Nov 13

Game Design Update 11/13/17

Greetings all! It has been far too long since I have written and this article is attempt to get back into the swing of blogging as well as update everyone on what I have been up to in the world of tabletop game design!


First of all, thanks to everyone who supported the Kickstarter for Legendary Creatures back in late July and early August! Eduardo and I could not have done it without your support and we are truly grateful.  The files are at the printer now and we are eagerly looking forward to backers receiving their copies in the Spring if all goes well!


Next up is the Kickstarter for Book of Dragons from Robert Burke games. It launches on Kickstarter this coming Wednesday and I hope you check it out. Book of Dragons is a unique project in which several game designers created their own games for the same deck of 40 (10 different dragons with 4 copies of each) gorgeously illustrated dragon cards.  Using zero numbers or text each designer made a rule set and thus this one deck of cards will offer players the ability to play many different games with the same set of cards.  I have heard it described as a card game utility belt, and that’s sounds just fine to me!  I am thrilled to be a part this project and share a credit with such incredibly talented designers as Daniel Solis, Jonathon Gilmour, Gil Hova, Sen Foong Lim, Jay Cormier, Robert Burke and many others!  I am especially excited that one of my absolute favorite designers, Martin Wallace will also be contributing a game to the project!  Be sure to take a look at my game, Age of Dragons (A 2-Player strategy battle game) and all of the other wonderful games that make up Book of Dragons when it launches on 11/15/17!

 

While I am working on a number of designs that are as of yet unsigned, the most ambitious  is Penumbra.  Penumbra is set a millennia after the great war between the Realms of Darkness and Light. Light was victorious and now rules the planes of darkness from Beacon, the City of Light.  When a new ruler of Beacon is needed, a Contest of Shadows is called.  Champions, know as the Shadowborn, who are able to manipulate the light and dark within come to vie for control of Beacon and all the Realms of Darkness.  Only a Shadowborn can keep the Realms of Darkness from breaking loose to reignite the Great War and threaten all life.  However, the Contest of Shadows is not without great risk.  All who seek such power are corrupted in the pursuit and must trade portions of their humanity in the quest to rule the Beacon! Any Shadowborn, whose light is completely extinguished,  transforms into an Abyssal Lord with one purpose…the destruction of Beacon and reigniting the Great War!  Only when a Shadowborn has acquired enough power through military conquest and the politics or is the last claimant to possess any light can a new ruler be crowned and the contest ended.  Court the darkness to defend the light, and walk between both worlds in the Penumbra!


Lastly, is the return of an old friend on which I have been working for a couple of years now.  Killing Jenkins has been looked at by a couple of different publisher with a lot of enthusiasm, but for one reason or another has gone unsigned.  I feel very strongly that this game needs to be made, and has the potential to be a big hit.  In my testing over the years it has always been very well received and particularly so by casual and non-gamers.  The idea of working a soul crushing job under the tyranny of an evil boss who is then murdered has appealed greatly to the players.  They have also enjoyed the way in which the players are not at all concerned about solving the murder, but are only interested in going down for the crime.  Sort of a dark twist on Office Space mixed with Horrible Bosses!

At this time I am still shopping Killing Jenkins around to publisher, but I am also looking into the possibility of running my first Kickstarter campaign as a publisher if I can’t find one.  It would be a huge undertaking, but I also think it would be a fun and exciting way to publish some of my quirkier games and learn more about all aspects of the game industry!  I have some very cool ideas for promotional videos, stretch goals, and prestige pledge levels that could make for an exciting campaign.  We shall see how things develop, but right now I am looking at a mid 2018 launch!

Other than some other small project that I am tinkering with, this mostly sums up where I am on the game design front for right now and for the coming year!  I plan to blog on a much more regular basis again and would love to hear your thoughts and questions about anything game related!  Thanks for reading!  More to come soon!

Jul 18

The Story of Legendary Creatures: Part Two

In The Story of Legendary Creatures: Part One, I discussed how Ed and I came to work together and how this game came to exist as project. In Part Two, I will delve into aspects of design and development that took place over the last year and a half that helped make Legendary Creatures into the game it has become. It has been a long and winding journey full of false starts and dead ends, but looking back now as we near the finish line, it easy to see that all of the hard work has been worth it!

Once I accepted Ed’s offer to work on the game, I received access to the files of material from years before when it was being developed as a Wii game. Ed was gave me a lot of space to sift through the contents of the files and formulate my own concept for the game even if it differed from the original idea for the video game. His primary commandments were to use what I could, focus on the creatures, and create a medium weight strategy game that captured the whimsical nature of the original project! No problem…I thought.

So the first problem was shaving down the massive number of creatures into a solid set to build a game around. Before long I had 12-14 I thought would work, but the real question was work for what? With my first to game, Strife: Legacy of the Eternals I had a very specific game idea and built a world around that idea with help from the publisher, but the game already existed. In this situation, no game idea and only the pieces of a half made world from which to work.  Good thing I like a challenge!

I knew the original game involved a number of islands, some kid adventurers, and the creatures. The problem with the creatures was that they were so diverse that it was really difficult to make them all useful and fit in one world. After all, how does one make a mermaid or a goblin have comparable power to a dragon or a behemoth? The problem with the kids, was what would they or could they be doing in conjunction with the creatures that would be effective as a strategy game?

My first concept was that the kids were royalty trying to restore magic to the land by allying with magical creatures. Each creature had an ability and the players would draft them from a common display. These abilities would help the players explore the long board islands and access the powers on the spaces in a manner akin to worker placement.

There were some really cool elements to this version and I was happy enough with the concept to build a prototype and begin playtesting. However, as I playtested it I was shocked by the fact that every change I made resulted in the game getting worse! I kept fighting with this design for a couple of months until April of 2016 when I made a fateful decision. I reached out to Ed and informed that I was scrapping everything that I had worked on for the last three months!

It was a very difficult decision, but I knew it had to be done. As daunting as it was to start over, the good news was that I had a plan…and a day off work!  In just that one day, I put into place the foundational mechanics that remain even now and built the prototype as well! By stepping away from the big picture theme for awhile I was able to design a game that made the creatures shine and could then use their abilities to create a thematic experience.

 

The creature cards have come a long way!

 

If creatures were to be the center of the game then players would have to use them a lot. I decided each player would have identical decks of creatures with that could produce Magic or activate an ability some of which would produce orbs. Initially each player had a deck of the same 16 creatures and the game was played over three game turns made up of four rounds each. Just like now, players selected three creatures from their hands to use during the round and the fourth was set aside to be used in the expedition. Players would the compare their expeditions and only the player with the highest total would receive a landmark which could be used by the player every turn for the rest of the game. Players would use their creatures to produce Magic and Orbs and by spending them and using other creature abilities they would race through the four realms with the leader in each realm receiving a gift.

To those of you familiar with the game, by having been a playtester, played at a convention or from any of the videos out there I am sure you can see how the current game emerged from that early version, but this story is about how that happened! Obviously I cannot cover every detail, but I will talk about the major turning points that helped turn that early lump of clay into the finished game of today!

Turning Point One: Jim Bennie

A big part of my design process is to play the game on which I am working over and over again, and to do that I require at least one willing partner in crime. Many of my dear friends and a number of local game designers playtested Legendary Creatures and all were truly helpful, but the lead playtester was my old friend Jim Bennie! I have known Jim since I was 17. We met playing Magic the Gathering way back in the day during Alpha, and we have been good friends now for over 20 years. Yes…we are old. Jim and I have played and discussed Legendary Creatures countless times since last April and his input has been invaluable! Bringing Jim on early in the process and his willingness to play my hideously ugly prototypes was one of the most important parts of working on Legendary Creatures! Thanks Jim!

 

Turning Point Two:  Amulets

Prior to the inclusion of amulets in Legendary Creatures, there was what amounted to dealer button in poker.  It rotated each turn and acted as a tie-breaker for any timing, turn order, and scoring issues that came up.  I did not really like it, but at that stage it was needed for the game to function well enough to test. When Ed was giving me feedback at this stage he asked if there was a way to step up player interaction.  That is when I created an early version of the current initiative system using Kajar’s Amulet as the tiebreaker. By making the button in to an amulet and creating three others, all of which float around the table when exchanged by players, helped increase player interaction. In addition, by making one of them a tie breaker that changed hands organically, it was a vast improvement on the previous system.

Turning Point Three: Reducing Decks to 12 Cards

At Ed’s suggestion, I reduced the creature decks from 16 to 12 in an effort to shorten the game. This cut three rounds out of the game, but also forced me to make difficult decisions about which four creatures to remove. There is no question it was the right decision, as it both dramatically sped up and streamlined gameplay! At first I was sad to remove some of the creatures, but this led to two major developments that vastly improved the game!

Turning Point Four: Two Abilities On Some Creatures

Removing four creatures from each player’s deck threw off the resource production balance and led to me adding a secondary ability to some of the creatures and adjusting the magic values of others.  This helped me see that previously a number of creatures were simply better than others and this did make “what to play” a very interesting decision.  Adding secondary abilities to some creatures and rebalancing of other aspects of their design brought almost all of the creatures on to par with each other or at least situationally on par with each other.  As a result, a myriad of new interesting decisions were revealed!

Turning Point Five: The Vast Expanse

The second side effect of removing the four creatures was that I had extra creatures and a few interesting abilities that were now not being used.  I decided to add a small deck optimization mechanic to the game where players could remove creatures from their deck and replace them with others from a market/display.  It took on a number of forms during development including one version where all of the wild creatures were available throughout the entire game.  Some players preferred it that way, but overtime testing showed that three creatures available per day was the better way to goIt led to greater re-playability and forced players to explore different strategies as the same creatures would not always be available at the same time each game.

Turning Point Six: The Kirin

As the number of creatures and abilities grew with the addition of the Vast Expanse the number of potential ability combinations went through the roof to level beyond my mathematic ability to calculate.  Fortunately I did not have to test every combination in every order, just every interaction.  At the time the Kirin could copy the ability or abilities of the creature or creatures beside it in a player’s display.  This was awesome!  It allowed for so many really cool combinations and exciting plays to occur that everyone loved it.  Unfortunately, Jim Bennie and I discovered after almost 60 games of testing that this allowed for a number of infinite combos to exist.  I tried everything I could think of to keep this ability in the game, and even found myself twisting other rules and systems to fit it, but sadly it had to go.  Purging that ability from the Kirin was a turning point because trying to keep it had become bigger than the game itself, and its removal made Legendary Creatures far healthier overall!

Turning Point Seven: Spells

By this point the game was tightening up quite nicely and Ed and I prepared to run some demos at Gen Con in the First Exposure Playtest Hall.  Nearly all of the feedback from both session was positive, but some players did express a desire to see more interaction.

In an effort to increase player interaction as well as enrich the theme, now that the mechanics were very sound, I created the spell system.  It made sense from a thematic stand point as the players are aspiring Druids and should be able to cast spells, and it presented the perfect opportunity to up the player interaction.  As the Trial of Nature’s Grace is a competition between classmates and not a battle against enemies, spells that interact with the other participants rather than attack or destroy them seemed a perfectly logical addition.

This led to the creation of Mind Link and Shadowstep which interact with players, at times out of turn, and force all players to remain engaged.  Amplify, was added not for interaction purposes, but allowed to remove a number of multiplying abilities on several creatures and replace them with far more interesting and thematic ones!

Turning Point Eight: Gift Assignment

Much of time following Gen Con involved the creation and integration of the spell system which led to tons of playtesting focused on that goal as well as honing any other small issues that remained.  One that reared its head was how the gifts were being assigned. Early in the design process the game was much simpler, as there was no Vast Expanse, no amulets, no spells, fewer landmarks, and most creatures only had one ability.  As a result, the original gift system where they changed hands within a player’s turn if their familiar passed that of the gift’s holder was not too much of an issue.  However, with the addition of all the new aspects to the game it seemed as though the gifts changing hands during a player’s actions created too much analysis paralysis as figuring out the optimal move had simply become too difficult.  James DuMond, a friend an aspiring designer in his own right, suggested moving the gift assignment to the end of each round.  It was difficult for me to consider this change as the existing rules had been in place for over a year, but I decided to test it despite my doubts.  Much to the surprise of my playtesters and myself, it really improved the clarity all players had about what was going on and sped up the game as everyone could determine what to do much more quickly!

 

The progression of familiars during the development process!

 

 

In Conclusion

As you can see, Legendary Creatures has gone through a lot of changes during the last year and a half. These are just the biggest and most impactful moments during the process, and only those related purely to design! It does not even take into consideration all of the art and graphic design changes that have occurred!  A tremendous amount of effort from not only the Legendary Creatures team, but legions of playtesters, friends, family and other members of the gaming industry has gone into making this the best game that it can be. We are grateful for your support as it is the final step in making Legendary Creatures a reality!

 

Jul 05

The Story of Legendary Creatures: Part One

The Kickstarter campaign for my third tabletop game, Legendary Creatures, will be launching on July 11th!  This Kickstarter represents the culmination of a tremendous amount of work and over a year’s effort by the crew developing this project for Pencil First Games.  We are a very small team, made up primarily of myself as the game designer, Eduardo Baraf as the publisher/developer, Lou Catanzaro art direction/illustration and Sebastian Koziner handling the graphic design duties.  We have been aided by a number of awesome people, such as Ben Shulman, our early graphic designer, and a plethora of play testers and contributors who will be named later!  With the Kickstarter rapidly approaching, I thought it would be a good time to look back at how Legendary Creatures came to be and why I think is going to be awesome!

Although the story of Legendary Creatures begins years ago, when Ed was working in the video game industry, my part of the story begins at Gen Con 2014 and my wife falling in love with an Alien Meeple.  I was preparing for the Kickstarter launch of my first game, Strife: Legacy of the Eternals and playing as many games as I could in my spare time with my wife Heather.  After some time apart while I worked the V3G booth in the exhibit hall, she told me about this awesome guy she met who was promoting his game, Lift Off: Get Me Off This Planet.  He was having a contest where people took pictures of the Alien Meeple in different places at the con and posted them to social media with the winner receiving an Amazon Gift Card.  Well Heather loves cute game components, meeting new people, and taking pictures so she dove in, determined to capture the winning picture and in the process became friends with Ed!

Her winning picture! The Alien Meeple is dangerously close to the falls in the game Niagra! “Bon voyage Monsieur Meeple!” was her caption.

To those who know Heather and I, it will come as no surprise that she brought Ed and I together, as I lovingly refer to her as my PR representative.  She is much better than I at meeting new people and her contagious enthusiasm often leads to positive new relationships with fun people.  Plus, she really likes it when people like her pictures and winning to boot!

After Gen Con was over, she Ed continued to message over Facebook and were apparently cracking each other up with their similar goofy senses of humor!  As the Strife Kickstarter approached she suggested that I reach out to Ed for feedback about the set up of our campaign page.  He was glad to help, and I passed his helpful suggestions to V3G.  In addition, he did a review of Strife and found that he really liked the game!  Like most designers, there is no surer way to my heart than flattery of one of my games, and we became friends.  It works. Trust me.

With Gen Con 2015 on the horizon, Heather made sure that we arranged a dinner, and more importantly a 7 Wonders showdown with Ed.  They had been trash talking each other for months, and it had only intensified after she and I did a guest review of it on his YouTube Channel.  Despite me crushing both of them, Heather claimed victory as she defeated Ed, which was all that mattered to her!  Over a pizza dinner, and the beer she owed him due to losing her bet regarding the final funding level of Strife: Legacy of the Eternals, we discussed our present and future projects.  I was gearing up for the Strife: Shadows and Steam Kickstarter in January of 2016 and he was working on Gem Packed Cards.  The conversation eventually turned to the possibility of a future collaboration and we agreed that is was something in which we might be interested should the right opportunity arise.  Little did I know that the chance to work with Ed would not be as far away as I might have thought.

During, Ed’s time in the video game industry he worked on a number of projects he loved that never made it to market.  Apparently, this is quite common in that industry, but when that company folded all of the hard work and creativity that went into those projects was doomed to purgatory in files likely to never see the light of day in any form.  Ed took the opportunity to purchase the existing IPs and set about bringing these lost projects back, but as tabletop games.  He knew this would be a chance for us to work together and asked me to help him resurrect one of these labors of love!  Ed’s company, Pencil First Games is known for its lighter family games, and he wanted me to create a more strategic, but still accessible game based on the files.  However, those files did more than inspire us to revive a lost world, and instead led to the creation of an all new one full of even more amazing art, fantastic components, and many new Legendary Creatures!

Some of the long board art that made its way to the final project!

 

I obviously accepted and in December of 2015 excitedly began the process of going through the oceans of material to determine what could be used and what could not be used to create a board game based on the existing IP while providing the sort of game experience Ed wanted.  This was a completely new experience for me, as I had previously created the world of Strife from scratch, and with the help of V3G, molded it in to its final form as we saw fit.  Having an existing framework to work from was a much greater challenge than I thought it would be and just figuring out what direction to go was quite difficult.  Those early days left many strange and bad ideas abandoned and I cannot help but laugh at when I think about them and where the game has wound up.  How different it, and potentially awful, it could have been!

 

Early forms of creatures that existed and are now Legendary!

Fortunately, Ed’s experience was very helpful during this stage and we worked together to move things in a direction that roughly resembles the game as it now exists.  At this point, the long testing and development process began in earnest in those early months of 2016!  It is amazing how far things have come over the last year and a half.  It is that process that I will cover in the second part of The Story of Legendary Creatures!  However, I think it is important for the creators of games, as well as those who play them to be aware of the how they actually come to be made!  Our team is a small group of passionate people dedicated to making the best game we can and helping Ed bring back to life a project from early in his career, that he loved too much to let disappear forever!

Stay tuned for part two of this story which will cover the design and development process required to bring Legendary Creatures to where it is today!

 

If you like our story and want to be a part of it, join us on Kickstarter Tuesday July 11th through Thursday August 3rd, and help to make Legendary Creatures a reality!  Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support!

 

 

May 23

Dwarven Smithy: Kickstarter Recommendation


Dwarven Smithy is game for 2-4 players, from Flatworks Gaming, in which the players try to earn the most gold by selling minerals, runes, and gems, as well as powerful items they crafted from those resources.  Players must make the most efficient use of the limited space in their Workshop, Market, Apprentices, and Tool areas while also managing their hands and staying aware of the warehouse inventory.  The game continues until one player crafts their fourth King’s Item or either the Guild or Resource deck is depleted.  Following end game scoring, players compare their gold with the player possessing the most being declared the winner!

 

Rather than go through an in-depth rules explanation here, I will give more of a gameplay overview and explain what it is that I like about Dwarven Smithy and why I think it is a project worth backing!  For a complete look at the rules Flatworks Gaming has put together some excellent tutorial videos on YouTube.   Just follow these links for those interested in watching the videos: https://youtu.be/e_tcZvDtS10 for part one and https://youtu.be/WYjSh2Mwxqg for part two.

 

 

Game Play Overview

By far the most important key to understanding how to play Dwarven Smithy is to familiarize oneself with the player card that each player will have in front of them.  All players receive an identical player card and place it in the center of what will be their personal game space.  Each area comes with its own rules and spatial limitations and how each player manages these conditions will play a large part in whether they are successful or not.

Understanding the player card and the four areas it indicates: Workshop, Apprentice, Market, and Tools are the key to learning the game.

During the course of the game each of these areas will only be allowed to contain a certain number of cards at any given time.  The Workshop may have up to seven cards in it at anytime, the Market four, two Apprentices and two Tools.  Managing the spatial restrictions of these areas is one of the main challenges and an interesting feature of Dwarven Smithy.  The game would be easy with unlimited space, but as it is quite limited, and careful planning is required to be as efficient as possible while pursuing your goals.

Once everyone has a player card, they also receive 15 gold coins and draw their starting 6 cards.  The cards in the game are divided into two decks: Resource and Guild, and players draw four resource cards and two Guild Cards.  Play begins with the shortest person going first, although I assume that a randomly determined starting player would be ok as well.

A player’s turn consists of the following phases:

Refine:  Any unrefined resources in the player’s Workshop are turned to their refined orientation.

Complete:  Any Guild in a player’s workshop that have been placed atop the needed resources are now completed.

Action:  Players may take and repeat a number of actions during this phase:

  • Play a Card – Place a card from hand either in the Market or Workshop.
  • Discard a Card From the Market – Place a Guild Card in the discard pile from the player’s Market.
  • Move/Swap a Card – The player can use this action to move cards within their play area.
  • Sell a Resource Card to the Warehouse – Place a card from your market on top of the Warehouse and take its sell price in gold coins from the bank.
  • Buy a Resource card from the Warehouse – Pay the desired card’s buy price plus one coin for every card on top of and place the card in the player’s Market or Workshop.
  • Buy a Card from a Market – Pay the buy price of the desired card to the player in whose Market it resides and then place the card into your Market or Workshop.
  • Craft or Hire a Guild Card-  Place the Guild Card on top of the required resources in the Workshop (remembering it counts towards the limit of seven cards) with the intention of completing it next turn.

Draw:  The player draws up to four cards in any combination from the two decks without exceeding the hand limit of six cards

Play continues until one player completes their fourth King’s Item or either deck is depleted.  Players then sell everything left in their Markets and gain bonuses for having the most valuable King’s Item in each category.  The player with most gold coins wins!

The goodies you get in the box!

 

 

My Thoughts

I really enjoyed Dwarven Smithy as did all those with whom I played.  It was a little tricky at first to pick up some of the intricacies involved in manipulating one’s tableau, but once we grasp it play accelerated dramatically.  I would also say that it is a game that players will get significantly better at with more plays.  As players become more familiar with the contents of both the decks it will become much easier to create strategies with a proper understanding of each card’s value.  I am fine with this. To be honest prefer games that cannot be mastered in a single play.  As such, I am happy to report that Dwarven Smithy has sufficient depth to allow players to grow into the game.

While I liked Dwarven Smithy overall, there were two mechanical standouts that I thought really made it special.  The first being function of the Market in player areas.  Not only can a player sell resources from it for cash or discard Guild Cards to free up space, but cards placed there may be purchased by other players.  This is interesting for a couple of reasons.  Given that space is so limited, players will occasionally find themselves forced to move things into their markets to make room.  This offers an observant opponent the opportunity to sabotage that player’s future plans by purchasing the resources and placing in their Workshop.  Even if a player does not buy the item for vindictive reasons it is still a tough decision what to expose to purchase by other players just to make temporary space in one’s Workshop.  In addition to this, players store each of their completed King’s Items facedown in one of their four Market space permanently.  This slows down any run away leader syndrome as the closer a player gets to winning the less space they have available to work with.  These two factors cause the Market in Dwarven Smithy to create a great deal of tension and difficult decisions that add greatly to the overall experience!

Secondly, the Warehouse aspect of the game is great!  This could have easily just been another discard pile from which players could pick the top or any card and pay the cost to do so.  However, the fact that every Resource card in the game that is sold off by players is stacked there and the increase to their cost creates some very interesting decisions as well as a thematic feel.  Adding one to the buy cost of a card for each one on top of it can make one think very carefully about the order in which they place cards in the Warehouse after selling them.  Perhaps, you only sold them for short-term cash flow or to free up space on your tableau with the full intention of using it later.  Do you want to bury it under other cards you maybe selling in the current turn to discourage other players from buying it, but in doing so increase the future cost for yourself should you want it back? Do you buy something sold by another player that you don’t even need right now in anticipation of using it later before the cost increases from it being buried under more cards?  Tough decisions and really good stuff!  On a side note, I found the massive spread of cards in the Warehouse to thematically simulate mining as players dug through it looking for the resource they needed.  This is obviously thematic in a way that anyone considering a game called Dwarven Smithy can understand!

In conclusion, I found Dwarven Smithy to be an enjoyable and reasonably strategic card game accessible to mid weight gamers.  It takes a little while to play, but that accelerates as player become more familiar with the system and I am sure it moves even faster as players gain a better understanding of the strategies.  Given the skill level the game seems able to support, players should have plenty of room to explore and grow with multiple plays, which certainly adds value to buying a copy.  If you are in the market for a fun game that will test your ability to manage both a tightly constricted tableau as well as the cards in your hand Dwarven Smithy will likely be a hit for you!

 

May 09

Path of Light and Shadow: Kickstarter Recommendation

Path of Light and Shadow is a new game designed by the trio of Travis Chance, Nick Little, and Jonathan Gilmour in which players engage in a struggle to dominate the realm as the heirs of once great houses.  The methods by which each player attempts to achieve this goal are largely up to them, as they may be as merciful or cruel as they wish while reaping both the benefits and drawbacks that come with either. Do you have what it takes to crush your enemies and claim the realm by right of conquest?  Choose your path, but choose wisely as only one will lead to victory!

The Kickstarter campaign for Path of Light and Shadow begins on Tuesday May 9th and is being run by the well-known publisher Indie Boards and Cards.  This should reasonably remove any concern potential backers may have about the reliability of the people running the project, as it is a first-rate operation.  Rather than give a full rules explanation, I will instead give an overview of the mechanics and gameplay that make this such an interesting game.

Game Overview

The realm over which the players are battling!

The Path of Light and Shadow is played over the course of three years(rounds) with each round being made up of four game turns.  At the end of each year players will earn points based on the current state of the board position.

Each player gets one turn during each game turn, that is made up of their main phase, when most of the action takes place, and an end phase during which recruiting occurs.

During a players Main Phase they may move their leader, build a structure (advance on the tech tree), use and action ability(shown on cards), recruit an ally if the conditions are met cull cards from their deck and gain cruelty, promote a card, and attempt to conquer a province.  These actions may be performed in any order to the player’s best advantage, and some may be performed multiple times.

 

During a player’s End Phase they resolve any end of turn abilities they may have and then recruit.  The player must recruit a card from the deck that matches the type of province their leader is in and may recruit a second one from the same deck to increase their merciful rating by one.

That is the basic turn structure.  Pretty standard stuff in many ways, but the standouts are the impact of the culling in regards to cruelty, the recruiting and its effect on mercy, and a very interesting combat system.

As the name of the game implies there are two major paths that players may pursue in the game.  One of those main paths is cruelty and it is done by culling cards from one’s deck.  Most cards have a strength value and it may be used to cull (remove) other cards from the player’s hand or discard pile.  Each card culled increases the player’s cruelty by one.  Mechanically this thins a player’s deck and improves their draws.  Thematically, this represents a cruel leader who only keeps the strongest and most fanatically devoted to the cause.  Taking this path allows the player to push their cruelty to a level where certain cards grant benefits for such behavior!

The other primary path is that of the merciful leader.  While there are a number of ways to boost a player’s mercy, the most straightforward is to recruit an extra card during the End of Turn Phase.  Much like culling for cruelty, this is interesting both thematically and mechanically.  Mechanically, the player grows their deck and weakens the average strength of their draws, but as many cards provide end of game victory points it can improve their chances for victory.  Thematically, it shows a leader who accepts all who flock to the banner and attempts to rise to power through creating as large a coalition as possible.

Both of these features are integral to the game and a player should commit to one or the other as the middle is a terrible place to be.  As Machiavelli said you can generally be loved or feared and it the Path of Light and Shadow either is effective, but you must choose one!

Lastly is the unique combat system which is also linked with the terrific 3D towers that represent the strength and value of the castle in a province.  Unlike most area control games an empty province is not free for the taking.  Each province already has an existing stronghold and its strength and value are determined by the number of pips on the tower pieces in the province.  Even if it is not controlled by another player, it must be still be conquered to bring it under one’s sway.  Even more interesting is that doing so may very well result in damage being done to the towers and reducing its future strength and value!  This is awesome! I have never played a game that employed such a mechanic despite it being such an intuitive and realistic outcome of a battle.

Not destroying the province one conquers is important not only for its eventual point value but also for the defensive value it provides should another player try to take it.  This is because an attacking player declares it chooses a number of cards from hand, places them facedown, and declares the number of cards that are being used to conquer.  If the defender has any cards in hand capable of a defense they may now be declared.  Both players, resolve any battle abilities on their cards, calculate their strength and roll a number of battle dice to modify their strength.  The defender also adds in the number of pips on the tower in the province being defended and the player with the highest total wins.

This is just a brief overview of the combat system, but I assure you it is great!  There is a sense of unknown on the part of both players that creates tension.  The attacker has to worry about going too strong and potentially causing damage to the prize, but also deal with the danger of attacking too weakly if the defender has enough cards in hand to react.  Mix in the custom die rolls and there is an opportunity for some wild outcomes depending how much risk you are willing to take.  I say risk you are willing to take, because despite the number of unknowns a player can be cautious and almost guarantee victory if they want to wait for the right conditions.  However, time is tight and fortune favors, and sometimes crushes, the bold and a well-timed gamble can really pay off!

At the end of the 12th turn players once again score the pips on their castles and receive bonus for controlling multiple provinces of the same type, as well as any influence value on cards in their decks, influence for their allies, any points for structures they have built.  The player with the highest point total is the victor!

My Impression

I am a big fan of this game!  Path of Light and Shadow is fascinating because it is full of new takes on familiar mechanics.  It is absolutely an area control game, or as those of us who love them like to say, “a dudes on the map game.”  Yet, each player will only ever have one actual dude on the map!   All players begin the game with a near identical deck of cards that will be augmented over the course of the game as cards are mercifully recruited or cruelly culled.  Yet, it is in almost no way a traditional deckbuilding game.  It is more of deck and hand management game, where a player’s deck is representative of his civilization/faction and the strategy it is pursuing towards victory.  There is a tech tree through which players are able to enhance their faction and customize the strategy they wish to follow.  Yet, this is no run of the mill civilization building game that takes countless hours to play and effectively renders itself unplayable in the process (more on this later).  It is most certainly a game about conquering lands and battling the other players.  Yet, unlike many such games the players will be forced to choose a moral path where they will either mercifully renew the lands that they liberate and seek to defend or cruelly and wantonly destroy everything leaving a wake of destruction for all to contend with. This is a game about decisions and the consequences that a leader must face as a result of those decisions.

 

Merciful or cruel…Which will you be?

I mentioned earlier, as the name implies, it is game with two primary paths.  However, there are numerous ways to pursue both of those paths creating many different ways to play.  The word that I think best describes it is…room.  There is so much room in this game to explore that it calls to a player like me!  I love games that allow players to experiment with a wide array of play styles and Path of Light and Shadow completely delivers in this regard.

Another great thing about the game, and one that makes my previous observation possible, is that it plays in a very reasonable amount of time.  You can have as much “room” in a game as you want, but if it takes 10 hours to play no one will dare to explore creative strategies as time invested is too great to take such chances and possibly ruin your experience.  The Path of Light and Shadow plays in about 90 to 120 minutes, and I felt engaged the entire time.  It is possible they have achieved one of the Holy Grails of game design…a civ game(sort of) with a with manageable play time!

Promote weaker cards into stronger ones!

Players simply have so many options from the factions on which they focus, the structures they build, promoting their weaker cards or cruelly culling them, and whether to defend powerful castles or watch the world burn that the Path of Light and Shadow will demand many plays to even begin unlocking all of its secrets!   I would advise caution to those who dislike direct conflict or games of a hardcore nature, as it can be quite punishing, but for all others it is a must have!  It is because of this that I give it my highest recommendation and urge those with tastes like mine to back it on Kickstarter or seek it out when it reaches retail!  It is a great game that offers an epic experience and tons of fun for those brave enough to conquer it!

 

Apr 29

Game Design: Family Think & Make Workshop


I recently gave a presentation about tabletop game design at Perry Meridian Junior High School as part of their series of Think and Make Workshops.  These events are run by their wonderful librarian, Leslie Preddy, and with the help of a few dedicated volunteers.  One of the school’s math teachers and resident gaming expert, Doc Rissel, also took part in the presentation by teaching the audience about strategy and tactics as well as how to make variants of existing games.

 

 

For my part, I gave a short speech about my personal background with gaming, game design, and powerful lessons I have learned that I believe can help aspiring game designers or creators in general.  I followed this up by creating a basic board game template and then allowed the students to customize their own copies thematically so each student left with unique copy of a game they played a part in creating.

I began my presentation with some background on how I became a gamer, which is of course the foundation of how I wound up designing games.  I explained that it all began by angering my grandpa!  The first game I can remember playing was Checkers with my Mom’s father.  He taught me when I was about 5 years old and much to the surprise of all, but especially his, I crushed him!  Pa was not pleased.  In fact he displeased enough that he not only never played Checkers with me again, but to the best of my knowledge never played Checkers with anyone ever again!  While he may have done a poor job teaching me sportsmanship, he had awakened my love and talent for games that endures undiminished to this day!  Thanks Pa, who knows what would have happened if you never taught me Checkers!

I explained that Checkers led me to learn Chess, Poker, Chinese Checkers, and countless other games at a very young age.  I discovered Rpgs in my teens and played more advanced board games like Axis and Allies and true hobby games like Battletech until the bomb dropped.  The bomb in question was Magic: the Gathering which, aside from Poker utterly dominated my gaming life from 17 until nearly 30.  I explained that the near decade and a half of Magic was my doctorate in learning iterative design and understanding the interactions of game mechanics, even though I did not yet know it to be the case.

It was only after I had given up Magic and discovered modern board games in around 2006-2007 that I slowly began to feel the itch to design a game of my own.  After playing modern classics such as:  Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride, and so many more I began to believe that it might be something I could do.  For the next few years I played at being a game designer, but did not really put in the work needed to actually accomplish my goal.  I would test once in a blue moon and make countless changes, but never really got down to business.  That is until I saw a video that made it all so clear to me exactly how I had to proceed!  This video, and its message, was the first piece of advice to my young audience.  I recommended they watch it.  I recommend you watch it.  I recommend everyone who thinks they might ever try to make or do anything creative!

 

Fail Faster

This the most powerful advice I have ever received in my life!  It made it possible for me take the partially formed Legacy Wars game idea I had and mercilessly pound it into the ground with my testers and eventual publisher V3G until it emerged as Strife: Legacy of the Eternals and realize my dream of becoming a game designer!  This helped me to overcome my fear of showing people something that wasn’t ready by allowing me to understand that doing so was the only way it ever would be ready!  It seems obvious, but it is not.  Apply the concept of failing faster to your creative endeavors, games or anything else, and they will start you moving down the right path!

“You can do anything, but not everything.” – David Allen.

This was my second piece of advice/wisdom to the kids.  During the run-up to Strife, their were a number of friends and some even in the industry who strongly advised me to self publish and run the Kickstarter myself.  While considering my options I remembered this quote and helped me make up my mind.  I realized that the extent of my game industry talents were working on a game and applying the fundamentals of iterative design and that was it!  I knew nothing of art direction, producing a product, running a Kickstarter campaign, graphic design, shipping a product globally, warehousing or any of the other important skills/knowledge sets that going into making a game or any product for that matter.  Now I am a smart guy, and I believe that I could learn how to do any of these things or at least how to hire out to skilled people who could, but I did not think that trying to do so on the fly while also designing my first game was the right time to do so.  Yes I could do anything, but not everything and I had to prioritize my goal to match with the skills I possess.  I wanted to design a game.  Out of all of the aforementioned skills this was the one that I felt I most possessed.  I knew that I would be best served focusing on that goal alone and that having a publisher handle all of those other concerns was the way for me to go.  I may someday run my own Kickstarter, as I have learned, and continue to learn so much from the great people with whom I have worked, but I truly do not know, as all I really want to do is design games.  I have no doubt that my design would suffer or at least my pace would be greatly reduced if I had to juggle everything else at the same time.

“Haters gonna hate.”

I am the furthest thing in the world from a fan of rap or hip-hop, but this saying is an absolute truism that all creators need to understand.  So much of what stands in the way of people creating a game or whatever their dream may be is tied up in the fear that someone will hate it.  I want to put your mind at ease…someone will definitely hate it!  Think of your favorite food…someone hates it.  Think of your favorite movie…someone hates it.  Think of anything in all the world that you think is wonderful and amazing…someone out there hates it!  So, given that there is a 100% chance that someone will hate what ever it is that you create there really is nothing to fear is there?  People are going to hate what you make for legitimate reasons in that it is simply not to their taste, which is fair.  Unfortunately people are also going to hate what you make for completely illegitimate reasons because they don’t even understand what is, which I find somewhat less fair.

To illustrate this point to the audience I read to them some of the most interesting reviews of my game Strife:  Legacy of the Eternals. It is designed to have a very low amount of luck and is as a result almost entirely a game of skill.  Some reviews back this fact up by referring to it as, “Card Chess” and “A challenging game with virtually zero luck.”  While some of the reviews and ratings are from people who simply do not enjoy that kind of game, which is a perfectly valid opinion, but there were also others.  Others who said things like, “This game is totally random with no skill at all,” and “Strife is a game that seems like it requires skill, but is really all luck.” The vast majority of the people who did not enjoy Strife fully acknowledged that is was a low luck high skill game, but not their preferred type of game, but as you can see some people did not even recognize what the game was about, but they knew they hated it.  This will happen no matter what you make and rather than worry about it you should embrace it and be freed from your fear.  After all, no matter what you do haters gonna hate!

Clackasaur vs Ninja Squirrels

My second part of the presentation was to help the kids in attendance make a game that they could take home with them.  During the week leading up to the event I designed a simple battle game where a “Big Monster” would be trying to steal the “Valuables” of “Type of Small Animals.”

This is the picture of the board and set up.

In my case I used a crab token that my step-daughter Katie gave me as part of a Christmas present full of prototyping materials as inspiration for my monster, Clackasaur.  Ninja Squirrels are my small animals and they are trying to defend their valuable, cotton candies, from the rampaging Clackasaur.  Obviously, this is ridiculous, but that was part of the point of the exercise.  It allowed the kids to use their imaginations when filling in the theme they wanted the game to be and understand that a game can really be about anything.  The Fail Faster video mentions this when it explains the silly concepts some of the world’s most iconic games have, such as:

Mario Brothers: Is about plumbers on drugs.

Sonic the Hedgehog:  Is about a blue hedgehog in sneakers that can run really fast.

Gears of War:  Is about linebackers fighting bugs with chainsaw guns.

They even go on to explain that Angry Birds, launching birds at pigs in castles, made a billion dollars!  It is about perfectly implementing your concept in an entertaining manner instead of coming up with the perfect concept.

The kids really enjoyed this part of the presentation and I will list below some of my favorite titles and valuables they came up with:

  • Locoraptor vs Elven Bunnies for the pieces of the Scepter
  • Big Joe  vs  Tiny Lizards for the Crickets
  • Ronster vs Flying Mice for the Cheese
  • Hydrasius vs Invisible Chipmunks for the Golden Strawberries
  • Giant Raccoon Vs Armored Turtles for the Iron Ingots
  • Dragonzilla vs Ninja Wasps for the Divinity Logs

 

A game in progress!

There were several others, but as you can see they let their imaginations run wild and we got some unique takes on the game from these young minds!

After customizing the attack cards in their battle decks to thematically represent the creatures they had chosen, everyone played their games.  I am happy to report that the results were reasonably balanced, as I heard stories of both animals and monsters winning, but most of all everyone having fun.

As the event came to a close four Gen Con passes, that had been generously donated, were awarded two at a time by random drawing.  I was given the honor/curse of drawing names, and as such was able to both fulfil and crush the hopes and dreams of the attendees.  I answered any questions the departing crowd had, with the most interesting coming from a young man who first told me I was awesome, always good way to get my attention, and then desperately pleaded to do some playtesting for me in the future.  When I told him to subscribe to this blog so I would have his email if I needed to reach him for testing he was super excited!  Leslie, thanked me profusely and told me the kids loved it and that I had been elevated to hero status.  She also gave me a little card containing a present I had not expected.

All in all, it was quite an evening.  A presentation like this is exactly the sort of assignment I would have skipped when I was in school, as I have long had terrible fear of public speaking due to my extreme introversion, and now here I was volunteering to do it as an adult!  Young me would be shocked to learn of such a future, but as the say, “What long strange trip its been.”  I must confess that most of my encounters with the education system as a step-parent and in general have left me disillusioned and cynical about its current state.  However, it must be said that Leslie and Doc are incredible educators, who are passionate about bringing unique experiences to their students that will broaden both their knowledge base and their minds!  It was inspiring to see such dedication and a great pleasure to help them in the small way I was able.  We need more like them!

In closing, I am glad to say that it was a positive experience for all involved including myself.  I originally offered to volunteer as a favor to a friend who teaches at the school, but after meeting Leslie and Doc found myself becoming more excited about the event.  It was truly a case of stepping out of my comfort zone, and although it made me nervous I feel the better for it.  You should try it sometime.  You may find it an excellent opportunity to learn something even as you teach others!

 

 

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