Advanced Tortuga Rules available

Tortuga-BoxWe’ve just been given the thumbs up to post our advanced rules to our game, Tortuga from Queen Games.

The advanced rules use the same components (less actually!) and provide some ways to mitigate some of the luck and add some more strategic decisions.

Now you can sacrifice any die to place it on any Icon – but at a value of 1. While this might seem weird to do – we’ve also changed how you resolve each Icon. Now – everyone who places at least 1 die on boats, crew and treasure will get some benefit! That makes those sacrificed dice with a value of 1 pretty valuable. Now if you really need crew – you can always get at least 1 crew in a turn.

So if you have Tortuga already, please give these new advanced rules a try and let us know your thoughts.

-Jay Cormier

What Makes A Game Worthy of the SdJ Award?

Camel Up?  Really?  OK, I kind of called it.  I had the fortune of being able to play all of the nominated games prior to the release of the information while at the Gathering of Friends earlier this year.  Most people there really liked Splendor and were giving it the nod, but there was something about it that just fell flat with me.  Camel Up, on the other hand, is mechanically a less stringent game but it creates stories and fun and has people engaged with each other during the game itself; definitely more so that Splendor.

The SdJ award is not to find the best game in the world, contrary to popular belief.  The mandate of the Jury is to promote boardgames in culture much like books and movies are.  They hope to award the coveted prize to games that can help accomplish that goal.

So…what makes a good SdJ candidate?

I  had the pleasure of meeting up with Tom Felber of the Speil de Jahres jury at Snakes and Lattes this week. 

He gave an excellent talk and held a Q&A session afterwards, discussing what makes a game worthy of the prestigious award.  For those of you who weren’t there, here’s the highlights:

The SdJ jury is comprised of just 10 journalists with absolutely no direct fiscal ties to the gaming industry.  They are people who write about games as their job. They play and vote and play and vote and play and vote etc. until the lists for the Kid’s, Strategy, and Overall nominees are compiled.   Each jury member plays in the area of 400 unique games a year, some multiple times.

Tom noted that even though Germans play tons of games as a country, the average German is not educated on what makes a good game, and so the SdJ has become a “seal of approval”.  This has lead to huge sales for the winners.  The lowest print run of a SdJ game that used the award seal was estimated at 200,000 units.  Hanabi, for example, had a print run of 700,000. just for Germany. This is why the SdJ is announced in the summer; to allow lead time for the companies of winning games to manufacture and ship out the necessary volume in time for Christmas, as games are a traditional Yuletide gift.

However, the misconception of the SdJ is that the award is for the best game of the year.  It is really for the most accessible game; the game that will be a great ambassador to the world at large for the hobby of boardgaming. Tom stated that it is unfortunate that the game buying public spends 99% a large percent of their money on the winners of the SdJ, leaving other good games to languish sales-wise.  So that’s why the Jury publishes the runner up and recommended list.  They also want to limit the awards to only the 3 current categories to keep it simple and understandable to the general public.

The winners of each category have the right to use the SdJ seal to advertise their accomplishment for a small licensing fee based on unit sales (2-3%).  This money goes towards financing the awards themselves, participation in fairs like Essen, publications like brochures/websites/etc., and other expenses. The SdJ program also funds a ton of great gaming-related activities like bringing games to soldiers on peace-keeping missions, etc. to further their mandate.

Tom went on to answer some questions on the topic of what makes a game a solid candidate for a SdJ:

  • it can be played again and again
  • it is well balanced
  • it elicits positive emotions
  • it has a solid rulebook that is available in German
  • the game has high production standards for the graphics and components
  • there is no to low violence in the game, so there are no wargames and the rules should be carefully worded around touchy subjects – anything overtly violent or war-like is not going to receive Jury approval, no matter how good a game it is otherwise.

The biggest take home point for me was something that I regularly espouse – rules are an essential part of any game system.  Without them, you just have bits on a board.  The Germans as a people have a technically precise culture and thus hold rulebooks to a very high standards.  Tom stated that the number one reason for a game being excluded is poor rules.  He pointed to Queen Games and Hans im Gluek as being companies that traditionally have well-written rules.  For the SdJ, the Jury will not consider any supplemental aids (videos, web-based FAQs, etc.).   If they can’t play the game solely with what comes in the box, it is immediately excluded.

Tom noted the collegial nature of the German publishing houses – the editors meet yearly to discuss how to write better rulebook.  Tom stated that good rules are clear and simple, use plenty of pictures and give good examples.  He added that good rules need to be readable and a bit of humour can help with that.

Hope some of our readers find this article helpful – maybe you’ll design the next SdJ!  We’re certainly trying our best!

~ Sen-Foong

Finally – English Rules are posted for our new game Tortuga!

Queen had the German rules posted for awhile but have now posted the English rules to our new game, Tortuga! So if you’ve been on the fence about backing this game on Kickstarter – well, now you can read more about it to see if it’s your jug o’ rum!


Check out the rules on the Kickstarter Update page – and help us get that last stretch goal of 6 more treasure tokens! Less than $1000 to go!!!!!


Belfort on ‘Watch it Played!’


Rodney Smith of Watch It Played! has chosen Belfort as his next game in his series.

The first video is a super thorough rules explanation of the game. If you’ve never played before then simply watch this video right before playing and everyone will be in the know!

Then his series continues as he starts to play the game with his son. What’s really cool about this is that after a couple of moves, he pauses and asks the viewers what he should do next. He allows some time to pass as people provide their thoughts, and the comment that gets the most ‘thumbs up’ votes, is the move that he will do. Pretty cool! So far we’re two episodes in, so feel free to play along with Rodney and his son as they explore the 2 player version of Belfort!

And of course, if you haven’t heard yet, Belfort: The Expansion Expansion is currently available on Kickstarter – eagerly awaiting your support!

Step 31: Working with a Developer

The contract has been signed, so now it’s time to sit back and wait until it hits the shelves right? Not quite. There’s still some work to do. Most publishers will spend some time developing the game even further. This is common and could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The publisher might have a team of people that are responsible for developing the game or there might be just one person in charge of it.

So what happens during this stage? Well, the developer plays your game over and over again, trying to see if it’s fully balanced and retains what it had when they first agreed to publish it. The most common thing that will happen here is small tweaks. The cost of one card could be made more expensive as it proves to be too powerful in their tests; the quantity of resources given out might be changed for balance reasons. It could be bigger changes that range from adding or removing certain aspects or even changing the theme of the game!

A famous story is how Reiner Knizia’s game, Through the Desert started as a game about campers. The publisher liked it but wanted to change the theme to camels in a desert – and the rest is history.

We were fortunate for this stage so far as we were involved in all suggested changes. Most of them were fine by us, but once in a while we would share our thoughts on why we would disagree. Sometimes it was because we had tried that in an earlier prototype and found that it didn’t work in the long run for various reasons. Most, if not all of the time, the developer listened to what we had to say and took action because of what we said.

For example, at one point we suggested starting players with some resources, and while at first it was thought not necessary by the developer, we eventually playtested it and found that it sped the game up considerably. Alternatively, we always had a rule in there that you could sell your buildings for a certain amount of gold. Eventually the developer realized that hardly anyone ever did that, so it was better to just remove it which removes 1 option players have – which is fine in this game as there are plenty of other choices to be made!

Playtesting Belfort

For us, the developer process was lengthy for Belfort and almost non-existent for Train of Thought. Train of Thought is a party game and it didn’t require any changes at all. The only development for that game came with the rules editing. Belfort is a deep strategy game and the developer playtested the game numerous times over the 6 months. Every few weeks we’d get some new reports on how the latest playtests were going. We communicated using an online forum since we were all located in various parts of North America.

It’s key in this stage to maintain a positive attitude and a humble demeanour. You don’t want to get on the publisher’s bad side at this stage. If you want a reputation, then get one that is about how easy it was to work with you as a designer. That isn’t to say that you should just lay down and accept everything they suggest. We chose our battles wisely and only really stuck to our guns if it negatively impacted gameplay. This should be one of the most fun times for you as a designer, so don’t spoil it!

-Jay Cormier

When not creating games by night, I’m a mild-mannered pediatric Occupational Therapist by day. In my line of work, I constantly tell parents that a huge percentage of the problems they or their children are experiencing could benefit from improved communication. And the same goes for working with a developer – fostering an open and understanding dialog is key to ending up with a result that everyone can be happy with and proud of.

Because Jay and I work as a team though, painfully separated by huge tracts of land, we have become somewhat experts in communicating with each other. For the most part, we are able to get our points across without ripping each other’s throats out. Having access to modern technology like Skype and our forum has really enabled Jay and I to be able to do our work despite the 3-hour time difference. We have become fairly adept at putting our ideas into writing, making physical prototypes and working things out from a distance. Giving and receiving feedback with our colleagues from the Game Artisans of Canada and our playtest teams has been hugely beneficial as well. All of these skills have been definite assets when it came to working with Seth Jaffee, our Developer on both Train of Thought and Belfort.

So, working with a developer is no different than working with anyone else – communication is a game. Everyone playing just needs to know the rules, the boundaries, and share a common lingo.

The Rules:

What I mean by this is not necessarily the rules of the game itself (though you should know those like the back of your hand, I hope!) but the “rules of engagement”, as it were. Questions you need to answer may include: Who’s in charge of what? Who’s tasked to what? Who’s the final decision maker? What is the purpose of this iteration cycle? Arming yourself with this knowledge can help you avoid some of the common misadventures that happen with groupwork – Going It Alone, Reinventing the Wheel, Passing the Buck, and the ever-dreaded Stepping On Toes.

The Boundaries:

Fact 1: You are designer of the game. So it’s your baby.
Fact 2: You have signed away your rights to the game. So it’s basically been “adopted”.

This means that you need to understand a few things, like it’s the publisher’s call whether or not the game needs to be rethemed. It’s the publisher’s call whether or not there are too many cards in Deck A, B *and* C. And, thus, by proxy, it’s the developer’s call as he/she has been employed by the publisher to take the game and make it better suit the publisher. You need to be aware going into this relationship that the developer is not there to work for you. He has a different agenda. It’s more than likely 99.9% parallel to yours, but you’ll note that I used the word “parallel” as opposed to “same”. He may have the task of ensuring that there is the least amount of language on the cards, for example, which requires you to review how the rules work with only icons. Your agendas need not clash – in the end, all parties just want to make a good game. But it takes an understanding on all sides of the die that everyone knows what’s up.

Speaking of which, one boundary that you, as the designer, may wish to discuss with the publisher and developer is your overall vision for the game – what were you trying to accomplish when you made the game? What are some of the high priority “no sale”, make-or-break items for you? If the developer holds these in mind while he is doing his thang, everything will flow from those overarching elements. It’s important to look at the game from the macro viewpoint every now and then to ensure that the wholistic nature of the game is still intact after all of the micro changes that are made. But without talking about that kind of stuff, how is the developer supposed to know? He’s not a mind-reader anymore than you are.

Share a Common Lingo

This, simply put, means that everyone is on the same page language and terminology-wise. You will save yourself a lot of confusion and arguments if everyone knows that when you say SP you’re referring to Skill Points, not Spell Points. Having very clear rules with well-layed out phases of play and a glossary of terms can really help everyone understand each other. When everyone speaks the same language, the flow of ideas is much more seamless. It helps streamline conversations when people can refer to the same points of reference instead of having to call something the “the-part-of-the-game-where-we-roll-dice-and-move-things-but-we-don’t-pick-up-any-cards-because-that-comes-at-the-end phase” (er…you mean “The Movement Phase”).

So keep the lines open between you, the developer, and the publisher. In the end, change is generally for the positive – i.e. to make the game better (in terms of playability, saleability, etc.). Be open and accepting to feedback, because if the agendas are parallel, everyone is hoping to get to the same place. So embrace change instead of fighting it, just ask for clarification/explanation from the developer if needed.

In short, communicate.

-Sen-Foong Lim

The Big Belfort update!

There has been plenty of action with Belfort recently! Let’s break them down:

The Hotness

Belfort is currently, as of this writing, the 5th hottest game in the Hotness List on! This is just a fluctuating list that tracks which games have the most activity on their pages. Lots of people are interested apparently. Not only that, but on the people side of the Hotness List, both Sen and I are hot. For some strange reason, Sen is hotter than I am!

Belfort at the Printers

On June 1st, Belfort was at the Printers being printed! We’ve been told that it takes 28 days to get everything printed and fully boxed. Then it gets placed on a boat and is shipped to America, and that takes another 30 days. That means Belfort should hit America around August 1st. Some time will be needed for it to get to the distributors and then even more time to get it up to Canada for our Canadian readers out there. Still, we’re expecting to have it in our hands sometime in August!

Final Rules are available

Belfort Board Game rulesIf you can’t wait that long for a taste of Belfort then, you can check out the final rules with all the amazing art from Josh Cappel. They are posted on the new Tasty Minstrel website (which is much more functional than their last site!): If you’ve been interested in the game but wanted to know how it works, then give them a read!

Contest to win Belfort!

For our American readers, Tasty Minstrel is holding a contest in which you can win one of 15 prize packages that includes: Belfort, Jab: Real Time Boxing, Eminent Domain and Homesteaders (2nd printing). To enter the contest, check out the rules and link here:

Pre-orders for Belfort – even for Canadians!

You can now pre-order a copy of Belfort for yourself, even if you’re not in the US! They’re even offering a package deal if you want to get a few games from Tasty Minstrel Games (like, say, I don’t know…Train of Thought maybe?!). Straight from Michael Mindes, the owner of Tasty Minstreal Games comes this message:

I have been receiving numerous emails about shipping costs worldwide through  I was planning to offer no shipping outside of the United States, for various reasons.  So, let me preface these costs with the following information:

    • These rates are non-negotiable.  They are as low as I can afford to make them, and I will continue to learn about how to get better rates.
    • These rates do not include any import taxes or duties imposed by your home country.
    • I will not make any adjustments to the stated value of the games to help you avoid those import taxes or duties.  You will need to address that through the political process afforded in your home country.
    • Yes, you can combine orders of multiple games from multiple people for combined shipping costs.  Up to 25 pounds.

In this fashion, I am able to offer worldwide shipping for those that desire it.  Tasty Minstrel fans have asked for worldwide shipping and it is now available.  Those are the terms.  Here are the rates:

    • Hawaii & Alaska = $30 USD
    • Canada up to 25 pounds = $30 USD
    • Canada 26-50 pounds = $50 USD
    • Rest of the World up to 25 pounds = $50 USD

Promo video for Belfort

Sen and I have finished the script for a promo video to help promote the game and now we’re in the process of getting it animated as it will only feature real people at the end when it zooms out to show people playing the game.  Of course we’ll be sharing it here as soon as it’s done – which might even be a bit after the game launches.

Comic Book for Belfort

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve partnered up with Tim Reniert to write comic books. We’ve written a bunch of scripts already, but the first one we’ve commissioned an artist to draw is a story set in the world of Belfort. We found an amazing artist, Rob Lundy, who has gone above and beyond our expectations for this story. We’ve seen some rough layouts and are excited about how it’s coming together. We’ll be sharing more as we progress, but for now, here’s some character art for our two main characters in the story.

We’re very excited about this game. As excited as we were for our first game, Train of Thought, I would say that I am twice as excited for this one. Belfort is the kind of game I like to play – the gamery game! We’re in the home stretch now!

Step 25: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Playing your game with a publisher

One goal of going to a convention is to get your games played by as many publishers as possible (keeping mind that they should be the appropriate publishers for the kind of games you have made).  So let’s look at what happens when it’s time to actually play your game with a publisher!

If the convention is slow, or if it’s after hours, then the publisher might want to play a full game – or at least a few rounds to get the idea.  This is where you have to be REALLY good at explaining rules.  Some people are naturally good at this, while others are terrible.  You’re going to have to find a way to be great at this if you want to be taken seriously.  I’m sure you’ve played a new game where halfway through, the person who explained the rules suddenly added a new rule that was integral to the strategy.  It feels like a waste of time.

Ask your friends if they think you’re good at explaining rules, and how you could improve.  One key thing to keep in mind when you’re explaining rules (of any game) are questions that pop up.  Why are they asking questions at that moment?  Probably because they don’t see how it all fits together yet and are stuck in their minds on how it works.  The more questions you get asked during your rules explanation, the more you have to improve this skill.  If you’re not great at explaining rules, then you should practice.  For every game you play – not just your own prototypes – volunteer to explain the rules.

Explaining rules for a game could be its own post – or three – but here is a quick overview of what people need to know before playing a game – usually in this order:

1)     What is the theme/story about what you’re doing in the game.

2)     The objective.  Is it to get the most points or build the tallest building or have more horses than anyone else?

3)     Define the pieces that will be used in the game.  Some won’t make sense to the players, but they’ll need to know the terminology of what things are called.  Make sure to say “and I’ll explain how you get those in a bit” whenever applicable.

4)     Turn order.  What does a player do in a turn.

5)     How to score/win.  Why have we been collecting these tokens? Oh I see – each complete set is worth 5 points.  Got it.

Example for Belfort: (1) We’re each playing architects and are trying to construct buildings in the town of Belfort before the first snow hits. (2) At each of the three scoring rounds we’re going to score – and whoever has built the most buildings in each district will get points, as well, whoever has hired the most workers will also get points. (3) Every player has a player aid, 3 elves, 3 dwarves, 1 wood, 1 stone, 1 metal and 5 gold, as well as your houses to indicate which building you built on the board. (4) The turn order is listed here on your player aid, so let’s review each step <go through a turn>. (5) During the scoring rounds, here’s how we’re going to score: each district will be scored separately and whoever built the most buildings will get 5 points.  Whoever built the second most gets 3 points, and third most gets 1 point.  If there’s a tie then they get points of the next lowest rank – so players tied with the most buildings in a district get 3 points each instead of 5.  Then we look at each worker type and whoever has the most and second most get points.  Make sense?

Example of Belfort set up for 5 Players using Prototype. This was what I had when I showed Tasty Minstrel this game - and they saw, played, and agreed to publish it!

Now here comes the tricky part – when playing with the publisher, should you let them win? I say no.  Don’t ‘let’ them win – but definitely help them understand the key strategies as they play.  Always ensure that every decision is their own to make, but make sure they understand the implications of some of their choices.  You don’t want to play the game for them – but since they’ve never played before, they probably won’t understand how some of the strategies work.

If a publisher makes a move that doesn’t seem like a good move early on, then I either remind them about the rules / scoring conditions or I accept blame for not explaining the rules well enough: “Remember that if you spend all your money now, you won’t have any during the worker placement phase in the next round.”  Something like that allows them to still make their own decision, but lets them know of a situation that could suck if they didn’t know.  In Belfort – that’s exactly one of the rules – and for players that forget this, when they find out on the next turn that they have no money to visit the guilds – they can get upset.  A small reminder the turn before lets them decide if they want to be in that position or not – and then the feeling doesn’t suck any more as it was their decision and strategy!

The worst thing to do with a publisher (heck – with anyone!) is to be quiet and do some sort of surprise attack that they simply weren’t aware that could happen – no matter how much you said at the beginning that it could happen.  No one likes to be ‘spanked!’  Well some people do – but that’s not the topic of this post!  If you are going to ‘spank’ a publisher – make sure they can see it coming and could have done something about it.  You want them nodding to themselves and thinking about what they could have done to prevent it.

If you do get through a full game – it should be obvious that you shouldn’t care about whether you won or lost.  End by commenting if this was a typical example of how the game plays.  Quickly add if there are other things that didn’t really show up in this play through – then ask for feedback from the publisher.

Remember that the purpose of playing the game isn’t to play the game – the purpose is to showcase the strengths of your game to a publisher in hopes that they’d want to publish it.  As you’re playing, give advice, or explain why you’re doing the things you’re doing.  In the end, they won’t care if they won or lost as much as they care about how many strategies there are to win and if it’s something that was fun to play, had meaningful decisions and was replayable.

Next up we eat a slice of humble pie as we go through the steps on how to take feedback from a publisher.

-Jay Cormier

As I’m not usually the main man when it comes to this step, I usually just sit back home in London and wait to hear from Jay. But as we’re finding more and more possible publishers in Ontario and the Eastern provinces, looks like I’m going to have to up my skill level in this area.

Like with anything in life, practice makes perfect. Jay’s comments about practicing teaching rules to people is very important. It’s definitely one of my weaker skills as I tend to be the “absent minded professor” when it comes to explaining the rules of games – even ones that I helped create! There’s even a saying in my gaming group – “Before we start, are there any ‘Sen Rules’?” These so-called ‘Sen Rules’ are the ones that I will “conveniently forget” to tell the other players, usually only cluing them in at the end of the game as I’m taking advantage of some rule that they didn’t even know existed.

Sen – “So yeah…I score 2…4…8…16 points.”
Gamer 1 – “Why? How’d that happen?”
Sen – “Oh…I forgot to tell you about how that part of the board works…see? It says that if you play there while the sun is out and it’s cloudy, you score double…sorry…”
Gamer 2 – “*SEN RULE!*”

So…yeah…Don’t be a Sen. Teach the rules completely. Avoid beatdowns whenever possible.

One thing about teaching rules – no one wants to hear your read the rules verbatim off a sheet of paper. Your presentation needs to be fluid, dynamic, and visual. It’s not like you’re reading the rules on the toilet or anything like that (not that I’ve ever done that before…) Use diagrams from the manual to help. The board and the components are right there in front of you, so use them to teach in a hands-on manner.

You can also play a hands-up “dummy” round if it helps to explain the game better. This is often the case with card games – it’s easier to just play a round and explain the rules as the situations come up rather than to front-load all of the teaching before the game is being played. Consider if your game is better to be “dived into” and taught in the moment (usually shorter, simpler games) or if it one that requires more thoughtfulness to the teaching style (usually the case where one round has lasting ramifications on future rounds).

Some general hints:

– Be clear and succint.
– Use plain and simple language.
– Demonstrate visually and use concrete examples from the game itself.
– Repeat things that bear repeating (particularly true of the game’s objective, scoring mechanisms, and end game requirements).

When teaching a game to a prospective publisher, you can explain the rationale behind certain strategies and discuss design issues but I would prefer to do that once a few rounds have been played (unless there is something critical to note at the time of a specific move). End the game when you feel that the players have had sufficient exposure to all the key elements of the game and could extrapolate the ending from where you’ve stopped. If they want to keep playing, however, take that as a positive sign and keep the game going!

At the end of the session, it’s time to wrap up and pop the question. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not “Will you marry me?” It’s not even “Hey! Wanna publish my game?” It’s “Do you have any feedback for me?” (or some form thereof – “So, what did you think?” is a more colloquial way of soliciting feedback).

Have your pen and pad ready, because this is the critical point of your new relationship with a publisher…

-Sen-Foong Lim


Step 15: Rules for making Rules

Ok we’ve procrastinated long enough, now it’s time to actually write the rules for your game.  What’s that, you say?  Shouldn’t the rules be one of the first things you write?  Well, there are outlines and there are rules.

An outline is a point form list of concepts and mechanics that you use to keep your facts straight as you’re designing.  It’s what you come back to tweak after your playtests.  It helps you remember basic turn order and end game objectives and start game set up.  Much like prototype designing, it’s important to save each version of your overview.  Once you start playtesting you could find yourself going in circles – changing one thing only to change it back 7 playtests down the road as it might fit better now that you’ve made other changes.  At that time you will be thankful to have old copies of your notes!

Rules for our game, Jam Slam

Rules however, are a different beast.  Rules are the entire rules to the game.  This is the document that eventually will be what the publishers are going to read – so it has to convey every aspect of the game.  Unless you have a face to face meeting with the publisher (and more on how to do that in an upcoming post), these rules have to explain every rule for your game.

Think about this for a second: what’s your least favourite aspect of playing board games?  Most likely it’s reading or listening to someone read the rules.  This is why when we make our rules, we try to make them as close to what we would like to see in the final rules as possible.  This means that we give a lot of graphic examples of the gameplay.  This means that you do have to create these extra graphics – but you’re just repurposing your existing graphics into scenarios.  Bottom line is that we would never like to read a rule book that is only text – and therefore we’d never submit a rulebook to a publisher that was just text.

Take a look at some of your games and look at their rules.  How are they laid out?  Some use columns like newspapers to allow easier readability, some have a running summary down the side, which helps people who have played before but can’t remember everything, and some even give strategic advice on how to play.

How do you know if you’ve written decent rules?  There’s really only one way – blind playtest.  This is where you give your game and the rules to a group and have them read the rules and play the game – WITHOUT you making a single comment or answering any of their questions.  Man, this is going to be tough!  It’s really frustrating to see people playing your game incorrectly, but you have to let them play it out as that’s the only way you can see how they interpret your rules.  It will become ridiculously clear if parts of your rules are confusing or misleading.  You should always blind playtest your rules before submitting to a publisher.

One game we submitted to a contest was Jam Slam – and while we played the game numerous times with a ton of people, we never blind playtested the rules.  The game made it to the semi-finals but we received feedback from their playtesters about the game, and here’s what one of them said about our rules:

“In simpler games like this one, I think it’s extremely important that the rules are crystal clear. I think you are mostly there, but there are some issues. For example, the cards that you have to discard from your penalties can only come from the current round, correct? This is specified in the example, but it should be specified in the main rule. As far as the Goal Cards are concerned, it doesn’t say whether you use only the cards from the current round to determine if you’ve made the goal (as opposed to also counting leftovers from previous rounds). I assume you only use the current round’s cards, but it should specifically say this.”

So this is a perfect example of why it is imperative to have your game blind playtested before submitting to a publisher – or a contest!  For us, we hate writing the actual rules and it often comes later than it should.  That said, once we do write the rules, we try to spend as much time on them as we can to make it as perfect as we can.

-Jay Cormier

The only things I can add to Jay’s post are:

a) In my opinion, there’s no such thing as “too many examples” in rules. In working with other playtesters and designers, the one thing that is often commented on during blind test sessions is that a rule was misinterpreted. This is often the case when wording is ambiguous or made more friendly than technical. However, having a clearly illustrated and documented example or ten can clarify how the game is supposed to be played. This goes back to the graphic design segment: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a well illustrated example of gameplay can take players from “???” to “oh, that’s what they meant”. Words can often be misinterpreted. The designer’s intention becomes much clearer when paired with pictures to show the movement of pieces, the discarding of cards, etc.

In a more complex game, like “Belfort”, we are going to have to spend a lot of time over the next few weeks drafting out examples that can then be depicted graphically. Some games go so far as to have an entire sub section devoted to an example of a turn from start to finish. This may be the length we have to go to for “Belfort”. Sometimes, words just don’t do justice in explaining the complexities of a game turn.

Basically, when it comes to providing examples, the more the merrier. I’d rather you provide too many examples than too few.

b) Write accessible rules. – rules that suit the game play. I am known for being (overly) technical and writing (mind-numbingly) precise rules. However, they are very dull, dry and boring to the point of unreadability. For a fun party game, like “Train of Thought”, this didn’t work at all. The development team spent a lot of time reworking the rules such that the flavour of the game was captured and the integrity of the rules was kept.

c) A “quick start” rule section may be a good thing to include and then have more detailed rules available for the second play once the gist of the game is understood. Note that this doesn’t always work for every game.

d) Often times, you can do a summary of the rules on the back of the manual, on spare cards, or on a separate player aid. These are all excellent things to have in rules-heavy games so that players don’t constantly have to refer back to the rules. They are especially important to have in games where keeping your actions secret is important – if everyone sees you looking at the “How to Attack Your Neighbour” in the rules, you can rest assured that they’ll save their defensive cards in anticipation!

e) Proof-read your rules. Better yet, get someone other than someone intimately associated with the development of the game to do the proofing. And just get them to proof for spelling, grammar, and understandability – not to comment on the rules of the game per se.

-Sen-Foong Lim


Step 11: The most important Commodity: Playtesters

Once you’re confident that your game is working (this might take a few tweaks to your first prototype!), then it’s time to bring it to the masses.

One of our Playtesters, Xavier, enjoying a prototype of Belfort

Now we come to the most precious commodity every game designer needs – playtesters.  To a game designer, playtesters are like gold.  Here is a group of people who are taking time out of their lives to play a game in an unfinished state and provide you feedback to help you make it better.  Here are our Three Rules about playtesters:

Rule 1: Respect your playtesters. Don’t subject your playtesters to a game that isn’t ready.  We learned this the hard way with The Dig, and all it does is tarnish your reputation as a serious game designer.  It will make it even more challenging to recruit these same people to playtest your next game (or your next tweak to this game).

Rule 2: Let them play the game. Don’t spoon-feed them strategies or help them too much.  Eventually this game is going to be played without you there, so as you continue playtesting the same game, back off further and further with how much support you give players.  This is also a great way to see if the game is broken or just how you explained the rules.

Rule 3: Listen. This has two meanings.  Meaning 1: While the game is being played listen and watch to what players are doing.  Are they complaining about something over and over again?  Are they confused about a specific rule a lot?  Are they trying to circumnavigate the rules to make it work for them?  Watching and listening to people play your game will give you a lot of insight into what’s working and what’s not working.

Meaning 2: really listen and be humble when the game is over.  By now you should have an idea already if they genuinely enjoyed the game, but now it’s time to get their actual feedback.  When they share their feedback, do not get defensive at all.  Accept all comments without defending why you did it your way.  Of course you don’t have to take any of their advice, and it’s impossible to take everyone’s advice all the time, it’s silly to ignore feedback, especially if you get the same feedback multiple times.

The one thing that we’ve found out about playtesters is that they usually enjoy being a part of the process, if you’re open to suggestions at the end.  To some people, helping overcome hurdles that a specific playtest might have had is like playing a game in and of itself.  The more times you get the same people to playtest each improved iteration of your game, the more context the feedback will have as they will understand where the game has come from and what changes have been made.  It’s especially rewarding if you have used some of their feedback in the next playtest.

Matt's suggestion of adding Taxes to Belfort

For Belfort we were having some issues with a run-away leader and were brainstorming ideas on how to overcome this with our playtesters after a specific challenge.  One playtester, Matt, suggested some sort of tax that was higher for players in the lead.  We fooled around with some balance but this feature ended up in the final game!  Thanks Matt!

Remember the purpose of getting playtesters to play your game isn’t for them to pat you on your back, it’s so you can get honest feedback on your game.  Treat your platesters like gold!

-Jay Cormier

Oh, “The Dig”…the Bamboozle Brother’s albatross, hanging around our neck like a millstone…But it was a good learning experience for us. It showed us the value in a) playtesting solo and b) having a solid working relationship with our core playtesters, many of whom we count amongst our best friends outside of gaming.

While some designers might have some difficulty accepting that we can get unbiased, constructive feedback from our friends, I would challenge them in that if you follow the rules that Jay has outlined, you can.

Rule 1: Respect your playtesters…

… and they will respect you. This is really the crux of our playtesting experience so far. We try to foster a mutual level of trust and respect between us,m nnn and our main playtesters. We are open so they are open. We are mature enough to know that there is nothing personal if they provide us with seemingly negative feedback so they are mature enough to give us a reality check when we need one or a boost if it’s deserved. They also know how seriously Jay and I take game design and they want to see us succeed. None of them want us to fail and would not blow smoke up our collective ass just to make us feel good. The fact that most of our playtesters are our friends who we already trust and respect is one thing, but we strive to do this with anyone who plays our games whether we’ve known them for 10 years or 10 minutes.

Rule 2: Let them play the game…

… is a hard one to follow because, as the designer, you have a preconceived notion of how the game “should” be played – and of course you should, otherwise you would never have made the game in the first place. And so we sometimes stick our big noses in when we shouldn’t. One thing we most definitely need to get better at doing is doing “blind” playtesting – where the playtesters read the rules and play without any input or interpretation from the designers. This is the true test of how well the rules have been written, how well your graphic design has been done and how well your player aid and board transfer information to the players. The more you allow your playtesters the freedom to interpret what they see with eyes wide open and a clear mind, the better off you will be because the feedback will be untainted by outside interference (i.e. YOU). One thing that is hard to sometimes recognize is that if the players do something unexpected, it is more likely because your explanation of the rules (be they verbal or written) was inadequate than any fault of the players themselves.

Rule 3: Listen…

… and take notes during game play. Accept their feedback. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it, but you have to respect that their opinion is their opinion and all opinions are valid at this point in the process. I know I often have to stop myself from saying, “We thought of that already…” or ‘No, that won’t work because…” One rule I try to apply to myself when taking feedback is that I will not respond, I will only record. This, again, speaks to respect. For the majority of our serious playtesting, we have serious playtesters – “hardcore” gamers whose opinions we respect, and so we listen. But, for some of our less strategic games, we may have family members and friends who game casually play – does this make the feedback any less relevant? No – sometimes, they have the most realistic view of the game because they do not know common game parlance, memes or conventions and require things to be spelled out clearly. There is no such thing as bad feedback, only bad listeners. Don’t be one of those. Take everything under advisement.

All in all, playtesters are hugely influential in the journey from inspiration to publication. Without playtesters and their feedback, designers would never truly know if a game was worth presenting to a publisher. And no publisher would produce a game without playtesting it. A well-playtested game stands a MUCH better chance of getting published than one that hasn’t been. We’re starting to work with some outside playtesting groups (i.e. not personal friends) so our 3 Cardinal Rules are going to become even more important as Jay and I move forward with our games! I know that just reflecting on this post for the blog has helped Jay and I realize that there’s a lot more we could do to make more efficient use of our most valuable contributors. We’ll definitely have more blind tests. We may have more formalized feedback sheets again (we tried that once or twice), who knows? Maybe we should post them if we can find them…

In closing. I’d just like to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks to all of our playtesters to date. We couldn’t have gotten this far without you! You guys and gals rock!

-Sen-Foong Lim

Art for Train of Thought Rules + Assistance Needed

The rules for our first game that’s coming out, Train of Thought, is now available to see!  Tasty Minstrel is looking for feedback on clarity, flow, design – anything basically.  They are hoping to send everything to the printers on Tuesday – so we have this weekend to provide input.  Please take a look and provide your 2 cents either here and I’ll forward to Tasty Minstrel, or you can provide feedback directly to TM by joining them on Facebook.  Thanks for your help.