Blatant reposting of awesome James Mathe article

I really loved this article and so I’m just going to link to it here. If you’re an aspiring designer, then heed this advice. I have found myself giving all of this feedback time and time again. It’s all great advice that I strongly support.

Game Design for Dummies – by James Mathe

There is one caveat – if you are making a war game, then it is expected that there will be some player elimination. On the whole though, I’d recommend avoiding player elimination!

-Jay Cormier

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Adventures in Essen: Part 5: Tips and Best Practices

Now that I’m not an Essen noob, I have some tips and best practices for those that want to visit Essen in the future. I’ll be sure to re-visit this post as next year draws near.

  1. Book your hotel well in advance. Stay close or at least on the metro/subway line. We spent too much money on taxis though there were 4 of us so we could split the fares. Next year we’re thinking of staying at the Atlantic hotel as it’s within walking distance.
  2. Pack a luggage within your luggage. If you’re planning on buying a bajillion games, then make sure you’re prepared to get them home! Most flights out of Duseldorf (closest airport to Essen) will charge you 50 Euros for an extra luggage, so factor that in you decisions about which games you should pick up. My rule was that if I could get it in Canada, I wouldn’t buy it at Essen, no matter how cheap it was.
  3. Bring an empty rolling luggage with you to the Fair. Carrying games around all day can get tiring. One of the Game Artisans of Canada was smart and brought a rolly suitcase and made it super easy to carry games around. There were many other ‘smart’ people who did the same. I used the bags provided by the vendors and had 2 paper bags rip on me in the middle of an aisle. Boo!
  4. Create a list beforehand of the games you want AND add the publisher name and booth number to the list. It’s not easy finding games if you don’t know the publisher – but it’s super easy if you know the booth number.
  5. Bring a healthy snack if you can. The food options at the Fair are the usual hot dogs, pizza slices and Nutella-filled crepes. And they’re not cheap either – so brings some edibles and come well-fed already.
  6. If you’re going to split up with your friends, make sure the meet up point is very clear. Some publishers have multiple booths so that can get confusing! We had a meeting with a publisher who said to meet him at the Snack Point in Hall 6. After 2 very crowded loops of Hall 6, we couldn’t find any Snack Points. Apparently there was one there last year and he was basing the location from last year’s layout!
  7. No one can tell you which games you should or shouldn’t get, but pay attention to forums and buzz to find out which might sell out before others and plan to get those sooner than later. I really wanted a game called Die Burgen von Burgund and since it was a game that debuted last year, I figured that there would be plenty – however it still has not been published in America so it sold out right away and I never got a copy.
  8. Travelling to Essen from the Dusseldorf Airport will cost you 50 Euros in a taxi or you could take a train for about 4 Euros if you know how to get where you’re going. I actually went a few days early and went to Paris – so I took a train from Paris to Essen and then a cab from the train station, which was only about 12 Euros. On the way out I decided to incur the cost of a taxi because I wasn’t sure of where I was going (poor planning) if I had to take the train, and my foot was sore with some sort of heel spur.

Following some of these tips will definitely ensure a more pleasant Essen-going experience! If you’re a designer then you’ll want to follow these tips as well:

  1. Contact publishers 1-2 months in advance of Essen to book appointments. Basically, the bigger the publisher, the earlier you should be setting up meetings. Email contact should suffice.
  2. Carry all your prototypes around with you – at all times. You never know when you’re going to need them.
  3. Always carry around a Sales Sheet for each of your games. If for some reason, you can’t or don’t want to carry around your prototypes – then at least always have a Sales Sheet on hand. I’ve definitely had to pull out a Sales Sheet at unexpected times at conventions.
  4. Make sure each game is individually packaged. I used a large baggie for each game. When we send a game to a publisher, we’ll always put it in a nice box, but at Essen I was carrying 7 prototypes with me at all times and there wasn’t room for each of them to have boxes. They all fit in my backpack once I put them each into their own baggie. Of course ensure each baggie is labeled with all the pertinent information: Name of game, your name and contact info and even the basic playtime, age range and how many players your game can support.
  5. Know the publisher before meeting with them. Actually you should know the publisher before you even email them. But when you’re in a meeting with a publisher and they reference one of their games, you should be familiar with it.

That should ensure you’re prepared for a solid Essen adventure of your own. Next up I’ll regale you with a post about all the games I got at Essen!

-Jay Cormier

Game Design Tip: Know your Crutches

Game Design CrutchesWhen designing many games it soon becomes obvious that you will develop some crutches, and it would be wise to be aware of them when they happen.

A crutch is something you rely on when you can’t think of a better idea, mostly because it’s easier and seems to solve all your problems.  The biggest challenge with crutches is that since they are usually easy way outs, they’ve probably been done many times before and therefore means you’re not bringing anything new to the table.  It’s also possible that your crutch will merely be a shiny yet temporary coat of paint over your initial challenge you’re having.

For Sen and I, one of our crutches to solve a problem we might have with a game is to introduce a new deck of cards into the game.  Often this comes in the form of an Event Deck.  Early on in its design, Akrotiri (previously known as Santorini) was having some challenges with interaction.  So we immediately went to our crutch and made an event deck.  Now players were forced to draw an event card and this would cause interaction to happen!  Huzzah!  Success right?  Well, no.

In this example, our crutch merely painted over the challenge we were having.  Underneath the Event Deck – there was still minimal interaction in the game. Even though the Event cards made people interact, they still had to play the game with the same mechanics – and those mechanics still lacked interaction.

After more playtesting we tweaked the mechanics and some of the rules (i.e. how many boats can be at the same dock or how other players can affect the market), and we were able to remove the Event Deck entirely (and save it for an expansion 🙂 )

I think in at least half our games we get the idea to add another deck of cards to solve a problem.  By now it’s become an in-joke between us and we use it as a way to brainstorm through the problem but rarely actually make another deck of cards!  Not one of our current games has an event deck.  I’m not against event decks really, but they should only be used once the main mechanics are already solid, and not to cover up a problem.

Another crutch we have is to give our cards multiple uses.  This usually comes from a challenge when we think players aren’t given enough choices in the game.  OK, then let’s give them cards that have two options on them – either use it for this power or that one.  It’s not a bad idea and has been used successfully in some games, but too often we think of this as our solution for improving strategy.

It’s good that we are aware of our crutches so that we can be more objective in understanding if it truly is the best solution to a game design challenge.  For other game designers reading, what are some of your crutches?

-Jay Cormier

When I read the title to this post, I was surprised (pleasantly) that Jay wasn’t regaling you of tales of lawn-chair wrestling. Ah, university days…

Yes. Back on topic – on the subject of these so-called crutches, these are our go-to’s, our fall-backs, if you will, that we use when we can’t figure a way out of a problem. 9 times out of 10, using a crutch is the direct result of not putting in the time to think of a better way, a more efficient way, a cleaner way of getting the desired effect. How do I know this? Because 9 times out of 10, we eliminate the crutch entirely later in the design process as we have figured out a much more elegant and minimal method of achieving the same results.

When examining your crutches, also be aware of the potential downside to anything you build into your game from a publisher’s point of view. 1 more deck of 60 more cards may not seem like much, but you can bet your bottom dollar (both literally and figuratively) that any publisher would choose Game A over Game B if they were the exact same except Game A had less components. Less components = less cost = more margin = more profit. And, really, more profit is better not only for the publisher, but for you as the designer. In speaking to publishers at conventions, Jay and I got a good idea of how many cards can be made per page of stock at European or US dimensions. So we try to keep our card decks equal to or less than what will fit on stock sheets. This not only gives us a working limit, it shows publishers that we know the business somewhat and respect their needs.

Often times, crutches not only add to the cost, but to the complexity of the game, and needlessly so most of the time. This makes the game take more time in total, expands the downtime between turns, and makes the rules take longer to read and harder to understand. From a playtesting perpective, adding more to the game system invariably makes playtesting more difficult as there are that many more variables to account for. This has happened to us in Akrotiri. We added these flags that you could drop on islands, claiming them for your own. Then it took us a while to figure out what those flags did, how they scored, how much it cost, etc. The scoring was a bit more complex than warranted and they really took a lot of time away from the focus of the game. So, in the current version, they’re out.

And the worst offense of all, in my opinion, is that many crutches feel “tacked on” – like they were put there to pay lip service to some singular need and not really merged with the entire ethos of the game. Many experienced playtesters can sense these and if they can, the game playing public at large will be able to. This just makes for a “Frankenstein” of a game – a lumbering hulk of a play experience instead of a sleek, stripped down version where every component, every phase of game play seems necessary to get the full effect. For us, this came into play with Belfort, where we had a Dragon stomping on people’s buildings. It was messy, made us have to make up new rules about warriors and playing defensively instead of flowing the cash to build things (i.e. the main thrust of the game). The game played better, smoother and faster without the Dragon and very few other rules changes had to be made by eliminating the firebreathing beastie. Because of this fact that it could be taken out and nothing really changed to the negative, we knew that it was more tacked on than not. So it was taken out of the final version. Now, that’s not to say that a more well-thought out dragon couldn’t appear, harassing the citizens of Belfort in the future…

Jay listed a few of our big crutches, but one he left for me was the joyful “Secret Goal” card crutch. This one is a bit of a double edged sword, because we use them a lot in our games in order to make the game sneaky/shifty fun. But only in games where that is the original intent and flavour. We sometimes have the bright idea to stuff Secret Goal cards into games to see if that’ll up the fun factor. it’s really hit and miss. For some games, the Goal being secret means that everyone is off playing their own game doing their own thing. For others, it means that no one is willing to act because there’s not enough information on the table. So, Secret Goal cards are both a boon and a bane. If it fits from the beginning – i.e. if your initial game design concept is based around having goals, like spy games, and (for some reason) Jam Slam, then you should be safe. But if you’re looking for adding that certain je ne sais quoi to spice up your game and are thinking “Oooh! I know…let’s give each player a secret goal!”… you may find yourself removing them sooner than later because you have just used a crutch.

-Sen-Foong Lim