: They liked Swashbucklers, EIEI-O and Train of Thought. Since I had an extra copy of rules, I gave them the rules to EIEI-O. I had no idea how big Kosmos was as I only knew them as the publisher of some great 2 player games. Apparently board games are only about a third of their business with books and science kits/toys making up the rest. It would certainly be a boon to be published by Kosmos!

Update: They have the rules to EIEI-O and have emailed us to let us know that they are reviewing it. We should know in a couple months whether they are interested or not. They also asked Tasty Minstrel Games for a copy of Train of Thought to review.

Pegasus Spiel: They really liked Swashbucklers and commented that their Roll Through the Ages was successful and they could see the same success for Swashbucklers! They also liked all our party games: Train of Thought, Clunatics and Lost for Words. Pegasus is new to the party game genre with Pictomania being released this year, so they might have to wait to see if it works out for them. If it does they said that Clunatics will be a bit challenging to localize (as that game involves common North American idioms) but it’s nothing that a quick Google search couldn’t help! Pegasus is huge in Europe and would be fantastic if we could get a game in with them.

Update: I’ve sent an email to them to see if they’re interested in Lost for Words and am awaiting a response.

Huch & Friends: They liked Clunatics and would like a prototype of it. For them, Swashbucklers was too in the middle as Huch prefers games that are either lighter or heavier! They were interested in taking a look at Belfort and I’ve introduced them to Tasty Minstrel. They also were interested in Bermuda Triangle and have asked for the rules to be emailed to them. Done and done. A prototype for Clunatics has being sent off to them as well.

Update: They have received Clunatics and told us that mid-November is when they are playtesting all the submitted prototypes. They let us know that we should expect some feedback by end of November!

Quined: Quined had our prototype of Akrotiri before Essen and had played it a couple times already. They said they were still fascinated by it but had a few concerns or questions about it. Sen and I agreed with their comments and so we spent a few weeks before Essen coming up with and playtesting ideas that could improve the game. We believe we came up with a winning solution and I now love the game even more than I did before (and it was already my favourite game of ours!). Not only did it fix the issues they expressed, but it also reduced the playtime down to 60 minutes for a 4 player game! That’s gold! So I had some time with Quined and got to take them through all the changes. We didn’t really get to play it, but they at least got a verbal explanation. I left them the new prototype and will follow up in a couple months.

Update: There has been email communication since Essen, but mostly just a confirmation that they have the prototype and plan on playing it soon. I imagine their plates are quite full with the release of Alba Longa!

Queen: I also was at Essen to pitch a game from fellow Game Artisan of Canada, Matt Musselman. I had played his wine-making game, Bordeaux many times and have always liked it, so I let him know that I’d be happy to pitch it to publishers since he wasn’t going to Essen this year. Normally this would mean I’d be entering Agent status, but since Matt is a friend I told him that if he sets up the meetings, then I’ll attend them and pitch his game without worrying about being an Agent. Matt set up a meeting with Queen and Alea and Queen was my first of the meetings.
I started with the Sales Sheet – as Matt followed our advice and made up a pretty swanky Sales Sheet. After a few moments he wanted to play it so I bust it out and set it up. After one round I recommended we play one more as that would really help showcase the other aspects of the game. Once we finished that round the publisher just kept playing, so we kept playing. We were joined by another rep from the publisher and we kept playing as we explained what was happening. We ended up playing the entire game! This seemed to be very atypical to me as I had never had more than 5-10 minutes for a game! They had some concerns but were interested in checking out the game further. As an FYI – the publisher and I tied at the end, and I couldn’t remember the tie-breaker. Regardless, that’s a great way to end the game since we both had different paths to victory.

I asked if they had time to look at a game or two from me and they said they had another 15 minutes or so. I first showed them Belfort and they expressed interest in checking it out and I’ve introduced them to Tasty Minstrel Games to figure out the next steps. We played a couple rounds of Swashbucklers and they seemed to really like it with the publisher stating that it was “great.” It was funny because on the first round I rolled Cannons and attacked one of the publishers and stole his treasure, then later in the round, the other publisher rolled Swords and attacked him and stole a treasure too. I was worried that he would feel ganged up on, but he realized that he failed to defend himself and left himself open to the attacks! They were really quite enthusiastic about it! I still had some more meetings with other publishers so I said I’d be back near the end of the Fair and they said that was cool.

After evaluating all the publishers that wanted Swashbucklers, Sen and I felt that Queen would be the best fit, and it helped that they were the most enthusiastic about it as well.
When I returned to their booth on Saturday, I asked a random Queen staff member if my contact was around and he asked if I had an appointment. I said that I did yesterday and that I was here to drop off a prototype. This random rep asked me, “Is it Swashbucklers?” Imagine my surprise! How the heck did he know about Swashbucklers? He said that the guys I met told him all about it. Wow – that’s a good sign! I met up with my contacts and let them know that many publishers expressed interest in Swashbucklers but that we thought that Queen was the best fit and that we really appreciated the enthusiasm they had. They both seemed genuinely thankful that I chose to bring the game to them. I’m really excited about Queen publishing Swachbucklers! Here’s hoping that their playtest sessions go well in the next few months!

Update: We received an email from Queen stating that Swashbucklers has made it through one round of playtesting! If it makes it through the next round, then they said they will publish it!! Exciting!

Alea: Started with a Bordeaux demo as it was Matt who set up the meeting. Started with the Sales Sheet and then reviewed the gameplay by giving an overview of the mechanics with pieces I pulled out of the baggie. He was interested in checking it out further!
We had some time so I asked if he would be interested in seeing some games from Sen and I, and he said he was. I showed him Train of Thought and played a couple rounds with him. He was intrigued and he took 10 cards or so to show his colleagues. He also liked Lost for Words, Clunatics and EIEI-O and took the Sales Sheets for each with him.
After confirming which publisher Matt would prefer to hand over the prototype of Bordeaux to, he said Alea and so I returned the following day to drop it off (Tip: Always give it directly to the person you had your pitch session with and not with a random rep from the publisher. I waited 15 minutes outside the ‘office/room’ to make contact with this specific person).

Update: Got a message from Alea that said they will be testing Bordeaux further, but they weren’t interested in our other games at this time.

Jolly Thinkers: This is a new publisher in China with an interesting back story. They started as a board game café and then grew and grew. They became so popular that 4 other board game cafés opened nearby. These competitors actually used Jolly Thinkers as a distributor for the games they wanted. Now Jolly Thinkers wants to get into publishing games! Gavan Brown and I met with them as I pitched Train of Thought and Gavan pitched Jab. They were really nice people and seemed to really dig both games. We played a round of Train of Thought and then we let them play a round of Jab. After playing Jab they asked us to play it so they could watch how it’s supposed to go. I was a bit nervous as I hadn’t played in a long time. Regardless, we played and I actually beat Gavan at his own game! Wee! It was fun and I think it really showcased the game well as I was focused on combos and Gavan was focused more on haymakers. They took a copy of each with them.

Update: No real update. Waiting for email response.

Hans Im Gluck: One of the publishers that I didn’t have a specific time slot scheduled for was with Hans Im Gluck. They said in their email that they were pretty booked up but I should stop by and see if they can squeeze me in. I did stop by and we found a time to meet up. This entire pitch session was done just with Sales Sheets as the publisher preferred it that way. He liked Bordeaux, Bermuda Triangle and Swashbucklers. We would love to partner with Hans Im Gluck and so I handed over Bermuda Triangle right away and gave them sales sheets for the other two.

Update: No real update on this one yet.

Needless to say, we had an amazing Fair with regards to our publisher meetings. Each publisher we met expressed some interest in at least one of our games and that’s a good feeling. We still have a long road ahead for each of these games, but at the very least, putting a face to the name, and having a name to follow up with is a huge, huge benefit! Stay tuned to this blog for updates as we get them about any of our upcoming games.

Coming up next: Part 5 of the Adventures in Essen series in which I review all the best practices for a designer at Essen. If you’re a designer and planning to go next year – then bookmark the page so you can come back to it next year!

-Jay Cormier

Essen 2011 Roundup

Sorry I didn’t do up-to-the-minute updates as Jay sent me frantic encrypted e-mails letting me know what was going on at Spiel ’11.  I was pretty sick over the last few days, so it was all I could do to decode them, read them, cheer weakly, eat the paper I transcribed the message on to, and then go back to bed!

We had several prototypes to show and are also looking for European partners for co-publication of Belfort and Train of Thought.  Here’s a recap of what happened at Essen for the Bamboozle Brothers:

Jay met with:

Kosmos, who liked Swashbucklers, were interested in co-publishing ToT and took the rules for EIEIO
Pegasus, who expressed strong interest in Swashbucklers and were also interested in Clunatics, ToT, and Lost For Words (depending on how their initial venture into party games goes with Pictomania).
Huch & Friends, who want to check out Clunatics, would like the rules for Bermuda Triangle, and copies of Belfort and ToT to evaluate as European releases.
Quined, who are evaluating Akrotiri – Jay gave them the updates they requested in terms of “spicing it up” so now they are going to playtest with the new additions we’ve made
PSI, who told Jay that Belfort has been sold in Europe (English copies, of course – but it’s a start!)
Queen, who Jay met with on behalf of our friend and fellow Game Artisan, Matt Musselman, to pitch Matt’s Bordeaux to them. They enjoyed Bordeaux and then Jay had time to show them our games – they loved Belfort and requested a copy for evaluation. Jay also showed them Swashbucklers and they were very excited by it. They requested a prototype of it as soon as possible. Jay gave them the prototype immediately after the convention.
Alea liked Bordeaux as well, and this company is Matt’s first choice. There wasn’t a ton of time, so Jay was only able to show our party games to Alea. Now, you might be thinking, “Alea doesn’t do party games!” and you’d be right. But what they can do is link us up with other publishers that do! They liked ToT, Clunatics and Lost For Words and took several sell sheets for these and EIEIO as well, saying that they’d show them to their colleagues. Nothing like getting a plug from one of the most respected publishers in the biz…
Hans im Gluck, who liked Swashbucklers and Bermuda Triangle. As Swashbucklers was slated for Queen, Bermuda Triangle went home with HiG – spread the love! HiG also really liked Bordeaux – go, Matt, go! Also of note: HiG was very positive about our sell sheets, so that’s a sign that it’s something we should all have on our “to do” lists. It’s one of the last things Jay and I do, but one that we spend a lot of time on, despite it seeming so simple.
Jolly Thinkers, who are a Chinese publisher – they were interested in Train of Thought prior to Essen so we took this opportunity to meet face to face and hand over a copy for evaluation.
Jay also had a meeting with Gamewright, who currently have Jam Slam, but I’m not sure what transpired in the meeting. Jay’s probably so burnt out on games that he’s sleeping right now. 😀

Recent Playtests

Spent this past week playtesting a bunch of our games.

Played RuneMasters: our 2 player card combat game.  This is quite the different game for us as it’s not even the kind of game we usually like to play, but we have a pretty cool idea for it and we are trying to see if we can make it happen.

The playtest was OK but there were some issues with not having enough cards, some slowdown in casting creatures and confusion around order of events.

Overall there’s still something very interesting about this game as was evident in a couple of the individual battles.

Played Akrotiri (previously named Santorini until I learned another game is coming out next year with the same name): This is our Tile-laying, Pick up and Deliver, Find Hidden Objects game.  I forgot a couple things I was meaning to playtest and so had the same issues I had the previous time I playtested it.  There was little tension, which would have been increased if I remembered the 2-3 things I was supposed to remember to include in this playtest.  Oh well.  Overall – it wasn’t the best time I’ve had with the game, but it was still fun and interesting.  The 2-3 minor tweaks should help out a lot.

Lost for WordsPlayed Lost for Words: This is our quick party word search/creation game.  It used to be part of our Games on the Go series, but we had thoughts on turning it into a larger complete game – and so I did!  There was a lot of fun to be had as we shouted out words.  The brainstorming session at the end lead to an even better scoring mechanic that I can’t wait to playtest soon.

I also playtested my friend, Matt’s game called Bordeaux: a game about gathering grapes from the Bordeaux region in order to make specific wines.  We played it a few times over the past couple days and each time it got a lot better.  The last time I played it was tense and interesting and very Euro-y.  It has a few more tweaks to balance out the goal cards, but it’s almost a publisher-ready game!  Good job Matt!

-Jay Cormier

One of the things Jay and I will invariably do when we’re stuck on a game is ask ourselves a few questions:

The first one is a two-parter:

a) What do we absolutely LOVE about this game and b) how can we make the rest of this game feel like that section?

We tend to focus on the positive as opposed to the negative – that way, we don’t try to fix things by…err…fixing things, if that makes sense. We fix things by highlighting the positive aspects of the game so much so that the downside seems less onerous, takes less total game time, and (in some cases) gets elimintated entirely.

In making most of our games, we have a common habit of adding on little mechanics here and there to the main game as we develop towards a final product. Usually, what happens is that the game becomes cool, but cumbersome and we have to ask ourselves the above questions. From there, it’s a process of separating the wheat from the chaff. This doesn’t mean that the so-called chaff is bad or filler or redundant. It usually means that it feels “tacked-on” and doesn’t really add anything to the game as a whole. But those sections often provide us with inspiration for possible future expansions if not whole other games. And many times, what seemed cool at one point in the design process becomes more cumbersome or limiting that it is worth. We have to prioritize what stays and what goes, but not necessarily by focusing on just the negative – by fixing only the negatives, you may end up with a working game of boring mechanics, but by highlighting the best parts of the game, you are more likely to end up with a game that not only works but shines in it’s playability.

So, for Rune Masters we asked ourselves the question above. And what the answer was is that we want the battles to be fast, furious and fun, not cumbersome, plodding, and boring. Jay and Matt had a few really exciting battles where spells were flying, stones were used to power their heroes and creatures, and the tide of battle swayed too and fro. What made it fun? The possibility of high levels of back and forth action. What is not so fun? The building up phases (the arms race, so to speak) are technical and slow, though interesting.

We therefore want to keep what see-saw battles we have and create the opportunity for more. In fact, we’d love it if every battle ran “hot” like the ones that Jay and Matt found really exciting. That’s Goal 1.

The next question we ask is:

How do we make this game go faster / run smoother?

These are some things we want out of all games

– less downtime when you’re not the active player / less analysis when you are the active player
– engagement during everyone’s turns, whether it be that you have to watch what other people are doing in order to play most effectively or that you are an active participant on another player’s turn

There’s a fine balancing point in many games where the designer must choose whether to be simple or complex. Is it a die roll or a complex algorhythm with a appendixed look up table cross? Is the player playing the game or is the game playing the player?

We try to subscribe to a Japanese term “shibumi”, which means “simple, yet complex”. We want the strategic application of a mechanic to be the crux of the decision as opposed to mechanic itself. We want enough variables in play that there are decisions to be made, that there are options to choose, that there are different paths to take, different ways to victory. There should be some “best decisions” at each point, but there should be as few “no brainers” as possible – and the “best decisions” should be based on cards in hand, the state of the gameboard at the time, etc., that the decision a player made was the best for him at that time based on the information he possessed.

Goal 2 for Rune Masters is to find a way to simplify the relatively complex mechanic we’ve created to cast spells. It’s a very unique and intriguing mechanic, but it needs to be simplified in some way to decrease the brain drain and increase the speed. And to further answer this question, Goal 3 is to maintain a flow in the game. We found in the last few playtests that players had to pass an awful lot just to get cards to play and/or clean up their workspace for casting spells. We’re hoping that a few simple fixes will increase the cycling of cards and make the casting of spells smoother.

Still on the question of smoothing out the kinks in games, Jay and I love tile laying games and that is a really fun part of Akrotiri. In the past, we’ve had feedback about the tiles in this game and how sometimes it is nearly impossible to place the single tile you get access to in a way that is beneficial to you. This is based on how the tiles connect via trade routes. We’ve redesigned the tiles now such that any tile can connect to anyother tile, but the routes may still not lead where you want. The playtesters who have tried this game in multiple iterations have told us that they like this incarnation of the tiles the best so far as there is less analysis. While it sounds like there may be more as all tiles fit together, there is actually less as, before, players would spend time trying to make things fit by rotating the tile around to see if there was a way. In accentuating the positives, we hope to make a better game!

For Lost For Words, the question always has been one that’s a bit different that the ones above:

How do we add more strategic decision making to this game?

There is a difference between a game and a puzzle. And there is a difference between a good game and a poor game. A poor game is purely mechanical without input from the player. Conversely, we want to make games where the players are making decisions as much as possible – some easy, some difficult, but constant decision making is really what gaming is all about. It’s about making decisions, executing them, and seeing how those decisions affect the outcome. Add in as much interaction with the other players to force you to decide in different ways and you’ve got the start of a good game.

Lost for Words was originally simply a race to see who could spot words within an ever-growing array of tiles. We’re trying to “gamify” it a bit, as the decisions you make are minimal, at best – the most you will have to decide is if you want to score less for a short word, but score quickly or try to find a longer word for more points risking that someone may score on the tile before you. Jay and I have wanted to add a type of score tracker to the game to try to add some other strategic elements. But Matt and Jay have thought up an even better idea that Jay and I will refine further to ensure that players aren’t always going for the quickest word using a score tracker and some goal tokens. That will help take this from a puzzle race to more of a true strategy game. We’ll have to see whether that, in fact, makes it more fun when all is said and done!

Last point – For Akrotiri, the first thing we should have done after the last playtest was written a note to ourselves on the box itself of the things we wanted to change the next time around. A simple “To Do” list could have made the playtesting much more productive! That’s a habit we need to get into!

-Sen-Foong Lim